Formulating Modernism through Museums and Exhibitions in the MENA Region
Panel IX-11, sponsored byAssociation for Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World, Iran and Turkey (AMCA), 2023 Annual Meeting
On Saturday, November 4 at 3:00 pm
The second half of the twentieth century was a period of intense artistic activity in the Arab world. Following independence from colonial rule, the need for cultural re-appropriation resulted in the creation of new formal art institutions, museums, and monumental public exhibitions, which have continued to multiply throughout the MENA region into the early 2000s. At the same time, legacy artistic institutions founded by colonial powers in the Maghreb, such as national museums in Morocco, Tunisia’s Bardo Museum, and the Musée National des Beaux-Arts d’Alger, underwent decolonizing and democratizing reforms to make space for contemporary avant-garde, surrealist, and modern artworks and address the challenges of art making and art viewing in the modern world. The 1970s and 1980s also saw the proliferation of museums of craft and popular traditions (the Jordan Museum of Popular Traditions, the Tunsian Centre des Arts et Traditions Populaires, etc.), situating modern national artistic identities in a foundation of local Islamic tradition. Meanwhile, cultural festivals of the 1960s and 1970s formalized the Pan-African links between modern Maghrebi artists and their counterparts across the African continent. All the while, artists throughout the Middle East and North Africa convened in strategic artistic centers to write manifestos, form unions, and establish journals in what Katarzyna Pieprzak has termed “discursive museums,” debating the value of modern art in the post-colonial moment. Through all these various practices, institutions and debates of modern art, Arab artists and intellectuals engaged with the concept of modernism as a “global project,” as suggested by anthropologist Kristen Scheid.
The objective of this panel is to highlight those institutions, museums, and exhibitions in the Middle East and North Africa that have actively participated in the conceptualization of modern art since the 1960s through the present day. Bringing together art historical, historical, and anthropological approaches, presentations in this panel will explore the value of art institutions in formulating both global modernism and national identity in the post-colonial era.
This presentation examines the Musée National du Bardo in Tunis, Tunisia – one of the largest and most influential museums in the Arab world. The Bardo was first inaugurated as the Musée Alaoui in 1888 by the French-created Direction des Antiquités et Arts. Although the Alaoui Museum was nominally a public institution throughout the Protectorate era, the collection was organized primarily for the use of European researchers. Public galleries featured little to no explanatory wall text, and a French-language museum guide was available only for purchase. In 1956, Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba renamed the museum the ”Musée National du Bardo,” eliminating the association with the Husaynid Beylical dynasty and signifying that the collection would now be truly accessible to the Tunisian public. However, this presentation will demonstrate that it was not until the 1970s that staff at the Bardo museum truly began to democratize the formerly elite institution by creating a service éducatif that implemented a series of progressive mediation programs. Museum educators encouraged curators to write wall text presenting the collection in layman’s terms (vulgarisation), trained museum workers to conduct guided tours in Arabic, designed curricula for school children, and created special events and programs to open the collection to the public. I argue that the innovative techniques employed by the service éducatif - still unique among Tunisian museums – significantly democratized the formerly elite, inaccessible institution enough to make space for modern art, popular art, and ethnographic exhibits in addition to its prodigious archaeological collections. At the same time, the efforts of the service éducatif worked to integrate the Musée du Bardo into the national consciousness of the Tunisian populace.
In 1969, the National Museum of Fine Arts in Algiers opened its doors to an exhibition of historical artworks from across the African continent. Since its establishment in 1931, the Museum of Fine Arts had served as a space for shifting stakeholders to articulate Algeria’s modern identity and its place in the history and production of art. Originally founded with the goal of claiming Algeria’s place as an important center of artistic and art historical production in the French empire, its colonial organizers amassed a collection of works by great artists of the Western canon. Rather than closing the museum’s doors in the aftermath of the Algerian revolution, the postcolonial regime instead chose to revivify it as a national institution: in addition to establishing a gallery showcasing the work of major players in Algeria’s post-Independence artistic community, its new directors also demanded the repatriation of the museum’s original collection of European art, absconded to France during the chaos of war. But the 1969 Exhibition of Traditional Art, as it was named, was the first time that the museum—or any museum in North Africa—would host an exhibition dedicated to the arts of sub-Saharan Africa. The exhibition was organized as part of the First Pan-African Cultural Festival (PANAF) held in Algiers from July 21 to August 1, 1969. In both literature of the day and subsequent scholarship, PANAF has been characterized as a sounding board for revolution, political and cultural. In this spirit, the organizers of another exhibition staged at the festival, the Exhibition of Contemporary Art, invited works by African makers actively engaged in articulating new conceptions of postcolonial artistic modernity. In contrast, the Exhibition of Traditional Art, notably involving major contributions by institutions and art historians based in Europe, appears at odds with the decolonizing energy of PANAF. In this talk, however, I will explore how this exhibition—through its organization, its logics of display, and its relationship to other representations of “African art” at the festival and elsewhere—speaks to an important call for revolution at the institutional level that lay at the heart of modernist projects in the decolonizing art world of the mid-twentieth century. Furthermore, this case study elucidates the agency and impact of actors based in the former colonial world in addressing art historical problems and initiating a process of institutional transformation with which we still grapple today.
Officially opened in 1972, the Jordan Museum of Popular Traditions was Amman's first public museum to exhibit modern objects. With materials collected from across the region, including Palestinian, Syrian, and late Ottoman dress, jewelry, amulets, and devotional objects, the collection offers the lived practices and tangible heritage of communities from the late 19th to 20th century. In making the museum, founder Saadiya al-Tel and her nephew, artist Ali Jabri (1942-2002), sought to preserve and promote cultural heritage beyond the nationalist narratives of Jordan’s ancient archaeological sites. Instead, Jabri deftly crafted the museum as a creative expression of modernity through everyday, cultural, and religious objects from a a rapidly disappearing past.
Jabri’s curation of the museum offers a largely unknown example of a modern artist engaging with historical heritage as pliable matter for creative worldmaking. In doing so, artists across the modernizing Middle East including Shakir Hassan Al Said in Baghdad, Marcos Grigorian in Tehran, and Ali Jabri channeled their curatorial activities into new experiments with historical narratives and the representational possibilities of objects and images in works of art, or even within museum displays themselves. Jabri was a neo-realist painter whose work was fueled by his desire to document both past and present heritage of the Arab world, juxtaposing the uneven process of modernization as one commingling “ancient beauty and modern Warholian junk.” Such examples include paintings of talismanic practices with new electric appliances, collages composed from 1960s popular Egyptian magazines interspersed with tumultuous news headlines, and watercolor sketches of Fatimid and Mamluk architectural facades that radiate the heat of Cairo's modern nightlife.
Like other artists who cultivated new ideas for creative work through a curatorial practice with historical objects, Jabri's work in the museum extended his documentary drive beyond paintings and into questions around Islamic heritage in modernity. He focused on devotional practices with extensive research on the historical and modern sacral objects in the museum. The museum thus mobilized Ali Jabri’s lifelong efforts to depict modernity in its "eternally changing" with the persistent presence of spiritual heritage. Working with Jabri’s personal artist sketchbooks, research notes, and archival documents, along with the museum’s collection and archive, this presentation explores Ali Jabri’s work in the museum as an important instance of an artist curating a museum of "popular traditions" as an act of artistic worldmaking.