Latest Posts

History and Vision in Doha

Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, founded in 2010, is located in a magnificently renovated former school building in Education City in Doha. In possession of over 9000 individual art-works, the museum is one of the most specialised of its kind, holding a consortium of im-portant pieces from the vast collection of Sheikh Hassan bin Mohamed bin Ali Al Thani, the museum’s founding patron. The collection features work by many prominent Arab and African artists, including Farid Belkahia, Wafa al-Hamad, Ibrahim el-Salahi, Jassim Zaini and Hassan Sharif.
The important collection is currently marshalled by Abdellah Karroum, director of Mathaf since 2013. Karroum, an independent curator who founded the influential L’appartement 22 in Rabat, Morocco, in 2002, was appointed as the artistic director of the Marrakech Biennale in 2009. In his four years at the helm, he has become an instrumental force in re-defining the place and nature of the museum’s collection, positioning it as “an open stage that amplifies voices and ideas to connect the specific with the generic, the local with the global, the recycled with the new,” as he describes it.


Karroum sees the museum’s role as fermenting a critical discourse on curatorial and artistic production. “In times of crisis and conflict,” he says, “art and the debates it provokes are more necessary than ever for our societies.”
The museum’s collection is permanently displayed in the first-floor galleries, where viewers can witness the incredible diversity of artists who have played an active role in shaping Arab art history over the last century. The works on display range from figurative paintings by Baya Mahieddine, which explore the limitations she experienced under colonial rule in Algeria, to artists who have been elemental in shaping the art scene in their own countries, like Jassim Zaini, Jewad Selim and Mahmoud Mouktar.
The permanent display also includes the work of Emirati-born artist Hassan Sharif, who died last year at the age of 65. Sharif used natural materials, retrieved objects and local languages to discover a unique form of conceptual work unique to the Arab region at the time. Using hu-mour and irony, the artist was instrumental in paving the way for a broad Arab conceptualism to emerge in the late 1970s and early 1980s.


The mission of Mathaf remains today as a collecting institution, where works by the most cele-brated Arab artists can be displayed under one roof, without concern for their affiliations, schools or styles. As such, Mathaf is paving the way as one of the most progressive cultural voices in the Gulf and the Middle East more broadly. Focusing on artists who have been ac-tive in reshaping pan-Arab visual culture, the museum’s collection remains one of the most intellectually stimulating and culturally diverse in the region.
Thanks to Karroum’s directorial vision, with an eye towards establishing long-term cross-cultural connections, Mathaf is reshaping how collecting institutions can activate and benefit the local artistic community in an educational sense. With this in mind, Mathaf established a scholarship available to contemporary artists, allowing them to explore the museum’s vast modern and contemporary collection through a residency program in Doha. Thanks to its vi-sion, Mathaf has established itself as a key link in connecting various threads of modern Arab art history with contemporary artists active today.


A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Biennial & Museum Acquisitions #41, pages 124-129.

Witnesses to War

Catherine de Zegher combines the works of Francisco Goya and Farideh Lashai to provide a stunning look at similar conflicts that existed two centuries apart

When Spanish artist Francisco Goya created his devastating series of 82 prints The Disasters of War, between 1810 and 1820, he was protesting the horrific violence caused by the Spanish War of Independence against the Napoleonic occupation during the early 19th century. Over two centuries later, the late Iranian artist Farideh Lashai voiced a similar protest, in her contemporary manner, against the violence and oppression plaguing her native Iran.
In an inspired exhibition entitled Eyewitness: Francisco Goya & Farideh Lashai, the Museum of Fine Arts (MSK) in Ghent, Belgium, draws a chilling parallel between the work of the two artists, who lived centuries apart but conveyed a similar message of protest in different artistic media. “They enrich each other in this exhibition,” says Catherine de Zegher, the MSK’s director and curator of the show.
The MSK acquired an album of Goya’s The Disasters of War in 2014, and de Zegher had since been trying to show this grandiose work in an interesting manner. “I also had an ambition to show the work of Farideh Lashai,” she says, “and since she is not known in Belgium, I thought the exhibit would be a nice way to introduce her, while giving the work of Goya its contemporaneity.” De Zegher also wanted to give Lashai a level of recognition that she never received when she was living. “I’ve always been promoting the work of women, especially those who worked under difficult circumstances,” she says, “and now is the perfect moment to show Farideh’s subtle but critical art. She really deserves this international recognition.”
Like Goya, Lashai produced her art in a time of conflict. Through her drawings and prints, the artist combined Iran’s sweeping landscapes with the techniques of contemporary art to create a visual testament to the violence around her.


