I recently had the opportunity to attend my first meeting as a new member of the board of trustees of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. It was a great learning experience as I sat in a room full of accomplished group of individuals.
I witnessed first hand the generosity of trustees, many of whom were Jewish and active in numerous initiatives in addition to the museum itself. The idea of participating in philanthropic causes is a noble gesture that persons across the world partake in.
However, doing so in the US has additional urgencies because of America’s ability in shaping the global identities, whether it was the soft power of Hollywood films or in the museum powerhouses such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York City.
The truth is much of what the world consumes and understands as popular culture takes place in the American cultural kitchen. And that is where we as Arabs and Middle Easterners must be present in order to positively influence the conversation and future plans.
In addition to learning from each other present, it gives us the opportunity to help in infusing American museums with our region’s art.
There are a number of Arabs who sit on boards of major American museums including Shaikha Hoor Al Qasimi who serves on the board of MOMA PS1, one of the most avant garde museums in the US, Lebanese tech pioneer Dolly Chammas who sits on the board of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Tehran-born businessman Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani who sits on the board of the MET. Recently I joined the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
We as Middle Easterners must be present in global museums to act as a bridge between not only the museums and trustees along with the larger museum family on one hand and the Arab world and greater Middle East region on the other.
There is a lot of work to be done. For example, although the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a few great works by Middle Eastern artists including Egypt’s Gazbia Sirri, Sudan’s Ebrahim Al Salahi, Iran’s Parviz Tanavoli none are currently on display and a few Middle East works hardly register when compared to the 1.5 million works it owns. But things are slowly changing, soon the MET will host a major exhibition of Iranian-American artist Siah Armajani thanks to champions of Middle Eastern arts such as Clare Davies.
New York’s Museum of Modern Art recently mounted an intervention following American President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban by rehanging their modern art galleries to include artists from countries that were affected including Sudan, Iraq and Iran. But there is no doubt that being present on boards of trustees and well as curators, funders and scholars is an essential component of diversifying these museum’s collections and what they display going forward.
Recently the Museum of Contemporary Art celebrated its 50th anniversary. As one of the most cutting edge museums in the US, and ranked amongst the top contemporary art museums there, it had unveiled a major exhibition of its collection that was built over the past half century. As part of the 50th anniversary, the We Are Here show works by Middle Eastern artists were as much part of the display as American and European artists.
A masterpiece by Syrian born Marwan titled The Knee (1967) is on display today, perhaps the only one owned by any American museum. Additionally displayed are works by Lebanon’s Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, Etel Adnan and Akram Zaatari as well as Iran’s Monir Farmanfarmanian and Jordanian Lawrence Abu Hamdan.
This hanging coincided with Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz’s retrospective and followed a solo show by Egypt’s Basim Magdy (both shows were partly supported by Barjeel Art Foundation) and an artist talk by Iran’s Shirin Neshat.
This flurry of Middle Eastern art was largely thanks to the forward thinking decision of the MCA board in its hiring of Omar Kholeif who was previously at London’s Whitechapel Gallery as Senior Manilow Curator of the MCA.
In fact the MCA in Chicago is so ahead of the curve that its shows are getting recognised even before they take place. A groundbreaking exhibition tilted Many Tongues, slated to take place in the autumn of 2019 and brings together post war art from North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia has been awarded the Sotheby’s Prize by stellar jury which allows the show to be realised.
At this point, it should not be uncommon to have Middle Eastern art as part of a permanent display. We must work to make the opposite, that of not having Middle Eastern art on display uncommon in museums in the US and around the world. And this begins by us being there.
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a UAE-based writer.