Curating on the Margin
The challenges of dialoguing with subjects or spaces on the fringe, for better or for worse, are fragile endeavors that deserve a close examination of curatorial agendas and theoretical framing. Looking to the recently closed Williamsburg Bridges Palestine (2002) and the soon to open exhibition The Same Sky we can examine the success and failures of the margin, where things that traditionally escape our view are placed in the foreground for careful scrutiny.
The margin has become an essential alternate persona to the one constructed by the mainstream art world, a stepsister that shows up now and again, often uninvited but always with something to say. From the quirky Constructivist exhibits in Russian cafés, the untraditional spaces of happenings or Pop’s blurring of the boundaries, modernism has demonstrated a healthy appetite for the outside.
In the case of Williamsburg Bridges Palestine, curators Samia A. Halaby and Zena el Khalil present modern Palestinian artwork from Palestine/Israel and the Diaspora. The subject—Palestinian experience—is inserted into Williamsburg’s sophisticated art world. Lois Stavsky co-curated The Same Sky at Seward Park High School’s Gallery 438 across the river in the Lower East Side. Gallery 438 engages an audience overlooked by most of the art world. Stavsky enters an unconventional space to foster introspection. Both shows straddle the margin, where they drastically diverge is their curatorial strategies.
Bridge to Nowhere
Curating Palestinian modern art is inevitably steeped in and informed by the prevailing political atmosphere. There are endless images and ideas to explore, so many that apparently curating Williamsburg Bridges proved overwhelming to the point of not worth doing. A walk through the exhibit of countless works by roughly fifty artists, haphazardly scattered over two floors of the Williamsburg Art & Historical Center, disclosed neither themes nor a broad overview of Palestinian art. Pedagogic, no, this show was not; didactic, yes it was. Nonetheless to dismiss the show completely is a disservice to the artists and the potential power of their art.
The art is muffled on every front, most glaringly by the curators’ complete disregard of context. Why mount a Palestinian art show in the midst of one of the most visually Jewish neighborhoods in the country without addressing that extreme juxtaposition? Why show work and enter a new space, unless you are going to engage the elements that compose it? Questions are many, answers scarce.
"Last week Hasidim stole the banners, two people working at the gallery saw them. There’s been some interest in this, there is supposed to be a story written," Halaby recounts. So when something like this allegedly happens how can we begin to read this act of aggression when historicity is absent from the exhibition?
Some of the artists in the show are important figures in twentieth century Palestinian art, a fact that evades both the catalogue biographies and any installation strategy. Tayseer Barakat’s earth toned prints are distinctive and a major component of homeland art, while Zuhdi Al-Adawi’s "Askalan Prison" (1984) is a prime example of Prison Art—a major component of Seventies and Eighties resistance art. Then there is Ismail Shammout’s "Life Prevails" (1999). Beginning in the sixties, Shammout was Secretary General of the Union of Palestinian Artists and later the Union of Arab Artists; his is the closest to an official Palestinian art if there ever was. If there is a sentimental realist tendency in Palestinian art that approaches kitsch, Shammout’s art is the trumpet in that populist parade. His symbolism is obvious and almost religious in its literalness. It is a style informed by Egyptian cinema’s sentimentalism as well as Western illusionism.
One of the initial annoyances for viewers is the prominence of the national flag and colors in Palestinian art—what we’ve been trained to believe denotes nationalist kitsch, particularly when it penetrates into every theme and genre. But for the Palestinian artist there is another meaning there. The Israeli government’s strategy of subjugation has at points in time resorted to the banning of Palestinian national symbols in art—these artists’ inclusion of the national amounts to an act of resistance.
While the theme of resistance is crucial to Palestinian art, by no means is the theme exclusive to Palestinian people. Prison art appeared in Soviet Gulags, Latin American prisons and Nazi concentration camps. And while resistance is central, it shares many commonalities with minorities of any society. bell hooks wrote about how black filmmakers were different from filmmakers alone. She directly addresses the position of marginal groups in the arts, "Marginal-ized groups […] all struggle with the question of aesthetic accountability, particularly in relation to the issue of perpetuating domination. Although this struggle is most often seen solely in a negative light, it enhances artistic integrity when it serves to help the artist clarify vision and purpose."
hooks elaborates on the position of black filmmakers that can be universalized to include all minority artists, "To become filmmakers black artists globally start from the standpoint of resistance, no matter the culture they work in. That is why the term black filmmaker signifies something different from the simple word filmmaker." To elaborate on hooks, a Palestinian artist means something different than an artist, but sadly in Williamsburg Bridges you’d never know.
