Throughout the 20th century, Paris played home to artists from across the Arab world. Young creatives from the Francophone countries of North Africa and the Levant moved to the French capital to study. Established creatives held exhibitions there and collaborated with French galleries, artists and poets. For others, Paris was a refuge – a place of stability during tumultuous years for the Arab region.

Now, an ambitious exhibition titled Arab Presences: Modern Art and Decolonisation: Paris 1908 – 1988 at the Museum of Modern Art (better known as MAM) is assessing the impact of these artists – how they affected the French art scene and how France affected them. It begins in the waning years of colonialism and ends in 1988, when the Arab World Institute opened in the city, as if in recognition of these Arab presences.

The aim, says the show’s curator Morad Montazami, is to reconcile France with its own history – the colonial and postcolonial artistic past it has for so long ignored.

Montazami worked for four years on the show, with assistance from Odile Burluraux at MAM and Madeleine de Colnet at Zaman Books and Curating, the platform Montazami runs. Paris emerges as a site of inspiration and connections – and also one of exclusion and neglect.

Paris as a colonial capital

In the first half of the century, Arab artists frequently showed up in Paris through state-led initiatives to exhibit the work of the “colonies”.

In 1931, Paris hosted the city-wide International Colonial Exhibition, one of a roving series of events in which European powers staged pavilions of the countries they administered.

Some pavilions offered cliched or orientalised depictions of the countries – including the infamous "human zoos" of captured subjects. However, the curators found that other pavilions hosted credible artists, such as Mahmoud Said and Marguerite Nakhla at the Egyptian pavilion in 1937.

MAM (which was then the Tokyo Palace) hosted some of these shows – making Arab Presences quite literally an investigation into the museum’s past. Then, in the 1950s, it opened its doors to more avant-garde and equitable presentations.

“The Museum of Modern Art was built in 1937 and right away the museum became important to give visibility to Arab artists,” says Burluraux, the curator at the museum. “That's something we didn't know before.”

Paris in these early years also gave Arab artists the freedom to work and organise in ways that they could not at home.

“Locally in each country, and in Paris, there were [anti-colonial] movements, with intellectuals, writings, satirical drawings,” says Burluraux. “People [from the colonised countries], when they arrived in Paris, would meet up with others in organisations similar to trade unions. They could emancipate themselves much more quickly in Paris as an artist or an intellectual. Paris was a colonial centre, but also a centre for anti-colonialism.”

Egypt’s Mahmoud Mokhtar, for instance, lived in Paris from 1911 to 1924. It was there that he created the maquette for his famous Nahdat Misr (Egypt Awakening). The surrealists, international by nature, used Paris to share ideas among themselves, such as artists from Art et Liberte (Art and Liberty) from Cairo. The famous 1947 International Surrealist Exhibition included Ramses Younan and Fouad Kamel of these Egyptian surrealists, as well as Baya Mahieddine from Algeria.

Education was a major way that Arab artists came to the capital. Many colonised artists were prohibited from the Beaux-Arts schools in their own countries, because of laws that restricted enrolment to the French. In Paris, however, if they passed a French language test, some were able to join the academies – as well as the informal but influential schools run by artists such as Fernand Leger, who taught Saloua Raouda Choucair and Shafic Abboud in his atelier, or Andre Lhote, who welcomed Samir Rafi, Amy Nimr and the ever-keen Abboud.

For North Africans in particular, France was both a place to study – and one to react against, as in the Casablanca School, whose artists explicitly rejected Beaux-Arts teachings in favour of inspiration drawn from Morocco.

Another fascinating revelation of the show is the knowledge and infrastructural connections that were engendered by colonialism. Several French curators were Arabophiles, such as Jacques Lassaigne, who spoke Arabic and worked at MAM from 1971 to 1978. He oversaw the exhibition Contemporary Iraqi Art (1976), which brought Dia Azzawi, Kadhim Hayder, Rafa Nasiri and others to Paris.