Eyewitness is built both around Goya’s seminal work and When I Count, There Are Only You … But When I Look, There Is Only a Shadow, which was Lashai’s final piece, produced between 2011 and 2013. “The timing of the work corresponded with the Arab Spring,” says de Zegher. “Her work is contemporary and at the same time inspired by a long history of Persian culture, poetry and literature. The manner in which Farideh connected elements from Eastern and Western cultures is absolutely fascinating, ranging from miniatures to abstract art, and from Rumi to German playwright Bertolt Brecht.”
Goya and Lashai both created exemplary artworks during eras of radical social upheaval, repression and censorship. And while their pieces chronicled the horrors of war, the two artists also infused humour, and ultimately hope, into their work. “I want viewers of the show to leave with a sense of hope and openness,” says de Zegher, “and with a sense that they can do something to make a change.”
Eyewitness: Francisco Goya & Farideh Lashai will travel to the Prado Museum in Madrid and the British Museum in London in 2017. As a companion to the exhibition, the MSK has also produced a beautifully illustrated catalogue featuring the work of both artists.


A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Biennial & Museum Acquisitions #41, pages 50-51.

Italian Pavilion

A highlight of the biennale, the Italian pavilion features just three artists this year, as opposed to up to 150 in previous editions. Curator Cecilia Alemani worked with Giorgio Andreotta Calò, Roberto Cuoghi and Adelita Husni-Bey to create The Magic World, a dramatic but eerie exhibition that lingers in the mind. Named for a 1948 book by Ernesto de Martino, and Italian anthropologist and philosopher who explored the cultural importance of magic, rituals and faith, the exhibition straddles the line between light and dark.


Cuoghi’s haunting Imitation of Christ consists of a vast workshop in which an endless series of life-sized models of a naked man are produced, laid out as though ready for burial. Housed in an inflatable mortuary and captured at varying stages of putrefaction, they don’t evoke feelings of worship but of revulsion and fascination. The artist’s nightmarish vision is grim, relentless yet compelling, a factory producing only death. Calò’s Untitled, The End of the World, is an enormous lake of black water in which the gallery’s vaulted roof is reflected. This mysterious lagoon is at once peaceful and unsettling, a secret world hidden between earth and sky, which evokes an ancient Roman myth about a pit that serves as a portal to both heaven and hell. Finally, Husni-Bey’s contribution is a video work, entitled The Reading, which shows a group of people attempting to explain the world by reading tarot cards, relating the symbols to issues including the environment, race, politics and energy.


A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Biennial & Museum Acquisitions #41, pages 78-79.

Skulptur Projekte Münster 2017

Now in its third iteration and taking place every ten years, Skulptur Projekte Münster began in 1977 and was initiated by Klaus Bußmann and Kasper König with the ethos of creating site-specific public art as it relates to the social and economic development of the city. Located in the North Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany, Münster has garnered a reputation as a distinct Cultural Centre alongside being a popular university town and the bicycle capital of the country. The city provides an intriguing site to engage with sculptural works in a variety of medium, in both open spaces within and around the city limits to allow possibilities for ‘activating discourses pertaining to the historical, architectural, social and aesthetics’ of its situational context. 35 invited artists look for a location in the city and realize their ideas – on one condition: the work should not be made to stay. All of the works are then presented together with satellite projects, a public collection and programming that includes talks, workshops, lectures, tours and events over its more than 100 days duration.

As one disembarks from the steps of Münster Central Station’s underpass, Emeka Ogboh’s sound installation Passage through Moondog continues the artists’ longstanding explorations of cities through their sounds smells and tastes. Here, he presents compositions and recitations of the blind musician Moondog who was buried in the city’s cemetery in 1999. It’s worth spending time here as the soundscape develops into varied layers, perhaps enhanced by drinking his home-brewed beer Quiet Storm which was available at various locations close by.

