Clarice Smith Distinguished Lecture: Nada Shabout
On Wednesday, October 13, 2021, the Smithsonian American Art Museum hosted a virtual lecture with scholar Nada Shabout. Examine the enduring impact of colonialism and orientalism within the mainstream history of modernism. During this captivating virtual talk, Shabout discusses efforts to decolonize the field of art history and prioritize inclusion and equity. Shabout highlights the noticeable absence of Arab artists in conventional narratives about modern and contemporary art and uses several past and present examples to emphasize the need to produce new knowledge and revise curricula to fully integrate Arab artists within the field.
Nada Shabout is a professor of art history and coordinator of the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies Initiative at the University of North Texas, Denton. She is the founding president of the Association for Modern and Contemporary Art from the Arab World, Iran and Turkey, and project advisor for the Saudi National Pavilion of the 2019 Venice Biennale. She is the author of Modern Arab Art: Formation of Arab Aesthetics (2007) and co-editor, with Salwa Mikdadi, of New Vision: Arab Art in the 21st Century (2009) and, with Anneka Lenssen and Sarah Rogers, of Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents, Museum of Modern Art (2018). Shabout has acted as curator for such exhibitions as Dafatir: Contemporary Iraqi Book Art (2005–2009), Modernism and Iraq, Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University (2009), and Sajjil: A Century of Modern Art, Interventions: A Dialogue between the Modern and the Contemporary (2010).
This program is part of our annual Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art series, which presents new insights into American art from the perspectives of outstanding artists, critics, and scholars. The series is made possible by the generosity of Clarice Smith.
— (Nada Shabout) Thank you, thank you for inviting me to talk about my work. It is my pleasure to be here.
Let me share my presentation, which we always forget to do. It is my pleasure to be here, although in this virtual space and not the beautiful auditorium in D.C. Instead, I join you from Texas where we benefit daily from living, working, and gathering on the land of many displaced original tribal nations— including Wichita, Caddo, Comanche, and Cherokee where the University of North Texas has settled. As all those before me I would like to start by thanking Clarice Smith for her generosity and for providing us with this platform. I would also like to thank Director Stephanie Stebich for her kind introduction and wisdom. And Gloria Kenyon, and everyone else working behind the scenes to make this possible. I am particularly thrilled to be in the company this year of artist Fred Wilson whose "Mining the Museum" is a staple in my contemporary art courses, but also his unnatural movement of Blackness very much speaks to many connections I unpack. And, the upcoming lecture by Art Historian Richard Powell, whose work has opened up new dialogues and art history. I thank them both for their work. I'm also pleased to follow the talk given last year by Critic and Art Historian Aruna de Souza. Her timely talk addressing racial tensions [clearing throat] —excuse me— and outlining Museum's reactions in the wake of Black Lives Matter as well as issues of translation and how empathy, while great, is not the solution serves as a good beginning to what I would like to talk about today. To be honest, when I first received the invitation, I was a bit mystified that I am thought of as an art critic. I wondered, but then decided to accept before anyone else noticed. Nevertheless, this also made me reconsider what art criticism does. We are so accustomed to thinking that our critics write in newspapers and magazines for the general public. Reality is, we art historians perform art criticism for the discipline in various forms— and particularly when we dismantle and deconstruct mainstream accepted preconceptions and narratives. When we historicize regions, cultures, and artists who are left out of the canon. In 2010, the well-known and revered art critic, Holland Cutter, gave the International Association of Art Critics—A.I.C.A., AICA USA— distinguished critic lecture at the new school which was titled "Art Critic: So What?" He called the art world, I quote, "a middle-class, gated community protecting its territorial and entrepreneurial interests, and thus inherently conservative." If I am to have a title here it is: "Opening the Gates: the Return of the Invisible Other." I say return because the other has always been here, but ignored by the dominant powers. In my efforts to shatter these gates, I had to confront the impact of the hegemonic legacy of colonialism, modernism, and orientalism— which still endures. In fact, we really cannot talk about modernism without colonialism and orientalism. Their impact is manifest in art history through multiple absences of voices and agencies that are needed for a more reliable story this history can tell. The criminal incidents of 2020 forced the world, art world included, to face its long debated but never resolved deficiencies. Since, terms like "inclusion," "diversity," and "equity" have become buzzwords— and all institutions in the White dominant hemisphere have been racing to address and correct their discriminatory and excluding policies. This, of course, is not to say that discrimination does not take place within the other, but that is not the topic for today. As always, there have been few wins. But, the road is long, and definitely requires much more work than few hires and statements. An exhibition, a journal issue, a T.V. show centered around Black or Hispanic America is not sufficient to correct the wrong that has been done nor to rectify history. We need to change culture, to widen parameters, and change language that is inherently limiting— even in its choice of words— in order to begin to understand how to move forward. We need to decenter art history's points of reference that seem to still be European, Christian, male, and White. But also inclusion and diversity, should accept that all others who have been excluded, as equal contributors in making history. We live in an age of mobility, through money and through war, our societies are made up of citizens who were not necessarily born where they live or where they will die. But also, refugees. Thus to allow for the absent voices of one invisible other, Arab art and artists to become visible, I understand art