Winter 2007 | ArteZine

Reflections: Abdelali Dahrouch

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Q: How do you see the state of contemporary international art? How does art function in today’s global society?


A: The cultural critic Homi Bhabha has argued that: “The globe shrinks for those who own it; for the displaced of the dispossessed, the migrant or the refugee, no distance is more awesome than the few feet across borders and frontiers.” Art making from this perspective is ultimately grounded on the lived realities and material conditions of those existing and working at the interstices of aesthetics, poetics, politics, and consciousness. How does a Palestinian artist in Palestine make sense of his/her condition of subjugation and colonial oppression in relation to art? How does this concrete condition translate into a visual text? This text is transient. As Antonio Gramsci has said, it represents a “trace” in a world without an inventory. This trace is part of an infinity of networks, and together they implore for visibility and legitimacy. The trace becomes a visual punctuation – a counterpoint – in a chaotic world. As the deterritorialization of geographical space continues, the visual text strives for reconciliation and resolution.

A salient feature of contemporary international art practice is the articulation of difference in relation to globalization. The various art practices emerging from the third world by diasporic artists living in between geographical, cultural, and psychic spaces, foreground alterity within the rich terrain of postcoloniality. The advent of information technologies continues to facilitate the flow of postcolonial cultural production in an increasingly rapid fashion. The shared vision among postcolonial artists is to present a local reality to a global audience. Their visual texts exist within a contested field of interpretation and reception, and I believe the struggle for these artists is to resist hegemonic cooptations of their textual and visual work as they are showcased around the world. The globalization of art, in relation to the biennales, for example, occupies an ambivalent space for many postcolonial artists. Are their works recognized within their discursive and polysemous articulations; or are they simply celebrated as exotic tokens of difference to diversify the visual spectrum? As hybrid and diasporic images continue to circulate within an intricate web of power relationships, the North/South, Center/Margin divides are no longer viable models when attempting to address the role of the other within the context of production. Globalization in this context can be seen as a paradox. It becomes a site through which cultural imperialism fixes its talons and exerts its crimes against humanity—plummeting indigenous ecosystems and enslaving communities—while at the same time globalization makes it impossible to ignore the Third World other, and diverse contexts of agency and resistance. Within the “spirit of diversity,” global art commodity institutions can appropriate the postcolonial artist to represent, speak for, and supplant this other as persistent and egregious inequities ensue. Postcolonial art operates within an international market and is informed by the circuits of globalization that make it visible. The critical aspect of postcolonial art is to recognize the extent to which its celebration interfaces with neoliberalism or Orientalism, even, and resist this recolonization of “otherness.” Diasporic and indigenous art communities can embody resistance and, as such, explode and complicate an otherwise reductive reading of cultural imperialism, but they do not usually represent the communities most pilfered and plundered by globalization or war. A hybrid cultural and artistic landscape is a more fitting discursive mapping of our contemporary condition—a condition of struggle, survival, contested interpretation, and interdependence. Globalization as it relates to transnationalism makes it impossible to accept theoretical narratives of postmodern relativism or neoliberalism, which flatten difference and elide legacies of inequality and colonialism. Interdependence suggests that the lived realities of those over “there” are inextricably bound to those over “here.” To this end, globalization affects all aspects of humanity, from economic hegemony to subaltern resistance, and contemporary international art is undeniably framed by these discussions.


Q. What role does scholarship (art criticism, art historical discourse, etc) play in shaping our perceptions and understandings of art?


A: The scholarship that informs the interdisciplinary arena of art comprises a heterogeneous field that expands the bandwidth of the ways an artwork can cohere and be engaged. The very premise of scholarship; however, also asserts a notion of expertise and it is this conflation of power and knowledge that has installed the very hegemonic paradigms in art that the visual arts sector has been critiquing for over a century (i.e. the aesthetic paradigm of Western modernism). These paradigms dictate a conformist reading and reception of art when they engage art history and criticism, making certain forms of cultural production legitimate, and others not. During WW II, The Museum of Modern Art in New York was heralded as the preeminent institution of modern art, and behind the scenes occupied a pivotal position in Cold War politics against the Soviet Union. Abstract Expressionism was not only championed internationally by Clement Greenberg, but also by the Rockefellers, the board of MoMA trustees (many of whom had ties to the government and large corporations), and the CIA. AE and High Art were the perfect propagandistic tools to ideologically distance the West from the Red Scare. The variant of modernism celebrated by the MoMA blatantly disregarded subaltern versions of cultural production, canonizing a prescriptive and reductive reading of white cube ideology in the process. But what do we make of the cooptation of alternative modes of expression by such institutions, especially when an exhibited work engages institutional critique, as we see in the works of Adrian Piper, Fred Wilson, James Luna, or Jimmie Durham? How does the discourse of art history grapple with controversial works that question the very nature of its production?

