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Nafas: Introduction

Positions of Contemporary Art from the Islamic World

If one asks people who speak Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Malay, or Indonesian what they understand by the word nafas, one receives almost identical answers: breath, breathing. A variation with the same origin is the Turkish nefes. The word appears in many combinations and nuances, usually apparently with positive connotations. Nafas can be used in the sense of "second wind", i.e., being able to endure difficulties, or in the sense of a refreshing breeze that soothes torments. When someone carries out specific activities especially well, for example cooking excellently, it is said that he or she has nafas – talent, a particular way, a personal style in this area. Sometimes nafas is associated with the meaning "freedom", for example in Sufism, a mystical current of Islam. The root of the word is nafs, which means "self" or "soul" in Arabic and which is regarded as the dynamic power breathed into a person’s body at the beginning of life.

We chose Nafas as the title and metaphor for the concept and framework of this project because of such connotations and the presence of the word in so many different cultures of the Islamic world. Especially significant thereby was that the word is etymologically closely tied to the existence of the individual and that some of its derivations can be applied directly to creative activity. For in all the overarching aspects at the base of the idea of such an exhibition, the primary point is access to the individual artistic positions, which includes not only the immediate experience of art, but also the mediation of personal, cultural, social, and other contexts. Perhaps this should be a matter of course in every art exhibition, but it seems worth mentioning explicitly in this case. All too often, the expression used here as a conceptual tie, "the Islamic world", arouses stereotypical ideas that fail completely to correspond with the complex reality and that stand in the way of encountering the art without preconceptions.

It may seem problematical that this formulation appears at all in the subtitle of Nafas, since it suggests a unifying view of the countries and regions with Muslim majorities, which this project aims to counteract. In the ifa publication "The West and the Islamic World – a Muslim Position"[1], the two female and four male authors from Muslim countries write, "There is no clearly defined Muslim world. The attempt to define it leads to vague generalizations and neglects differences, contradictions, and internal conflicts." And yet even they have no other option in their critical inventory of political, ideological, religious, social, and cultural contacts, confrontations, and aversions than to use the generalizing term. For even though both the "West" and the "Islamic world" are extremely heterogeneous and anything but monolithic entities, the general perception is that there is a conflict between two antagonistic blocs or civilizations bearing these labels that goes back very far in history and that is fueled again and again on both sides.

In connection with the project Nafas, we use the term "Islamic world" and "Muslim world" to address and contradict the way the terms are widely understood today. The commonly accepted ideas are confronted with works by artists from the countries and regions in question, who are hard to fit into the usual clichés. In this respect, the exhibition is conceptually allied with the online magazine "Contemporary Art from the Islamic world", which the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations – ifa) has published since March 2003 together with Pat Binder and Gerhard Haupt on the latter’s website "Universes in Universe – Worlds of Art". Of course an art showing and such a publication can make only a relatively small contribution to a lasting change in set patterns of thought, especially since elsewhere these continue to be cultivated and regenerated, for example to maintain hostility and hegemonial claims or to fuel consumption and tourism with Oriental exoticism. "Distorted images are not mere remnants of the past. They are images reinvented to serve the ideological and strategic needs of political and economic hegemony." [2]

How deep the prejudice sits is occasionally noticeable in the misunderstandings surrounding the online magazine. Without actually taking note of the title, content, or editorial, people expect or assume that the works presented in it are "Islamic art", which would mean an art serving Islam as a religion. Most of those who express such ideas do not think much about it and so don’t really know what "Islamic" art is; they simply assume that art from Muslim countries must necessarily be an Islamic art. But it seems that even specialists in cultural dialogue are not immune to generalizations, as we can read in an analysis by Johannes Reissner: "Finally, part of the problematic of dialogue with a culture primarily seen as Islamic is that it attributes more Islamic identity to the people of the Islamic cultural realm than they claim for themselves." [3] But there, as everywhere, identities are not rigid structures; they are shaped by a wide variety of influences and orientations, continually changing, and, even for many Muslims, Islam is not the all-determining reference point. Additionally, a wide variety of cultures whose history usually extends far into the pre-Islamic past are at home in the countries and regions usually classified as Islamic. And even if Muslims are in the majority there, they live alongside and with people of other religions or without religious affiliation. So the composition of the population in the Islamic world is already very heterogeneous.