A short walk away is what seemingly looks like a normal tattoo studio by Michael Smith called Not Quite Under_Ground, an installation consisting of film and the opportunity for visitors to get custom-made tattoos by every artist who has ever participated in the sculpture project. Viewers sit and watch a film of over 65s getting and showing off their latest body modifications in the form of tattoos after an amiable day in Münster, the wealthy town of sculptures and indeed a draw for tourists of all kinds. Smith’s project is humorous interweaving themes of ageing, the youth culture, trends and ultimately, cultural tourism.

Ayşe Erkmen’s On Water saw the artist install a temporary submerged footbridge allowing visitors to walk on water and connected the busy restaurant-filled shoreline with its much more isolated industrial opposite. On the outskirts of town and worth the journeying were Jeremy Deller’s impressive 10-year project Speak to the Earth and It Will Tell You, an installation and extensive collection of garden diaries by Klein Garden members in Münster, and Pierre Hughe’s Pierre Huyghe: After ALife Ahead, a monumental sci-fi landscape in a disused ice rink.
Three days in the city might have felt sufficient but in hindsight, all of these artworks in all their forms of complexities and differentiations, from traditional sculptures to experiential installations (one experience activated by QR-Codes), transforms the city into an exciting encounter in at times unusual spaces that most certainly needs more time to fully engage with through multiple visits. However, Skulptur Projekte Münster is not as overwhelming as it might seem. It is a return to a much more slowed down and contemplative experience of engaging with art in the public realm that is mindful of the city’s heritage and subsequent transformations through time.


Information:

Skulptur Projekte Münster runs until 1 October 2017

Artistic director: Kasper König
Curators: Britta Peters, Marianne Wagner
Project director: Imke Itzen

https://www.skulptur-projekte.de/#/En/

by Jareh Das

Beyond Nostalgia

Sadik Kwaish Alfraji’s latest exhibition conjures the deeper questions behind a sense of place

With its fountains, small water features and cafés, Hadiqat al Umma was once a peaceful garden oasis in the centre of a bustling Baghdad. Around it thrummed traffic-filled streets that were home to theatres, cinemas and shops plying their trade in books and music. From the latter, sometimes, when the wind turned a certain way, the strains of legendary singer Umm Kalthoum would come wafting through the garden.
For Iraqi artist Sadik Kwaish Alfraji, the recollection of this place is entrenched in his memory, beginning with visits as a child in the 1970s and later passing through as a student on his way to the Institute of Fine Art. Nothing was quite the same though, after the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. “Hadiqat Al Umma still exists, but it’s not the same atmosphere,” says Alfraji, whose nostalgia for this garden informed his latest solo exhibition Once Upon A Time: Hadiqat Al Umma, which ran from March 4 to May 6 at the Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah.


This panoramic multi-media installation featured nine screens, on which Alfraji’s black-and-white charcoal animations were projected onto photographs. A closer inspection revealed that these photographs featured Alfraji’s face, as well as elements of artworks found in the garden: the Freedom monument of Jawad Saleem, the Revolution mural of Faeq Hassan and a sculpture by Khalid el Rahal. All three pay tribute to motherhood, and this was a theme also present in Alfraji’s installation. “If you look closely, you see a kind of story between a man and a woman who meet each other. You see them becoming a family, so even this female lover is going to be a mother,” he says.


Alfraji’s use of black and white is a recurring element, something he says he used a lot in the early 1990s in Baghdad. “Black and white was the best style to fit with my feelings. Yes, I was sad, but I was also angry about everything – the dictatorship, existence itself, society. Everything around me felt wrong,” he says. That he continues to use it is, he adds, because that person is still a part of him. “Maybe I am wearing a smile, but that person in Bagdad who left Bagdad is still inside me. This is why I’m talking about that time until now.”
Today Alfraji lives and works in Amersfoort, in the Netherlands, having left behind his native city in 1991, following the second Gulf war. His homeland has featured prominently in his work but for the artist this looking back at his roots is something more than nostalgia. “Yes, Hadiqat Al Umma is a place, but in the deep, behind this, my work does not belong to a place. I think I see myself as belonging to the major problems, questions and feelings of human beings,” he says.


