New Art from the Middle East, Saatchi Gallery
Duke of York's HQ
London SW3 4SQ
Despite featuring mannequins of Teherani prostitutes, semi-naked men and all manner of jabs at repressive statehood and religion, Charles Saatchi’s latest show, Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East, has, to date (it only opened 30 January), been remarkably uncontroversial. So far, no uproarious demos outside the Chelsea gallery, no mullahs up in arms, despite the boundary-pushing content of much of the show.
See more of the art works in the show
Featuring the work of 19 artists from Tunisia to Iraq, Algeria to Syria, highlights include a room filled with tin foil models of 251 Muslim women at prayer by Franco-Algerian artist Kader Attia and Tehran-based artist Shadi Gahdirian’s photos of women in habibs, whose faces have been replaced with mundane domestic objects such as cheese graters, irons and sieves.
What’s also surprising is that, while some of the artists live and work outside their countries of birth, many are producing these contentious and daring works at home. Take Iranian Ramin Haerizadah who lives in Tehran and appears semi naked and hairy, dressed as a woman in a series of pictures entitled ’Men of Allah’, in which he mocks the macho views of the bearded clerics who preach female oppression.
Others, such as Iraqi artist Halim Al-Karim endured great hardship at home and fled to America. During the Gulf War, Al-Karim hid in a hole in the ground in the desert for three years in order to avoid military service. Not surprisingly, his work criticizes political oppression, particularly Saddam’s regime, and instead of goading us, as so many western contemporary artists do, he makes you pause for thought.
Political and social conditions in their homelands give all of the artists in this show much to draw upon; the predictable art world themes of sex, celebrity and consumerism, more sex, more celebrity, more consumerism, are refreshingly absent.
Instead, Lebanese artist Marwam Rechmaoui has built a rubber floor map of Beirut as it is today, with all its divisions, and created a replica of the apartment block in Beirut in which he lived until it was evacuated during the conflict with Isreal in 2006. Palestinian artist Wafa Hourani, who works in Ramallah, visualizes the Palestinian refugee camp of the future. Consisting of scale models of decrepit settlements under Israeli surveillance it is entitled Qalandia, after the main checkpoint through the West Bank Security Fence, and dated 2067. Each model acts as a miniature light box with filmstrips in the windows, showing glimpses of life within. Like many of the pieces in the show, it has a clear and powerful message, and, in light of recent Israeli actions in Palestine, is perhaps a premonition.