Show of Force

An extensive survey of works of art by Arab women, Forces of Change: Women Artists of the Arab World, currently can be seen at Miami-Dade Community College's Wolfson Campus Centre Gallery and its InterAmerican Gallery in Little Havana. Organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., this traveling show arrived intact from its previous venue (Harvard University), complete with an informative 147-page catalogue, preachy wall labels and educational aides, an expository video, and a lofty agenda.

As stated in the twenty-minute video showing in one corner of the Centre Gallery, the exhibition attempts to demonstrate how Arab women artists are "part of the global feminist movement"; they are women whose art "reveals a growing self-awareness, rooted in admiration, revulsion, and resistance." Here, the video's narrator -- none other than Top-40 DJ Casey Kasem, a Lebanese American -- dances around a more direct, if perhaps less politically correct, statement of intent: The exhibition seeks to thwart the stereotype of Arab women as submissive, veiled creatures, and uses their artwork as evidence of their role as active members of society -- women whose sense of identity and quest for gender equality are on par with their counterparts in other parts of the world.

Labeling all the diverse works in this show "feminist" is both misleading and self-defeating: The organizers' attempt to impose an ideological importance on what is, for the most part, a rather benign display serves only to emphasize the works' conceptual shortcomings. The theory that any woman artist in the male-dominated Arab world is by nature a feminist is certainly debatable, and the range of artworks included in this uneven exhibition undercuts such a sweeping generalization. While some of the artists do, in fact, explore culture-specific social themes or issues of personal identity, others engage in producing only derivative academic painting or naive street scenes. And in trying to make a case for a universal Arab feminism, the show neglects to address other important points, such as each artist's national culture or religion.

Owing to space limitations, the exhibition at the two MDCC galleries represents a scaled-down version of the original show at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Still, it includes 118 works by artists from fourteen nations (among them, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan), many of whom were educated in Europe or the United States. The artists employ a wide variety of media while working in disparate styles, reflecting both the different artistic traditions in their native countries and their Western-style training.

Modern Arab artists, according to the catalogue essay by art historian Wijdan Ali, have undergone a three-step evolution in this century: adapting European techniques and aesthetics, localizing their work by depicting native subjects and landscapes in "European-style" paintings, and rediscovering their heritage by returning to traditional Arab artistic techniques. The influence of modernist abstract painting can be seen in several works at the Centre Gallery, which also features examples of craftwork commonly associated with women's domestic activities: ceramics, clothing, and batik fabric.

A stellar work at the Centre Gallery, Lebanese artist Rabia Sukkarieh's Sheherezade 101, has been awarded a premium of wall space. This piece perhaps best embodies the stated intentions of the exhibition, offering visual testimony of the personal, political, and social identities of the artist, who studied in Beirut and Southern California. A mosaic of small square panels, each one bearing a different image, Sheherezade 101 utilizes a variety of media. Some of the squares display grainy photographic images (blindfolded prisoners, the face of a dirty plastic doll, burned-out buildings, elderly women in traditional Arab costume); others are covered with materials that range from the sensuous to the sadistic (a red satin pillow, Astroturf, feathers, a mirror, knife-sharp bamboo sticks). One mechanized square coated with fabric remnants "breathes" every few minutes. Collages of magazine advertising slogans are pasted on one of the pieces, poems and other fragments of text are scribbled on others. For example the artist has written "I can talk English, I think sometimes English" on one canvas. Underneath the artist's words, a visitor who saw the exhibition in Los Angeles has scrawled, "Then go back at your fucking country ashole" (sic). The artist -- who eventually returned to Beirut -- left the graffiti on the canvas, an unplanned-for symbol of intolerance.

Mona Hatoum, born in Beirut and currently living in London, is known on the international contemporary art scene for her tense, suggestive installations. Her untitled work at the Centre Gallery consists of two wire-mesh chairs, one about half the size of the other, both of which cast shadows onto the floor. The work suggests power struggles, warring nations, and a mother and child trapped in an insular, hereditary state of confinement.

This idea of women confined or abused is expressed again in Jordanian artist Kamala Ishaq Ibrahim's Loneliness (also at Centre Gallery), a naive painting of a woman sitting on a couch, her face painfully contorted. Houria Niati, from Algeria, has painted a bright-colored expressionist tableau of women with their heads bound by rope and covered over with abstract shapes. While she has called the work No to Torture, Niati fails to bring sufficient power to the images.

Two other artists stand out in the show at the Centre. For her installation Black & Green, Liliane Karnouk, an environmental artist from Cairo who now lives in Vancouver, has included paintings on wooden panels arranged in the shape of a cross, a live plant, and a photomontage that shows the artist in an outdoor performance wrapped in the bark of a birch tree. Of historical importance is the work of the Algerian artist Baya Mahieddine, who first showed her illustrations of birds and female figures in Paris as a teenager. Andre Breton pronounced her a child prodigy, and Picasso, according to the catalogue, "observed her as she kneaded clay into animal forms" (and perhaps copped ideas for his own Women of Algiers).

Outside of these works, the Centre Gallery exhibition loses thematic focus. There are folkloric renditions of picturesque village scenes, various abstract works -- most notably Oumaya Alieh Soubra's Espace lumiäre, painted on Japanese rice paper -- and landscapes depicting Islamic architecture.

The smaller show in the InterAmerican Gallery seems like an entirely separate exhibition A a more cohesive one, too. Most of these works feature language, from intricate calligraphy in gold leaf to urban graffiti. One wall of the gallery features Palestinian artist Laila al-Shawa's Wall of Gaza, a large series of arresting works on which graffiti has been superimposed on images of bombed-out streets, and, in one case, a wide-eyed little boy. Several beautiful handmade books also can be seen, but other works, such as a green ceramic plaque and a small square of silk batik, hold little innate interest.

Overall "Forces of Change" offers much to see, but it suffers from a problem common to many surveys that highlight the art of a particular nation or region: It fails in its effort to make the work of varied artists fit a preconceived idea.

I want to clarify a statement I wrote recently about art collector Rosa de la Cruz ("Collective Experience," January 26). As de la Cruz was quick to point out to me, while she frequently visits artists' studios, with few exceptions -- like when the artist is unrepresented -- she buys works through their galleries. Any misleading impression I may have given about Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz's business dealings with galleries was unintentional.


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