Singapore hosts the region’s first contemporary Arab art show
Courtesy: Huda Lutfi

SINGAPORE – One of the things that first greeted me on the Southeast Asian island in mid-May was a serendipitously familiar image. At a street booth, amid maps, guides, and various listings pamphlets, Om Kalthoum adorned a catalogue cover. The singer’s eyes were blanked out, her face solemnly expressionless, and above the white, saint-like halo around her head — which had written on it “democracy is coming” — were five gray military planes.

It was a collage by Egyptian artist Huda Lutfi. And it was not produced after July 3, when Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had President Mohamed Morsi step down, nor was it a result of contemplating the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ rule after Mubarak was toppled in early 2011: Lutfi made “Democracy is Coming” in 2008.

It seemed bizarre a few weeks back to find this image here in Singapore, so faraway, and now it’s even more unsettling given the ongoing developments in Egypt. But Lutfi is one of 14 artists taking part in the exhibition “Terms & Conditions,” each with equally captivating works. The first contemporary Arab art survey in Southeast Asia opened at the Singapore Art Museum on 27 June, although it’s been in the works for a good 18 months.

For Sheikh Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi — whose Sharjah-based Barjeel Art Foundation is co-organizing the exhibit — it felt more bizarre not having Arab art shows here.

“A decade ago I visited Singapore for the first time for a Fernando Botero exhibition,” he says. “And I thought to myself, why is it not Arab art that’s being shown here?”

This idea took years to materialize, with one crucial requirement being to find an interested counterpart — in this case the director of the Singapore Art Museum, Tan Boon Hui. For the past three years, Boon Hui has been exploring contemporary art from other regions undergoing “similar transformations.” During one of his visits to the UAE, he saw Barjeel’s collection, felt their visions met, and a fruitful collaboration was born.

The exhibition curator and Barjeel Collections Manager Mandy Merzaban made a selection from the collections of Barjeel, Mathaf – The Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, and the Abraaj Capital Art Prize, as well as those of private collectors and artists

The selection is intense, playful, humorous, and somewhat sad all at once — challenging, as Merzaban aimed to, the stereotypes and modes of representation of the Arab world. “Terms & Conditions,” she explains, brings to mind the rigidity and control of contracts and formal agreements. “But when separated, they’re quite fluid terms. It’s interesting to take these two ideas into account when thinking about the exhibition.”

Take for instance “Three Love Songs” (2010) by Iraqi artist Adel Abidin. On entering a dark room, the viewer is captivated by three screens, each showing a blond songstress seductively performing. A 1960s stage performer in a fiery orange dress lies on her side, singing: “Oh father of the two lions / Oh father of virility, nothing is as beautiful as your dress / Oh hero, that never slept a night / If the right hand gets tired, the left hand will fight and if the left gets tired, our teeth will carry the sword…”

Minutes later a contemporary pop singer dances her heart out, singing: “Enter and see how the strong men fight / Swords in their hands never splinter / If you point to the star, the star will come / We will wipe America from the map…”

The contradiction between both women’s gestures and tone of voice on one the hand, and the lyrics in Iraqi dialect that they try to sing on the other, is baffling. The lyrics were originally commissioned by Saddam Hussein to praise his regime, and were listened to by millions of Iraqis — including Abidin — as they were played over and over again on the national radio.

When Abidin decided to recreate them, he didn’t explain the lyrics’ meaning to the singers, but only requested that they perform them as if to a much longed-for lover.

Equally deceptive is “To Be Continued…” (2009) by Palestinian artist Sharif Waked. His video starts off with a young man with a gun seated in front of a green and white flag on which is printed two rifles, reading calmly from an open book, his eyes occasionally meeting the viewer’s. Instead of reading a final testimony or letter to his loved ones, however, he reads a story from the much-celebrated “1001 Nights” for a whole 40 minutes.

Waked also shows “Chic Point” (2003) at the exhibition — a fashion show playing on its title to comment on the hardship Palestinians undergo at Israeli checkpoints. “Chic Point” is smart and poignant, although it goes a little over the top at the end, making it fall in the more preachy corner of art.

Several works tackle how major events in the region’s history turn into souvenir-like props. Raed Yassin’s “China” (2012) — blue and white porcelain vases on which he had selected scenes from the Lebanese Civil War illustrated — is an exciting example. Moataz Nasr’s “Elshaab” (2012) in which he recreated characters he met during the street protests in Egypt, and particularly the notorious scene of the girl in the blue bra, is another.

But perhaps the most ironic given recent events is the revolutionary manifesto of the Egyptian-born Raafat Ishak. The artist, who is better known internationally and in Australia, to which he emigrated in the 1980s, than in Egypt, presents a paradoxical proposition. In “Nominations for the Presidency of the New Egypt” (2012) a transliterated English manifesto in Arabic letters is inscribed on a wooden scroll — Ishak calls for cutting all ties with Egypt’s past to be able to start anew. The sculptural installation, made around the time of Egypt’s first post-Mubarak presidential elections, which brought Morsi to power, goes to such extremes as to suggest destroying the Aswan dams and re-flooding the country, a symbolic break with Egypt’s history of military rule. But it is as cynical as it is radical. “The nomination and what it contains is utopic in spirit, but at the same time self-consciously aware of its deficiencies and its inevitable failure,” Ishak notes in an interview in the exhibition’s catalogue.

“Nominations for the Presidency of the New Egypt,” like the other works in the exhibition, has never been shown in Cairo. But this might change soon: Qassemi hopes to bring works from his diverse collection to the Egyptian capital.

“My dream is to have a show in Egypt, and bring Gulf art there,” he says. “The country, with its long rich history, hasn’t had access to Gulf art. I would like to hold it somewhere that is accessible to the public, preferably not elitist neighborhoods. Alexandria has many spaces, you know.

“But Cairo is the dream.”

Mai Elwakil 

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