Mixing East and West has become such a cliche that first mention of it is enough to shut down interest in any given context. EastWest-ism is still doing well in the art world, though. One of celebrated Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri’s works, an untitled oil and acrylic on canvas that is part of his Numeral series, was unnecessarily subjected to it in the catalogue for the Christie’s Dubai auction this week. Lines of numerals are set against a background of shades of green that suggest the texture of unearthed artefacts from the past. As Christie’s notes, the numbers have a graffiti-like, Pop Art appearance but on a canvas skilfully manipulated by Moshiri to give an antique effect. But that alone seems to have led the authors to conclude baldly: “This example subtly melds Eastern and Western concepts.” It seems that Moshiri’s binary of the past and the contemporary has been liberally redefined as “east (past), west (present)”. The notes for another in the Numeral series from 2011 suggested more usefully: “the almost military alignment of the stylized numbers is visually overwhelming and inevitably raises questions on their role: do we live in a world ruled by numbers? Is history simply a long string of successive dates?”
Again with Reza Derakhshani’s Red Hunting No III, a modern take on the traditional hunting scene of Persian miniatures, we are told that the artist “manages to bridge the gap between history and the present, between modern and contemporary and between Eastern and Western traditions”. Moshiri had a fantastic acrylic on canvas of a large jar that used layers of paint and colour in an ingenious manner to give the effect of an ancient ceramic, fusing “tradition and modernity whilst reviving a lost identity”, though in this case he was apparently not melding East with West or building a cultural bridge to your heart.
The melange of traditional and modern forms is the staple of contemporary art in the region, but is there no choice before an Iranian, Turkish or Arab artist but to have their work cast as part of a dialectic with the West? Of course, artists often play to this themselves: Lalla Essaydi’s Dancer Triptych, Harem Revisited #33 and Bullets Revisited #3 cleverly take prints of a woman model in Orientalist poses and by various gimmicks challenges yer preconceived notions. “Essaydi produces visually arresting images that instigate dialogue within their breathtaking beauty,” the notes say. The gaze of the model in each work tells us she is aware she is being commodified and manipulated by the viewer. “The model at once appears a controlled commodity to consume and be consumed, an object of desire to be dominated, yet with her confidence, her gaze implies she is aware of how she is being viewed and the power in fact rests in her hands.” Hmm. Maybe it’s like Phoebe once put it in Friends: “they don’t know that we know they know they know,” or something like that.
I’m not sure that questioning Orientalist cliche – 215 years after Napoleon landed in Egypt and 34 years after Edward Said published Orientalism – isn’t just perpetuating Orientalist thinking itself, and both sides are gluttonously enjoying it, thank you very much. There’s something of the work of Joumana Haddad, the Lebanese editor of Jasad magazine and official Arab Taboo Breaker, to Essaydi’s output. Or maybe Sarah Brightman, with her dreadful Harem foray in 2003. Or maybe even Sekhmet’s Tits. They are trading at different ends of a cosy commercial dialectic.
The star of the show was Moshiri’s Secret Garden, which selling at $987,750 almost equalled the $1 million his Love was auctioned for in 2008 at the height of the Dubai boom. There’s nothing East-West about either of them – with their use of crystals and beads, they speak to the excess of the Iranian nouveaux riches who managed to turn life in the Islamic Republic to their profit. In the same vein, there was a painting on sale by Egyptian artist Chant Avedissian of famed Iranian singer Googoosh – a work that speaks to an inter-regional dynamic that’s struggling to reemerge against the efforts of both international and some regional forces. Now Salafize That.