New YorkCue Art Foundation |
الفكرة ذكرى / A thought is a memory CUE Art Foundation |
March 23 – May 13, 2023
The group exhibition الفكرة ذكرى / A thought is a memory curated by Noel Maghathe and on view at CUE Art Foundation includes work by four artists, Zeinab Saab, Kiki Salem, Nailah Taman, and Zeina Zeitoun, who have lineages tracing to the “Arab world.” The artists demonstrate playful means of creation through a variety of mediums, highlighting their personal, and by association collective, positions of fluidity and rootedness. In positing that the two notions work together, rather against each other in the process of building selfhood, community, and culture, the exhibition aims to expand what is meant by the umbrella term, “Arab world” and the potential for worldbuilding outside of the confines of geographically specific modes of creation.
Upon entering the space, audiences first encounter Visual Decadence (2020–22) by Zeinab Saab, composed of eighteen 5 × 7-inch works on paper, an indulgent and absorbing exploration of color, repetition, and optical illusions. Bright magenta strips of paint applied directly to the wall between their frames section off the individual paintings, forming a grid reminiscent of a tic-tac-toe board. The paintings themselves are made up of repetitive shapes, such as squares and circles, creating patterns. Though each painting is confined within borders, the visual worlds they present are expansive and mesmerizing. In contrast, three larger paintings by Saab placed alongside Visual Decadence, boast individual titles. You Wanted Femininity, But All I Have is Fire (2022) riffs on digital gradients seeping from magenta to yellow then magenta again, while Can’t a Girl Just Spiral in Peace? (2022), mimics a pixelated JPG of a green and purple spiral. Saab subverts the medium of painting by introducing this suggestion of digital visual language and pairing it with whimsical titles that open up portals of investigation into gender, femininity, and conventional modes of artmaking.
Kiki Salem's digital animations projected on muslin showcase how newer technologies can be used to imbue material traditions with contemporary meaning. Salem draws inspiration from shapes and patterns found in Islamic architecture and embroidery, derived from her Palestinian heritage, and brings them to life in the digital world. In FOLLOW THE LEAD(ER), (2022) she plays with a diamond-and-spade pattern found in Islamic tiling, using animations in various color schemes like shades of green and purple, orange and gold projected on a handmade screen hung from the ceiling. In What is Destined For You Will Come to You Even if it is Between Two Mountains (2021), Salem’s animation originates at the eight-pointed star of Jerusalem where vibrant, pulsating compositions of shifting shapes stem from a red center and morph into other colors. Through dynamic movement, these ancient symbols are brought to life.
Utilizing a variety of materials such as upcycled fabrics, poly-fill, duct tubing, Sculptamold, and acrylic paint, Nailah Taman based their sculptures on motifs pertaining to their Egyptian and Arab identity. Etel’s Sigils (2022) takes glyph-like symbols from the late Lebanese American writer and artist Etel Adnan’s 1989 book-length poem, The Arab Apocalypse, and weaves them together into an interconnected web of pastel-colored shapes in space. Some of the pictographs found in Etel’s glyph-poem are ancient symbols that have been used throughout history, while others the poet imagined herself. Plushieglyphs (2021), a series of five stuffed figures made with upcycled fabrics and packed with poly-fill, extend this exploration of glyphs, borrowing from Adnan’s language. Through these sculptural pseudo-letters, Taman reimagines language as an apparatus to express the inexpressible through language, especially when language becomes deeply entangled with colonial histories and diasporic communities.
Zeina Zeitoun’s work explores mediums most closely linked to memory: film and photography. In digital collages, the artist pieces together visuals and memories from her visits to Lebanon, reorganizing moments captured on film, and staging them in different settings. In Wajih Zeitoun (2023), a man’s form is cut out of a photograph, leaving behind just his silhouette. Zeitoun has then placed the cutout right next to his ghostly shape, offering an insight into the ephemeral nature of memories. She reinterprets singular points in time to create new narratives that can exist outside of the confines of time and place.
Etel Adnan wrote in her 2016 collection of prose and poetry, Night, that “memory is a storage room.” Extending this visual analogy, الفكرة ذكرى / A thought is a memory asks us to imagine what the effects of disruptions of displacement, political upheaval, and migration can have on memories, and how we might take agency over them. By using certain conventions of Arab culture (pattern making, hand embroidery, repetitive motions) and embedding them in playful and lively work across a range of mediums, these four artists create new narratives, transcending boundaries of geography and time, claiming new spaces of exploration, and bringing a fresh twist to what is considered conventional Arab artmaking. They layer experiences that are at once personal and political, individual and collective, negating any confinement to “place” that mainstream media and discourse tries to ascribe to the “Arab world” and proving that it is possible to live out one’s identity while also refusing to be confined by it. By taking forms and patterns from the visual traditions of their lineages and divorcing them from geographical location, the notions of identity and community become everchanging, expansive, and mutable.