Alfraji provides the analogy of a novel, saying that when you read it, you know the writer is describing a place, but ultimately it is about the ideas and the feelings. He recalls his previous exhibition The House That My Father Built (Once Upon a Time) at Mathaf in Qatar and observing two Japanese visitors who lingered for six hours. “This really surprised me,” he says. “When I got closer to them I saw they were crying. Why would people from Japan look at The House That My Father Built and cry? Because they didn’t see the house and they don’t know my story; this is what I mean.”
Although he claims that he is continually thinking of “the endings of things,” Alfraji is mulling the continuation of the sentiment behind The House That My Father Built and Hadiqat Al Umma. “I have a very strong feeling that I am going to make something with this series Once Upon a Time,” he says.

Interview by Rima Nasser.


A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Biennial & Museum Acquisitions #41, pages 46-49

Chinese Pavilion

Featuring work by contemporary artists Tang Nannan and Wu Jian’an and traditional artisans Wang Tianwen and Yao Huifen, the Chinese Pavilion was organised by artist, curator and professor Qiu Zhijie, who believes that “contemporary and traditional arts shouldn’t be separated.” Like many of the pavilions this year, the exhibition has a performative element, thanks to the work of the master shadow puppet carver Wang. Wang and Wu have collaborated many times in the past, creating complex installations from cut paper. Themed around the ocean and its delicate ecosystem, the pavilion demonstrated China’s awareness of issues surrounding climate change and sustainability, at a time when Donald Trump’s presidency in America is threatening global progress on combatting these issues.


Entitled Continuum — Generation by Generation, the exhibition mixes sculpture, painting, video, puppetry, installation and photography to explore the idea that artists form an unbroken line across generations from antiquity to the present day. Yao’s nine intricate pieces each feature a different embroidery style and up to 1000 different colours. Tang’s mesmerising black-and-white video work was made using calligraphy and ink painting and inspired by the landscapes of his native Taiwan. Wu and Wang’s collaborative shadow puppet show, The Heaven of Nine Levels, stands over five metres tall and more than three metres wide and includes stunning images of salamanders, frogs and birds with human faces, cut from layers of stretched leather. When the artists are not staging performances live, an ingenious system of mechanical devices is able to run an automated version of the performance.

by Irene McConnell.


A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Biennial & Museum Acquisitions #41, pages 76-77.

Documenta 14 | Kassel

Documenta 14 Arrives in Kassel Amidst Speculation Over Its Indented Aims and Outcomes

Kassel—As the centerpiece of Germany’s largest contemporary art exhibition, the city of Kassel this year brings together work by 160 artists from more than 50 countries, including a number of works by “artists who went through rather concrete experiences of displacement,” documenta 14 (d14) curator Adam Szymczyk told Reuters TV earlier this month. As with the Athens leg of d14, curators developed highly civic concepts and worked with an unprecedented number of artists whose collective output seeks to challenge dominant social, political and economic issues. Yet, such impulses remain overtly gestural and empty.

In Hiwa K’s installation, “When We Were Exhaling Images” (2017), made of vitrified clay pipes, fitted inside with furniture and various objects intended to serve as a social space where people could congregate and sleep, the project largely failed to come to terms with the artist’s intended aims. Having fled his native northern Iraq on foot in the early 1990s, Hiwa K had hoped to turn the project into a space where hospitality could be performed during d14, but the city council refused, citing health and safety reasons. Consequently, the project reflects documenta’s underlying failure—and the failure of contemporary art more generally—to respond to urgent global issues such as displacement.

Outside the Fridericianum, Marta Minujin brings together over 100,000 banned books, wrapped in plastic and placed on the facade of a replica of the Parthenon, which the artist collected by donation from all over the world. These were erected on the very site where, in 1933, the Nazis burned thousands of books in an attempt to purge Germany of so-called ‘degenerate’ influences. Above the entrance to the Fridericianum, Banu Cennetoğlu remixed the letters above the entrance of the museum to read ‘Being Safe is Scary’. In the center of Kassel, Olu Oguibe created a massive obelisk containing the words “I was a stranger and you took me in,” written in English, German, Turkish and Arabic. Rather than practically dealing with political, social or economic disparities, these works beckon to be seen as monumentalizing them, serving to do little more than assuage the egos of curators, critics and the artists themselves.

