MoMA Keeps the Walls Clean; Islamic Show Sans Politics

As an Iranian-American artist who was effectively exiled from her homeland, Shirin Neshat was happy to be included in an

As an Iranian-American artist who was effectively exiled from her homeland, Shirin Neshat was happy to be included in an exhibition of artists from the Islamic world. But when the opportunity came—Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking opened at the Museum of Modern Art on Feb. 26—Ms. Neshat was upset.

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Without Boundary is the most important exhibit MoMA has launched in at least a decade, and it’s the first exhibition of contemporary art from the Islamic world in a major American museum since 9/11. The show features 14 artists from Islamic countries, an Indian born to Muslim parents, and two Americans (Mike Kelley and Bill Viola were added late in the show’s development). Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Turkey and Pakistan are represented in the exhibition, though nearly all of the artists from those countries now primarily work in the West. The exhibition is a reminder of the difficulties that museums face when it comes to merging—or not—art and politics.

“My immediate reaction was, how could anyone today discuss art made by contemporary Muslim artists and not speak about the role the subjects of religion and contemporary politics play in the artists’ minds?” Ms. Neshat said. “For some of us, our art is interconnected to the development of our personal lives, which have been controlled and defined by politics and governments. Some artists, including Marjane Satrapi and myself, are ‘exiled’ from our country because of the problematic and controversial nature of our work.”

Ms. Neshat is right: Many of the artists in the show have addressed the exilic condition and geopolitics in their art, but you wouldn’t know that from Without Boundary. There’s not a single reference in the show to the United States being at war in two Muslim countries, to its running intelligence operations in others, to its “war” against an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist organization, or to how the civil liberties of many Muslims have been affected by the governmental response to 9/11. Without Boundary often seems more a product of RISD than Ramallah.

Much of the work in the show, such as Shahzia Sikander’s painted and drawn manuscript-style works, or Rachid Koraïchi’s silk tapestry, update traditional Islamic media. Mona Hatoum and Shirana Shahbazi present takes on the traditional prayer mat, as does Mr. Kelley. What relation Mr. Kelley has to the other artists on view is unclear, except that his piece pokes traditional Islamic art in the arabesque. Artists such as Emily Jacir, Ms. Hatoum and Ms. Neshat, who are best known for aestheticizing complicated sociopolitical situations, are represented by less sensitive work.

“Given the conservative nature of the United States and the restrictive policies in American institutions, there is not the freedom to directly address certain sociopolitical situations like Iraq and Afghanistan,” Ms. Jacir said.

That artists included in a show at the Museum of Modern Art would speak out against that show is highly unusual. MoMA is the most powerful art museum in the world, and the pressure from gallerists and collectors to not criticize the museum is intense. Outspokenness can hurt relationships that could lead to important sales or inclusion in exhibitions. For Ms. Neshat and Ms. Jacir to be willing to speak out is an indication of the complicated politics involved in this kind of show—and of how the show’s apolitical nature has frustrated its artists.

MoMA has ensured that its presentation elides global affairs. Museum director Glenn Lowry even wrote an essay for the magazine ARTnews about the exhibit, an uncommon step for a museum director to take. “The tension between old and new, past and present,” he wrote, “is still being played out today as artists from the Islamic world confront the challenge of making contemporary art for an international audience grounded in European values and ideas.”

The show’s introductory wall text also steers viewers away from thinking about geopolitics: “This exhibition addresses the application of the unexamined rubric ‘Islamic’ to contemporary artists,” wrote curator Fereshteh Daftari. (Ms. Daftari was unavailable for an interview, according to MoMA, as was Mr. Lowry.) “In the complex expressions that draw inspiration from different traditions and defy simplistic categorizations, these artists belie the mentality of division and the binary oppositions of present-day politics.”

In other words: There are no politics here. Come look at the pretty things that are all, somehow, ‘Islamic.’

“What I found disappointing was how, when Glenn Lowry wrote a lengthy article discussing the exhibition, he managed to reduce his discussion and analysis of so-called ‘contemporary Islamic art’ to only those who avoided the subject of politics all together,” Ms. Neshat said, adding that she had already shared these thoughts with Mr. Lowry. “Much of the discussion remained on, for example, how certain artists have succeeded in transforming traditional Islamic art and aesthetics into a contemporary interpretation.

“My conclusion was then that either Mr. Lowry had a distaste for political content in art, or that by avoiding discussion of political artists, he was avoiding political discussion altogether.”

Like her art, Ms. Neshat’s frustration is born from her biography. She was born in the Shah’s Iran, but left as a teenager to attend school in the United States. During the Islamic revolution, one of Ms. Neshat’s friends was killed, and the new government, headed by the Ayatollah Khomeini, stole her family’s farm. Ms. Neshat decided to stay in the United States. Then, after a 1996 visit home—and just as Ms. Neshat’s artwork was beginning to receive substantial international attention—the Iranian government detained her as she was leaving Tehran International Airport for home.

