by SARAH DWIDER
In Archives, Museums and Collecting Practices in the Modern Arab World, editors Sonja Mejcher-Atassi and John Pedro Schwartz bring together a diverse group of academic voices to write on the subject of collecting in the Middle East. The book begins with a quotation from Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, a contemporary Turkish novel centered on the life of a fictional collector which includes the line:
“What Turks should be viewing in their own museums are not bad imitations of Western art but their own lives. Instead of displaying the Occidental fantasies of our rich, our museums should show us our own lives (1).”
While the authors acknowledge the quote’s specificity to Turkish museology, it highlights a shared challenge for the non-Occidental “other:” how to collect and present one’s own culture. As anyone familiar with the study of Arab art knows, this task of determining what, exactly, “shows us our own lives” is subject to much internal debate. This passage serves to frame the central questions of this collection of essays around the concept of self-representation, as it looks to understand how collectors and institutions in the Arab world can “show their own lives” while working against prescriptive models and internalized Euro-American assumptions about the Arab world.
Important to the framing of the essays in this book is German theorist Walter Benjamin’s discussion of collecting. In particular, Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library,” published in Illuminations, lends Archives, Museums and Collecting Practices a rooted methodology for approaching Arab collecting practices. Through writing about his own relationship with his collection of books, Benjamin provides evidence for how collections and archives are shaped by “circuits of creation, transmission and reception.” This leads the editors to focus on collections as processes which are afforded meaning by collectors and their contexts. As a whole, the editors look to follow a strategy of “examining the local in a historical way, and the historical in a local way… a strategy that looks at collecting practices in their cultural and historical specificity [which] paradoxically reveals the entanglement between the local and the global (25).” Each of the essays included in the collection focuses on a localized practice in order to respond to the lines of inquiry proposed by the editors and to contribute to a more general understanding of collecting in the Arab world.
The book is organized into three sections: Local Representations of Modernity; Collecting Practices, Historiographic Practices; and From Institutional to Artistic Practices of Collecting. Each section loosely focuses on a certain facet of collecting practices in the Arab world. The first section, Local Representations of Modernity, looks closely at the collection of antique objects, such as 19th century Lebanese literary works or Palestinian amulets, as a way to both create and transmit a sense of cohesive national heritage. The second section, Collecting Practices, Historiographic Practices, analyzes the connection between history and memory, and specifically, what pieces of history are allowed to become integrated into memory. These essays focus heavily on the process of creating collections and move through a close study of exchanges made in Cairo’s paper markets, the debates over material included in Lebanese history textbooks, and the preservation of a “heritage building” in post-war Beirut. Of particular interest to those approaching the book from an art historical background is the book’s third section, From Institutional to Artistic Practices of Collecting, which covers both established and developing collecting practices centered on modern and contemporary Arab art. The rest of this review focuses specifically on the essays included in this third section.
In her essay ‘The Formation of the Khalid Shoman Private Collection and the Founding of Darat al Funun,’ Sarah Rogers looks closely at the ties between the Khalid Shoman Private Collection and the history of Darat al Funun, a non-profit contemporary arts center established by Suha Shoman in Amman in 1993. While the Shoman Collection predates the establishment of Darat al Funun by a decade or so, it is currently exhibited on rotating display at Darat al Funun and has come to closely reflect the work of the institution. In her account, Rogers first describes how the Shoman Collection has come to intersect with wider shifts in the Middle East. As she states, “certainly a collection dedicated to Arab art that spans over 30 years shares much of the shifts and transformations of artistic practices in the region” (161). In turn, the Shoman Collection points to Darat al Funun’s own contribution to these shifts in artistic practices. Much of the art included in the collection was acquired from artists who participated in the work of the institution through workshops or artists’ residencies. In this sense the collection becomes an archive not just of contemporary art works, but works which reflect Funun’s involvement in fostering art practices in both Amman and the wider context of the Middle East. In discussing these dynamics Rogers calls attention to how both Darat al Fanun and the Collection are engaged as “active participants” within a developing regional art history.