Many regional French museums also collected Arab art, in addition to MAM and the Pompidou in Paris. One of the effects of this show is to bring forgotten pieces out of storage – such as the Turkish artist Princess Fahrelnissa Zeid’s Composition (1950). After this airing, says Burluraux, the triumphant, mosaic-like painting is being promoted to permanent view.

Postcolonial Paris

In the political turmoil that followed independence for the Arab countries, France operated as a place of security. In 1979, Waddah Faris moved to Paris from Beirut to flee the Lebanese Civil War, setting up a new version of Faris Gallery and bringing over his stable of Arab artists. Etel Adnan, who studied philosophy in Paris in the 1950s, also fled to Paris after the war began, settling between there and California for the rest of her life.

To a lesser extent than for the Francophone Lebanese, the city also played host to Iraqis in the years following the 1963 coup, such as Mehdi Moutashar and Hassan Massoudy.

And Paris became a site of protest, where Arab artists agitated for the Palestinian cause amid the country's own political changes of the late 1960s.

The exhibition, which starts on more solid footing, here loses its grip on “Paris” as an organising framework. By the 1960s and '70s, Paris’s role in artists’ lives varied so much that the curators struggled to bring it back into clear significance.

One gallery, titled Arab Apocalypse after Adnan’s poem following the Yom Kippur War, the oil shocks and the Lebanese Civil War, haphazardly joins together work from across the Arab region made during that time, such as one of Mona Saudi’s Lover’s Tree series of drawings and two of her stone sculptures; a Shakir Hassan Al Said scored wall painting from 1984; and a 1982 Bacon-esque tortured head by Ala Bashir, who was Saddam Hussein’s personal doctor.

The connection to Paris here is tenuous. The Iraqi artist Al Said studied in Paris from the late 1950s to the early '60s, but whether the city can be credited for his philosophical readings is unclear. Saudi likewise studied in Paris, but her sculptures of the 1970s did not respond to the Lebanese Civil War. (Lover’s Tree, based on a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, however, does confront the Palestinian struggle.) Bashir only briefly visited Paris (he came when Hussein visited ex-French prime minister Jacques Chirac in the 1980s), and his inclusion is curious as he cannot be said to be a major Arab artist.

At the same time, while the criteria for the show broaden too widely, the works themselves are stellar. A Mohamed Melehi from 1964 (Pulsation) stuns in a rare palette for the Moroccan artist – red, white, brown and oxblood – while Mohamed Ataallah's Tanger bleu et blanc (1969) suggests the body as well as the waves of the sea. The curves anticipate the incredible, ethereal swirls of Huguette Caland’s diptych White Space I and II (1984), which float joyously on the wall in recognition of the many years that Caland lived in Paris.

And, though the section could be expanded upon, the exhibition squarely faces up to the trauma of the Algerian Civil War, in particular, the massacre of Algerians by Parisian police in October 1961. It also traces the effect on French artists and intellectuals, showing a sympathetic painting by Andre Fougeron of two Algerians sleeping under a sheet of corrugated metal.

“We are not talking about it enough,” says Burluraux of the Algerian war. “There have been apologies, but it’s not been enough.”

Indeed, the fact that a show about Arab art is being held right now at a state museum in Paris is to be celebrated. In elections this week the country narrowly beat out the far right’s anti-immigration and explicitly anti-Islam platform. Burluraux reveals they made extra copies of the pro-Palestinian posters they displayed in case they were vandalised during the show.

Burluraux says Arab Presences has brought in audiences who do not typically visit their museum, from Paris’s foreign affairs cadre to visitors from the "banlieues", the poorer, immigrant areas outside the city centre. In that respect, Arab Presences adds to its own legacy, with the cultural realm once again becoming a site of Arab political representation.

“Fascism just lost in France,” says Montazami. “Our exhibition just won its best victory ever. Art history should be political for ever.”

2024-07-10T03:55:18Z dg43tfdfdgfd