Winter 2007 | ArteZine

Reflections: Athir Shayota

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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 state of contemporary international art exists in at least two forms: the first is the market driven product that challenges no authority and reflects on benign notions, the contemporary art one sees in most New York City museums and galleries. The other is an interventionist one; humane, relevant and politically conscious, reflected in art produced by many artists of the Middle East and its diaspora.

In all great art there is an embodiment of resistance to this oppressive world. This is communicated in many ways. Sometimes it is overtly revolutionary, like Potecorvo’s Battle of Algiers (1965), where the mechanisms of a revolution are presented, analyzed and put into action. The film being as revolutionary to filmmaking as it is to society, influencing resistance movements worldwide, such as the Black Panther Party in America.

Resistance can also be expressed in the depiction of a landscape. In Van Gogh: the Man Suicided by Society (1947), Antonin Artaud equates van Gogh’s paintings with an unequivocal force:

“For it is not a certain conformity of manners that the painting of van Gogh attacks, but rather the conformity of institutions themselves. And even external nature, with her climates, her tides, and her equinoctial storms, cannot, after van Gogh’s stay upon earth, maintain the same gravitation.” (Art in Theory 1900-1990)

But van Gogh has been hijacked, taken and displayed like a trophy by the same consumerist culture he would have abhorred.

Many artists of the Middle East, despite all the obstacles they face, are still free from market incursion and are conscious of their past and history, their community and its aspirations, forming one of the most important and redeeming contributions offered by contemporary international art today.


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


A: I will share two recent experiences in order to shed light on the role of scholarship as it relates to our understanding of art.

In a 2005 exhibition of Arab art in Michigan, I was asked by the curator to link my early work to the most recent in a brief artist’s statement to accompany reproductions of my work in the exhibit catalog. During the opening of the exhibit, I saw the catalog and what had become of my statement. Without my knowledge or permission, what I had written was rewritten. My statement was now depoliticized, infantilized and my voice completely muffled. I was quoted as saying things I did not say or would have ever said. My voice and the discussion of my work were compromised so as not to disturb a particular political (perhaps corporate) agenda.

In 2006, in another exhibition of Arab art in New York, my original artist’s statement written for the 2005 exhibit was offered to this new curator for a discussion of my work that would appear in the exhibit catalog. Here not only were my politics acknowledged, my work was contextualized with the exact socio-political framework in which it was painted. The political dissent which I expressed not only in my statement but also in the dignified postures of my Iraqi subjects was brought to the forefront of the discussion, not white-washed.

Scholarship as it relates to contemporary international art should align itself with movements, not be neutral but maintain integrity as an active speaker and amplifier of ideas and artists, especially those which are kept underground and silenced, in turn destabilizing the perceptions of larger society. True scholarship itself becomes a political act.


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: I view the interest with Middle Eastern art by the West with great suspicion. The interest of the West in the Middle East is one of consumption. Our oil is not the only thing the West desires.

Unlike the films of Antonioni, in the 1960s, where Monica Viti realizes that she does not recognize or accept her surroundings, today’s Western man is no longer even aware of his own alienation. His art has become an unquestioning part of his terrible society, and does not exist in defiance of it. The Middle Easterner is still resisting and beauty is communicated.

So why would the West want that which rejects it’s being wholly? Is it Sado-Masochism? Or is it as a recent article on ArteNews suggests: an attempt to depoliticize and compartmentalize a revolutionary movement?

Why, after decades of Middle Eastern artists producing and exhibiting, has there been a sudden interest in art from the region? Perhaps the West has run out of ideas. Are all their great artists dead?

The last important artwork to come out of the West, Robert Bresson’s L’Argent, was in 1984. A film about how the most elementary exchange of money eventually leads to murder. Based on Tolstoy’s short story The Forged Coupon (1904), the film is a “late” work by cinema’s greatest artist. Tarkovsky and Fassbinder, the last important filmmakers of the West, died soon after the film’s release, and Europe became empty. Given the political persuasion of Jean-Luc Godard, who is still alive and producing important work, invites one to paraphrase Hassan Nasrallah regarding Hugo Chavez: Godard is a great Arab indeed. This is not a stretch, if the West is allowed to take our Zaha Hadid (as seen in Western references to the “Baghdad-born” but never Arab architect) we have every right to take their Godard.

Either way, given its history and current activities, the West is not to be trusted.


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


A: One looks at everything and is sometimes influenced by matters not apparent. In relation to my painting, there are immediate influences. I began painting in oils in September 1986 while living in Detroit and studying next to The Detroit Institute of Arts, with its important collection, which includes the Midwest’s greatest monument, Diego Rivera’s fresco cycle, Detroit Industry (1933). Giants like Rembrandt, Velasquez, El Greco, Caravaggio and Cezanne I studied closely, spending all my time figuring out what technically and otherwise makes their works so great. Soutine at that time I loved most. Van Gogh helped me resolve paintings. From Bonnard I learned how a still life is painted. The love for projecting the beauty of everyday life in their art, I connected with.

In the 90s, I became interested in Lucian Freud and many of my paintings would pass through a Freud-like stage before being rejected, moving them eventually to some other realm. In the last years, I’ve been looking at Francis Bacon. The Self Portrait with an Umbrella (2003) has Bacon’s painting Miss Muriel Belcher (1959) underneath it, completely copied, my image was painted over it and an umbrella was introduced later, a motif often used by Bacon.

