Haupt & Binder: The sudden increase in interest for the Islamic world that sparked two years ago also encompasses the field of visual arts. How do you evaluate this from the perspective of your professional activities? Could this new interest really lead to the deconstruction of preconceptions, or is there a risk of bringing out new clichés?
Rose Issa: I can only welcome any kind of "increased interest" in the Islamic world, which to my mind is just burgeoning, a bit late, and not profoundly enough. There have always been experts in every field, in the Muslim world itself and outside of it, waiting to be heard or acknowledged; but for decades, the world media, under the dictate of governments and market monopolies, silenced and ignored the plight of many intellectuals and artists from the Islamic world. The same Western media that bombard the TVs of the world with 60 year old holocaust stories on a daily basis, ignored the fate of the Palestinians, who for the last 50 years lived under the colonial rule of the only state created on the base of archaic religious beliefs. When millions of young Iraqi and Iranians died during the 1980-88 war, these catastrophic facts hardly found any mention at all in the media. Those belonging to the "Islamic civilization", not necessarily Muslims, were torn "between a rock and a hard place" (Edward Saïd), suffering from misrepresentation, both in their own countries and outside their countries of origin, i. e. neither represented or promoted by their own regimes, nor by the West in general.
Today, after September 11, most have learned that the Ben Ladens or the Saddam Hosseins of the world are a by-product of the CIA’s bad intelligence; evidently, there is a sudden interest in Islamic thought and movements. And yet, although for decades many of the Arab countries had a secular system, the manipulative policies of the American and Western fundamentalist markets encouraged the demise of burgeoning secular regimes in the Middle East and encouraged retrograde regimes and images to suit their own racism and short term interests.
There is a growing dissatisfaction with the misrepresentation of the Islamic world, mostly characterized by puppet regimes and individuals, who nobody has voted for. There have been attempts in the Islamic world to project one’s own image and voice (Al Jazeara television for instance); but even those Arab television companies often ignore the critical voices of their own intellectuals.
H&B: Do you perceive repercussions of this interest on the artistic production and reception in the countries themselves?
Issa: Does this interest have repercussions on artistic production? In some ways yes, because some artists will be given a chance to produce and realize works that could not have been produced without support and funding from the outside. This also incites local institutions to recognize their own talents and reward them accordingly. Kiarostami's success outside Iran has forced the government to give him an award, even though they are not allowing him to show his latest films. It is interesting to observe and analyze such daily paradoxes.
H&B: You have been curating visual art and film programs from the Middle East, Iran, and North Africa for a long time. Do you feel that your approach has changed due to the political circumstances?
Issa: For the last 20 years, I have been curating / organizing exhibitions and film seasons, often with non-existing budgets, but with the sheer will of some artists, filmmakers, or individuals. For more than a decade, I was unable to publish monographs, catalogues, books, and well needed documentations simply because neither in the East nor the West was there a budget available. In terms of funding, the Islamic world is short of patrons, proper institutions with the right infrastructure. They are not aware of the importance of giving a voice to their own artists and supporting them, no matter how critical these voices are. Often, money is spent in building a museum or an institution, but not necessarily in forming young students to become potential curators, restorers, designers, librarians, or administrators.
Has my curatorial approach changed? Evidently artists change, the work changes, the themes, the concerns are changing; the funding is changing, the interest in the artists is changing; the fact that artists cannot be ignored any longer is changing the representation of the work; artists are, rightly, more demanding and more expressive of their needs. The more the interest and competition, the better the result. These are stimulating times.
H&B: Which are the key-issues addressed by the artists in the exhibition "Far Near Distance", which you are trying to mediate to an European audience?
Issa: The key-issue to convey in "Far Near Distance" is not – as is usually expected of artists from the Middle East – a political one. It is an artistic one: that of a new aesthetic language, which blurs the line between reality and fiction, documentaries and features, real life stories and imagined ones. The strength of the Iranian contemporary art scene is reflected in this combination of the fabric of life and art, which hopefully provides a glimpse of the state of the world, of Iran, of art in a fragile moment of our turbulent history.
If there was despair in the East, I also feel that there is despair in the West. This event is intended to encourage anyone in the East or in the West, any artist to take control of their expression and say what they have to say, no matter how modestly. Iranian artists have shown that the will to express oneself is stronger than any restriction, be it material or not, and that their concerns are shared by others, no matter where.
Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt
Publishers of Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art and of Nafas Art Magazine. Based in Berlin, Germany.
Lives in London. Curator, art critic, author; specialized on visual arts and film from the Near East and North Africa.
She has curated many film festivals and exhibitions of contemporary art together with: the Barbican Centre, Leighton House, Brunei Gallery, the National Film Theatre and British Film Institute, the Institute of Contemporary Art / ica (all London); Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (Spain), Beyeler Foundation (Switzerland), La Villette (Paris), Asia Society (New York), ifa (Germany).