Nada Shabout’s contribution ‘Collecting Modern Iraqi Art’ provides a thorough account of “art consciousness” and collecting practices in Iraq before the US invasion in 2003. She argues that, unlike in Europe and North America, where art collecting reflected the tastes and considerations of individual collectors, art collecting in Iraq was intertwined with the process of national identity building throughout the 20th century. She describes the emergence of modern Iraqi art practices and the influential artist groups which shaped their trajectories. Artists like Jewad Selim and Faiq Hassan became established cultural leaders in Iraq and participated in a process of instilling Iraqi society with an appreciation for Iraqi modern art. This sense of cultural pride in art helped to create a well-developed culture of collecting modern art for display in the home. The government’s promotion of this collecting culture was seen in the establishment of national modern art museums like the Gulbenkian Museum and the Museum for Pioneer Artists. Shabout also outlines how Iraq developed art criticism that responded directly to the place of modern art in the context of Iraq and the place of art in nation building. She concludes her essay by marking the shifts that have occurred in Iraqi collecting practices post-2003. As a whole, this specific and localized account of 20th century art practices in Iraq serves to concretely refute widely held assumptions that visual art, collecting and criticism in the Arab world were underdeveloped before today’s contemporary practices.
Emily Doherty shifts from looking at established collecting practices to focus on emerging collections in her essay ‘The Ecstasy of Property: Collecting in the United Arab Emirates.’ This chapter specifically focuses on both government-sponsored projects and private collecting practices in Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the last decade. Doherty suggests that, at its core, the recent growth of art collecting in the Emirates is part of a larger project of establishing national identity. As she quotes from Kavita Singh, Associate Professor of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, “What is the first thing a country does when it wants to assert its identity? Answer: it creates a museum” (183). This is especially pertinent for the Emirates as a young nation with a small Emirati population. She situates the establishment of museums like the Louvre Abu Dhabi in this wider identity-building project and argues that it is a means of shifting the globe eastward both culturally and economically. In addition, Doherty complicates the idea that collectors in the Emirates choose to collect solely as an act of visible consumption within a hyper-consumer culture. She includes firsthand accounts from private collectors in Dubai detailing their own sense of connection to the works they purchase. Doherty’s essay counters widely circulated criticisms from art critics and historians like Didier Rykner, which characterize Emirati collecting practices and projects like the Louvre and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi as underdeveloped or unsophisticated art consumption.
The third section ends with a moving essay by Walid Sadek entitled ‘Collecting the Uncanny and the Labor of Missing.’ Prompted by two contemporary works which grapple with the unresolved fate of those who disappeared during the Lebanese Civil War, the essay reflects on the nature of the “uncanny” and the process of mourning the absent. In reflecting on the works In This House by Akram Zaatari and Wonder Beirut by K. Joreige and Hadjithomas, Sadek calls on his reader to conceive of “how to reconfigure differently a practice of collecting that does not seek to retrieve,” as the disappeared can never fully be rescued. In this volume of essays focused on the process of rooting history and creating narrative through collecting, Sadek’s work is a solemn reflection on the limitations of this process and the gaps left in between.
While this review focuses heavily on chapters dealing directly with modern and contemporary visual art, essays from the other sections provide equally relevant insight into the dynamics of collecting and archiving in the Middle East. As the editors explain, although specific in their focus, each essay also points to wider shifts in cultural practices in the Arab world. However, despite the intentional organization of the book and the thorough introductory chapter provided by Mejcher-Atassi and Schwartz, the collection does seem slightly disjointed, as the authors’ approaches to and understanding of collecting practices in the Arab world vary widely. While some essays directly note the frameworks established by the editors and return to the central questions of the book, especially Benjamin’s idea of collections as processes, others seem more peripherally related to the frameworks outlined in the introduction. However, each of the essays is strong in its own right. Archives, Museums and Collecting Practices in the Modern Arab World is a much welcome development on previous considerations of Middle Eastern collecting practices, which have been more limited in the depth of their discussion. It joins a growing body of scholarship focused on the non-Western collector and the significance of their collections, notably Mona Abaza’s Twentieth-Century Egyptian Art: The Private Collection of Sherwet Shafei (2011) and Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie’s Making History: African Collectors and the Canon of African Art (2011).
Sarah Dwider is a recent graduate Swarthmore College where she completed a thesis on the intersection of art and politics in 20th century Egypt.