Nation Estate — Olive Tree Larissa Sansour, C-print, 2012 Image Credit: Supplied

An imaginary building to house the Palestinian State, birds that need a permit to fly and a request for citizenship of a country that does not yet exist — these are some of the thought-provoking concepts presented in an exhibition hosted by the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada, in collaboration with the Sharjah-based Barjeel Art Foundation.

The show, titled “Home Ground: Contemporary Art from the Barjeel Art Foundation”, features important works by 12 leading Arab artists born in the Middle East and North Africa. The artworks, ranging from paintings and sculptures to photography, video and installations, explore universal themes of place, movement, identity, personal freedom, internal and external struggle, and the quest for a safe and secure home ground.

The exhibition brings together the individual experiences and stories of the artists to weave a narrative about the social, cultural and political history of the region and its impact on the lives of the people.

The Aga Khan Museum has been established by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, an agency of the Aga Khan Development Network, one of the largest private development agencies in the world. The museum’s mission is to foster a greater understanding and appreciation of the contribution that Muslim civilisations have made to world heritage.

Its permanent collection of more than 1,000 artefacts, including rare manuscripts, paintings, ceramics, glass, metalwork and scientific instruments, showcases the breadth of Muslim civilisations from the 8th century to the present.

Henry S. Kim, director and CEO of the museum, says, “The Aga Khan Museum is dedicated to advancing the values of pluralism by connecting cultures through the universally accessible language of art. Our exhibitions examine not only the history of art from Muslim civilisations, but also the art of today, revealing shared concepts and ideas that emerge from a common humanity.

“This exhibition is an extraordinary opportunity to introduce our visitors to the tremendous range of contemporary art coming out of the Middle East today. These artists are unflinching in the way they address contemporary issues. Their art challenges us to look at how societies are built and how private life is shaped by events that happen in the public sphere.”

The Barjeel Art Foundation, established by Sultan Sooud Al Qasimi, is an independent initiative whose primary aim is to contribute to the intellectual development of the arts scene in the Arab region by building a prominent, publicly accessible art collection in the UAE.

By hosting in-house exhibitions, lending artwork to international forums and producing print as well as online publications, the Foundation strives to serve as an informative resource for modern and contemporary art, and to foster critical dialogue around modern and contemporary art, with a focus on artists with Arab heritage internationally. This is the first time the Foundation is exhibiting a large portion of its collection in North America.

“We are proud to be associated with the Aga Khan Museum in bringing the first major contemporary Arab art exhibition to Toronto. This is an excellent opportunity to introduce art from the Arab region to a larger, international audience and to highlight the common ground that exists between the work of artists from North Africa and West Asia and the rest of the world.

“Although the artists presented in this exhibition are responding to very specific issues and events happening around them, many of the themes they tackle have universal relevance and will resonate with an international audience,” Al Qasimi says.

The show is curated by Suheyla Takesh, curator and exhibitions manager of the Barjeel Art Foundation. Explaining the theme and title of the show, she says, “Home ground is a phrase commonly used to denote the playing field a team is most accustomed to navigating. It can also refer to familiar territory and an intimate knowledge of something in a more general sense. This exhibition explores ways in which contemporary artists from the Arab world define, negotiate and re-establish their home grounds.

“It addresses struggles associated with navigating geopolitical barriers and explores ways in which identity is moulded by relationships with a particular geography. The works presented here have relevance beyond their individual contexts, touching upon themes and experiences that resonate on a global scale.”

The earliest work in the show is a painting of a potted cactus by Asim Abu Shaqra, created in 1989, a year before his death from cancer at the age of 28. The Palestinian artist was born in an Arab village in Israel and lived in Tel Aviv. For him, a cactus taken out of its natural habitat and placed in a pot symbolised his own experience as a Palestinian living within the confines of a Jewish state. His iconic cactus paintings thus make a powerful statement about identity and home ground.

Raafat Ishak’s “Responses to an Immigration Request from One Hundred and Ninety-Four Governments” was created between 2006 and 2009, and continues to be relevant in the context of the challenges faced by immigrants today. The artist, who emigrated from Egypt to Australia at the age of 14, is interested in themes of cross-cultural intersections and immigration rights.

This particular work was triggered by the Australian government’s policy of redirecting asylum seekers arriving by boat to detention centres on surrounding islands. As part of his exploration of questions of home and migration, the artist sent a standardised letter requesting citizenship to 193 governments.

He then graphically represented the responses or lack of responses through oil paintings on MDF board of abstracted flags and Arabic script. Ishak also sent a request to what he describes as a “non country or a future country”, which is represented by a blank board in the series of 194 works. The series compels viewers to think about the idea of home and the aspirations of those who strive with dogged determination to find a place they can call home.

Lebanese artist Mohammad-Saeed Baalbaki’s interest in exploring themes of belonging, exile and identity stems from the displacement forced on his family by the conflicts in Lebanon during his childhood and his move to Berlin in his youth.

In his “Heaps” series of paintings, disorderly piles of clothes, suitcases and other items become metaphors for displacement, loss and continuous movement, referencing belongings that are either left behind by people escaping war, or items kept ready in preparation for a quick escape.

The dark colours in his paintings became brighter after he finally made the decision to settle down in Berlin and build a home there. Thus, although his “heaps” are linked with flight and exile, they now also represent the hope of new beginnings.