But a relatively undifferentiated view of the Islamic world is a perceptual problem not restricted to the West. The authors in the aforementioned ifa publication wrote about the West as the image of the enemy in connection with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: "Hence the political animosity was gradually transformed into a partly religious and cultural one, pitting the Christian West (and Jewish Israel) against the Muslim world." [4] It is well known that in Islamic countries and regions – and not only there – there are influential powers interested in exacerbated polarization that try to swear all Muslims to a struggle against the West under the banner of Islam. Since reports about them and their actions dominate the presence of the Islamic world in the media, other currents and everyday happenings are perceived to a much smaller degree. But even in countries where the power of the religious overseers seems omnipresent, for example Iran, people find ways to elude this at least partially and to find their own niches, and artists often create astonishing works that slip past the censors. [5]

The Western art world’s widespread habit of approaching artists who do not come from Western Europe or North America more in terms of their origin than of their individual positions has long been discussed and criticized. But this approach is still common practice. Such artists are pressed into the role of representatives of a culture about which one has only vague ideas, i.e., that is often more imagined than actually experienced or viewed in terms of factual knowledge. Thus, more is often projected into the works than read out of them. In 2003, when the aforementioned online magazine began publishing opinions on the "West’s" new interest in art from the Islamic world, Tony Chakar of Lebanon wrote in the first article: "it is no surprise to anyone that the 'West' already has a 'system of reception', a web of ideas about what the 'East' is about, what it should be, and what it is expected to say; a web of ideas, I dare say, that is a direct descendant of the old Orientalist discourse that doesn't seem to subside." [6]

But what is true of contemporary art in general also goes for works created by artists who come from or have their cultural homeland in the Muslim world: its function is extremely context-dependent. [7] Not only the visible, directly experiencable work is received, but also the contexts of its creation and presentation, as well as the knowledge of the personal situation of the artists and their standpoints, even where not directly articulated in the works. So in a project like this exhibition, it is very possible to draw conclusions from the exhibited works about the community from which the artists come and/or to which they relate. But one will experience little that is new if one does not encounter the works and persons with the necessary openness and curiosity. The texts and statements on the artists’ pages of this catalog, the information in the exhibition, and of course the numerous contributions to the online magazine can provide access.

Nafas presents nine artistic positions from eight Islamic countries. That they include six women was not the a priori intention of the curators, but simply resulted in the course of choosing interesting works suitable for the project. All but two of the participants live in their home countries. A brief overview reveals how diverse the themes and means of expression are:

The installation by Waheeda Malullah (*1978, Bahrain) at the beginning of the exhibition may seem like a reference to the soccer world championships being staged at the same time in Berlin, but it was not meant this way. Rather, it is a critical-ironic questioning of gender roles and societal conventions, to which end the artist staged herself, with a glaring red baseball cap over her black headscarf, as the goalie in an imaginary soccer game with ten neighborhood boys. In the home context, the metaphor of the mixed team could be provocative, but the idea of a woman devoting herself to the sport is not; in Bahrain, soccer is a national sport for both sexes. Since 2004, in fact, there is supposed to be a 3-year school project that makes soccer a required subject for girls.[8] At the end of February 2006, the team from Bahrain won the first Arab women’s championships in Abu Dhabi. The men barely missed qualifying for the world championships and will not be on hand in Germany.

Mounir Fatmi (*1970, Morocco), in his installation, has spread out 500 meters of intrusive antenna cable in the room, in front of a barking dog painted on the wall. Despite conscious allusions to the calligraphic tradition in Islamic culture (in this case indeed meant as such), his focus is universal. Referring to the famous experiments of the Russian Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936) on conditioned reflexes in dogs, Fatmi raises the question of the degree to which a society is conditioned nowadays by the influx of information and what influence this has on people’s ability to form judgments and opinions.

Another form of media critique is the video animation by Nur Hanim Mohamed Khairuddin (*1969, Malaysia), who, like several participants in Nafas, is a dedicated cultural and social activist along with her artistic work. She condemns the stereotypical depictions of Muslims in the Western media as traumatizing. Beyond that, she wants to give expression to her own dilemma as a Malaysian Muslima who feels torn between the attractions of the Western world and loyalty to the principles of her own culture and religion. In her video, one can read a critical statement that begins with a quotation from Baudrillard. Meanwhile, a graphic self-portrait is swarmed by eyes, as if by bees; they gradually condense into a burkha. Then comes a hectic montage of images quoted from the media, accompanied by music by an underground band and a poem recited in Malay, until her face appears once more unveiled.

