Exhibits At Yale, Lyman Focus On Life In The Arab World

The Middle East is on everyone's mind these days, but what does the average American really know about the region, beyond the political rhetoric from U.S. politicians and spot news reports? Two exhibits in the state right now focus on different aspects of life in the Arab world.

The Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven is helping the university celebrate the 175th anniversary of Arabic studies by showing modern art from four Middle Eastern countries. All reflect a time in the mid-20th century of self-determination and a search for national self-identity among countries each with their own histories, cultures and artistic idiosyncracies.

A show at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London focuses on carpet makers from Afghanistan, who have been inserting images of warfare and strife into their traditional hand-woven rugs for decades. The trend picked up steam in the wake of the Soviet-Afghan war (1979-1989) and later reflected the U.S. military presence in that country.

Yale University Art Gallery

From the 1950s to the 1980s, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Egypt experienced an artistic renaissance, influenced by those countries' breaks from colonialism and by artistic movements brewing overseas. Artists from those countries went to Europe for training and exposure to new ideas and returned to their homes to create art that, while reflecting distinct national identities, showed the mark of abstraction, fauvism, cubism, futurism, dada and surrealism.

"The combined their interests in history, folklore and sociopolitical events into a unique aesthetic," said Frauke Josenhans, the Yale University Art Gallery's assistant curator of modern and contemporary art. "There was a dialogue, a transfer of ideas."

All 19 of the artworks in the show at Yale are on loan from the Barjeel Art Foundation in the United Arab Emirates.

A 1964 piece by Iraqi artist Dia Azzawi, "Temple Priests," reflects historic Iraq in its evocation of ancient Sumerian architectural reliefs, but also Cubism. Lebanese Paul Guiragossian, influenced by Byzantine icons and trained in Florence and Paris, straddles the line between representational and abstract art with an untitled 1967 oil on canvas depicting four women.

Political and cultural winds of change, both hopeful and sad, are evoked in several pieces. In 1958, Mahmoud Hammad of Syria created "Memory of the first of February: The Arab Unity," a hopeful vision of the new United Arab Republic, which united Egypt and Syria between 1958 and 1961. A powerful mother figure holds two children, who reach out for help.

In Egyptian Hamed Ewais' "The Guardian of Life," the large protective figure takes on a more gloomy scenario: the loss in the Arab-Israeli War in 1967. A looming guardian holding a machine gun in one hand holds his other hand protectively over a crowd of people. Egyptian Effat Naghi, commissoned in 1966 to chronicle the building of the Aswan Dam, captured both the infrastructural complexity of the project and the disruption of life of those who lived in its path.

Josenhans said many people are becoming more aware of Middle Eastern modern art for two reasons. "People are thinking about global modernism. Way too long, the focus has been on the Western side of modernism," she said. She added that the recent strife in the Middle East has had some alarming consequences, with artifacts damaged or destroyed. "There is danger there for archaeology and museums," she said, adding, "A lot of artists are living in exile because they want liberty and freedom of expression."

Lyman Allyn

For centuries, makers of traditional Afghan woolen rugs have favored recurring designs of flowers, animals and geometric patterns, framed by a wide border with contrasting diagrams. But in the decades since Soviet troops moved in to the capital city of Kabul on Dec. 24, 1979, some rug makers have cast aside those motifs in favor of artistically placed arrangements of grenades, missiles, handguns, helicopters and countless Kalashnikov rifles, with their distinctive curved magazines. Some of these patterns are so subtly incorporated into the overall rug aesthetic that they can be identified as armaments only upon close study. Others proclaim their weaponry imagery clearly: a machine gun popping out of Uncle Sam's hat, a Communist hammer-and-sickle motif under a line of tanks.

"From Combat to Carpet," curated by Annemarie Sawkins and Enrico Mascelloni, showcases this unique contemporary art legacy. In this nation, unrest has been so constant — at the hands of the Soviets, and before them the British, and after them the United States, with rebels trying to fend off the foreigners at all times — that munitions are fully embedded into civilian life as a visual reference point. In Afghanistan, tanks and guns are used in school math books for counting exercises. In those textbooks, "It is also not uncommon to find a question that asks one to consider the muzzle velocity of a Kalashnikov and the distance between a Russian combatant and a mujahid," Sawkins writes in the exhibit's catalog.

This weaponry imagery has made its way into way into rugs created — from raising of sheep to hawking in the marketplace — by tribal families whose lives are constantly disrupted by discord. Most tribespeople are illiterate, Sawkins says, so visual expression is the only way to communicate the realities of their daily lives. Nonetheless, fewer than 1 percent of Afghan rugs have incorporated war motifs, making them a rare and distinctive sub-genre in the universe of both fiber art and political expression.

The exhibit is divided into two galleries, the first focused on maps and cityscapes of Afghanistan and the second on more blatant war imagery. The cityscapes and maps, however, show the influence of constant military activity. A world map rug has hand grenades at the bottom and one "cityscape" shows a military base with high walls and helicopters and planes flying overhead. "These rugs are a reflection of modernism. They're a break from traditional tribal rugs, which have none of these modernistic motifs," Sawkins said in an interview. "One rug has two dams that are the direct result of capital investment in the country, which created a higher standard of living because people got electricity more than a couple hours a day. It fueled business. The military-industrial complex was behind all of it."

The second gallery begins with rugs glorifying military rulers of old. Other rugs adapt the old motifs with new images. A crude map of Afghanistan is dominated by a large figure holding weapons, surrounded by helicopters, machine guns and hand grenades, while to the south, camels peacefully transport families and to the north, in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, all former Soviet republics, ominous activities loom.

On another rug, a border populated with planes frames four enormous Kalashnikovs, which surround a row of tanks. A brown-toned rug artfully alternates big trucks with helicopters and guns.

Two odd entries in the exhibit feature geishas and the people in their worlds, who hold musical instruments that look somewhat like Kalashnikovs.

MODERN ART FROM THE MIDDLE EAST is at Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St. in New Haven, until July 16. artgallery.yale.edu.

FROM COMBAT TO CARPET: THE ART OF AFGHAN PRAYER RUGS is at Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St. in New London, until May 14. lymanallyn.org.

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