history as an active participant in the efforts of decolonization, inclusion, and equity. Completing the missing from the art history canon will allow us to understand what we have been calling the global contemporary, in much richer ways. Jow can we speak of an American contemporary art scene, without including Arab American artists, who are always burdened by their hyphenated identities and heritage? Identities are complex, as we all know, and more so today, with the dual nationalities in multiple cultures we all inhabit. Personally I don't necessarily think of myself as an Arab American, or an Iraqi American, as I am often referred to by the others—by others in order to authenticate my voice. But rather, an American, and an Arab, and an Iraqi, and a Brit, and many other adopted cultural identities. In the post-9/11 and 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq era, continuous political turmoil in the region [phone chime] and complicated current political environments in the U.S.A. and Europe, representation centered on Arab and Islamic peoples cultures and arts are popular again. Within an increasing global discourse demanding decolonization of art history and museums, these representations are particularly significant. Representing the other, however, is nothing new. In 1978, the Literary Critic Edward Said published his, by now classic book: "Orientalism," that elucidated the imperialist structure constructed to explain the other. Orientalism has been translated into more than 30 languages, engaged or critiqued by every scholar in the field, and launched a complete reconfiguration and how we think about, how we think— excuse me— of how we think about representations of the other through a number of disciplines in the humanities: from art history, and anthropology, to post-colonial studies, and others. Orientalism, however, is still very alive. The more recent calls for decolonization ask us to critique post-colonialism. Meanwhile, the new discourse is rethinking contemporary art during what it perceives as a global crisis, considering recent geopolitical economic and health emergencies, and their impact on visual culture and artistic practice. Modernism in the arts, as it developed outside Europe, and, or North America is now an important and growing area of research in art history. In order to understand the web of connections that constitute modernism, there is also a pronounced move in academia and scholarship from a center preferee binary, as well as the notion of alternative modernities that necessarily continues to compare a copy to an original. More importantly, there is also an acceptance that what modernity and modernism meant, or means, in any given space, or time, around the world cannot be understood without the voices of its local practitioners. Modernism, I would argue, is mostly a translation, and not an invention.
[clearing throat] Yet, the interest in the arts of the Arab World, particularly through the rhetoric that promoted recent exhibitions, continues to perpetuate the power structure in its language of discovery. Art in the Arab world has its long history, and artists are aware of this history that western scholarship is ignorant of. This history speaks only to its limitations. Yes, we need to— need more research on art of the Arab world, but we should not assume that the art needs rescuing. Sadly one of the major problems with the historiography of modern art of the other in general, has been the tendency to dilute the agency of the artist. Including by scholars with the best intentions and sympathies. Much of this problem has to do with the language of writing, which remains that of the colonial hegemony. As such it remains impossible for the Arab artist to achieve anything based on internal or local needs and desires, but be always at best influenced inspired or draw on European examples— be it style structure or production. While on the surface it appears to be the problem of language, of writing, clearly it is equally a problem of episteme. More importantly, it locks the non-western art into the impossible space, where it is either too similar to European modernism that it makes no significant contribution, or so different that its credential of being genuine art will remain suspect. A telling example of how language imprisons us in the races legacies, is the often a repeated sentence when speaking about modernism outside of the Euro-American tradition. I quote, "Modernism that fuses, fuses inspiration from local reality and Indigenous sources, with imported western artistic concepts and techniques," end of quote. We never really say that when we speak of Monet, Matisse, or Pollock, do we? By invoking the sequence and references we necessarily think of an original and a copy, of belatedness and inequality, but we also end up reifying the artist experience as necessarily different than other artists in the world, including those with whom they studied in European academies. I look at our international students today at art schools and programs, and wonder how will they be discussed in history. It is one thing to expect a rejection of western hegemonic methodologies, but another to expect them to be stylistically different than the age they live. Why should Arab artists have a unique Arab everything in their art, but not French artists of the same period? Why is Paris the center, and Cairo the preferee? Art, as we all know is always political. However, art from the Arab world and the South West Asia and North Africa Sowana region, is further politicized and generally received in connection to wars and conflict, assuming a direct coalition in the production of this art to politics, war, and now terrorism with a focus on subject only while denying aesthetics. Modern art in the Arab world has continually been sympathetically explained and defended in relation to European imperialism and Orientalism. Acknowledging the existence of Arab modern art has been predicated on a sudden rupture in the region's history through colonialism and submission to superior powers. This unequal and condescending relationship— as explained through Orientalism— argues that the West became obsessed with the timelessness and backwardness of the superior of the East as the exotic other, which mandates that Arabs had to be in awe of this progressiveness, of this superior civilization designating the West as leaders and Arab as perpetually followers and imitators. Could we not understand the Arab artist realization of the status quo as a simple submission, not as a simple submission, but as conscious