Here and Elsewhere, the New Museum’s colossal survey of contemporary art from the Arab world, sets for itself an impossible task. The curatorial strategy, as stated in the exhibition’s press release, is to work “against the notion of the Arab world as a homogenous or cohesive entity.” Though able to present a range of Arab identities, regionalisms, and geographies, the sprawling installation self-organizes and familiar tropes begin to emerge. As every archetype is anchored in a truth, the images of war-torn streets, monuments to fallen dictators, dusty Bedouins in desert landscapes, and gleaming symbols of oil-soaked capitalism here are resonant and believable. Even so, the choice to include forty-five artists and collectives renders the exhibition both overwhelming and incoherent, and the huge number of works strains the already limited functionality of the museum’s signature building.
Rather than impose some significant through-line on the cacophony of voices that make up Here and Elsewhere, despite the curators having opted not to, I will instead focus on a few key works that offer surprising and provocative views of the contemporary Arab experience, while indicating some omissions in our understanding of who is present in the “Arab world.” From the start, the exhibition positions Arab identity as closely connected with post-colonial struggle, from Lebanon to Palestine to Egypt. On the museum’s fifth floor, Ala Younis has curated an exhibition-within-an-exhibition titled An Index of Tensional and Unintentional Love of Land, consisting of contemporary artworks and compelling excerpts from photojournalistic archives in the United States and around the Middle East. This installation provides a framework through which to view the whole of Here and Elsewhere, prefiguring the historically reflexive or even speculative approaches offered by many of the artists on the lower four floors.