Youssef Nabil also deals with the subject of migration and establishing oneself in a new environment in his poignant film “You Never Left”. Drawing on his own memories of moving from Cairo to Paris and then New York, he likens the experience of leaving home to that of death, followed by a period of mourning culminating in a rebirth in a different location that offers fresh hope.

Mona Hatoum’s work is also based on her own experiences of exile, first as a Palestinian refugee born and raised in Beirut, and then in the United Kingdom, where she was forced to stay on during a visit due to the outbreak of war in Lebanon.

Her piece in the show features the reassuring phrase “You are still here” sandblasted on to the reflective surface of a mirror. Through this confirmation of existence and survival, the artist addresses notions of displacement, separation, home and belonging and questions their impact on one’s identity and perception of self.

Also included in the show is a politically charged work by the artist, titled “Infinity”, where a group of toy soldiers arranged in a loop on an elegant table refers to the aimless and endless cycle of war in the world and the consequent disruption of ordinary family life.

Jerusalem-born Larissa Sansour, whose present “home grounds” are London and Copenhagen, has imagined an unusual solution to deal with the political and physical barriers faced by Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. In her satirical project “Nation Estate” comprising a video and digitally constructed images, she has visualised the Palestine Nation as a skyscraper, with each floor representing a different city.

Unlike the reality, where Palestinians have to cross innumerable Israeli checkpoints on their daily commutes, in Sansour’s sci-fi scenario they can simply take the elevator from one city to another. However, the cold sterile interiors of this futuristic building are painfully different from the lively, culturally rich and historic real cities.

The video, displayed in the show, follows the pregnant artist as she takes the elevator to her stark apartment, where elements of her Palestinian culture such as food are neatly stored in containers. It closes with her gazing out of the window upon the city of Jerusalem, her hand resting on her belly as she worries about the uncertain future.

Also on display are several prints from the series, such as “Olive Tree”, where she is seen watering an olive tree — a potent Palestinian symbol, growing out of the floor of her apartment.

Khaled Jarrar, who was born in Jenin and now lives and works in Ramallah, is equally innovative in exposing the absurdities and struggles of daily life for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. His “Volleyball” is made from concrete that he secretly scraped off the Separation Wall constructed by Israel.

The work is part of a series of sports-related concrete objects that was inspired by a conversation with children living near the wall, who complained about it encroaching on their playgrounds. The heavy, immobile, useless volleyball makes a subtle comment on the political games being played in the region, and the determination of the Palestinians to chip away at the obstacles that come in their way.

Jawad Al Malhi grew up in the Shufhat refugee camp in occupied east Jerusalem, and now lives in an apartment overlooking the camp, from where he observes the goings on in the camp. His monumental acrylic on canvas painting “Measures of Uncertainty VI” eloquently conveys the tense atmosphere in the camp and the internal struggle of the residents to find some direction and purpose in their challenging circumstances.

Manal Al Dowayan is well-known for the innovative ways in which she addresses issues of gender and the situation of women in contemporary Saudi society. Her piece in the show, “Suspended Together (standing dove and eating dove)”, questions the need for the artist and all female citizens of Saudi Arabia to obtain a travel permit from their male guardians when they wish to travel independently. It features a pair of white porcelain doves with travel permits imprinted on their wings.

For this project Al Dowayan collected travel permits from various Saudi women, including award winning scientists, doctors and artists, to create 200 such doves. The work highlights not only the absurd restrictions imposed on modern Saudi women, but also the illusion of freedom offered to women in many societies.

Iraqi master Dia Al Azzawi’s bronze sculpture depicts a fictional boy called “Handala”. Created in 1969 by Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al Ali, this barefoot boy wearing ragged clothes has become a symbol of Palestinian identity and defiance, as well as a pop icon in the Arab world.

In 1973 Al Ali began drawing the child with his back turned towards the audience in a rejection of the violence and the disappointing solutions to the Palestine-Israel conflict. Although the political situation remains unchanged today, by rendering him as a three-dimensional figure, Azzawi allows for the possibility to turn the figure around, while also protecting the boy from witnessing the violence by omitting to carve the eyes on his face.

Helsinki-based Iraqi artist Adel Abidin’s video “Memorial” depicts an alienated cow in an industrial urban setting, making an unsuccessful attempt to reunite with its herd by making a leap of faith across a broken bridge, and falling to its death.

The work is based on his memory of discovering a dead cow at the site of a bombed bridge in Baghdad during the Gulf War of 1991. It explores how ordinary life is violated by political events and examines our fear of isolation and estrangement, and the feeling of security that comes with belonging to a group.

“Mixed Water, Lebanon, Israel” by Charbel-joseph H. Boutros is simply a glass filled with water, placed on a shelf between two maps. The artist claims that the glass has equal amounts of water collected from Lebanese and Israeli sources, whose location is marked on the maps. The mixed water alludes to the homogenisation of identity resulting from displacement from one’s origins and history in a globalised world.

Another work by the artist, “From Water to Water”, is a documentation of the removal of some water from a pond, its transformation into a block of ice, and then its return to the bank of the pond, where it melts and return to its source. The work draws attention to the visible and imperceptible changes caused by displacement.

The museum has planned several programmes during the exhibition, including a curator’s tour by Takesh, a talk by Al Qasimi and a series of Arab Jazz performances by Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar.

Jyoti Kalsi is an arts enthusiast based in Dubai.

“Home Ground: Contemporary Art from the Barjeel Art Foundation” will run at the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, until January 3, 2016. For more information, visit agakhanmuseum.org