Knowledge to this end emerged in the West as a colonial weapon. As Edward Said has put it, when Napoleon entered Egypt to colonize virgin lands, he not only brought the sword, he brought the book. The colonial imaginary of Western expansionism is so rigorously embedded into dominant ideology in the West, that we are still invading nations based on ideologies of Orientalism, centuries later. Art is mediated through systems of belief. As Althusser has explained, ideology is inescapable and pervasive. It mediates everything we come in contact with. To Althusser, ideology was linked to this apparatus; ideology was a false reflection of reality to justify the status quo. With Gramsci’s theorization of hegemony, he allowed for the notion of agency and resistance, recognizing that they are multiple ideologies including counter-hegemonic ones. As we exist and operate within this conflicting field, we construct meanings through an intricate and amorphous ecology of affiliations, associations, expectations, conventions, desire, codes, symbols etc. Subaltern knowledges emerge out of this space of criticality and resistance. The interface of art in relation to postmodern, postcolonial, and transnational feminist criticism has shed light on the manner in which certain dimensions of scholarship continue to unfold within structures of imperialism, yet this interface also demonstrates how to recognize, critique and subvert these ideological underpinnings.


Q: How do you read the current interest in Middle Eastern and “Islamic” contemporary art in European and North American art institutions, markets and galleries?


A. Once again one must return to the question of ideology in order to grapple with this question. The “Orient” has always been a source of fascination, mystery, and exoticism to the West, and the West remains tied to these pervasive, stereotypical representations of the Middle East (or Central/Southwest Asia/North Africa) particularly in this post 9/11 climate. It has a vested interest in these representations. As a nation, how do we come to know the Other? Does this practice of knowing engender kinship or aversion? Is the discursive articulation of difference ultimately coercive or a catalyst for meaningful change? The U.S. Government and corporate/mainstream rely on a particular notion of the Orient being resistant to modernity, comprised by indigenous peoples who are backwards and in need of rescue from the clutches of tribalism and religious fundamentalism. Contemporary manifestations of Orientalism are alive and well, to be sure, demonstrated in its most virulent incarnation in Iraq and Palestine. At the backdrop of rampant imperialism across the Middle East, sanctioned by U.S. Foreign Policy and international apathy, we are witnessing an increased interest in “Islamic” art and contemporary art practices from the Middle East. I believe the reasons why are both obvious and utterly discursive. The obvious reason for this interest is that the staging of “Islam” is dreadfully current. The front pages of mainstream newspapers, television news casts and radio airwaves are saturated with the unfolding events from this “troubled” region. How the media frames these events pose another set of issues, and what coheres is a visual aesthetic attached to the colonial imaginary of the Orient. We see a proliferation of work that is ornate, design oriented, and abstract. Beyond the currency of the Orient displayed in the media, and beyond the interest in “Islamic” art and contemporary art from the Middle East, we must ask who is involved in the ideological framing of such exhibits taking place in the West? Does the framing emanate from a genuine desire of curators to rectify a subverted and distilled image of the Middle East and present the region in all its complexities and character (and this would include the interdependent role the West plays in engendering this character)? Or perhaps is it another way to reify Orientalist aesthetics within the confines of Western cultural institutions, and in doing so continue, to perpetrate stereotypical notions of “Islam” and “Middle Eastern” Art? More importantly, is Middle Eastern/Arab/Muslim conceptual/political art enjoying comparable visibility? We must ask ourselves what the Western public wants to see when they are confronted with their Orient? The very fact that art can be called “Islamic” suggests a category so fraught politically. Consciousness and criticality must converge to address the question of the Middle East and the complexities of our global condition.


Q: What artists, movements, or schools have had the most impact on your work?


A: In an age of rapid globalization, transnational cultural production embodies an intricate web of interpretation, meaning, and reception, and is symptomatic of our interdependence to each other and to the ground on which we collectively inhabit as world citizens. As a transnational subject operating within multiple subjectivities, across and beyond borders, I have been influenced by the work of Alfredo Jaar, Doris Salcedo, Hans Haacke, Rudolf Baranik, Mona Hatoum, Walid Raad, Jimmie Durham, Fred Wilson, Adrian Piper, Cildo Meireles, and Gary Hill, all of whom thoughtfully consider the poetic relationship between aesthetics and content in their powerful statements engaging themes social justice and consciousness. My practice converges in relation to Postcoloniality, Buddhism, and Ecology, and my art has reflected the scholarship and writings of Homi Bhabha, Ella Shohat, Stuart Hall, Gayatri Spivak, Trinh Minh-ha, Rebecca Solnit, John Berger, Mahmoud Darwish, Arundhati Roy, Thich Naht Hanh, and others. These artists, poets, scholars, and writers have demonstrated a vision of difference and consciousness, as they bear upon reflections of peace and social justice.

The scholarship of Edward Said has figured perhaps most prominently for me. His manuscripts have created an intellectual, psychic, and social space to consider the possibility of a visual text to effect meaningful change. His oeuvre has directed attention to those alternative communities whose histories of activism and cultural production have not been often regarded as legitimate forms of expression. The marginalized histories of the postcolonial artist are salient within the field of cultural production, and offer more incisive critiques in relation to history, culture and identity. I believe Said has created a vision of possibility to chart alternative narratives that reflect the heterogeneity of culture, identity, and subjectivity posed by histories of immigration, diaspora, and political exile, and I continue to be inspired by his various texts read upon read.