Palestinian Like Me
Entering the New York art scene is daunting for anyone. But for one whose self-perception is shaped by a bombardment of media imagery that alienates coupled with a competitive art market, the overall experience of negotiating galleries and museums is especially trying. Given this context, it is distressing that this rare opportunity to present these marginalized artists was squandered by a lack of curatorial effort that would have allowed works to be viewed and read. That el Khalil and Halaby chose a salon approach to the problem of display is disappointing and frustrating. The slick catalogue is nothing more than a handbill in which the work is given no context, and arranges works of unequal weight in the ineffective system of alphabetical order.
There are certain dilemmas that the Palestinian artist evokes, but none of the criteria is obvious at the Williamsburg Bridges show. Palestinian-American intellectual, Edward Said, wrote about the tragic suspension of the Palestinian narrative when the P.L.O. was driven out of Beirut by the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. A crucial issue that could have been effectively revisited by Halaby and el Khalil through the works displayed is what happens when a people lose control of determining their own historical narrative. There are signs of that fraying in the Bridges show, particularly the contrast between Diasporan visions to those working in the homeland. But again, the works are not hung to illuminate or even provokes this question.
Polished and framed according to "international standards" of conceptual art’s language and forms, works by Rajie Cook and Alexandra S. Handal are heavy handed and rhetorical. More so than, for example, Zuhdi Al-Adawi, who reflects on a lived experience rather than a heard narrative. Although neither Cook nor Handal has lived in Palestine, both identify themselves as Palestinians. Their articulation of identity is, pointedly, informed by and reacting to images they have been fed from American media and visual culture. Both artists’ works, sculptural and symbolic, do not resonate anything beyond superficial observations of Israeli oppression through the use of tired symbols like the Star of David, the Palestinian black and white kufaya, bound objects or barbed wire. Al-Adawi’s Askalan "Prison," a painting on a handkerchief, made while in prison, in contrast, conveys deeply felt frustration, humiliation and hope – emotions belonging to a revolutionary.
Halaby belongs to Palestinian art’s old school, steeped in Marxist revolution, literal in content and decorative in contrast to modern art’s rejection of ornament. The Palestinian artist, Halaby insists, "is cherished by their communities and accepted with love." Given the constraints of living under occupation, in exile, or under Israeli rule portraying artists as integrated, welcome and appreciated members of the resistance is highly suspect.
"Are Palestinian artists outsiders?" I asked.
"No," Halaby claims, "it’s seen as a precious gift. Painting and art are part of Palestinian history. The first icon painters were Palestinian artists and they haven’t stopped making icons. It may be seem backward now, but it’s still there."
A trail of great Palestinian artists, as with all great movements in art, Halaby explains, "are based on revolutionary movements: the Paris Commune had Impressionism; the October Revolution fueled Constructivism and Suprematicism; and even Abstract Expressionism fed off of the union movement of the thirties." Aligning these exhibited artists with other producers of historical revolutionary cultural product is problematic. The works are not presented to reveal evolving or evocative vocabularies or formats for liberation or revolutionary art. According to Halaby, it seems that the Palestinian artists shown here are simply ascending to the role that their oppression promised them— which is a little absurd, but these black and white assertions are irresistible to Halaby.
"This society is very racist," she pronounces halfway through our conversation, stating the obvious, trying to position herself so as to empower all she said. She dismisses the New York art world: "The art world in New York is getting more and more boring and more and more as the result of blinders. And it’s getting decadent and they were showing pornography in galleries and sadist rituals, pornographic ritual," she railed. Her decision, or was it an accidental omission, of the highly predictable tirade on the bourgeois factor was a surprise. She finishes with a flourish in one broad stroke, "I stopped going, it became peripheral in my life." A strange stance for a curator.
