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Curating the Middle East: From Napoleon to the Present Day

From Napoleon to the present day. Critical remarks on an historical background.
By Gilane Tawadros | Feb 2004

The appetite for contemporary art from the Middle East at present seems insatiable. But what lies behind this current preoccupation of the art world? Is art from the Middle East simply the "flavor of the month", eclipsing previous infatuations with art from Latin America, Africa and, most recently, China? Or, is this part of a deeper historical and cultural engagement? One of the most striking aspects of contemporary representations of the Middle East is the absence, in most cases, of a meaningful historical context or critical self-reflection on the part of curators, critics (and artists as well) for this current interest in art from the region. And yet, I would argue that it is only within a historical and political context that we can really begin to understand what is happening.

As the irreplaceable critic and commentator Edward Said noted more than 25 years ago in his influential book "Orientalism", the French invasion of Egypt in 1798 was consolidated and reinforced by an army of Oriental scholars and artists who were charged with the massive task of tabulating, illustrating, and documenting every aspect of 18th century Egypt in what became Napoleon’s epic publication "Description de l’Égypte". At the heart of Napoleon’s project was the visual mapping of the Orient, its detailed tabulation by visual artists with the object of making it ‘totally accessible to European scrutiny’. Some 50 years later, the advent of long-distance tourism heralded by the world’s first travel company Thomas Cook, brought travelers, now ‘tourists’, to the Near East and the Holy Land to witness and record (in paintings, engravings, and the new technology of photography) its myriad sites and spectacles. By this time, the imperial struggle between France and Great Britain for territory in the region had largely been settled and the former Ottoman Empire divided between the two great super powers.

In the decades since World War II, in the wake of de-colonization and national self-determination in the Middle East, the empires of France and Britain have waned and been replaced by a new form of occupation whose presence is not purely or literally territorial but which goes beyond territorial limits, triggering the movement of peoples, goods, currencies – and, of course, cultural products – across national borders. As part of this new global economy, artworks as well as artists, curators, and critics, move across national borders (with varying degrees of difficulty depending on where they originate), being traded, exchanged, and accumulating economic value as they travel. But travel (and tourism) depends still on the raw commodities of oil and gas to fuel (quite literally) this movement of peoples and goods. Is it a coincidence then that recent conflicts have erupted and been sustained across territories which contain the greatest deposits of oil and, in particular, the Middle East? Is it a coincidence then that the military re-occupation of the Middle East by the new imperial power, America and its allies, has been accompanied by a renewed interest in the culture of the Middle East? Just as Napoleon arrived in 1798 with his army of academics, scholars, and artists to map out Egypt and its culture, so 200 years later, planes bring an army of curators to Teheran, Beirut, and Cairo to "discover" contemporary art in the Middle East and "make it totally accessible" to European audiences.


Gilane Tawadros

Curator and writer. She was founding director of the Institute of International Visual Arts (inIVA), London. Born in Cairo, Egypt, lives in Great Britain since 1970.

Gilane Tawadros
* Cairo, Egypt. Lives in Great Britain since 1970. Studied art history at the University of Sussex and Film at the Université de Paris IV (Sorbonne Nouvelle).

Worked in a number of art organisations including the Photographers' Gallery and Hayward Gallery in London. Since 1994, first Director of inIVA (Institute of International Visual Arts).
Curator of numerous exhibitions, i.e. "Fault Lines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes", part of the 50th Venice Biennial, 2003 - see the tour by Universes in Universe.
As a writer and critic, Gilane Tawadros has written extensively on contemporary art and artists and contributed to numerous publications and catalogues.

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