This summer the New Museum staged the most ambitious U.S. exhibition to date of contemporary art from the Arab world. The show's title came from a 1976 film by Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin and Anne-Marie Miéville that began as pro-Palestinian agitprop but developed into a dense essay on representation. One senses that curator Massimiliano Gioni and his team adopted the film as their cynosure after running headlong into the complexities of their own undertaking. The show's original title, "Yalla" ("come on")—picture a Latin American-themed exhibition called "Vamanos"—was wisely abandoned, along with almost any pretense to an overarching thesis. Although "Here and Elsewhere" coalesced around several loosely entangled themes, its impact derived primarily from individual artworks, many of the more remarkable of which were video- or photography-based.
As in the title film, emphasis often fell on the role played by the dissemination of images in the construction of personal, cultural and political identities. Lebanese artist Marwa Arsanios's video Have You Ever Killed a Bear? Or Becoming Jamila (2012-13) centers on an actress studying to play Algerian freedom fighter Jamila Bouhired. Interspersed throughout are images of Bouhired's fictional representation in Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1966) as well as visual and textual quotations from 1950s issues of Al Hilal, an Egyptian journal advocating women's liberation. Part of a larger project by Arsanios about Bouhired, the work is a complex examination of Arab femaleness, radicalism and iconicity.
Although the show's opening-night spectacle of flight attendants from commercial partner Etihad Airways serving dried dates to attendees played unsettlingly into notions of touristic encounter with the East, most of the exhibited artworks reflect dynamic processes of cross-cultural pollination. Maha Maamoun's vision of her native Egypt's future in the video 2026 (2010) pairs a series of still shots modeled after French filmmaker Chris Marker's La jetée (1962) with a dystopian narrative lifted from a novel by Egyptian writer Mahmoud Uthman. In the video This Lemon Tastes of Apple (2011), Iraqi artist Hiwa K performs a harmonica rendition of the score to Sergio Leone's 1968 Spaghetti Western, Once Upon a Time in the West, amid the aftermath of a protest in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah. The melody recalls the cowboylike mindsets of the many who have laid waste to his country.
Questions about the preservation of historical memory in the face of violent upheaval motivated a number of works. In the video Now Eat My Script (2014), Lebanese artist Mounira Al Solh confronts viewers with the bones and viscera of a butchered lamb. Toward the end of a desultory monologue on representation and the war in Syria, she remarks, "We kill the intimate moment of death each time we record it."
Repeatedly, lives led by inhabitants of the Arab world were revealed to be worlds apart from each other. A wall-size photograph of a plush hotel installed in the New Museum's lobby by international collective GCC highlighted Persian Gulf opulence. Focusing on the opposite socioeconomic pole, Saudi artist Ahmed Mater presented documentary footage of construction workers in Mecca, where the pilgrimage industry has fueled frenetic development.
Perhaps nowhere was the diffuseness of the geo-cultural entity that "Here and Elsewhere" aimed to spotlight more evident than in Bouchra Khalili's The Mapping Journey Project (2008-11). On eight projection screens, interviewees discuss their illegal migrations between nations—or, in one man's case, between his stateless West Bank home and Israel—and use markers to draw their paths on maps.
Among the show's unexpected delights was a group of self-portraits, some provocatively gender-bending, by 20th-century Egyptian-Armenian photographer Van Leo (1921-2002). Like the minimalist works on paper by Suha Traboulsi (b. 1923) and the brightly colored canvases by Etel Adnan (b. 1925), they offered reprieve from the bleak histories foregrounded by many of the exhibition's younger artists.
Of course no present-day regional narrative provokes more heartbreak or fury than that of the Palestinians. On the museum's fifth floor, a curatorial project by Ala Younis examined the visual history of the freedom struggle. Two floors below, Wafa Hourani's sculptural model of a liberated Palestine in the year 2087 seemed a faraway dream indeed beside Khaled Jarrar's Infiltrators (2012), a documentary about those who illegally scale Israel's security wall. During one moment in Jarrar's film, a mother and daughter lovingly touch hands through a slit in a barricade erected beside their former home. The scene powerfully conjures the daily perseverance required of a long-beleaguered people in the face of ongoing torment.