Over at the Westpavillon (Orangerie), Antonio Vega Macotela created an outdoor installation based on the economics of alt-currencies, in a project that is perhaps d14’s most useful and practical. The project takes the form of a mill that visitors can literally push to mint new coins that are stored underneath the installation. Entitled “The Mill of Blood” (2017), the project produces both a metallic coin and an accompanying digital coin based on the bitcoin protocol. Later, the artist will make fungible the digital currency through an initial-coin-offering (ICO), which will be based on a white-paper produced during a conference to be held during d14, where the artist invited crypto-currency experts and activists to debate the merits and structure of the currency and how it will be delivered.

The ubiquity of such works consecrates pre-packaged notions of art’s social responsibility. Yet, little more than two months after d14 closes, the city of Kassel will host an international biennale for the weapons industry, which opens this November. And so it goes: even with the intended aim of promoting socially and politically engaged artworks, little attention is given by either curators or artists to the fact that Kassel remains one of the biggest arms manufacturers and exporters in all of Europe. On my first night in Kassel, night one of the d14 press preview, heading back to my campsite I saw a newly manufactured light armoured tank being loaded onto a truck, destined likely for some theatre of war abroad. The simple and problematic situation of the arms industry and the funding documenta receives indirectly from them (though the city council’s local income and property tax), signals just how neutered art has become. Above all, d14 is masked by these contradictions, problems which conflate political engagement by wrapping it in the shroud of art, neutralizing any meaningful potential for politically subversive work the process.

Documenta 14 continues in Kassel at various locations through September 17.

The Genius of Jean Royère

Design expert Guillaume Cuiry remembers the man whose talent and vision transformed the palaces and hotels of the Middle East

Jean Royère (1902-1981) may be known as the “Décorateur à Paris” but his oeuvre influenced many creative industries. His penchant for sensory confidence came to fruition in thousands of drawings, developing iconic pieces such as the L’Ours Polaire (Polar Bear) sofa and his Elephant chair. Describing the “cramped feeling” of the typical bourgeois interior after the Second World War, Royère fanned out abroad to set up shops throughout Europe, the Middle East and South America, calling it a “great excuse for travelling.” From Cairo, to Beirut, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iran, Royère dressed the noble halls of shahs, princesses and presidents in the 1950s.

It is probably because he travelled from his childhood to many countries and mastered English well that Royère chose to develop his activities outside France. While most French designers respond to orders from abroad, few chose to settle overseas. Jean-Henri Jansen once had an agency in Cairo. Mathieu Matégot opened an office in London and set up a factory in Casablanca. Royère directed up to seven branches abroad, spread over three continents – the Near East, Latin America and Europe. Beginning in 1945, when he made his first regular stays in Egypt, his professional activities outside France occupied him several months each year. by the end of his career he had travelled all over Europe, visited all of the Middle East and crossed the two Americas.

His participation in the exhibition of the French Decorative Arts in Cairo in 1938 led to a decoration project for the villa of the President of the Bourse, who decided to set up in Egypt. During this journey, where Royère attended the marriage of King Farouk, he met the principal personalities of Cairo and Alexandria. In 1946 he opened a gallery in the most beautiful part of Cairo, adjacent to the bookstore run by one of his French friends, Nelly Vaucher-Zanari.

Inaugurated on December 6, 1946, by the Minister of Public Instruction, in the presence of the French ambassador, this gallery was a great success and attracted all the high society of Egypt, included King Farouk, whom he regularly saw at the events given in his honour by the Europeans, but especially at fashionable nightclubs such as the Auberge des Pyramides.  Royère was charged with decorating the king’s private apartments at the palace. According to Royère, it was traditional in the East for the sovereign to have a suite at his disposal in the poshest hotel. He also designed two mythical palaces, the Shepherds and the Semiramis, whose success ensured that he soon had the largest hotels in the Middle East in line for his decorating skills. His clients included high-profile celebrities, such as Boutros Boutros-Ghali, art-world celebrities and, above all, leaders of companies dependent on French interests.