At a standing desk, the viewer can browse in several volumes of an extensive archive compiled by Ebtisam AbdulAziz (*1975, United Arab Emirates). It is a collection of photos of about 2,000 hands, each of them with an information sheet listing the name, date of birth, nationality, and occupation of the person whose hand is shown. The artist made as broad a selection of occupations, social positions, age groups, and nationalities among people living, temporarily working, or briefly visiting the emirate of Sharjah, resulting in a kind of cross section of the country’s inhabitants, of whom only 15 to 20% have citizenship in the United Arab Emirates. Ebtisam AbdulAziz not only captures the traces of lived time, differing occupations, and states of health, she also demonstrates a sense of community transcending all differences, which cannot exactly be taken for granted in behavior toward the foreign workers brought to the emirates for "menial jobs". Part of her concept is to lead the viewer to conjure up a more precise imagining of the persons of whom they see only a hand.

Two videos document performances by Lida Abdul (*1973, Afghanistan/USA) during a visit at the beginning of 2005 to her Afghan homeland, from which she fled with her family as a child. Her idea of the country, shaped over the years by stories, media reports, and her own imagination, was confronted with an unexpected level of suffering. So she abandoned her original plans and resolved to make art with a poetic dimension. Like a shaman, she drew signs of healing on rubble, painting the ruins white and turning them into a sculpture. The second performance was celebrated in front of the empty niches of the destroyed Buddha figures in Bamiyan and lets the memory of them literally echo.

Anas Al-Shaikh (*1968, Bahrain) invites the exhibition’s visitors to delve into the conflictual relationship between the Islamic world and the West by means of a computer game. In search of clickable areas and access to the diverse levels, one is given food for thought again and again. But this is not one-sided blame; for Anas Al-Shaikh is especially interested in challenging the audience at home and in other Muslim countries to think about its own responsibility. In an interview, he said, "Everyone has his own ideas and doesn't respect those of the others, only wants to do what he believes in, thinking that the reality is with himself only and not with the others. So in my art, I try to discuss all these things. I think that we should first look at ourselves for the cause of the problems, before making others responsible for them … the most important thing is to find out how we can ourselves change our lives. If we want to make some progress in this direction, then we need more democracy and belief in human rights, rather than in the fact that all the others are our enemies. Everyone has his own beliefs, his own culture; the question is how to communicate these cultures and how to reach the best for all, through them. I am trying to experiment with these things myself in my work."[9] And yet the quintessence of his work’s title remains: despite all mistakes, errors, and weaknesses, we are "not for sale".

In the picturesque ambience of historical cities, Vyacheslav Akhunov (*1948, Uzbekistan) and his partner Sergey Tychina, who acts as performer, stages two videos. The exotic local color of Central Asia and the archaic-seeming locations are thereby only the outer covering for existential metaphors of universal, timeless validity. In the first video, the protagonist climbs the narrow spiral stairway of a tower. When he reaches the top, out of breath, he wants to view the ascent, accomplished at great effort, on a laptop, but then the camera zooms into the display and the difficulties he thought he had overcome begin all over – just like in real life. In the second work, Sergey Tychina stands, again with Muslim head covering, in various corners reciting a prayer. He does not thereby face Mecca, as required in Islam, but stands with his face almost against the masonry, completely fixated upon himself.

The animated ink drawings by Amal Kenawy (*1974, Egypt) flow into each other like dream sequences, overlapping and fusing to ever new motifs and constellations. In a constant giving birth and engulfing, becoming and perishing, roots grow out of legs and hearts, brushstrokes swell to bleeding wounds, a bed becomes a dining table for two beings that swallow up everything, the room mutates into a spider web, and the light bulb becomes a cage. Domestic furniture comes to life, a mirror draws into itself a head buzzed around by insects, a fat spider takes up as much room as it can, glaring light dissolves into a dark tunnel. Amal Kenawy’s dream of a "purple, artificial forest" is a kaleidoscope of individual moods, an obsessive journey deep within the psyche, and violent mood swings between fear, anxiety, yearning, and devotion.

