AMCA - Interview with Nada Shabout

Interview with Nada Shabout, president and founding member of the organization, founded in 2007.
By Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt | Sep 2008

The Association for Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World, Iran, and Turkey (AMCA) is a private, non-profit, apolitical, international organization founded in 2007 as an affiliate organization of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA). According to the mission stated on its website, AMCA aims to advance the study of this emerging field through the creation of a network of interested scholars and organizations, facilitating communication and cooperation by sponsoring conferences, holding meetings, and exchanging information via a newsletter and a website.

To find out more about AMCA, we interviewed Nada Shabout, who is President and Founding Board Member of the organization. She is currently an Associate Professor of Art History at the University of North Texas, focusing on Arab and Islamic visual culture, Orientalism and globalization issues, among other things. She is the author of Modern Arab Art: Formation of Arab Aesthetics (University of Florida Press, 2007) as well as of numerous articles on modern and contemporary art from Iraq and on the legal and ethical responsibilities of the US in Iraq after 2003.

Haupt & Binder: The mission statement of AMCA says, that the association's aim is to advance the study of this "emerging field". To what extent is its focus an emerging field? Isn't it rather the international interest that has emerged recently, rather than the field itself? How, why, and in what context did the initiative come about?

Nada Shabout: What is meant by emerging field is particularly in relation to its status in Western academia. Obviously there was always contemporary art produced in the region, but there was little interest. Yes, much of this interest today is generated by the market and by politics. The initiative, however, was in the making for a few years. Actually it was an idea I had while pursuing my graduate work, almost in vacuum, as it was a totally unknown field of study during the 1980s and 1990s in the West, particularly in an art historical context. We were still (and to some extent still are) battling the many prejudices against the region and its visual production; Islamic art, prohibition against representations, imitations of Western art, etc. As a lonely graduate student I faced lack of knowledge, lack of resources, and lack of access to works of art. In the last few years, however, the number of graduate students trying to find home bases to pursue studies in the visual production of various parts of the region has increased. So I thought it was time to pull together and provide a voice for the field and a forum for interested students and scholars. Silvia Naef (University of Geneva) and I co-directed a Workshop: "From Local to Global: Visual Arts in the Eastern Mediterranean between International Markets and Local Expectations" at The Seventh Mediterranean Social and Political Research Meeting, Florence, Italy, March 22 – 26, 2006. One of the aims of the gathering, which included 12 participants, was to initiate the idea of an organization. In fact, a number of the participants are on AMCA's board now. We later followed up on the idea during the Middle East Studies Association's (MESA) 2006 meeting in Boston and formed the nucleus of the organization.

H&B: The focus on the Arab world, Iran, and Turkey implies that there are commonalities among these countries and cultural regions that justify a joining of efforts. How would you describe them?

N. S.: In many ways the focus was decided by the interest of those present in the workshop. I mean that we did not follow an exclusive formula, but worked from a practical stand. While the majority of us work on Arab countries, and of course, there is a strong argument for more commonalities between the Arab world based on a shared language and culture, we continuously overlap with our colleagues who work on Iran and Turkey, among other countries. Historically, there has been a stronger interaction between Iran and Turkey and the Arab world that continues today. Obviously we do believe that there are commonalities generated by a shared history, ancient cultures, years of Islamic present and heritage, colonial and postcolonial problematic, and a shared misrepresentation by the hegemonic powers of the West. You could say that they all fall under the leveling eye of Orientalism, and thus share common goals of self-assertion.

H&B: AMCA’s inaugural session at the Middle Eastern Studies Association Conference in November last year sought, among other things, to confront the "common preconception that scholars of modern and contemporary art from the Arab world are often forced to address, namely the assumed lack of any kind of critical discourse surrounding the production and consumption of the visual arts" and the claim that "there is no art history in the Arab world." Are these the greatest challenges that AMCA faces? And what can be undertaken to fight these preconceptions?