global, rhetorical, theoretical, and ideological reworking of aesthetics? Is it not the inequality of power that allows Matisse and Clay's adaptation and philosophical reformulations of Islamic aesthetics to pass without commentary, whereas a comparison to a European counterpart a con counterpart is always deemed necessary, when speaking of Arab artists? it is thus a linguistic and visual literacy that is needed to understand the others contribution. Perhaps, it was fortuitous that when I began to focus my energy on modern Arab art, the rest of the world was interested as well. Not only wars and conflict, oil as always, but also oil revenues that allowed for new collecting practices in the Arab world particularly in the Arabian Peninsula, including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in Saudi Arabia, which facilitated the expansion of the art market, and in many ways fundamentally changed the cultural map of the visual arts in the region in connection to the rest of the world. Consequently contemporary Arab art became subject of global interest. Mot only by private collectors who purchased contemporary Arab art from auction houses, who set up in the region as well, but a multitude of exhibitions in prominent museums took place. My career as an academic— my career and academic path, have not been conventional, as followed by many of my art historian colleagues. Trust me, it was quite a challenge when it was my turn to get tenured—who would review my dossier? My scholarship, and its trajectory, has been, and is, driven and informed by my awareness of this absence, this lack of representation and agency of an other I deem important in the discourse of modernism and art history. It is what instigated my professional journey beyond my initial architecture studies, and absent, an absence of the visual, I grew up with and was surrounded by in my youth. As an international student here in the United States in the 1980s, I was baffled by this absence: Why is it that no one seemed to know anything about it, but then fascinated by my references to it in my own work, which of course was then perceived as exotic? But as a student, wanting to study modern Arab art, I was faced by a number of challenges: starting with, what is, Arab, Arab art and how can it be modern? I was advised to apply to either an Islamic art program or Middle Eastern Studies, area studies. This in itself is very telling. The 20th century art production of the Arab world can only belong to either Islamic art a new, but well established category in western art history, or, a geopolitical, cultural, and anthropological area studies. That signaled the clear problem of recognition and acceptance, or lack of it. And then, when I managed to get into a program that was willing to guide me through the research, I was faced by the lack of any reference to that production here in the United States and access problems to archives in the region. There was also the problem of funding for my research on the topic that is not yet recognized. And as I discovered quickly, a problem of methodologies: a language to speak about Arab arts aesthetics. These remained issues that occupy me 'till today. As such there, are two parallel paths that I consider as equally important in the progress of my work. On the one hand, the need to confront, address, and respond to the art historical willful neglect of modern contemporary art from, and of, the Arab world, and its absence from the art history canon— addressing this necessity— this necessitated research production of scholarship and the writing of art historiography. On the one hand, on the other hand, rather for this scholarship to be effective, there needed to be an acknowledged academic and scholarly context for the art and its history that would be accepted as an equal form of knowledge within the discipline of art history. These two aspects continue to direct my actions in the field to produce and enable further production. A third offshoot that focuses on Iraq was intensified after 2003, the 200-2003 invasion, and the destruction of the country's heritage and art infrastructure, and following identity and collective memories erasure. Necessarily, these facets form a connected web of multiple intersections that while aimed to produce new texts for inclusion, is equally conscious of the need to subvert, and as possible, revise both curricular and accepted mainstream text. My ideological roadmap thus, includes both scholarship and activism. I will illustrate these steps: recognition, archives, methodologies, through a few projects that I believe have been foundational for this task. Each project was an obvious, but challenging and vital step in the process of building a field of study. One of the first accomplishments that speak to this ideology, but equally to its evolution was forming AMCA., the Association for Modern Contemporary Art from the Arab world, Iran, and Turkey in 2007. Conceived in Montecatini, Italy and registered in Fort Worth, Texas. AMCA.'s main objective was to open up a space of collective voices,— strength in numbers— exchange and support for all those who were working on, and interested to organize, engage, discuss, and push the research on modern contemporary art of the region. A space that I profoundly missed as a graduate student and in my, my early career, AMCA. is a college art association and Middle East studies association affiliate that has been successful thus far in its contribution to changing the rhetoric of both, and our discipline, as well as providing scholarly and historical context for the artist, and to the contemporary production. AMCA.'s aim from the beginning was also to connect with scholars in the region. We held our first AMCA. conference in 2010, in 2010 rather, at the opening of Mathaf, the Arab Museum of Modern Art, in Doha, Qatar. Opening Mathaf with "Sedjin: A century of Arab Art," an exhibition I curated from the permanent collection, was in itself a milestone for the field. The AMCA. conference at Mathaf, where a wide range ranging collection of Arab modernist art was on display, allowed AMCA. members, scholars, and students participating to present the research with actual works of art that had only been seen in reproductions or textual references before. But also, it was an announcement that there is a community of researchers working on modernism in the region— that together we're establishing this as a distinct field. AMCA. members have been extremely productive and effective in progressing the association's goal through scholarship and projects.
