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The Middle East

What are global modernisms?

You might be wondering why this topic is called Global modernisms, as if there is more than just one type of modernism in the history of art. When we talk about art history, it's easy to look at that art through the lens of where we live and come from–and in this case, a great deal of that history has been written from the perspective of art historians and specialists living in Europe and North America.
What's important to remember is that there are, in fact, many different modernisms that have sprung up in all different places around the world–and not just in what we call "the West." Regions like AfricaLatin AmericaAsia, and the Middle East have seen their own artistic responses to modernity, and while some of them might share themes and visual qualities with Western art, others have taken radical new paths.
There are many different voices in art history, and museums like Tate are striving to make them heard as exhibitions develop and collections grow. And while you won't find the whole history here, you can begin by getting to know these modern and contemporary artists, taking a look at their work, and hearing their stories.

Global modernisms: The Middle East

Like the other broad regions we've looked at in this tutorial, the Middle East is home to a rich history of art, reflecting the histories and diversity of its individual cultures. Among artists who embraced and further developed the modernist tradition in the Middle East is Saloua Raouda Choucair, a pioneer in her home country of Lebanon who has only recently achieved well-earned international recognition. Through painting and drawing, architecture, textiles and jewellery, as well as a huge range of experimental sculptures like the one below, Choucair works in diverse media pursuing her interests in science, mathematics and Islamic art and poetry. A rare female voice in the Beirut art scene from the 1940s onwards, Choucair’s work combines elements of western abstraction with Islamic aesthetics. It is characterised by an experimental approach to materials alongside an elegant use of modular forms, lines and curves drawn from the traditions of Islamic design.
Saloua Raouda Choucair, Poem Wall, 1963-5, wood, 80 x 164 x 30cm (Tate)
Poem Wall was created in Beirut, her home town, and both its form and title give it an architectural flavour. The painted interlocking forms mutually support each other and are held in a delicate balance–much like the verses in a poem support one another. Choucair’s use of interlocking forms actually grew out of her interest in her religion, Sufism, and Sufi poetry, in which individual parts are recognised as having their own identity while contributing to the unity of the whole poem. Choucair even uses the term "sculptural poem" for many of her works, including this one, creating an artistic link between her interlocking sculptures and the unique poetry of her culture.
Other modern and contemporary artists from the Middle East have used their art to confront more difficult topics, like violence and conflict. Lebanese Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum, for example, currently works in London but creates pieces that look back on the conflicts that have shaken both of her homes. Dia Al-Azzawi is another artist in exile, having moved to the United Kingdom from Iraq in 1976. Al-Azzawi found that by viewing Iraq from afar, by giving himself some personal distance, he could understand more about Iraqi and Arabic culture than if he had remained. The artist's massive drawing Sabra and Shatila Massacre 1982-3 is an example of work that arose from this process of long-distance observation. Made in response to the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut, the drawing was made mostly from Al-Azzawi's imagination using semi-abstract forms, making for a document of the feelings and impressions of tragedy rather than a propaganda piece.
Shirin Neshat, Soliloquy, 1999, film, 16 mm, shown as video, 2 projections, colour and sound (stereo), overall display dimensions variable, duration 15min (Tate)
Contemporary artist Shirin Neshat was born in Iran and moved to the United States to study art. After a return visit in 1990–her first since the 1979 revolution that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power–she was struck by the changes that had taken place in her homeland, including regulations that stated women must cover themselves from head to toe in a veil called chador. The veil has since become a major theme of her work, and because of her frequent travels between Iran and the US, she often creates art that comments on the experience of living between two cultures. In her video piece Soliloquy–a word that refers to when a dramatic character delivers a speech to him- or herself–two videos are projected on opposite walls of a space. They show a veiled woman, the artist herself, taking parallel journeys in two different cultural landscapes: one in a Middle Eastern city on the edge of the desert and the other in a western metropolis. The action alternates between the two settings, so when the woman on one screen walks from place to place, her counterpart in the other projection stays still, often staring directly at the camera and watching her alter ego on the other screen.
This doubling allows a relationship to play out between two sides of the artist herself, and creates a dialogue between parallel worlds. Is either situation any worse–or better–than the other? Or are they two sides of the same coin? Like the drawing by Dia Al-Azzawi, Shirin Neshat's piece shows the unique state of mind of an artist in exile.
Shirazeh Houshiary, Veil, 1999, acrylic paint and graphite on canvas, 190 x 190 x 3 cm (Tate)
Speaking of veils: Shirazeh Houshiary is another Iranian artist working in exile. At first glance, her painting Veil might look like the quintessentially modernist black squares of artists like Kazimir Malevich or Ad Reinhardt. But upon closer inspection, the painting turns out to be more than just a black square–over its black acrylic ground, Houshiary has used a simple graphite pencil to inscribe Sufi texts her native Arabic language. Depending on the angle it is viewed at and the quality of the light, the delicate surface of Veil reveals different layers of intricate writing, and sometimes none at all. The writing is so light that it defies most attempts to photograph or reproduce it, although you might be able to just make it out in the photo above. The title, of course, refers to the black chador worn by Islamic women, a garment that has become a major issue in recent debates surrounding the role of women in Islamic societies. Using a completely different form from that of her fellow Middle Eastern artists, Houshiary tackles similar issues of politics and exile through her art.

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