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'Unveiled: New Art From the Middle East' at London's Saatchi Gallery

The exhibition, from the collection of Charles Saatchi, is an attempt to address issues other than the wars and religious controversies people usually hear about.

February 11, 2009|Henry Chu

LONDON — Bombs explode, nations rage and religions clash daily in the Middle East. For many outsiders, the steady drip-feed of violent images from places such as Gaza and Iraq has reduced the region to a trope of carnage and conflict.

A new exhibition has opened here in the British capital with the hope of offering an alternate vision: the Middle East as a source of lively, stimulating contemporary art -- informed by conflict, certainly, but not consumed by it.

Rather, the politics of gender, sexuality and religion are as much a part of "Unveiled: New Art From the Middle East" as armed confrontation. The dozens of paintings, sculptures and installations on view at the Saatchi Gallery in central London engage such topics as prostitution in Iran and the segregation of the sexes in Muslim rituals.

There is the roomful of women wrapped in chadors and kneeling in prayer, ghostly aluminum-foil figures that, when seen from the front, turn out to be hollow, with black voids for faces. Elsewhere, a burly would-be terrorist, his chest recently waxed, strikes a ridiculous pinup pose in a painting that puckishly blurs the macho with the metrosexual.

If such works by artists from nations such as Lebanon and Syria surprise some visitors, then all the better, say organizers of the exhibition, which is scheduled to run until May 6.

"We normally just hear about wars and religious controversies in the Middle East," said Rebecca Wilson, the gallery's head of development. "We may not even have a picture in our minds of what artwork from Iraq or Tehran might look like."

"Unveiled" does not, however, present a comprehensive or curatorial survey of art from the region. Instead, it's a snapshot derived from the eclectic personal collection of one man, Charles Saatchi, the advertising mogul turned art patron who owns the gallery.

Of the 19 artists featured, at least half are of Iranian descent. Countries such as Israel and Egypt, both of which have contemporary art scenes, are not represented. Many of the artists live and work in the West, including in the U.S. And nearly all of them are younger than 40, which mirrors Saat- chi's well-known connoisseurship of works by young Britons.

The exhibition, several years in the making, follows a similar show last fall of contemporary Chinese art that drew more raves for the gallery's new space -- a vast, pillared building in Sloane Square, one of London's most exclusive neighborhoods -- than for some of the works inside. This time, the critics have generally been kinder, if only because cutting-edge art from the Middle East is still a novelty in many ways, devoid of the hype and saturation coverage accorded to new art from China.

Indeed, in helping to put together "Unveiled," Nigel Hurst, the gallery's chief executive, found art flourishing in places he had not expected. "I only learned while this show was being put together that Tehran has over 100 commercial art galleries. These aren't things you necessarily associate with that region."

Not that the galleries in Tehran always show the works that are on display here. One limiting factor is size: There are no spaces in the Iranian capital large enough to mount some of painter Rokni Haerizadeh's more ambitious works, including diptychs seen in "Unveiled" that are more than 20 feet wide.

Full of dashing brush strokes, sinuous lines and vivid color, Haerizadeh's sprawling canvases variously depict a funeral, a wedding and a sunny day out at the beach, where men lounge around in skimpy bathing suits while their wives, covered from head to foot, attend to them.

Haerizadeh's brother, Ramin, is represented in the exhibition by a series of prints, "Men of Allah," which weave elements of Shiite Muslim religious theater into mildly homoerotic, digitally manipulated photographs of Ramin himself, with plenty of exposed flesh.

Far short of obscene by Western standards, the prints are nonetheless daring enough in Iran that when a gallery in Tehran put several on view, the artist feared an official backlash, which can result in banishment from the country.

"As soon as we hung them on the wall, coming out I wondered, what's going to happen?" Haerizadeh said. "There are some red lines. You can work on the red lines, but if you cross them, you're in trouble."

Luckily, nothing has happened -- yet. ("Maybe they were all on holiday," Haerizadeh said of the official censors.) The Haerizadeh brothers say that the publicity surrounding the Saatchi show could incur unwanted consequences back in their cleric-ruled homeland.

"Unveiled" could court controversy in Britain. Some members of the country's Muslim population might not be amused by a show engaged in, as one newspaper put it in the headline of a complimentary review, "mocking the mullahs."

"There is a chance that some people will take issue with the work," Wilson acknowledged. "But the important thing is to educate people and show them . . . the quality of the work being made."

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