“They gave me just enough trouble so that the message was: I shouldn’t re-enter,” Ms. Neshat said. She hasn’t been back in 10 years.

On view in Without Boundary are two photographs from Ms. Neshat’s mid-1990’s Women of Allah series, which questions Islamic gender norms, and a photographic still from her 2003 film installation, The Last Word. That the photograph is here instead of the film is strange: The Last Word has never been shown in a United States museum. It is intensely sociopolitical and quintessential Neshat. It shows a woman being confronted by an interrogating oppressor, and how the beauty of Islamic poetry gives her the strength to defy her oppressor. The film is about hiding fear and showing strength in the face of dictatorial oppression and, less directly, about Islam and gender.

Ms. Jacir, a Palestinian-American artist, also makes work that directly challenges political arrangements. She is best known for art that spotlights the treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli government. In Sexy Semite, Ms. Jacir placed personal ads for Palestinians looking for Israeli mates in The Village Voice. “YOU STOLE THE LAND, MAY AS WELL TAKE THE WOMEN,” one ad said. In another work, Ms. Jacir took advantage of her U.S. passport to quickly pass through Israeli military checkpoints and to perform tasks for Palestinians in Palestine. She photo-documented her experiences, and pieces from the project were shown in the 2004 Whitney Biennial.

In Without Boundary, Ms. Jacir’s video installation Ramallah/New York shows a series of scenes—a barbershop, a convenience-store checkout counter—from both Ramallah and New York, displayed side by side. In each scene, it’s hard to tell which video was shot in Ramallah and which was shot here. Ms. Daftari skipped all of Ms. Jacir’s more political work and chose to exhibit the tamest Jacir imaginable.

“Historically, any Palestinian narrative is regularly censored in this country,” Ms. Jacir said. “This makes it extremely challenging to show work here. So now with the fact that we are living under the Bush administration, with its policy of occupation, torture and detention, and are battling for civil liberties, freedom of expression and political activism, it is clear why contextualizing the political situation some of us in the show are coming from would be whitewashed.”

Historically, MoMA has been politically inclined, and it has often been willing to exhibit work with political content. During its recent installation of contemporary art from its permanent collection, the museum showed South African William Kentridge’s Felix in Exile, a video in which Mr. Kentridge revisits his country’s apartheid past, and Russian Ilya Kabakov’s The Man Who Flew Into His Picture, which addresses the repression of life in the Soviet Union. But those takes had the distance of time to soften their content.

MoMA’s political involvement has extended well beyond its gallery hangings. In 1952, MoMA inaugurated its “International Program.” A kickoff grant for the program was steered to the museum by MoMA board president Nelson Rockefeller, who was in charge of the U.S. government’s World War II intelligence operations in Latin America. Under Rockefeller, the overlaps between the Central Intelligence Agency, its front organizations, and MoMA’s board of trustees and funders were overwhelming. Rockefeller even hired a museum director, Rene d’Harnoncourt, who had worked for the same government intelligence agency that Rockefeller had led.

“There is no prima facie evidence for any formal agreement between the C.I.A. and the Museum of Modern Art,” wrote Frances Stonor Saunders in The Cultural Cold War, her remarkable history of the period. “The fact is it simply wasn’t necessary.”

During the Cold War, the International Program circulated dozens of exhibits that made clear the cultural glory possible in a free society. Today, that’s more difficult.

Circulating shows in 2006 is immensely more expensive than it was in 1956. Jay Levenson, the current director of the museum’s International Program, pointed out that now art is more financially valuable and has to be insured at a higher level. Shipping costs more. The museums, artists and collectors who circulate shows expect host institutions to have climate control and other modern amenities. And, perhaps most importantly, during much of the Cold War the dollar was much stronger than it is now. Still, Without Boundary may travel outside the United States, and maybe context will make the show seem more engaged.

“I think it’s still a possibility, if someone expresses interest in it,” Mr. Levenson said. “What sometimes happens with a show if they’re put together fairly late is that it’s not so easy to travel it, because most of the exhibition centers are planning their schedule several years in advance.

“Also, working with professionals from [the Islamic] world is something we’d have moved into earlier, but I don’t have a feeling yet how easy it is to get people back and forth,” Mr. Levenson said, referring to the visa problems that have plagued American cultural institutions since the federal government cracked down on foreign travel into the U.S. after 9/11. “It wouldn’t surprise me if this is the start of some additional discussions.”

Perhaps the real change between the way MoMA was involved in politics during the Cold War and now is the maturation of the museum. Today, MoMA is more corporate, more like General Motors or McKinsey than the New Museum.

At least by merely opening Without Boundary, MoMA has made it easier for smaller museums to create shows of contemporary work from the Islamic world. Now, if a curator in, say, Des Moines suggests this kind of show to her board and some of its members express unease with the idea, the curator can say, “But MoMA did it. And they included artists from Palestine, Iran and Lebanon. So why can’t we? Heck, we can even do better.”

MoMA Keeps the Walls Clean;  Islamic Show Sans Politics