Modern Art Iraq Archives, MAIM, was a result of another necessity. Namely the destruction of Iraq's intellectual and artistic community and institutions in 2003. Following my trip to Baghdad in June 2003, I became very aware of the magnitude of loss. Among other losses that may have been better covered in western media, like the Baghdad Museum of Antiquity, the Museum of Modern Art, the former Saddam center for the art, which was the most important collector of modern Iraqi arts and regional art, modern art as well, and the main source of knowledge for Iraqi artists during the long years of sanctions deprivation, was in ruins. A major fire and then looting devastated its 8,000 plus collection. My goal then was to document the lost collection, as much as possible, in my efforts to preserve the knowledge and cultural memory of a history that had not been fully written. We also had hoped that we could aid in finding some of these lost works. MAIM was launched in 2011 in collaboration with the Alexandria Archive Institute and the UC Berkeley school of Information. It was enabled through a digital humanities startup grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities, and it uses open source software developed by Omega. The expansion to digitize and include archival text and material, however proved to be MAIM's main strength. It made available primary archives in its original languages, mostly Arabic to researchers. MAIM continues to grow with the aid of the increasing number of graduate students and scholars who generously share their archival finds. On a similar path of making archival materials available to scholars and students, but with a specific attention to teaching in English, the idea of a source book on Arab modernism was necessary. The initial idea, which was a proposal from a young graduate student then in my in one of my classes, Anneka Lenssen— who is one of the co-editors along with Sarah Rogers— grew through various iterations to become the "Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents," that was published by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2-2018. As the eighth, it was the eighth volume in the primary document series of the international program at MoMA, dedicated to making historical source materials available through english translations. The 426 pages with 125, or 127 texts, consisting of essays, manifestos, personal letters, speeches, and recollections of the Arab world's most important artist and artistic movements, span the years 1882 to 1989. The text, that was not meant to be comprehensive, is mostly chronological, and organized into thematic sections based on specific dynamic nodes of intersections. As the project was vast in scope, span, and geography, many AMCA. members who were the experts of the individual locales, and have been involved in mapping the locations of relevant archives in the region, were engaged as advisors or contributors, along with few of the main protagonists of the period who generously shared their memories. As such, we aim to dismantle binaries and contribute to the growing [phone ringtone] body of literature dealing with the question of global modernism. We hope that readers would listen into these conversations without persistent presumptions about the superiority of European modernism. While the aim was to provide material for teaching the growing number of classes equally, we the editors were conscious of how we wanted to present these important moments of engagement across the region as participating in a trans-regional imaginary that connects with wider conversations. We were very aware that language, and the problems of translations, are some of the key methodologies— methodological challenges, in teaching global art history today. The next step in—a slide of, from the book, this is my, my excuse to show you works. The next step in decentering and deconstructing the colonial narrative of modernism into a polyglot discourse of inclusion, is addressing the structure and meaning of art history. Mapping art histories in the Arab world, Iran, and Turkey is a project that was also born out of urgency. The desire of the Getty Foundation to connect with art history programs in the S.W.A.N.A region prompted a number of important inquiries. We really need to understand what art history means in, and to the region first to know where, nd how ,it is practiced and taught before we connect. That AMCA., as the group of scholars, have pretty much been tiptoeing around the notion, while we do research [phone chime] in the area. That, there was a perceived conception that art history is not understood or practiced in the region, hence the lack of text production. That whether art history, is global or not, has not yet been resolved. That as the interest in the modern contemporary art of the region increased, so did the understanding of the need for for the fields historiography intensified. More importantly, as this historiography is being developed, mostly in the diaspora, not unlike that of Islamic art before it. We're very aware of the imbalance created by this situation. The project aims to compile information about teaching art history across 14 countries in the region. We are a team of seven deeds, and to make the data available for scholars, researchers, and students. in order to develop a better understanding of a global art history as part and funded by the Getty Foundation's "Connecting Art Histories Initiative," the project works towards a more inclusive understanding of how art history is perceived, and art historiographies in the region are negotiated. It thus equally aims to demystify and decenter the accepted definition of an art history as developed in the West. The project is ongoing, and its progress has been delayed, and affected by COVID as travel was postponed for safety reasons. However, meanwhile, the current situation has helped us realize, new understandings of the role of digital platforms opening up, other us possibilities for the direction and growth of the project and ways of connecting. Lastly I will now address the issue of methodologies: how to interpret art of the Arab world in a language that is relevant to its context and production, and able to surpass the prejudice of western methodologies. In my book, "Modern Arab Art: Formation of Arab Aesthetics," published in 2007 from research that was part of my doctoral studies in the 1990s, my objective was to advance an art historical conceptualization of modern Arab arts through understanding its underlying political and ideological motives, within a need for a constructed identity. On the one hand, it argued for the distinction this distinction of modern Arab art from the Islamic, and on the other, it equally asserted its grounding in its contemporary realities— in other words: it is not a copy of European modernism.
