by Olivia Snaije

New series of film and video screenings tips balance strongly in favor of the avant-garde

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

LONDON: There have been several attempts in London lately to showcase art from the Middle East. While these efforts have endeavored to include both traditional and contemporary culture, two of the most high-profile art events last year - the British Museum's "Word into Art" exhibition and the opening of the Victoria and Albert Museum's new Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art - hardly qualified as cutting edge.

A new series of film and video screenings at Tate Modern, however, tips the balance strongly in favor of the avant-garde. The series, titled "This Day," kicked off Friday at the UK's contemporary art museum fashioned from a power station with a live performance in English by playwright and video artist Rabih Mroue. It concludes May 13 with a retrospective of short films by Lebanese video artist Akram Zaatari.

In between, films by Doa Aly, Ali Cherri, Larissa Sansour, Ahmed Khaled and Omar Amiralay address issues such as the media, the headaches involved with travel and memory.

It is the first part of a large show called "In Focus" that features work from countries including Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, the UK and Bosnia. The artwork takes the Middle East as subject matter but doesn't necessarily come from or represent the region.

Organized by the indefatigable artist and curator Predrag Pajdic, "In Focus" is taking place across London throughout the spring and summer. Pajdic just closed a critically acclaimed but notably smaller exhibition called "Paranoia," which explored the proximity of art and life against the backdrop of contemporary politics and featured artists from or concerned with the Middle East. "In Focus," by contrast, is unprecedented in size, bringing an ensemble of 72 contemporary artists, most of them from the Middle East, to London.

Pajdic exerted boundless enthusiasm and energy to pull off the event. He traveled extensively around the region with Art School Palestine's Samar Martha (co-curator of Tate Modern's film series) and benefited from close collaboration with two key cultural figures, William Wells of the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art in Cairo and Christine Tohme of the arts organization Ashkal Alwan in Beirut.

"In Focus" is loosely organized in three parts. First is the anthology of films, which travels to Tate Liverpool after it ends at Tate Modern. Second is "Undo," an exhibition going on view from June through July, featuring work that has never been shown before on the subjects of conflict, tension and bereavement. Third is "The Breath," a large-scale show including all 72 artists, which is running from June through September in a new London exhibition space.


The initial idea behind "In Focus" was to do away with the stereotypical and monolithic view of the Middle East (itself a narrow term) and seek to redefine and readdress the region through the work of contemporary artists who negotiate complex terrain in terms of language, religion and culture. The common thread uniting this diverse collection of artists is politics, whether they besiege everyday life or constitute a force to be avoided at all cost. As Sarajevo-born artist Maja Bajevic puts it: "Neither the war nor political games avoided me, I could not avoid them later on."

"Undo," on display at the Dazed Gallery, run by the street savvy London magazine Dazed & Confused, includes works by Iraqi Mohamed Abdulla, who lives and works in the Netherlands, Kuwaiti-British Yasmeen al-Awadi, Bajevic and Tarek al-Ghoussein, a Palestinian artist who lives and works in Sharjah. Their work covers issues as diverse as the irony of the "free world" invading Iraq, migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates and immigration.

An old warehouse in London's Finsbury Park area is providing the exhibition space for "The Breath," which includes film and video installations, interactive conceptual works using digital technology, photography and live performances as well as screenings, talks and panel discussions. Oreet Ashery, Emily Jacir, Khaled Ramadan, Wael Shawky, Hassan Choubassi and Khaled Hafez are just some of the artists included in the vast project.

As icing on the cake, the New York-based non-profit organization Arte East has grafted its film series, "Lens on Syria: 30 years of Contemporary Cinema" onto the "In Focus" program. For those who missed this rich collection when it premiered in New York last spring or traveled to Cairo last month, there is another chance to catch it in London this summer.
Of course, it's odd that a city as cosmopolitan as London has had to wait this long for a major show of contemporary art from the Middle East, but suffice it to say, better late than never.

"This Day" will be running at Tate Modern in London through May 13.