In 1948, in order to welcome Royère’s achievements in taking French art abroad, the state entrusted him with the fitting-out of the reception rooms of the Consulate-General of Alexandria. For this official place he imagined a luxurious ensemble, without superfluous fantasy, from rich materials such as sycamore and bronze. In the vestibule, he applied his Eiffel Tower motif to the design of a console and a pair of stools. His extravagance extended to the carpet of the dining room, with woven tufts of wool, and to the light fixtures, in particular the huge Hedgehog chandelier in the big living room.

At the French Cultural Centre in Cairo, he furnished a living room in which one of the walls is decorated with a fresco that was painted by Jean Cocteau while he was accompanying Jean Marais on a theatrical tour in the Middle East.

The Kasr-el-Nil street gallery closed in 1952, when the fall of King Farouk deprived Royère of a part of his clientele, but the Egyptian enthusiasm for Royère’s creations quickly found an echo in other Middle Eastern countries. In 1947, the year following the opening of the Cairo gallery, the architect Nadim Majdalani proposed that Royère settle in Beirut.

In 1955, Majdalani had the Galerie L’Atelier built in the Avenue Sleiman-Boustani, where the works of Royère were permanently exhibited. His success in Lebanon, where he stayed several times a year and which was undoubtedly the country that most seduced him, resulted from his perfect understanding with Majdalani. Thanks to his many contacts, Majdalani introduced Royère to the Beirut community and made him the most sought-after decorator in Lebanon.
As he had in Egypt, he decorated several prominent hotels in Beirut, including the Bristol, the Saint Georges and the Capitol. For the latter’s 120 rooms, Royère settled upon a sober style of furnishing, in surroundings decorated in pink, blue and pale green. His style was subtler in the reception rooms, lounges, hall, bar, dance floor, library and the two dining room. The floor was covered with Italian marble slabs whose design – chevrons, clovers, crosses or crenellations – was different in each room. The walls, painted in shimmering colours, were adorned with straw and bamboo. Furniture and decorative elements were entirely made by the artisans of Beirut. But this delicate ensemble did not resist the bombs that ravaged the country in the ’80s. The same was true of the Bristol and the Saint Georges.

Since then, Royère has responded to orders from Jordanian and Syrian customers, such as the Arab Bank in Baghdad, for which he collaborated with the ironworker Raymond Subes, or the restaurant of the Ambassador Hotel in Jerusalem.

In 1955, on the occasion of his marriage with Princess Dina, the young King Hussein of Jordan commissioned Royère to decorate his private palace on the shores of the Dead Sea.
Attempting to open galleries in more remote regions, Royère began his first trips to Iran in the early 1950s. He recalled his visit to Isfahan in a report, published in Le Décor d’aujourd’hui, on the treasures of the architecture of the city and more particularly the decorations of bricks and mirrors. In 1954, during an exhibition of his drawings at the Faculty of Fine Arts of Tehran, where he gave a lecture on interior architecture, he met Mohsen Foroughi. A Francophone trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and signatory in 1949 of the Manifesto of the Union of Modern Artists (UAM), Foroughi was the personal architect of the Shah of Iran. Married to a French woman, he came from one of the oldest families in Iran. His father, a former prime minister, was even entitled to a national funeral.

Thanks to Foroughi, Royère was introduced to the court. The Shah, his daughter Shahnaz and his two sisters Chams and Ashraff, ordered the development of their private apartments in the family residence of Sa’ad Abad. On the occasion of the Shah’s wedding to Farah Diba in 1958, Royère created a private lounge, a boudoir, a winter garden, and a cinema with a bar. For Princess Shahnaz, daughter of the Shah and Queen Fawzieh, sister of King Farouk, he made an amusing garden with furniture whose seats were covered with Paule Marrot’s fabrics and topped with a canopy.