Halaby clearly feels disregarded by an art world she is convinced she could have contributed to. She assumes a clear perspective on why she has not penetrated these galleries, and it has nothing to do with her work. "In 1976 I came to New York because it is an intellectual center but I was rejected because I’m Palestinian for one, an Arab, Palestinian female in a Jewish Zionist art world. It takes years to read people’s minds, but people see you as other, not part of them, you’re not really part of what they’re doing." Artists of the caliber and success of Mona Hatoum, for example, do not inform Halaby’s worldview.
If Halaby seems part of the old guard, Zena el Khalil represents a younger savvy generation that shuttles between societies with a more sophisticated cultural understanding. Born in Lebanon, raised in Africa, she arrived in New York City two and a half years ago with an established interest in Arab culture.
She shares the difficulty Halaby had with integrating into America and cultivated her interest in Arab art because, according to her, "it’s not mainstream but fresh because it is not part of the corporate gallery system for mass consumption, therefore you can find honest art." Her reaction to the commercial New York art world speaks in the same terms of disgust and disdain as Halaby, but el Khalil’s perspective is different. "I don’t want to be part of the art world, it sickens me," she explains her rejection of New York’s consumer-focused artwork.
El Khalil’s enthusiasm for the subject matter is obvious and her choices in the exhibit make it obvious her ideas of Palestinian art are more worldly and connected to universal ideas. When asked to identify the best work, in her opinion, she guides me to the submissions by Palestine-based artists, Mohammad Abu Sil and Mohammad Al Hawajri. They had mailed their submissions in June but after being detained by Israeli authorities the packages reached el Khalil in September. Bureaucratic hoops are in place to help control the movement of ideas and exchange between Palestinians.
Movement is at the forefront of el Khalil’s conception of this show and she shares an important theme she sees again and again in Palestinian work—the longing for return.
"It is an embracing of the land, not so much about fighting or revolution, it is more about not giving up hope and being true to the land," she explains. It’s hard not to think that if it is all about nostalgia and fantasy, the organizers should have taken the time to install the work carefully—gray matting for woodcuts and images stacked high and shoved up against each other makes seeing or dreaming next to impossible.
New York media and galleries have disappointed Halaby and el Khalil; they can’t quite understand why there has been total silence after blanketing art spaces and institutions and media with press materials. One can only suggest next time round they travel to the Clovis bookshop on Bedford Avenue where a provocative postcard (Ariel Sharon’s Ethnic Cleanser) does more than Bridges in challenging the hegemony of Israeli occupation, but this time with wit and a deep understanding of history.
In contrast to the Bridges exhibit, The Same Sky, like all shows at Gallery 438, thrives on an organic mushrooming of perspectives. Lois Stavsky describes Gallery 438 with a quiet pride. The one room gallery occupies the end of a hallway. During the day, it is sunlit while at night the High School’s fluorescent bulbs flood the space with humming light.
Gallery 438 began eight years ago through a local grant that allowed the art teachers to mount a small number of shows. When the teachers threatened to close the space because of classroom overcrowding, Stavsky couldn’t let that happen. Someone tipped her off about 438’s marketability to granting foundations. She has since been able to generate the $4,000 a year needed to keep the gallery running. 438 has been featured in neighborhood and ethnic papers for years and earlier this year was chosen by MetLife Foundation as a model program and awarded for its success in bringing community, teachers, students, and their families together.
High Schools are interactive environments, where fashion, music, and language mean as much as the books you read or what your teachers say. Stavsky sees this and has cultivated an outlet that is more than a gallery but a space for cultural production and exchange. Students submit writing on given topics. The resulting zine-like booklets are funny, warm, clever and deep. In the booklet titled, I AM WHAT I AM: A Collection of Writings On Identity, one girl writes, "I am a candy yams and sweet potato pie." "I am the Latin attitude and New York’s effect," another teenager realizes. A reminder of what it means to be outside the mainstream and how critical it is that there is an outlet to express this position.
Gallery 438 and its affiliated writing projects successfully draw an audience to and help it to notice that Seward Park High School, located at the corner of Essex and Grand, is unique for inner-city schools, since it reflects its community. White teachers, Asian and Latino teens, black security guards, and the school is in a transitional zone from its orientation to the local neighborhood to one that receives bused students from Harlem and Washington Heights to fill its classrooms. The gentrifying waves of white families that have been filling the Lower East Side are choosing boutique institutions for their kids rather than places like Seward Park.
