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And yet, at the art museum, Forouhar’s work mostly disappoints. A whole wall is given over to her pieces, three of which are digital prints that use smaller images of bound or bleeding bodies to create larger wholes: a butterfly, in one case; weapons, in another. These bodies-as-symbols prints are overwrought and obvious, like some grotesque version of Magic Eye for the politically minded.
Looking around the museum gallery, I began to wonder about the layout of the show. Here, Forouhar had an entire wall, while two prints by Neshat were positioned far apart, both of them alone and seeming to anchor walls where there was simply nothing else to hang. Since the show wasn’t quite arranged by artist, nor was it pulled together by an overarching theme, it was hard to make connections between the disparate artworks.
The Bernstein Gallery display suffered from the same problem: some strong art, some weak, and not much to hold everything together. What’s more, the placement of electronic works by Zeina Barakeh — two animations with a low-volume soundtrack and an aural piece heard exclusively through headphones — was incredibly frustrating, as students working loudly together on stats problems interrupted the emotional narrative.
Ultimately, the only conceptual framework I could discern for either show was the basic fact of the artists’ Middle Eastern-ness, a conjecture essentially confirmed for me by the curators, who say that the breakdown was determined by physical and pragmatic concerns and a desire for diversity in each space. This is not only disappointing but also does a disservice to the art itself, which deserves a more challenging context.
“Our goal is to create an environment in which women are not essentialized, and in which diversity and individuality of cultures are not subsumed under a single umbrella,” Brodsky and Olin write. But by grouping artists together only under the vague rubric of Gender, Art, and Society in the Middle East, which is the exhibit’s subtitle, they have done just that — reinforced the essentialist take.
“The Fertile Crescent” is an enormously impressive undertaking, and Brodsky and Olin should be commended for bringing contemporary art with Middle Eastern roots to the Northeast. But simply bringing art isn’t enough; they must do a better job of engaging with it.
Jillian Steinhauer is assistant editor of the art blogazine, Hyperallergic, and a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.