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Mizna's MMAA exhibition 'History Is Not Here' smashes Arab archetypes

L-R: Adelita Husni-Bey, 'A Wave in the Well'; Raed Yassin, from the "Self-Portraits with Foreign Fruits and Vegetables" series; Walid Siti, from "The Tower" series

L-R: Adelita Husni-Bey, 'A Wave in the Well'; Raed Yassin, from the "Self-Portraits with Foreign Fruits and Vegetables" series; Walid Siti, from "The Tower" series

“We live in a culture that pigeon-holes us. It’s a burden our community bears,” says Lana Barkawi, executive and artistic director of Mizna, St. Paul-based organization that promotes Arab-American culture through programming and its art/literary journal

Mizna has partnered with the Minnesota Museum of American Art on a new exhibition, “History Is Not Here: Art and the Arab Imaginary.” The show, which has been in development for the past two years, pushes back against stereotypes about people from that region, and features both Arab and non-Arab artists from Northern Africa and Southwest Asia. 

Some of the artists included in the show are part of the diaspora community. Meaning, people from one region who live in another. For example, Raed Yassin is from Beirut but based in Germany. He has a wonderful series, called “Self Portraits with Foreign Fruits and Vegetables,” that contrasts how seamlessly fruit from foreign lands have been incorporated into Western diets with heightened xenophobia. 

Raed Yassin, "Self-Portraits with Foreign Fruits and Vegetables" series

Raed Yassin, "Self-Portraits with Foreign Fruits and Vegetables" series

Yassin’s partner, Monira Al Qadiri, a Kuwaiti artist born in Senegal who is based in Berlin and Beirut, juxtaposes the shape of oil-drill heads with the cool tones and shine inside oyster shells in Spectrum II (2016). The piece is commenting on the impact of oil drilling on the pearl diving trade in the Arabian Gulf. 

Walid Siti was born in Iraqi-Kurdistan, and now lives in London. Siti’s series of drawings, called “The Black Tower,” evokes the Tower of Babel, and uses abstraction and a breaking down of form to investigate the ways in which historical buildings have been appropriated into the canon of Western art. 

Walid Siti, "The Tower" series

Walid Siti, "The Tower" series

The two curators for the exhibition, visual artist and Mizna curator Heba Y. Amin and independent curator Maymanah Farhat, say they wanted to push back against how people from North Africa and Southwestern Asia have been depicted over time by museums and in pop culture. 

“This is quite radical,” says Farhat. “We are not here to defend our existence or justify our humanity.” She explains that rather than portraying the North African and Southwest Asian region as a monolith, the curatorial goals were to show diversity and nuance. 

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, two artists based both in Palestine and New York, work with the notion of alternative histories in And yet my mask is powerful (Fragments 1-3)(2016). With dried flowers and handwritten notes that create fictional narratives, the installation reframes histories and challenges the ways that Palestine history has been portrayed. The artists also recreate Neolithic masks, which were stolen from West Bank and now are part of a private Israeli collection, using 3D technology. 

“It’s a questioning of museum studies and how artifacts are acquired,” Farhat says. “How do you take an object in a museum we have no access to, and give it another narrative?” 

Ala Younis, 'Plan (fem.) for Greater Baghdad,' (2018)

Ala Younis, 'Plan (fem.) for Greater Baghdad,' (2018)

Ala Younis’ Plan (fem.) for Greater Baghdad (2018) takes a look at archival material spanning over 25 years as plans were shaped, thrown out, and re-shaped for a gymnasium in Iraq, which eventually opened in 1980. Using photographs, copies of newspaper articles, and letters, Younis highlights the role of women artists, architects, and other movers and shakers who helped bring the building to fruition. There’s also a white model of the stadium, surrounded by female figures. While Younis narrates true stories in this work, the installation carves out a history of women who have been erased. 

Monira Al Qadiri, “Spectrum II” series

Monira Al Qadiri, “Spectrum II” series

IF YOU GO:

“History Is Not Here: Art and the Arab Imaginary”
Minnesota Museum of American Art
350 Robert St. N., the Historic Pioneer Endicott, St. Paul
651-797-2571; through January 5