Home Ground

An exclusive review for CAI by Shatha Al-Husseini

Only weeks remaining for this exceptional exhibit of Arab art

In Home Ground’s curatorial statement, Suheyla Takesh reveals that the exhibition’s concept was inspired by the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus. In this notorious legend, Sisyphus is damned until eternity to push a boulder up a mountain, only for it to be struck down, forcing him to repeat the painful struggle all over again.

This provocative metaphor instantly resonates with anyone who has experienced migration, displacement, trauma, war, or truly – any pains of the human experience. While the 12 featured artists are all of Arab origin and their work employs the particularities of their experiences, it is undeniable that the spirit of Home Ground is globally relevant.

On display from July 25th 2015 to January 3rd 2016 at the Aga Khan Museum, Home Ground unapologetically explores the struggles of navigating geopolitical barriers, and the complex relationships that abound between identity and place. While the tragic fate of Sisyphus may hang above like a grey cloud, all of these artists are boldly engaging in processes full of hope despite their challenging predicaments.

“On the one hand, every person who has experienced war links suitcases to flight and exile. You get used to always having a packed one ready in case you need to flee again. On the other hand, it can represent new beginnings, hope, travel, and even adventure.” - Mohamad-Said Baalbaki

Baalbaki poetically encapsulates the contradictions that come with so many Arab experiences and identities. In his expressionist painting series Heaps(1-3), he evokes both specific memories of war, as well as repetitive, broader experiences of war, displacement, and uncertainty.

These themes are explored and deconstructed even further across a remarkable diversity of mediums. Charbel Joseph H Beatros’s From Water to Water is a conceptual installation employing two prints and a single glass equal parts Lebanese and Israeli water. Adel Abidin’s video piece Memorial is a somber observation of how war entangles itself in personal memories and present realities.

The significant presence of four major female artists in Home Ground is impossible to overlook. Suspended Together by Manaal al-Dowayan is powerful to witness. The ceramic doves stamped with authorization comments on Saudi women’s right to movement, while expressing solidarity and collective aspirations.

Larissa Sansour’s monumental Nation Estate is groundbreaking on several fronts. Her cinematic  and photographic exploration of age-old dreams and dystopian futures uses science fiction to illustrate painful, bizarre realities of Palestinian life. The short film’s impeccable execution and production value makes it easy for the viewer to lose themselves in the world Sansour has crafted and fit into 10 minutes.

The thoughtful curation puts each of these pieces in conversation with one other. Next to Sansour is Mona Hatoum, the godmother of conceptual Arab art. Her lettered mirror You Are Still Here seems like a grounding reassurance next to the darker Nation Estate. In the next hallway, Dia Al-Azzawi recreates an iconic Palestinian symbol of resistance in Handala, transforming a cartoon boy whose back is turned until liberation, into a bronze sculpture whose face is finally visible. These challenges to Sisyphus’s destiny are quietly formidable.

Home Ground is a compelling moment in Canadian Arab cultural history. The partnership between the Aga Khan Museum and the Canadian Arab Institute reflects art’s integral role in catalyzing these discussions between intersecting communities.

By supporting new narratives and ideas from contemporary thinkers and makers, our organizations are setting the standard for the community’s imagination and priorities.

The importance of this exhibition surrounds each of the pieces. Powerful art unsettles, and Home Ground does not shy away from challenging the status quo or reimagining possible futures in the face of Sisyphean challenges. It is truly powerful to witness Arab narratives and creativity represented so strongly, and it would be a tragic choice to miss this show.