While participating in the global discourse, theoretically I have been searching for the means to both unpack and contextualize modern Arab art as both Arab and modern. In retrospect, and as is the case with many graduate students, my topic was very vast and ambitious but was very necessary. Really, I doubt that I would let any of my students today do such a thing. Older but wiser, in my current book project, "Demarcating Modernisms in Iraqi Art, Modernism in Iraqi Art: the Dialectics of the Decorative in the period of 1951 to 1979," I look into coining local methodologies to enable a better investigation of modern art in Iraq. I raise methodological questions about the writing of art history in Iraq by contextualizing objects and practices through a wider lens in relation to modernism and historical evolution. As such, I intentionally revisit and update some of the theories about modern art and aesthetics in the Arab world that I have advanced in my previous book, "Modern Arab Art." The current research is a study of Iraqi modernist avant-garde in the mid 20th century. Specifically the study is devoted to mapping out, analyzing ,and contextualizing the discursive energies of modern artists and intellectuals in Iraq who were instrumental in negotiating and constructing the modern language of art in that period between 1951 and 1979. In itself is a period that represents a time of intense development and shifts in Iraq that witnessed the the establishment of official art institutions, and the emergence of public art consciousness. In post-colonial Iraq, the development of a national art was in the hands of artists, particularly, or perhaps because, of the lack of an official institutional structure— they were building it. What these artists initiated set a radical charge for the development of modern art in Iraq. More importantly, the period marked a prolific negotiation of the decorative as a signifier of both continuity and modernity. To form what Iraqi artists perceived as a visual language representative of their modern nation, and reflective of their participation in writing this new chapter of their history. The book thus unpacks the decorative and its articulation and modernism at large, and maps out its role in forming modernism in Iraq through detailed study of key artists of the period in consideration. It does so on four levels: theoretically, it revisits our understanding of modernism as a global phenomenon as well as what the avant-garde means in Iraq; it articulates the concept of Istilham as foundational, informing the Iraqi modern art vocabulary through examples of works of art and its trajectory beyond the Baghdad Group for Modern Art; it unpacks the decorative as a mode of articulation with its emphasis on the surface, and in the process, will re-contextualizes many of the familiar objects of Iraqi art; and lastly, presents artists whose work has not been explored much, in an effort to contribute to Iraqi art historiography. Iraqis would argue that their modern art represents them, the neighboring Arab countries would agree that Iraqi modern art movements have been successful in achieving a unique style that is distinctly Iraqi. But, but what is that —excuse me— but what is it that makes the visual production perceived as Iraqi and uniquely identifiable as such? While one recognizes the localness in the content of the 1930s and 40s in the form of rural cityscapes and traditional neighborhoods, I would argue that the art movements that followed went beyond the content to derive specific line and surface negotiation, I call line-mediated aesthetics— where the pictorial and ornamental collapse and the surface arctic— the surface articulation negotiates both form and content with symbolic, expressive, abstract, and narrative-driven qualities that would be identity signature for Iraqi art. Moreover, this line-mediated aesthetic is a specific negotiation of the decorative by Iraqi artist that was able to mediate between their past, drawing on Islamic and Mesopotamian, and present modern styles, to resolve the perceived crisis of representation that is the result of modernity. In its precarious and ambiguous relationship with modernism in Europe, the decorative has been equated with the primitive and the expressive in modern art as was formulated in the turn of the 20th century. This was particularly poignant with regard to non-European points of reference— African masks and Islamic ornamentation, for example— and the notion of the barbarian. While in certain ways the decorative indexed modernity in European art, it was equally and pejoratively used to signify ornamentation and the applied arts— perceived as dead by the European modernist. For the Iraqi avant-garde distinguished in their social efficacy, the decorative was not an end in itself but rather a methodology of mediating modernism and visual and artistic lineage. If Islamic art is argued to have given Matisse a solution for his interest in the decorative, for Iraqi artists the decorative facilitated the connection between their past with their present, through what became coined as the concept of Istilham. The decorative in Iraqi modern art, would denote honesty in painting, and the line as direct surface manipulation of expressive, and at times, symbolic qualities. The work thus did not perceive any tension between the decorative and the pictorial. Again, by the decorative I mean the line quality that expresses itself in the linearity of expression without necessarily abandoning the representational, although could do so if it wishes. This line quality does not differentiate between media or material, and design is vital part of the composition where beauty and the sublime merge. The decorative has also been used to emphasize the unimaginative qualities and rigidity of Islamic art based on its religious interdiction, in relationship to images: stylized form with preference to drawing over painting for from observation, for example. One thus can easily argue, that it is a specific act of resistance for Iraqi artists to transform the islamic arts-—artists' mastery of drawing and the arabesque, what has been described by many orientalists as "rigid and lifeless ornament," into a dynamic image of the modern age. Moreover, it still has enabled their more meaningful transition—Iraqi artists transition— into and negotiation of abstraction, abstraction which has resurfaced lately as a specific interest for exhibitions and forums, had established paradigms for understanding artistic development as intersected with new set of Cold War-era tensions that art historian Terry Smith has summed up so well as, I quote, "abstraction versus figuration, nationalism versus international styles, preferees versus centers, artistic autonomy versus social obligation, in the-independence versus [phone chime] non-alignment, democracy versus socialism." While not denying international politics in intersections in Iraq as well, I situate abstraction away from the Cold War politics and understand it via Istilham. As a result of inward tensions of self-expression but not without resolving some of the dualities Smith listed. So, what is Istilham?