The models of these achievements were presented in his gallery in Paris and at the Memorial Union Ballroom in New York in 1963. Thanks to these prestigious orders, which allowed him to open in Tehran what was no longer an agency, but a real branch, Royère acquired an international reputation.

In 1959, the decoration of the Béharéstan Palace, the Iranian Senate, consecrated his career in the Middle East. Built in Tehran by Mohsen Foroughi and Heydar Ghiai, this building, one of the most important constructions in the region, needed to accommodate the 900 senators sitting in the chamber. Aside from André Bloc, who created two monumental sculptures 25 metres high on both sides of entry, and Gilbert Poillerat, who drew all the ironworks, Royère realised the whole of the interior decoration, installing seats in gilded aluminium trimmed with grenai leather in the Shah’s office. At this time Royère was at the peak of his success and creativity.

To answer his orders abroad, Royère had his furniture made on site. Manufacturing in France would have increased delivery times and hindered the smooth running of construction sites. Moreover, he found skilled and cheap labor that in the countries in which he was established.
In an article entitled “The Madness of French Prices”, Royère protested against the exorbitant costs in France, reporting that manufacturing was 30 to 40 percent cheaper in Beirut at the end of the war and that this gap had doubled by 1953. In Egypt, where he worked with a company headed by his representative Gabriel Chamma, all the furniture for the villas in Alexandria and Cairo was manufactured locally. The same went for Lebanon, where he trained craftsmen capable of meeting his standards.

“From the point of view of work,” he says, “I have found here carpenters whom I have endeavoured to make into cabinet makers, and I must admit that I have met, in addition to the best will, real collaborators.”

All furniture for the Middle East was created in Beirut. It was Lebanese craftsmen who made the furniture for King Saud, Prince Faisal, King Hussein of Jordan and the Arab Bank of Baghdad.
Some journalists saw in these prestigious orders the renaissance of the Lebanese handicraft tradition. Several names have come down to us, like those of the carpenter Mitri Daher or the upholsterer Raouf Samara, who made the furniture for the Capitol.

The commercial success of Jean Royère in Lebanon inspired a few craftsmen, who took up certain characteristics of his style and went so far as to produce near-identical models that only certain finishing details betray. Installed in apartments or villas that have been fitted out, they were carried out without endorsement by their suppliers, such as the furniture workshop Harem, which offered furniture imitating the style of the master.

In this period Royère’s name was cited more than 500 times in more than 400 titles spread over 34 countries on the five continents. Without doubt, his work and creations realised in the Near and Middle East greatly contributed to Royère’s fame on an international level. What would have happened without the contribution of this region, which, better than anyone else, understood the extent and power of his talent?

by Guillaume Cuiry


A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Biennial & Museum Acquisitions #41, pages 140-143.

Equivalent Violence: Hiwa K’s Don’t Shrink Me to the Size of a Bullet

Material detritus of war transforms into a receptacle of sound; sound intervenes revealing the interconnectivity of conflict—these are some of the motifs embedded within Hiwa K’s practice, which often uses poetic juxtapositions to make visible the refrain of violence. Part of the generation of refugees from Kurdish Iraq to escape in the 90’s, his work often is about transit and diaspora. Such ideas lay the grounds for the survey Don’t Shrink Me to the Size of a Bullet at KW in Berlin from June 2nd to August 13th, an expansive exhibition showing the arc of the artist’s oeuvre. One of the most poignant works, This Lemon Tastes of Apple, 2011 is a documented intervention the artist performed in the last days of civil protest in Sulaymaniyah.

