With “Presence: Reflections on the Middle East,” the Center for Visual Art, an off-campus venue of Metropolitan State University of Denver, presented a courageous show that clearly resonates with current events. The 12 featured artists, most living in exile from their homelands, explored their own cultural identities within the language of international contemporary art.
Many of the artists in “Presence” seem interested in deconstructing Middle Eastern cultural traditions. Shadi Ghadirian, an Iranian, presented a grid of digital photos all featuring altered self-portraits. She depicts herself in a veil but in lieu of her face she has inserted mundane household objects. The clever pairing of the figure and the utensils results in witty comments on women’s traditional roles. Arwa Abouon, who’s from Libya but lives in Canada, also creates digital self-portraits that contrast her Western ways with her Islamic past, depicting herself in modern dress and traditional garb in the same piece. A different kind of juxtaposition was displayed in Laleh Mehran’s pattern-making robot in which a pendulum inscribes a pattern into black sand when activated by viewers. Tracery like this pattern is associated with historic Islamic art, and Mehran has made this interest her signature for years, as was also seen in her video in which the decorations from paper money have been turned into a constantly moving kaleidoscope. Mehran is one of a number of artists in the show that are immigrants to the United States, and, in fact, though she is from Iran, she lives in Denver. Two of the other artists in “Presence” also live in Denver, Sami Al Karim, and his brother, Halim Al Karim. Both were political prisoners in Iraq before fleeing to the US. Sami presented panoramic photos of the night sky, recalling his days in prison, while Halim created over-life-sized portraits in which only the subject’s eyes are in focus with the rest masked out.
This exhibit was CVA’s entry into Denver’s city-wide Month of Photography, a celebration of the medium held every other spring. When two years ago, Cecily Cullen, the managing director at CVA, first conceived of mounting an exhibit highlighting contemporary art by artists from Muslim majority countries, the topic was already inherently political. However in the intervening period, especially in the shadow of the failed Trump travel bans of earlier this year, the idea of even presenting such a show became a political act in and of itself.