“In Washington, there are many think tanks focusing on the Middle East, but really focusing exclusively on security,” said Kate Seelye, MEI’s vice president for arts and culture. “I think policymakers . . . don’t consider the impact and role of culture and art on the region, and the power that art has to transform societies.”
MEI’s opening exhibition, “Arabicity/ Ourouba,” is the latest version of a show that London-based curator Rose Issa previously staged in Beirut and Liverpool. For the Washington show, Issa selected work from the past 25 years, and particularly the past decade, to examine how artists have explored upheavals in the region. (“Ourouba,” which Issa translates as “Arabicity,” refers to what Seelye calls “the state of being Arab.”)
As Issa noted at the show’s press preview, “It’s mostly countries that have suffered in the last 10, 20 years — [from] war, destruction, demolition — and how artists bring positivity, creativity, humor and hope to those circumstances.”
“Arabicity” features 17 artists — of whom just four are female — working in diverse media and with roots in six Arab countries, primarily from the Levant and Egypt.
Some of the most compelling works are by Palestinian artists, including a staged photograph by Raeda Saadeh in which she sits next to an enormous ball of red yarn, knitting, amid the ruins of a building. Titled “Penelope” — a reference to Odysseus’s long-suffering wife — the photo was taken in an East Jerusalem neighborhood where the Israeli government has destroyed some Palestinian homes.
Palestinian artist Abdul Rahman Katanani’s colorful, even cheerful, flat sculptures also convey a sense of resilience. “Girl With Kite” and “Boy With Balloons” are made with corrugated metal, barbed wire and tin cans — materials available in the Sabra refugee camp in Lebanon, where Katanani grew up and still lives.
Also on view at MEI is “Perpetual Identities,” a striking pop-up show by Lebanese artist Katya Traboulsi featuring 22 replicas of bombshells, placed atop military-style wooden crates. Made with a variety of traditional techniques and materials, the richly decorated shells each represent a different country: metal latticework for Morocco; Ming-style porcelain for China; nesting matryoshka dolls for Russia; Persian miniature paintings for Iran; a collage of Warhol-style pop art and product labels for the United States.
On a recent visit to Washington, Traboulsi described the series as “a peace project” inspired by her experience of living through the Lebanese civil war from 1975 to 1990. “Identity cannot be destroyed by war or occupation,” she said. “I tell a story of . . . identity. We are all the same. That’s why I chose not to talk only about the Middle East, but the whole world.”
Museum of the Palestinian People
Not far from MEI you’ll find the Museum of the Palestinian People, an art space that opened this summer with a more specific mandate: to focus exclusively on Palestinian history, culture and art.
“It’s a museum where people get introduced to the Palestinian story and the Palestinian people as a people, and not just as a news item,” says board chairman Nizar Farsakh.
The compact, privately run venue will house both permanent displays and changing shows. The inaugural special exhibition brings together work by five artists from the Palestinian diaspora around the theme “Re-imagining a Future.” Palestinian Canadian artist Dalia Elcharbini’s gold leaf painting of the Statue of Liberty, wearing a robe fashioned from kaffiyeh fabric and holding a key (symbolizing Palestinians’ right of return), doves and an olive branch, is especially poignant. Two paintings by local artist Manal Deeb are also on view.
Another highlight is a “wall of fame,” featuring framed photographs and biographies of some 25 notable Palestinians of the 20th and 21st centuries, including professor Edward Said, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), musician DJ Khaled and the poet Mahmoud Darwish.
Elsewhere, illustrations of traditional women’s clothing, vintage maps and posters, and photographs from different periods in Palestinian history are loosely grouped by theme. Context is often woefully minimal, such as in a display of passports, marriage licenses and other historical documents from the pre-1948 British Mandate period.
While the MPP is clearly a labor of love that’s still in its fledgling stages, its message appears not that dissimilar from that of MEI’s gallery. “We have our particular story, but . . . we speak to something very universal in humans,” says Farsakh. “So that’s where we feel our ultimate mission is, to really bring down barriers.”
If you go
MEI Art Gallery, 1763 N St. NW. 202-785-1141. mei.edu/art-gallery.
Dates: Both on view through Nov. 22.
Re-imagining a Future
Museum of the Palestinian People, 1900 18th St. NW. 202-290-3684. mpp-dc.org.
Dates: On view indefinitely.