Artist Shakir Hassan Al Said once argued, that the history of modern art in Iraq can be summarized as an obsession with the Istilham. I definitely agree with him. Istilham is the catalyst for individuality through a shared heritage. It became the distinctive tactic with variant interpretations in the history of Iraqi modern art. Istilham and the decorative are negotiated through the line-mediated aesthetics, I argue, shaped Iraqi modernism of the mid-20th century, and was further transformed in the 1980s in light of socio-political changes of the time. The verb Istilham is derived from the word 'Ilham," which means inspiration, instinct which is derived from the root, "l'h'm" the arabic word l'h'm, to inspire; to pray. While it clearly carries the divine intervention within its meaning, for Iraqi modernists, it was more of a conscious, process-oriented performative act embroiled with agency. Istilham is a concept that advocates mediation between two things: it draws from one that already existed to inform one that is in the process of becoming as it projects to the future. It thus equally embodies acts of deconstruction and unpacking, in order to perform pointed construction that would necessarily carry social, as well as personal, significance. In the opening of the Baghdad Al Said I showed you an image of.
Shakir Al Said read their manifesto aloud and Jewas Selim delivered his impromptu speech at the renewal of arts, describing the challenges of engaging an audience for whom modern art was wholly unfamiliar. The manifesto emphasized and promoted the notion of Istilham Tourad, which issued an action of the renegotiating heritage Tourad to develop a progressive artistic vision which was historio-cultural and modern, and capable of expressing what they termed as their contemporary characteristic. It invoked the two threads that were perceived as necessary for Iraqi artists to negotiate modernism, and imagined historical continuity that draws on various elements from Iraq's history, and an engagement with the international art movement— with an understanding of what modern art groups were doing. This Istilham, thus Istilham, is positioned here between the past and the present to realize a new contemporary aesthetics. A word about modernism: I would like to propose that modernism primarily entails a global crisis of representation with the circumstances of that crisis, the specific forms it takes, and the artistic solutions devised to respond to it, varying from one place of the world to another. While not the first or the last of its kind, this one is directly caused by modernity and addresses representation as the means of depicting or portraying a subject with its connection to reality and originality as specifically distinct from pre-modern representation. Modern art would then be understood, within a broad non-linear and non-chronological narrative of intersections and overlaps, that are dialectical and discursive, that can encompass global influences as well as account for continuity or of other artistic traditions and the rupture. The crisis for more modern Iraqi artists was rooted in the inability of the traditional modes of representation, representation inherited from the Islamic period to depict their contemporary reality. In other words a convergence of historical conditions, both outside and inside of art, along with the destabilization of belief in the existing forms of expression in relation to the wider changes within society, affected arts capacity to depict the world. It is within this frame of modernism that I would like to look at the Baghdad Group for Modern Art's notion of Istilham Tourad.
Salem's, and the rest of the group's main alienation of Istilham, as stated in their manifesto, is seen in the relationship, in their relationship, with Maqamat al Hariri, Hariri assemblies, who was the head of the police department in the city of Basra. While the text of the Maqamat has been celebrated for its dexterity, the accompanying images are extremely engaging. The most celebrated illustrated copy of the manuscript, renowned for the conceptual, sophistication, for its conceptual sophistication, scale and equal— and quality of the images, was telegraphed and painted by Yahya bin al Wasiti, in Iraq, probably Baghdad, in 1237 CE. Al Wasiti, al Wasiti's work came to the attention of the group in 1941, after its reproduction in, in a French— after its reproduction in a French journal. Al Wasiti and the images thus served as a main facilitator for the members of the group informing their theories and aesthetics. Al Said published his analysis of the few images of the Maqamat in a booklet titled, "The Artistic and Social Characteristics of al Wasiti's Drawings" in 1964. The title pretty much speaks of how al Said saw the work of al Wasiti, and al Wasiti himself, as an artist whose work addresses social, racial, and class issues as well as develops a specific aesthetics for negotiating them. He wrote, I quote, "It is not an illusion that an Iraqi painter arises from the first half of the seventh century after Jijra with the same skills as a modern painter," end of quote. He located al Wasiti's roots in Mesopotamian tradition, further explaining that, another quote, "as part of the accomplishments of the ancient civilization in Iraq, that the Mesopotamian artist chose to develop a unique creative genius which is undoubtedly al Wasiti's heritage," end of quote. And of course by extension, his and his generation of Iraqi artists' heritage.