The Same Sky is also a learning experience for Stavsky, who has trusted some outside artist-curators to help mount the latest show. The art is colorful, concise and diverse.
But not everything is easy and carefree at Gallery 438. Shows often spark some intellectual controversy and when peoples’ ideas are threatened they often react emotionally. When exhibiting artist, Kim Holleman, was installing art in the gallery, another installation of a large cross piece by fellow artist and co-curator Clifford Roye ignited a harsh reaction from onlookers.
"It was a plain and beautiful cross with no ornament but some teachers took offense to the presence of the traditionally Christian symbol. The people that were arguing against the piece were not saying it was bad art but that it was not art at all. They said it made the gallery into a church, something obviously ridiculous. One of the people had attended art school, coincidently my alma mater, and anyone that went to art school should know that to argue that something is not art is ridiculous. The important thing about the cross was that it ignites a debate about serious issues," she said.
Holleman knew she had done the right thing but then on her walk home that day to Bushwick she noticed one of the Puerto Rican car clubs near her home had newly unveiled a round spray painted wheel cover with an explicit image of Wile E. Coyote sodomizing and strangling the Road Runner, with the words, "I got you now you son-of-a-bitch", written above. "As someone sensitive about images of sexual violence displayed in the community my first reaction was to sabotage it or tell them to remove it, but I know that once you start with censoring the boundaries blur," Holleman said.
Artist Clifford Roye was surprised by the minor controversy. "It is a cross as opposed to a crucifix—I like the way it looks. There is no Christ on it," he said. Roye, who was raised around Methodists and Baptists, knows that such controversies are strange but essential, "I am not drawing porn, what can be more o.k. [than a cross]?"
In line with the fundamental concept that underlies Gallery 438, a plurality of voices is spoken through a cleanly installed and legible exhibition. On a modest budget with a dedicated staff and a mix of contributors—students, faculty, and established artists—The Same Sky makes strides into engaging the community. One contributing artist and co-curator, Elliot Bassman, comments on the currency of religious imagery and the challenge of discussing how symbols morph in meaning. "Each of us has been a victim and every religion has been an offender—so let’s hang them all together—let’s explore our prejudices here."
Bassman see the forum as an opportunity for him to learn from those he values the most, "I learn more of my stuff from student art than from books." Bassman, though successful commercially for his secular work, saw an opportunity to exhibit his vibrant works inspired by his Jewish upbringing, "Where am I going to find a traditional gallery to exhibit Judaica?"
He sees the role of galleries like Gallery 438 as crucial, "I can still have some discomfort around some of these symbols and what they have meant in the past and what they mean today."
Off the Wall
It is curious that while Halaby’s work made no ripples at the Palestinian salon at Bridges, when she exhibited at the I AM WHAT I AM exhibit at Gallery 438 her work along with a accompanying text initiated debate that spilled over into the show’s guest book. Some applauded Stavsky’s defense of free speech, while one Jewish viewer questioned Stavsky’s Jewishness by exhibiting "hate". One half-Palestinian, half-Jewish girl jotted down her sadness to see hate in the world Halaby presented but defended the artist’s right to expression. Gallery 438 does not shy away from controversy, knowing the margin demands it to sustain its ideas.
If the coordinating organization of Bridges, Al Jisser, is going to pursue the mission they advertise in their literature, to bring Arab artists to international attention, then it should look step back to study their show and success at places like Gallery 438.
Being on the outside is not a handicap; it can be secure as you conceptualize your defined location in the scheme of things. bell hooks has been writing about her place on the margin for years, from that position she has been able to impact the center. In hooks’ polemic, "Marginality as Site of Resistance" she sums up the dilemma of the outside, "This is an intervention. A message from the space in the margin that is a site of creativity and power, that inclusive space where we recover ourselves, where we move in solidarity to erase that category colonized/colonizer. Marginality as site of resistance. Enter that space. Let us meet there. Enter that space. We greet you as liberators."
Hrag Vartanian is a writer, critic, and designer. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
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