On January 27, President Donald Trump issued an executive order preventing people from seven countries – Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen – from entering the United States for 90 days. Policy analysts and laypeople around the world spotted a pattern in the countries Trump had chosen, which led to the order being described as a Muslim ban.
Days later, on January 31, UK-based musician Four Tet shared a playlist on Twitter with music from each of these these seven nations, as a form of cultural protest. That same week, on February 2, the 88-year-old Museum of Modern Art in New York City registered its own protest against the ban – displaying the works of artists from Iran, Sudan and Iraq from MoMA’s permanent collection.
Some 11,700 km away in New Delhi, on February 2, the India Art Fair was opened for VIP and media previews. Missing among the displays was an artwork by Bangladeshi artist Mahbubur Rahman – stuck in transit, or as the plaque underneath a blank space declared “Awaiting Delhi Customs”.
India has had a dubious track record when it comes to welcoming artists from various parts of the world – visiting artists can get caught in the crosshairs of subcontinental geopolitics or the whims of the gatekeepers of what is described as Indian culture, but often refers to the rigid notions of the Hindu Right. In December 2016, Pakistani-American singers Jahan and Yasmin Yousaf who go by the stage name Krewella, were denied visas when they were due to perform at the Sunburn festival in Pune. In January last year, Pakistan-born American poet Hasan Mujtaba was also denied a visa when he was due to speak at the Jaipur Literature Festival.
According to Pooja Sood, director of experimental art space Khoj Studios in Delhi, it can be tricky to bring artists from Muslim-majority countries: “We’re happy to invite artists, but will they get their visa?” she asked. Every year, Khoj Studios organises international art residencies and workshops. Pakistani artists Rashid Rana and Bani Abidi, for example, have been part of programmes at Khoj in the past, but each time they apply for a visa, there is uncertainty.
“Did you notice that this time the contingent from Pakistan was totally missing at the India Art Fair?” Sood pointed out. “Getting artists over from Bangladesh is also becoming a nightmare. Mahbubur’s work was stuck in customs, but Tayeba Lipi [a well-known artist, and Mahbubur Rahman’s wife] could show her work.”
Sood added that bringing artists from Sri Lanka or African nations was not a problem because India has had good relations with them thus far. As a result, for the past two years, Khoj Studios has been able to organise the Coriolis Effect, a residency with Indian and African artists.
Three of the seven countries named in Trump’s immigration ban – Sudan, Somalia and Libya – are on the African continent. Taking a leaf from MoMA’s initiative, while it is still possible to invite artists from these seven countries to India, here is list of artists whose works bear themes which could be of interest for art lovers in India.
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s mirrored sculptural mosaics look futuristic, but they draw on traditional crafts, including Turkoman jewellery and clothing. Farmanfarmaian’s work is deeply rooted in her Iranian heritage and she works closely with local artisans to produce works that combines Islamic geometry with Modernist elements.
Farmanfarmaian studied at Parsons The New School of Design in the 1940s, a time when she also kept the company of famous artists like Andy Warhol. Her work is in the collections of the Solomon R Guggeinheim Museum in New York City, the Tate Modern in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. A solo show of works by Farmanfamaian is currently on display at the SCAD Museum of Art, Georgia, US.
More often than not, modernist painter Kamala Ibrahim Ishaq’s art is peopled by groups of women – each of them connected organically to the others through vines, arteries or physical touch. As the Sharjah Art Foundation puts it, she depicts “scenes from women’s lives in colours of sun, sand and sky”.
Born in Omdurman, Sudan, in 1939, Ishaq graduated from the College of Fine Art Khartoum in 1963 and is a post-graduate in mural painting from the Royal College of Art, London. In 1971, while teaching at the Khartoum College of Fine Art, she co-founded the Crystalist Group that saw the universe as a crystal cube – transparent and changeable, depending on the position of the viewer.
The group grew in response to the Khartoum School, which combined elements of traditional Sudanese and Western art around 1960, to create a fresh visual language for the newly independent nation. The Crystalist Group re-looked at the largely male bastion of Sudanese art, through the female perspective.
At least 3,000 artefacts were stolen from the National Museum in Baghdad in April 2003, soon after the war with the US began. Iraqi artist Dia Al Azzawi has responded to the loss of national treasures during the war through paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures – the largest show of these works was organised in Doha last year, in a retrospective on the artist.
Azzawi studied archaeology at Baghdad University and also earned a diploma in fine arts from the Institute of Fine Arts, Baghdad, in 1964. His work was shown as part of the first International Triennale in New Delhi in 1967.
In 2014, Hrair Sarkissian created an architectural model of his home in Damascus and took a series of five pictures as he demolished it to rubble. Titled Homesick, the work captured both the present-day situation in Syria and Sarkissian’s own concern for his parents, who still live in that apartment building.
Of Armenian descent, Sarkissian was born and raised in Damascus where he lived until 2008. He often photographs buildings that are unfinished or uninhabited and which tell the stories of corruption in high places, migration and loss, and changing cityscapes. These are buildings across Amman in Jordan, Yerevan in Armenia, and several cities in the Middle East. Sarkissian studied photography at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, Amsterdam. He has shown his works around the world, including at the 56th Venice Biennale.
Boushra Al Mutawakel’s photographs are deliciously subversive, with just a pinch of humour and exaggeration to lighten the mood, even as she makes a very serious point. In 2010, she clicked a series of eight photographs of herself, her oldest daughter Shaden Yaqoub and a doll in various stages of the veil. The series starts with a minimal headscarf and proceeds to cover the entire body, including the hands and eyes, until in the last frame, in which the ladies and the doll have been replaced by an empty, black pedestal. Titled Mother Daughter and Doll, this series of photographs is part of the collection at The British Museum.
Almukawatel was born in 1960 in Sana’a. She became interested in photography during her bachelors in international business at the American University in Washington DC. Her hijab series includes Mother Daughter Doll, Veil-Unveil, Fulla and Untitled.
How to Have Fun in a Civil War is the provocative title of US-based Somali artist Ifrah Mansour’s 70-minute satirical performance about civil strife in Somalia, as seen through the eyes of a seven-year-old.
A resident artist of the Somali Museum in Minnesota, Mansour works closely with the Somali diaspora. When she is not making multimedia art, she teaches English to Somali elders. Her work focuses on the theme of migration and draws on Somali culture. In How to Have Fun in a Civil War, she used several metres of Somali fabric bought in Minnesota’s Karmel Square, to make the puppet that represents her grandmother.
In 2009, Samira Badran made a multimedia installation for the Sharjah Art Foundation called Have a Pleasant Stay. The welcoming tone of the title notwithstanding, the work showed a series of metal bars and turnstile doors at the Qalandia checkpoint, between Ramallah and Jerusalem in Palestine.
Badran was born in Libya in 1954 to Palestinian parents. Her works often deal with Palestine and how the decades of unrest has affected its culture, environment and people. She studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cairo and then at Florence.