In it, the artist plays a haunting tune on a harmonica, taken from the 1968 spaghetti Western Once Upon a Time in the West, reminding us that the state sponsored violence in Iraq is supported by the image of the West. The title, This Lemon Tastes of Apple, references a brutal gas attack by Saddam Husain’s forces in 1968 against the Kurds, where the taste permeating the air was apple. Hiwa K, thus, draws attention to the facsimiles of deceptive mythologies perpetrated by the regime—past and present—as evidenced in the guttural memories of the victims whose recollections of vast pain are symbolized by the taste of the air. Such poetics, often lost in work about trauma, are essential for Hiwa K. Similarly liquefying in its breakdown of locality, The Bell Project, 2015 shown with What the Barbarians did not do, did the Barbernini, makes visible the material of war in Iraq by transforming its decay into metal for bells in Italy. In one scene, a small boy, working in the smelting yard in Northern Iraq, points at a large aircraft and says how he wishes he could shoot it down and smelt the metals to create a new aircraft: to send it back to where it came from. The project literalizes the global nature of war often organized in an import/export system of organization, similar to the flow of capital. In another work Moon Calendar (Iraq), 2007 the artist is seen rehearsing a tap dance while in the midst of visiting Amna Souraka, the site where Saddam Hussein tortured political prisoners. The horrific details of the site percolate over the rhythmic tapping of the artist’s shoes.
Overall, the exhibition shows the production of an equivalence of relations, often manifested through Hiwa K’s own body, by asking the viewer to reconceive of their point of vantage to global warfare, often left to media circuits in the West.

Lebanese pavilion | Zad Moultaka

In the Lebanese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Zad Moultaka looks back 4000 years to reflect on the contemporary Near East and its idols

Lebanon didn’t participate in the last edition of the Venice Biennale, but it makes a return this year with an ambitious pavilion that reflects not just on the history of Lebanon, but of the entire Near East. Conceived by artist and composer Zad Moultaka and curated by Emmanuel Daydé, the pavilion is entitled Šamaš, after the god of the sun and of justice worshipped by the ancient Babylonians. The installation reflects on the ancient and inspiring history of the region, as well as the tragic reality of thousands of years of conflict. Fittingly, it takes place in the old Venetian civil and military shipyard of the Venetian fleet, the Aresenale Nuovissimo.

Moultaka decided to take as his starting point the Lament for Ur a Sumerian poem dating from around 4000 years ago, which “remembers for the first time the destruction of a brilliant city in the Middle East,” he explains. “Surviving people at that time gathered to weep this lament near the destroyed walls of Ur — the city Abraham is supposed to have left at nearly the same time to go to Canaan,” an area that corresponds to modern-day Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Jordan. Moultaka and Daydé wanted to draw parallels between this ancient act of destruction and mourning and modern Middle Eastern history.

“This lament has no age, and could have been sung in Beirut during the war or more recently in Aleppo,” says Moultaka, “because who is the god we worship nowadays if not the airplane bombers coming from the sky?”

Moultaka conceived a physical construct for this piece before beginning to work on the sound element. “I started with the architecture of the piece, which is supposed to be a modern temple of Šamaš,” he explains. The artist placed the motor of an airplane against a golden wall, made up of thousands of coins, to symbolise a modern incarnation of the Golden Calf, a symbol of idol worship in the Bible.

“Leading to the motor, I imagine a choir of 32 voices trying with difficulty to sing the Hymn to Šamaš, while we can hear a plane flying over us,” he says. “Escaping from the motor itself, I recorded the pure voice of three children, foretelling the Lament for Ur as if it was a future text.” He likens these three innocent voices to the Babylonian youths Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who refused to worship a golden idol and were thus cast into a pit of fire but did not die.

“I didn’t want to speak only for Lebanon but for the all Near East,” Moultaka says. “It tells the never-ending story of war in that land since the destruction of Ur, the Syrian war seeming to have taken the place of the Lebanese Civil War… The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi — which inspires me to consider the airplane motor as a steel erected to a new god — is considered the first code of laws ever written. Western civilisation is deeply rooted in the Middle East. Šamaš remembers that the idea of justice comes from the East. At the same time, we have forgotten justice to worship only the light that shines — and this light is the light of bombing.”

Moultaka’s work reflects on millennia of destruction and of tragedy, but ultimately his message is one of hope. “Šamaš was the sun god of justice worshipped by the powerful king Hammurabi in Babylonia around 1750 BC,” he says. “At that time in ancient Mesopotamia, and especially in Ur, it was the god of moon and time, Sîn, who was most worshipped. Wishing to be a just king, Hammurabi preferred to dedicate his power to Šamaš. With him, the eternity of time ends to create the time of civilisation and mankind. I think we need to bring back this god of justice under the sun in our unjust land.”


A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Biennial & Museum Acquisitions #41, pages 90-91.