The most recent video work by Suha Shoman (*1944, Jordan) draws one into its orbit. She turns the room into a site of meditation about eternity and the transience of one’s own being. Reflected from the water, one sees the play of slowly pulsing light beams on the stone walls of an ancient cistern. Occasionally, the dully echoing sound of blows can be heard, along with deep breathing and the twittering of a bird flapping through the picture. Colored handprints on the grey background give the viewer an inkling of a human presence that goes back a long way on this site. The artist took the pictures in Beidha, a famous archaeological dig a few kilometers north of Petra, the erstwhile capital of the Nabateans. Around 7,900 B.C.E., a village grew here with round buildings, in part with cellars, arranged in clusters; it is among the oldest settlements of this kind in the Middle East. Suha Shoman’s artistic and philosophical views have been shaped by her close relationship to this region, which has been an interface of diverse cultures for thousands of years. When she created her video, she had in mind that the word nefesh, which is related to the title of this exhibition, already existed in Aramaic and in Palmyra; it denoted a stone stele for the dead and also meant "soul" and "breath". But Suha Shoman finds a mental and real refuge in Petra: "The Petra of our ancestors, where space is endless, where time drifts, where eternity reveals itself, where our steps are engraved deep in the rocks and carry a story in them that is yet to be told."

The project Nafas goes beyond the usual framework of an art exhibition. In the presentation of artistic works, the sensual experience of art is supplemented by easily accessed information. In the expectation that knowledge of contexts will enhance access to art, the works are assigned to unobtrusive computer terminals. They enable the viewer to rapidly and simply experience more details on the works’ themes and backgrounds and to get information about the exhibiting artists; beyond that, they draw attention to colleagues working in a similar direction but who are not represented in the exhibition. In a way, this greatly increases the number of artists presented in the framework of Nafas. The computer terminals are loaded with specially prepared texts and pictures from the online magazine "Contemporary Art from the Islamic World".

As already mentioned, the online magazine is a conceptual starting point for the project. It will accompany and document Nafas throughout the entire span of the exhibition, prepare and follow up roundtable discussions, workshops, lectures, and other events, and enable participation for those who are interested but unable to attend personally. Nafas aims to become a long-term process of communication about practical, conceptual, and theoretical aspects of practicing art, especially – but not exclusively – in the Islamic world, as well as about strategies of mediation, mechanisms of the art world, and many other issues. Serving this purpose on the one hand are the meetings at the exhibition sites; on the other hand, the online magazine will be a continuous platform for exchanging views.

After the presentations in the ifa galleries in Berlin and Stuttgart, Nafas will be shown in some other countries beginning in 2007. Agreements have already been made with the art center Darat al Funun in Amman, Jordan, as well as with the Institute of Contemporary Arts of the LaSalle-SIA College of the Arts in Singapore. Under discussion are also Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates and Jakarta, Indonesia. In collaboration with the respective organizers and curators and in accordance with their concrete possibilities, the exhibition will be supplemented with additional artists at its individual stations, perhaps thus becoming a constant work in progress.


  1. The West and the Muslim World – A Muslim Position. Stuttgart: Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa) 2004
  2. The West and the Muslim World – A Muslim Position, ibid., p. 124
  3. Johannes Reissner, Dichtung und Wahrheit im Kulturdialog, in: Zeitschrift für Kulturaustausch, Nr. 1/02 Der Dialog mit dem Islam zwischen Anspruch und Wirklichkeit, Stuttgart: ifa 2002, p. 19
  4. The West and the Muslim World – A Muslim Position, ibid., p. 129
  5. See for example: Tirdad Zolghadr, Mit Mullah-bonus auf den Markt, in: Zeitschrift für Kulturaustausch, Nr. 1/04, Stuttgart: ifa 2004, pp. 74-76
  6. Statement from Tony Chakar, in: Contemporary Art from the Islamic World, August 2003
  7. Boris Groys, Zurück aus der Zukunft: Kunst aus Ost und West, in: Kaser, K., Gramshammer-Hohl, D., Pichler, R. (eds.) 2003: Europa und die Grenzen im Kopf. Klagenfurt (=Wieser Enzyklopädie des europäischen Ostens 11), pp. 419-426
  8. Rainer Hennies: Scheherezade schnürt die Fußballstiefel. In: tax, Feb. 5, 2004, p. 13
  9. Gerhard Haupt and Pat Binder, Anas Al-Shaikh. In: Contemporary Art from the Islamic World, June 2004.

Introductory text of the catalog to the exhibition "Nafas"


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