N. S.: Yes these are two of the most fundamental challenges that AMCA faces, and this is what is meant by advancing the study of an emerging field. The assumption has been that modern and contemporary art in the Arab world is either a modern Islamic production (with all the preconceptions and bias that the term Islamic came to carry) or a cheap imitation of European art. In both cases, it is excluded from the context of modernity and postmodernity as advanced and articulated in the West. The main problem has been that the region’s visual production and consumption has not been historicized. AMCA is planning to particularly confront this issue, as well as initiate a number of projects that aim at supporting critical analyses and dissemination of the studies. The field lacks accessible literature, data and images. Much of its history is unknown and unwritten.

H&B: The second panel analyzed the term "Arab art" and the justifications, questionings, and implications of using such a label. Could you summarize some of the conclusions that could be drawn from the papers and discussions?

N. S.: I must confess that the term "Arab art" always faces ambiguous reactions. Of course it was much easier to argue for a justification for the use of the term (always to imply unity within variety based on intersections and commonalities that never negates particularities and is not meant to replicate the problematic of the monolith connotations of "Islamic art") for most of the 20th century on socio-political and ideological bases. For the most part, and understandably, scholars and students seem to avoid confronting it, and it is generally used uncritically to express some sort of connection. Everyone still comfortably uses the designation "Arab world" or Arab countries." No one, however, wants to define or justify the use. I am afraid that the second panel also shied away from clear unfashionable confrontations, while alluding to Arabism as a concept for justification in the earlier period.

I am still a believer of more commonalities than distinctions, which justifies the use of the term Arab to designate a cultural unity. In fact I would argue that the cultural unity has only grown stronger after the failure of any political efforts. Satellite TV and regional migrations have only brought the Arab nations closer. On the visual side, shared cultural aspects, as well as political upheaval, are certainly still points of intersections and overlap, even if artists from the Arab world prefer to not label their production as "Arab."

H&B: Who can join the AMCA, and when becoming a member, what duties and benefits will he or she have, in particular when the new member cannot travel to the "real" conferences?

N. S.: All individuals and institutions interested in the topic are welcome to join. AMCA is a young association with high potential. Much of this potential is only possible through the active involvement of its members. One of the main objectives of AMCA is to connect academics, students, scholars, and artists both within and outside of the region. The aim is not only to have studies about the region but also to support a global interaction and present the region as a player in its own history.

AMCA plans to continually organize panels at the Middle East Studies Association and College Art Association annual meetings and to publish the participating papers on its website. The website is designed to become a virtual interactive forum by publishing relevant studies, eventually in Arabic as well, and relevant announcements of activities in the field. We also plan to start organizing a biannual AMCA conference, to be hosted in various parts of the region and not only the United States. We are working to include provisions in our budget to facilitate participation from the region.

Another important benefit will be a published bibliography accessible on our website. This is a project that is currently headed by Salwa Mikdadi, who is working with a number of our members.

We all welcome ideas and suggestions from our members. We are in the process of initiating a number of projects based on suggestion by our members to be carried out by various subcommittees. In other words, we encourage and highly appreciate members who wish to take an active role in building a stronger association.

H&B: What are the next AMCA-related activities or events?

N. S.: Our next immediate activities include an AMCA panel at the MESA 2008 Annual Meeting, November 22-25, Washington, DC: A History of the Real World: Realism and the Visual Arts in Egypt and Lebanon, organized by Raja Adal and Sarah Rogers. Details can be found on our website. We are also planning an introductory reception for our members who plan to attend MESA. A number of us are also planning to attend and participate in the Cairo Biennial in December 2008. Further details will soon be available on our AMCA website.

Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt

Publishers of Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art and of Nafas Art Magazine. Based in Berlin, Germany.

AMCA
University of North Texas
1155 Union Circle
# 305100
Denton
Texas 76203-5017
USA
Website Email

President:
Nada Shabout

President-Elect:
Sarah Rogers

Secretary:
Dina Ramadan

Treasurer:
Rhonda Saad

Founding Board Members:
Salwa Mikdadi
Silvia Naef
Beral Madra
Shiva Balaghi

Honorary Board Advisor:
Nasser Rabbat

Nafas
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