Curator Sara Raza has a unique perspective to share. She has just overseen the eighth and final exhibition to emerge from a historic partnership between the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and UBS – a partnership which has enabled over 125 important new acquisitions for the Guggenheim, from parts of the world under-represented in institutional collections, shifting the axis and internationalising the collection.
Tasked with acquiring important contemporary artworks from the Middle East and North Africa, Raza was also given the challenge of selecting 16 of these works to represent the diverse range of artistic voices and themes currently flowering within the region. The result, But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise, recently opened its doors for its final presentation at Milan's Galleria d'Arte Moderna.
Raza explains that in making this selection she wanted to avoid "stereotypical ideas around the way in which geographically specific exhibitions are usually produced and curated," and to instead acknowledge the sense of movement and exchange inherent in the history of the region. She gives the example of Europe's absorption of ideas "derived from the Golden Age of Islam... that period was the kind of pinnacle of when scientific discoveries were made, and they were made in the Middle East and North Africa." Accordingly, the migration of ideas became a guiding concept.
For Raza, these interests crystallised in the theme of geometry, not only one of the Middle East's great intellectual exports but also deeply embedded in Islamic art. "I wanted to think about geometry as a central nucleus to think about science, think about thinking practices, think about mathematics and logic" – areas which she sees as "essentially related to truth and fact."
It proved rich territory to explore. Works such as the exhibition's namesake, Rokni Haerizadeh’s But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise, in which images appropriated from mainstream news sources are overlaid with ink and watercolour, question the ability of the reported 'truth' to capture the reality of life within conflict zones. Fiction, mythmaking and reality seemingly blur in powerful works ranging from Lida Abdul's video Transit, in which children make futile attempts to repair the wreckage of a warplane near Kabul, to an installation of 354 books purportedly describing pictures taken by a fictional photographer during the Lebanese War. For Raza, it all exemplifies how in the void between politicised reporting and lived experience, "artists are creating alternative vistas for what constitutes as real."
Elsewhere in works such as Untitled (Ghardaïa) by Kader Attia, a scale model in cous cous of the Algerian city that inspired Le Corbusier, or the aerial maps slashed by fault lines both geographic and political in Ali Cherri's Trembling Landscapes, architecture becomes a focus for the complex, colonised history of the region. The often unequal exchanges involved in these cultural migrations provide a timely counterpoint to contemporary issues around immigration and displacement: a further example, as Raza puts it, of how contemporary art can "provide us with an alternative lens."
But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa is on display at the Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Milan, until 17 June 2018.