For Art’s Sake

PAINTING HISTORY: The Short Century exhibit at Sharjah Art Museum will remain open until the end of the year.

An art exhibit in Sharjah reflects the course of a short century

BY Leila Hatoum

Different art appeals to different people. Many are attracted by colors and techniques used to create an art piece while for some, an artist’s name is enough of an appeal.

I am charmed by the story behind the painting; the feelings of the artist and why they adopt similar techniques to form their own school or trend, be it in painting, sculpting, or even poetry.

What makes some paintings more interesting than others? What compels you to gaze at a piece of art for longer and eventually appreciate it—or not?

Would you be more compelled to see a painting if you knew the artist had lost his hand while catching a grenade as a boy? It may have resulted in the loss of his arm but did not impact his talent.

This is the story of renowned Algerian artist Mohammed Issiakhem, who helped design his country’s currency, and did in fact lose his hand in the 1940s when he was just a teenager. Then, he took a grenade which also threatened the lives of other family members.

Issiakhem’s “Femme et Mur,” or “Woman and Wall” painting is one of his most interesting works I have seen.

And I have only seen one at the Barjeel Art Foundation’s most recent exhibition The Short Century, currently at Sharjah Art Museum.

But you only need to see one of his paintings to recognize his talent. I would have loved to have seen more but this artist is so highly regarded in Algeria that they try to prevent his work from leaving the country.

The painter’s Amazigh roots have influenced his work; the woman in his painting “Femme et Mur” has donned traditional Amazigh garments. The indigenous touch in North African artists’ work cannot be missed, much like the paintings of Ahmed Cherkaoui, a Moroccan modernist who was influenced by Amazigh tattoos and alphabets when producing his painting in 1965, also displayed at the exhibition.

Like Cherkaoui, Madiha Omar, too incorporated the alphabet in her art work. She started in the 1940s what is known today as Hurufiyya (literary letterism), making her arguably the most import ant Arab artist of the 20th century.

Omar was studying in Washington when she started experimenting with letters, and under the encouragement of her professors, she created an art form using the shape of the letter.

This trend paved the way for artists like Sudan’s Ahmed Shibrain, the calligrapher and painter from Khartoum’s school of Hurufiyya.

Like Issiakhem, Omar and Demerdjian, the Middle East region in general and the Arab world in particular, has seen hundreds of artists with interesting stories to share from the era they have lived in, the hardships they faced; their fears, hopes and aspirations—all painted on canvas, some bluntly and others in a more subtle way.

Imagine a Nubian woman, sitting on the terrace of her farm, gazing at the endless horizon before her. Rich golden earrings hang from her ears, and a pearl necklace and ornaments decorate her neck, betraying her financial status, and behind her, two pyramids rise to the sky.

“She is probably form upper Egypt. Wearing jewelry, she is clearly well to do financially,” Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, the foundations’s founder, tells me as I try to steer my gaze away from Ervand Demerdjian’s “Nubian Girl.” I wonder what that woman, whose veil barely covers her hair, was thinking.

In the Arab world, it is rare to see portraits of well-to-do Nubian women, especially from the era which Demerdjian, an Egyptian artist with Armenian-Turkish roots, lived in between the 1870s and 1930s.

Qassemi narrates how he managed to buy the piece from one of the region’s top art collectors “directly.”
Given what I have heard about the lengths art collectors will go to in order to secure rare pieces, it is clear to see why Qassemi is proud of this piece.

The beautiful contradiction in the paintings produced by Arab artists over the span of 70 years is quite remarkable.

Unlike classic artists who opted for the calmer landscape or regular portraits, Kadhem Haydar, an Iraqi artist opted for creating more sophisticated paintings, where one has to read behind the brush’s strokes to understand the meaning.

As I stood in front of his painting of 10 white horses and one green horse, I was finally able to understand that it symbolized Karbala’s battle, with the green horse representing the martyred Imam. The blood-red sun portrayed a very different visual. It doesn’t look controversial at first, but when you look closely, one understands the meaning.

There are tens of other interesting pieces that I could spend hours writing about, but it is best to experience the art for oneself.

The Short Century exhibition covers art from this region from the turn of the 20th century to the end of the Gulf War in 1991.

That space of time, has witnessed wars, short renaissance periods, industrial revolutions, the rise in nationalistic movements and the fall of regimes, all of which have impacted the body of art produced here.

From landscape and people, to abstract paintings, cubism, calligraphy, and sculptures, the art work in this exhibition is divided, not by the time it was produced, but rather by the themes it reflects.

As Barjeel’s describes it: “Historical periods are not defined by calendar dates, but by significant events that mark the end of one era and the beginning of the next. The 20th Century is ‘The Short Century,’ a term popularized by the historian Eric Hobsbawm for an era that saw many of the most dramatic and extreme shifts in human history.”

Editors’ note: This article has been updated with the correct spellings/names of some of the featured artists. In addition, the original article has been updated for accuracy regarding Issiakhem and Huruffiya. Newsweek Middle East regrets the error. 

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