Charlotte Bank Projects


The Constant Dilemma

Curating the "Middle East"


by Charlotte Bank

published March 2008


Jayce Salloum started his essay "History of Our Present: New Arab Film and Video" ( asking: "How do you represent the unrepresentable - unrepresentable due to overexposure or lack of exposure?" and with these words he pointed at the central question of this essay. Presentations of the Arab world in the West have hardly ever been balanced. The aforementioned overexposure appeared whenever the aim was to justify Western misconceptions; lack of exposure occured whenever the question was how reality looked like.

One of the more amusing examples of this phenomenon are the French Orientalist painting of the mid-19th century, a more sinister one is, to mention only one, the different anthropological projects whose aim was to prove the lower intelligence (for instance through the measuring of "native" peoples' skulls)  and cultural level of non-Europeans. All these practices were undertaken to justify the Western colonial project by placing all non-European cultures on a lower civilizational level.

The Arab world has been presented for so long, it has been described, studied, mapped, put into museums, objectified in so many ways that we seemingly have got used to it. We have become used to a variety of prejudices, so much that often we do not recognize them as such any more. Whenever one wants to present the Middle East (this name being another example of colonial terminology that has found its way into everyday language, even in the region itself), there is a danger of falling into old traps. How does one as a responsible curator avoid this?

As Laura U. Marks (The Ethical Presenter. Or How to Have Good Arguments Over Dinner, The Moving Image, 2004) puts it, curating is driven by a subjective agenda. It is a reflection on the state of the world, a dialectic between art and the curator's ideas. And since the personality of the curator plays such a large role, it becomes all the more important to be aware of the strained history of European involvement in the Middle East.

The Western mass media tend to present non-Western, and this goes in particular for the Middle East or Arab world along "once-and-for-all" established stereotypes. This puts a heavy burden on the academic/cultural worker/curator to identify the misconceptions at the basis of these stereotypes and thus offer a contribution to dismantling these patterns of presentation. However, this didactic necessity should not overshadow the artistic side of our work. There is a need for the Western public to be informed, but there is also a need for this public to approach work of non-Western artists without the obligation of getting involved at a pedagogical level. It is my strong belief that much artistic work can and does function without masive information on the cultural and ethnic background of the artists. The curator can offer this information and should indeed be able to do so, it is his/her work to present well-researched projects, but the audience should get the chance to explore the art work at their own premises.

Curating means being a mediator between the art and artists on one hand and audience at the other. The audience stands at the end of the process. Some curators start with the audience and develop their project according to the public they are addressing, others start with an idea or concept. I usually (though it varies from one project to the other) start with the art and artists and develop my ideas from there. Curating should be a fruitful dialogue between the artists and the curator. My role is not to be a god-like, omniscient and omnipotent creature, who forces my ideas onto the work I am presenting, but rather a partner, who offers the intellectual framework of the presented art. And while developing my ideas, I consider the way to present the project to the audience.

In this mediating work, being aware of sensitive issues in the cultural entourage of the artists is important. Let me present one example. In 2006, the city of Bruges in Belgium hosted an exhibition called "New Territories", showing, among others, the works of a number of Palestinian and Israeli artists. Interesting enough, although the Western obsession with "balanced" projects as soon as the topic Palestine is approached does strike one as rather odd, especially in a field normally so open for provocation as the contemporary art world. What the curators failed to tell the Palestinian participants, was that the Israeli participants were sponsored by their government. Since many Palestinian artists have signed a cultural and artistic boycott of Israeli official institutions (not single, independent artists), this put the Palestinian participants into a very awkward situation when they became aware of it a few days before the opening of the show.

All this trouble could easily have been avoided had the curators had a more profound knowledge and greater awareness of the region in question and its internal issues. Given the aforementioned strained past of European colonial involvement in the Middle East, building up trust is so very important. For this reason, I value the personal contact to the artists I work with very highly and try, whenever I can, to follow their work processes closely and I believe in openness about my intentions as a curator.

Naturally, non-Western artists and their work deserve the same respect and sincerity as Western artists and they need to be able to trust that they and their work will not be exoticized or misrepresented. We do not need to discuss the Western failure to distinguish between handicraft and folklore on one hand and "real" art on the other and so present everything together; this is largely a thing of the past. However, the proportion of non-Western artists in the big art events is still very low, quite a shame, given the dynamics and exciting character of much non-Western art.

My original field of training and early professional activity (Near Eastern archaeology) is one with a long and problematic history of direct and deep involvement with the colonial project and its efforts at mapping, framing and describing the colonized countries, cultures and people with the aim of controlling them and keeping them subjugated. In a sense, this foundation has - together with my life-long experience with inter-cultural communication, both on an inner-European level and on the level of European-non-European relations  made the awareness of the sensitive issues of Arab-European relations my second skin and has kept me largely safe from the afore mentioned old traps.

Curating non-Western art and especially Middle Eastern art should involve a solid basis of historical, art historical and cultural knowledge related to the specific region on the side of the curator. A knowledge he/she should use to present a well-grounded project to the audience, while granting the latter the freedom to embark upon the adventurous exploration of a new land and make their own discoveries.

Charlotte Bank Projects |