The subject matter though is always Iraqi. I paint my family members and friends, our Middle Eastern dishes and the emotions and psychology that to me are Iraq. In the late 80s and early 90s, my father and mother were painted more than ten times, requiring much labor, Family Tree (1991-92) taking two years to complete.

As my art education was in the West and Western-centric, I had to search for art by other cultures, such as my own. In the 90s, I looked closely at Islamic painting of the book. The intense usage of color, the combining of text and image, the complexity and ordering, and the arabesque, became integral to my thinking and aspects of which became elements within my compositions.


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: Some of the greatest achievements in the 20th century belong to cinema. Its masters are many.

In Iraq, my family awaited Egyptian films on television. But around age 8 or 9, I became interested in the American Western. For me the action packed cowboy films were all I wanted to see, longing for the day I would come to America, get a (toy) gun and “kill”.

In Godard’s collage film Histoire(s) du Cinema (1988), he reflects not on the history of cinema, but on the history of Europe in time of cinema. For the filmmaker, the maddening violence that European nations engulfed themselves in and inflicted upon others cannot be ignored by cinema. Art should concern itself with the ramifications of this violent world and the human toll that results. For Godard, there is no redemption but through art. And art for him is exemplified by Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945).

Along with De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948), Rome, Open City ushered in the Neorealist movement in film with socially conscious works that were politically charged, class conscious, and revolutionary in content and style. Shot mostly on location, the film transformed cinema with its documentary style filmmaking and the use of non-actors for most roles. Chronicling the Italian resistance against the Nazi occupation, the film is a testament to human courage in a time of suffocating oppression.

All great works of art are politically conscious, where even techniques and style are aware of the political dimension. Political struggles are mostly class based and continue. The subjection of masses to wars, poverty and suffering for the sake of the elite class’ hegemonic needs and material gain continue in the same fashion as in the forties when Rossellini’s masterpiece was created.

The tragedies facing the Arab world today are many. Iraq has been tested continuously throughout its history. Over the past century, Palestine has been spared no cruelty. And within the last year, Lebanon has been viciously attacked, yet again.

Given the current state of the world and Rossellini’s early demonstration of empathy towards a people’s resistance to violent occupation, would he not side with today’s resistance to Israeli aggression in Lebanon? Especially if those sustaining such resistance were responsible for the creation and maintenance of the civilian infrastructure of the disfranchised poor, insuring medical care, building schools, sheltering and feeding, paving roads, and even landscaping and beautifying the various surroundings of the Lebanese inhabitants? Would this resistance not fill him with awe?

On whose behalf are wars fought? Which corporations profit from weapons used? Which corporations will subsequently have access to the exploitation of the natives? What does the West have to offer to the rest of the world? Not democracy. Films, maybe? But what films does the West offer now? Have the days of Rossellini not left us? Post 1945 American films lost the style and mood of their predecessors. They’ve become mind-numbing and vulgar, stunting all intellectual growth. They are conformist and lack any understanding of revolutionary and working class struggles.

It is Iranian filmmakers that have ushered in the 21st century and taken full control of international cinema. Influenced by Sohrab Shahid Saless, among others, Abbas Kiarostami is the father of this movement, with masterpieces that include: Where is the Friends Home? (1987), Close Up (1990), Through the Olive Trees (1994) and Taste of Cherry (1997). He has dramatically altered the scope of cinema, creating works that are nothing short of miracles. Engrossed with his people, their humanity and beauty, minimalist in style but utterly complicated in both conception and resolution, relying on non-ending endings, and showing the West how it is still done.

His followers are equally unique. Jafar Panahi’s The Mirror (1997) and Crimson Gold (2003) are World Cinema masterpieces. The sheer wonderment of The Mirror, as we are plunged into the fate of a young girl making her way home from school, the existential implications of every move, and the ending is pure brilliance.

Hamid Rahmanian’s first feature Day Break (2005), a film full of cinematic ideas, differs from both Kiarostami and Panahi in that along with the language of Iranian cinema, the influence of great French, Italian and Russian filmmakers is more apparent and seamlessly fused. The opening scene, worthy of both Bresson and Melville, is of a panning camera shot that anticipates a murder, but dutifully stays away from showing it.

Godard’s famous remark that cinema ends with Kiarostami is at the end not wholly true, but a truth rests within it: if art were to come to an end, one should look elsewhere than the West for it.




Athir Shayota’s paintings have been featured in solo and group exhibitions in museums, universities and galleries throughout the United States including: Fann Wa Tarab: Five Contemporary Arab American Artists, The Detroit Institute of Arts (1994), Haqiqa Wa Kheyal: Haitham Abdul-Jabbar Abdullah and Athir Shayota, Cooper Union Humanities Gallery (2004), In/Visible: Contemporary Art by Arab American Artists, Arab American National Museum (2005), and Three Arab Painters in New York: Samia Halaby, Sumayyah Samaha and Athir Shayota, The Bridge gallery, Chelsea (2006). His most recent solo exhibition, Athir Shayota: Iraqi Portraits, will be held at the Jerusalem Fund Gallery in Washington D.C. (Jan 19 – Mar 2, 2007). Shayota was born in northern Iraq and now resides in New York City with his wife Maymanah Farhat.

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