What does it mean to be forced from one’s home? How do war, identity, and exile interact with memory and the places we call home? What role can art play in healing the wounds of conflict and maintaining a connection to one’s roots?
Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art is presenting a new installation of video art productions entitled “Landscape of Memory,” organized alongside the Barjeel Art Foundation, that wrestles with these questions through the works of seven artists from the Middle East.
“The modern Middle East is a region that has seen more than its fair share of conflict, outside intervention, civil war, environmental degradation, climate change, and frankly, suffering,” explained Professor Kathleen Bailey during the Members’ Lecture on January 28. Professor Bailey, who serves as the Director of the Islamic Civilization and Societies Program at BC, is the curator of the exhibition, and worked closely with the Barjeel Art Foundation as well as its founder, her friend Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, to provide a wide array of voices and experiences that demonstrate the impact of these compounding struggles. Mr. Al Qassemi and the Barjeel Art Foundation have worked with BC’s McMullen once before, during the previous installation entitled Taking Shape which focused on Middle Eastern interpretations of modern art. Nancy Netzer, the Inaugural Robert L. and Judith T. Winston Director at the McMullen Museum and a Professor of Art History at BC, contributed greatly to shaping the exhibition and recognizing the significance of each of the pieces, along with the entire staff of the McMullen Museum pitching in to ensure the exhibition's design, installation, and publication was executed well.
“We had wanted to work with Sultan again, and he suggested displaying video art – something the McMullen hasn’t really done before,” explained Professor Bailey. This was to contribute to the installation’s goal of expanding horizons, an idea that has greatly shaped Mr. Al Qassemi’s vision for the foundation; in fact, Mr. Al Qassemi is adamant that female artists from the Middle East are equally represented, and the majority of artists who contributed to Landscape of Memory were female-identifying, something that Professor Bailey praised as “unique in a society where men are traditionally privileged over women.” On March 26, Mr. Al Qassemi plans to speak alongside Professor Bailey and Suheyla Takesh, Curator for the Barjeel Art Foundation, on the importance of gender equity in art collections.
One of the pieces in the installation, Sadik Kwaish Alfraji’s The House My Father Built, reflects on grieving the loss of a loved one and a homeland due to political strife. Mr. Alfraji, originally from Baghdad, was forced to leave his home and his family due to political persecution under Saddam Hussein’s regime. In the decades between his exile and later return following the U.S.-led coalition’s invasion of Iraq that overthrew Hussein, Mr. Alfraji’s father passed away, leaving him unable to attend the funeral or grieve with his family. The House My Father Built portrays a large, shadowy figure attempting to find its way into a common family home and connect to memories of a time now lost.
“It makes you feel rooted to home,” Professor Bailey said, adding that the work was “heart-wrenching” and allows you to “reflect upon your own mortality and the people you love – they won’t be there forever, and all you’ll be left with are memories.” The House My Father Built ultimately grapples with the forced migrant experience, asking what it is that refugees have to leave behind.
Adel Abidin’s Memorial reflects upon the loss of identity, the disconnection from one’s family, and the lasting toll of the 1991 Gulf War and Operation Desert Storm. As a teenager, Mr. Abidin rode his bike to the Republic Bridge in Baghdad, which the U.S.-led coalition had destroyed to stop the flow of Iraqi soldiers to defend their occupation of Kuwait. After Mr. Abidin was struck by the sight of a solitary dead cow on one piece of the destroyed bridge, he created a fictional account of the cow separated from its herd, desperately trying to return to its family before trying to jump the span of the destroyed bridge, failing in the process. Memorial forces its viewer to consider why some are left behind in the chaos of conflict, as well as the risks that refugees are willing to take in order to return to the people and places they love.
BC’s Islamic Civilization and Societies Program is one of many organizations underwriting and supporting Landscape of Memory. ICS focuses on the interdisciplinary study of the Islamic world, opening students at BC to varying perspectives around the world.
Professor Bailey emphasized the importance of conversation and engagement with cultures to “see a completely different perspective that’s credible and different, leading to reanalyzing your own worldview – and you can’t get that from just reading books.” For students in the ICS program, there are opportunities to study in the Middle East through critical language scholarships and homestays, as well as traveling research grants and language immersion projects open to BC students outside of the ICS program. Additionally, ICS offers a number of on-campus events throughout the year to introduce students to Middle Eastern culture; these include work with career opportunities, cultural events, thematic lectures, and a Middle East Night featuring cultural and musical activities.
Students interested in upcoming events organized by the ICS Department can visit their website, as well as find the department’s undergraduate journal, Al Noor, which releases editions twice a year.
Long Island born and raised. Probably somewhere waiting on line for coffee or working on an essay I put off for far too long.