Maqamat al Hariri and al Wasiti remain part of Iraqi's unique visual heritage. Born in Baghdad in 1981 artist Hayv Kahraman grew up in Iraq and Sweden, and currently lives in Los Angeles. Her work explores a compendium of current issues of general human concerns: alienation, marginalization, loss, displacement, social destruction, gender empowerment and oppression, the refugee, and the diasporic experiences. Her interest in the body as object and subject is particular, in particular, the concept of gender and female identity is manifest in all of her visual articulation. In various ways, her work presents diverse angles of self-portrait, woven through the formal qualities, intricate lines, and vibrant color. Her aesthetics and the seductive beauty of her images mask poignancy and fear, while, mask poignancy and fear, while subtly mediating hope. Kahraman's relationship with Iraq is based on distance, and is explored through memories and research. In her recent works she engages with fragmentation of these memories in a yearning to bridge that distance and merge the past and present into her realities. There is a process of reuniting her two selves, she argues. Significantly as the temporal distance increases, she moves beyond the abstract to engage with specific sites, forms, and formats of meaning to Iraq. In "Are We Not All Foreigners? Or, An Identity Test: 'How Iraqi Are You?'" of 1915, Kahraman, a contemporary American artist, further navigates her own diasporic experience and identity in reference to not only memory, but a historic-historical continuation that as we saw, was specifically the hallmark concern for Iraqi modern artists in the mid-20th century. She, as did members of the Baghdad Group for Modern Art, invoked the 13th century Maqamat al-Hariri as her site of engagement. She physically inhabits and genders the space of her lineage, visual heritage, in an act of situating her own displacement, speaking more of destruction than continuity, and further complicating the understanding of the global. Thank you for listening.
— (Gloria Kenyon) Thank you so much, Nada, for that wonderful talk. I have so much to think about now, and I know our audience does as well. So we'll take a few questions from folks, from the audience. Feel free to put your questions in the Q and A box. I want to actually just start where you just ended in talking about the diaspora and the impact of that. What is the broader impact on Iraqi modernism and Iraqi modern art of the diaspora?
— (Nada Shabout) So, as a matter of fact, this is, this is a very complicated question. And a very, and the answer is very complex as well. If we speak of contemporary, Iraqi art today, you know, we're faced with extreme numbers of challenges. Can we think of Hayv Kahraman as an Iraqi, or is she an Iraqi American, or is she an American, you know, contemporary artist? And following the sort of exodus of artists after 2003, because of the you, know fear for their lives, they sort of scattered around the world you know, with dual identities as well as inhabiting the contemporary. But also before them, many of the modernists left and also inhabited the rest of the world while they continued to be modern and contemporary. The art production within Iraq and as I, I noted in the Museum of Modern Art, is pretty much now, let's say at its dismal sort of, appearance because of the objects themselves has disappeared. And so, you know, the study of modern Iraqi art seems to be— or, or the study of modern art from the Arab world in general— seems to be taking place here. And, very much based on reproductions and images that you know we see. I mean we're, we're luckier now that there are a number of collections around the world that have opened up for us to see. But, you know, the world and COVID, of course, extremely complicates access to these, connections. So, I don't know that we can, at this point anymore speak of even for, you know ,the development of art in America, without the connections to the rest of the world, and without the connection to Iraq. There was a period in Iraq in the 1990s where Iraqi artists were catering to the U.N., for example, personnel, and then later after that for the U.S., military, by producing works for them, and these works have come here. And, that definitely further complicates the story of how to think about modernism. But also because there are those who will argue, many scholars will argue that the project of modernism continues it's not ended, so we that that alienation between modernism and the contemporary, you know, is, at, at times, you know, sort of a false distinction. Particularly when we're speaking about, the, about, Iraq or the region in general. I don't know if that answered the question.
— (Gloria Kenyon) I think it's a good start. It's a complicated question, and I, our next question kind of ties into that because related always with diaspora and folks moving around. What are the geographies that encompass the Arab art world? You focused really specifically on Iraqi tonight, but, you know, where do those lines get drawn? Are there those lines? What does that include?
— (Nada Shabout) So, you know, because modernism is very much connected to nation states, to the— and to colonialism, and, and Arab nations were formed out of colonialism after the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, it became sort of accepted to think of the so-called "Arab world," which is a number of Arab of countries who decided that their main language of communication is Arabic, and hence known as the Arab world. Not the only language spoken in, in these countries but, you know, a dominant official, language. And so, it is, you know, a group of 24 countries give and take because, you know, the definition changes, that are culturally connected, you know, so, it's, it's —either ethnically and culturally I would, I would argue. And so, I mean we think of of countries like Egypt, or Iraq, or Lebanon, or Palestine, or Jordan, or Morocco or, you know, in North Africa, so it's that region of South, Southwest Asia and North Africa that constitute the Arabic word, the world.
