Contemporary artist reconstrues Middle Eastern history

Contemporary artist and Cooper Union professor Walid Raad visited last Wednesday to deliver a talk on his work, especially “The Atlas Group” and “Scratching on Things I Could Disavow.” / Courtesy of Max Ronnersjö via Wikimedia Commons

Conceptual artist Walid Raad grew up in Lebanon, his home being his greatest artistic influence. It was the 1970s, and a civil war that would last for well over a decade was raging throughout the country. Occupation by Israeli and then Syrian forces, massacres, bombings, Cold War tensions—geopolitical turmoil had come to reshape Lebanese lifestyle into something more militant and uncertain. After escaping this bedlam for the United States in his late teens, Raad studied photography and Middle Eastern studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology and, later, postcolonial theory in a doctoral program at the University of Rochester (The New York Times, “Walid Raad’s Unreality Show Spins Middle Eastern History as Art,” 01.07.2016).

On Wednesday, Feb. 22, Raad presented his works to the campus community in Taylor 203. Introducing the esteemed lecturer was Professor of Art Molly Nesbit, who compared his artistic framing of Lebanon’s bloody civil war to the historical paintings of Revolutionary French artists Jacques-Louis David and Eugène Delacroix.

Raad talked mostly about his 2004 project, “The Atlas Group.” A series of carefully curated journals, videos and photographs that all grapple with Lebanese identity and the arbitrary binary of fact and fiction, the project is multimedia’s answer to the roman-à-clef. In the late ’90s, wanting to humanize the civil war, Raad devised a fictional story around the collection. While accruing pieces over the course of 15 years, he invented not only an owner but also a historical society, “The Atlas Group,” the project’s namesake of which he claims to be the activist that happens upon the documents after searching for answers to Lebanon’s past. The result upends the viewer’s perception of truth, pegging fictitious stories based on personal experience to news clippings of car bombs and unexploded bullet collections—real records of human slaughter.

Esteban Uribe ’17, an English major and studio art correlate, attended both the lecture as well as a preceding, invitation-only dinner with Raad. Speaking on his views of the artist, Uribe stated, “Mr. Raad’s artistic practice is exciting because it combines artifice and hyper-realism, medium and message; his works remind us that the conditions that we live in are bent, (re)created and (re)imagined by material and immaterial forces, political agendas and nature […] Listening to Walid Raad reminded me that, at its best, art is a poignant and effective way of conveying political messages.”

Raad’s career is extensive. His work has been displayed in museums worldwide, from MoMA in New York City to the Hamburger Bahnhof museum in Berlin, Germany. His accolades include the Alpert Award in Visual Arts, the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize and the Camera Austria Award.

Like many figures of the art world, he is somewhat of a paradoxical eccentric, both introverted and energetic. An established photojournalist, he is nonetheless camera shy, and though a reclusive Professor of Arts at the Cooper Union University, he was a vivacious speaker, engaging audience members with the intricately conceived misadventures of the imaginary Dr. Fakhouri of “The Atlas Group.”

Citing the journals, Raad read the descriptions Fakhouri “wrote” of his scholarly friends, whom the fictive historian would accompany to horse races in the 1960s. “Vicious, mindless and totalitarian,” read one cited entry, eliciting peals of laughter from the crowd. Scathingly political (“He always pointed fingers at an assortment of rogues, morons and neo-colonialists in an imaginary conspiracy of Jewish currency traders, who he says are bent on keeping his country poor and servile”) and poignant (“He was 71. But for six years he was in prison and for ten years he was under house arrest as an exile, so those 16 years should be reduced”), Fakhouri’s pithy one-liners were well received.

Among the other subjects Raad brought up was his 2005 project, “Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: A History of Modern and Contemporary Art in the Arab World/Part I_Volume 1_Chapter 1,” which lent its name as the lecture’s title. Included in it was a miniature model of a museum containing miniaturized works from “The Atlas Group.”

The political nature of Raad’s work is neither retroactive nor static. The artist lives out the political nature of his work. He is a member of Gulf Labor, a real-life organization whose mission is to end the human rights abuses against predominantly South Asian workers in the ongoing construction of Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, a man-made island that will include a campus for New York University and outposts of the Louvre, the MoMA and the Guggenheim.

As the lecture drew to a close, Raad explained why Gulf Labor refused to sell art to the island’s up-and-coming museums. “Without a collection, there’s no program,” he said. “Because [the museums] were starting from scratch, it was a real advantage, one of the few instances where artists, by withholding sales, can affect things.” For seven years, the coalition, made up of over 120 artists, worked with Human Rights Watch to find builders, contractors and moderators who don’t rely on slave labor. After years of negotiations between artists, art curators and NGOs, the Guggenheim eventually had to temporarily halt construction after a price shock for petroleum slowed down the nation’s oil-dependent economy.

Raad concluded the lecture with a brief Q&A session. Among the topics audience members brought up for discussion was the prevalence of fake news in the Trump Era. Reconciling how, similarly to critiqued news sources, his work obscures with authorial subjectivity, Raad said, “It’s on my mind. […] But it’s not like we were ever going to say, ‘Oh yeah, the media had always been completely fair and unbiased.’ It’s visual media 101. [Media is] inter-media-tion.”


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