A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

AUB's Art Exhibition on "The Arab Nude: The Artist as Awakener"

Beirut has always been a city that has seemed more cosmopolitan than much of the Arab World, and the American University of Beirut (AUB) has often been in the forefront. As part of AUB's 150th anniversary celebrations, AUB has been hosting an art exhibition called The Arab Nude: The Artist as Awakener. It closes this week, so I'm a bit late in writing about it. There was a conference held on the subject as well. At a time when puritanical censorship is growing in many Arab countries, the willingness to address artistic nudity, both male and female (though from the photos mostly the latter) is what still makes Beirut distinct.

From the reviews (a few: here and here and here and here) it's clear this is not about the Orientalist fantasy nudes, erotic harem girls who existed only in European sexual imaginings of the exotic East, so prominent in 19th century art (a subject for another post), but nudes in the work of Arab artists, and an attempt to situate their appreciation of the nude in the context of the broader Arabic cultural awakening, the nahda. The reviews emphasize that the exhibit did not minimize the obvious masculine viewpoint of the artists. A summary from the exhibition's Facebook page:
The Arab Nude: The Artist as Awakener examines the way in which artists and intellectuals of the Mandate era engaging in a double struggle against imperialism, Ottoman and European, resorted to an ideal form or pictorial device to concretize their visions of Arab modernity. For them, to be “Arab” was as much a matter of ambiguity and ambition as was the quest to be an artist. In fact, both labels required leaps of imagination over local conditions and imperial plans. What claims for identity, community, and political society were invested in the divesting of Arab bodies of their clothes? Our exhibition documents the debates that met the genre of the Nude in exhibition halls and newspapers. It situates artistic practices in relation to ongoing, urgent discussions about the meaning of citizenship, urbanity, and internationalism carried out amid movements for women’s rights, pan-Arabism, and various nationalisms, as well as educational reform, militarization, the scouting movement and nudist colonies. Without espousing the role of awakener for artists, our subtitle foregrounds the social, political or cultural motivations for these artists to embrace and adopt the genre of the Nude in their artistic careers.
Or as the last of the reviews linked above says:
More importantly, perhaps, it addresses the idea that these artists used their work to express liberation from Ottoman and European colonisation. As the title suggests, the exhibition, curated by Octavian Esanu and Kirsten Scheid, seeks to establish to what extent these artists used their artistic explorations of the nude as a means of promoting social change in line with the spirit of the nahda – a period of modernisation known in Arabic as the “awakening.” In the context of discussions about the meaning of identity, community, citizenship and internationalism, and of what it meant to be “an Arab,” what was the significance of the Arab form laid bare?

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