— (Gloria Kenyon) Thank you, that is very helpful. Our next question, I, it's so, it's for, I really appreciate as someone, I will say, as someone who is an art historian and group that degree, and the very western focus of it. I really appreciate how you decenter that learning. And so, when we as western art historians curate a show, there's a very strong perspective that we bring. Does the Arab view bring a different perspective? Do different objects come at a different come with different meanings and come in a different way? Like, what is the curatorial approach is it, how does it differ from the western approach, in the Arab world?
— (Nada Shabout) So, I mean when we think about, I mean we have to think about what were the artists doing and what was of, you know, concern for them. I mean, the problem with, you know, Arab art, I mean the problem that we are trying to address, which is sort of, you know, that discrimination in the canon of art history, is, is not so easy to to resolve right. Because at first, I want recognition for Arab art. That means I am actually marginalizing it, or isolating it, in a context so I can speak of it. So only then, after that, after it is known to dismantle that so then these works can speak to each other. Because if we think about modernism in Europe, you know, it wasn't really just happening in Europe on its own. Many of those so-called Arab modernists were either, you know, were students in, in European places, or in the United States, but also then, you know, diaspora as they moved to live there. But also during the war— wars between the, the period between the wars, and in World War I, with the allied forces there were many uh European artists who were stationed in um in the Arab world— the Iraq, and Egypt, and other places. So there is this sort of conversation and connection. It is in fact a problem when we try to isolate, you know, this modernism from other modernisms. What we really need to be doing is find these commonalities, these conversations that come out of these particularities, of the specifics. Clearly when we say 'modern Arab art,' is such a you know a hegemonic term in itself, because, you know, it requires us to understand what Arab is, which is also very contested, and then there is modernism as well, and how, and where, and when. But yeah, so there's this sort of general understanding that we're speaking about this sort of, Arabic speaking, I mean kind of similar if we say western— what is western? But then, if we look within the Arab, clearly there are specific particularities of Iraqi, versus— I, I just argued for that in, in the end of my talk— and, or Egyptian or this, or that, so we have to kind of find that balance of finding these larger— but there were larger concerns that everyone was engaging with. As well as then you know be able to specifically bring out these particularities that enrich this conversation, in you know, in a meaning— in more meaningful ways.
— (Gloria Kenyon) Thank you, we have time for one more question. And this touches back on something you just mentioned with the change in art for the U.N. and then for the U.S. military so how does the growth of the art market and Qatar, and the U.A.E., and Saudi Arabia serve to decenter the West as a market and audience for Iraqi and Arab art more generally? And do new method— methodological insights emerge from these locations?
— (Nada Shabout) Well, I mean, clearly you know art market follows the money, and so, there was, the money was there. But also kind of with that, there was an intensify— intensified sort of feeling about nationalism because, you know, many, there weren't that many collectors of Arab art, not even in the Arab world but now there are number of collectors, and there is this sort of, you know, Arabs wanting to collect Arab arts, Indians wanting to collect Indian art, and so on so that's the 'nationalism,' you know, you know, coming back in. But, so, by decentering the market and decentering actually, sort of, capitals of where, centers of where, the market can exist. It allowed for a growth of studies as well. In itself, possibly, it does not do that. But the programs that started opening Mathaf Museum of Modern Art, other, you know, allowing for the conferences to happen opened up this sort of, you know, or try to even the plane so this conversation can take place between you know the two others. Now, you know, this all equally speaks of the problems we may have, be having, in our traditional art markets and where the money is. And so, us, I would say as AMCA. In the association, and us scholars of modernism took full advantage of this and been pushing scholarship and project to be able to help or aid this decentering or take advantage of it.
— (Gloria Kenyon) Thank you. That's, I, we have so many more questions and I'm sorry we can't get to all of them this evening. This has been a really wonderful and informative talk. I especially enjoyed a lot of the images you shared, it was really nice to see those paired with your talk. So, thank you, Nada for a wonderful talk this evening, for sharing your expertise with us, for talking to us, and helping us understand so much more about the Iraqi or modern art world and the Arab art world. I also want to say thank you to Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, for introducing us this evening and getting us started. Thank you to all the folks behind the scenes and thank you, to you, our audience for joining us tonight, for listening, for asking really wonderful questions. There's a little bit more information for you in the chat, so you can learn more. We also ask that you not close your browser window and fill out the survey that we have there to help us learn more about you, and we'll see you on November 17th for the final Clarice Smith lecture series for this year, with Richard Powell. He will have some really fantastic insights, and we're really looking forward to that. Thank you all again and have a wonderful evening.
— (Nada Shabout) Thank you, thank you everyone.