Not a Punch in the Face


‘A lot of the contemporary art I’ve seen from the Middle Eastern region has been too much about punching you in the face with politics and not enough about celebrating other stories, other histories and the sophisticated culture of these places, which goes back thousands of years.’

Or at least so Jemima Montagu, the curator of the 2009 East-West Divan exhibit, explains it. I mentioned the show yesterday and couldn’t resist exploring the topic a bit further today. The exhibit itself is over, but I think with conflict raging in the region, ideas like Jemima’s continue to be relevant.

And it turns out that the exhibit was actually presented in Venice by Turquoise Mountain, a cultural and heritage organization based in Afghanistan, for whom Jemima worked for three years. Founded in 2006, the not-for-profit aims at promoting and preserving the historic centre of Kabul. So even retrospectively I can appreciate the works in a new light, knowing that the person responsible for choosing it actually lived in and experienced the region.

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My personal favorite new artists from the exhibit include works by an 86-year-old Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, whose ‘mirror’ pieces are fascinating in their choice of material and construction, and harmonic fusion of contemporary western art styles with a Middle Eastern flair. Farmanfarmaian’s career has spanned half a century, including years spent in New York where she studied and later worked alongside renowned figures such as Andy Warhol.

Another stand-out selection was the conceptual piece ‘Face It’ by Afghan artist Aisha Khalid, featuring intricate bullet wounds on a wall. When a spectator stands in front of it, they see their own image reflected in an adjacent mirror along with the bullet holes on their bodies. Perhaps this leans a little more towards a ‘punch in the face’, but considering the beauty and dignity of it–the detail put into each bullet mark–it’s hard to dismiss as in any way sensationalist. 

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