Q: As art progresses into the 21st century, can you reflect on art of the last century? What or who marks the importance of art in the 20th century? What or who has ushered in art of the 21st century?


A: When one looks at the art of the 20th century, a century of untold suffering and trauma, the production of images in the West has followed modernist narratives of purity, enlightenment, and expansionism. The Western paradigm of modernism has been too narrowly focused on a specific branch of aesthetics, and, as such, subaltern modernist art practices have been overlooked. Subaltern modern art was grounded on the material conditions and lived realities of people going through fundamental social and political upheaval and transformation (i.e. struggles for decolonization and independence). David Alfaro Siquieros’ art for instance was tied to his life on the front lines of the Mexican revolution and a notion of modernismo that was absolutely revolutionary. This history is inextricably linked to how we might engage postcoloniality or postmodern transnationalism, which precisely address how these conditions of difference and resistance have always existed. The School of Formalism in the West has prescribed rigid ideological readings of art based upon notions of abstraction and purity. The Frankfurt School was instrumental in complicating Modernism’s myopic discourse by injecting a social history of the culture industries, and by extension, art, which was grounded on salient features of early Marxism, bringing about postmodern critiques of truth and enlightenment, from Lyotard to Jameson. However, seated, yet again, within a Western frame, these engagements of postmodernism failed to address its entrenchment within a first world perspective. They denied the possibility that these critiques of the enlightenment were racist, and that there existed other forms of enlightenment outside a Western prescription, for example Buddhist enlightenment, or Nirvana. While certain dimensions of postmodernism suggest its periodization as post ’68, which we can see the aesthetic shifts that marked specific art movements (Conceptual art, Body Art, Fluxus, Happenings, Earth Art, Process Art, Arte Povera, Feminist Art, and Installation Art), where were symptomatic of the time, postmodernism is not exclusively time based. Postmodern transnationalism reminds us that difference, hybridity, and heterogeneity have always existed, and the onus is on us to develop articulations of these erasures and traumas more coherently. Art is one such place where these memories have been compiled. Modern art history might have chosen to evacuate meaning and elide culture to focus on form; however, it does not stop us from returning to these images now with different questions and different knowledges.

Is it possible to look at art to examine disenfranchised narratives or experience what has been obscured from dominant memory? Art functions as an alternative text to explore visibility as well as the practice of systematic erasure. Globalization has wrought such injustice through the deterritorialization of geography and capital on the West’s behalf. On the other hand, it has allowed for the very conditions of possibility that bring about transformation by drawing attention to the “flexible citizen.” In a moment where so much is on the brink of collapse, there is an urgent need to address and redress the ills of our time. When social cohesion and global kinship are fractured, humanity and ecology suffer in the process. The ensuing rift makes balance and harmony elusive. The negotiation of difference beyond a coercive posture is ultimately a creative labor of integration. Art can a powerful and meaningful site to this end, not by the nature of its mere existence, but by the very possibility of what it can become.

In the words of John Berger, “Poetry can repair no loss, but it defies the space which separates. And it does this by its continual labor of reassembling what has been scattered.”




Abdelali Dahrouch is a video installation artist, writer, and activist who is based in Los Angeles and teaches at Otis College of Art and Design. Born in Tangier, and raised between Morocco and France, Dahrouch emigrated to the U.S. in 1984, and works between the U.S., France, and Morocco. His work engages the interface of Buddhism, ecology and Postcoloniality, as it bears upon transnational migration and U.S./European imperialism, largely in relation to the Middle East and North Africa.

Dahrouch graduated from Pratt Institute in New York with a Masters of Fine Arts. He was a fellow in residence at the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program in New York; the Cultural Exchange Station at Tabor in the Czech Republic; the Cimelice Castle in Cimelice, Czech Republic; and the Metamedia Center for the Arts in Plasy, Czech Republic. In November 2003, he was a Visiting Artist at Home Works II-2003: A Forum on Cultural Practices in Beirut, Lebanon organized by Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Society of Plastic Arts, a non-profit arts organization. He received an “Intra-nation” BANFF Residency Fellowship in Banff, Canada in Summer 2004.

Dahrouch has exhibited his work in New York, Chicago, Portland (OR), Los Angeles, Seville (Spain), Sophia (Bulgaria), Tabor, Cimelice, Plasy and Prague (Czech Republic) and Clairemont Ferrand, France. A solo show entitled, Desert Sin, Revisited exhibited at the Montgomery Art Museum, Pomona College in Claremont, California in 2003. He has exhibited at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan; the Athens Institute of Contemporary Art in Athens, Georgia; the Guggenheim Gallery at Chapman University in Orange, California; Liquidation Total Art Space in Madrid, Spain; W. Keith and Janet Kellogg University Art Gallery at California Polytechnic University in Pomona; Articultural Gallery in Santa Monica, California and the Worth Ryder Gallery at the University of California at Berkeley. His upcoming shows in 2007-2008 will take place at the Berkeley Art Center in Berkeley, California; the University of Rochester Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, New York; the Cultural Center of Hillsboro in Oregon; The Biola University Art Gallery in La Mirada, California, and at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MUHKA) in Antwerp, Belgium.

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