Art in Isolation: Arab Artists Express Emotions Evoked by Covid-19

Exploring the impact of the coronavirus crisis, the Middle East Institute’s arts and culture center has brought together works by 39 artists from the Middle East and North Africa for an exhibition titled Art in Isolation: Creativity in the Time of Covid-19.

Laila Abdul-Hadi Jadallah, the show’s curator, says the exhibition highlights and humanizes universal experiences through an artist’s lens. During the coronavirus lockdowns, she said, “the entire world was experiencing what some artists experience daily in places like Gaza or Yemen such as confinement, loss, lack of access to supplies.”

The show has both physical and virtual components, with 38 of the 54 pieces hanging in the MEI Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the full exhibition on display online. It stems from an open call that invited artists from across the MENA region to submit works created during the pandemic.

The artists’ overwhelming message is one of unity and similarity, through investigating the emotional and physical impact of confinement within artistic practice.

The Silencing Effect of Masks

Helen Zughaib, a painter and multimedia artist who was born in Lebanon and is now based in Washington, has two pieces on display.

One of them, titled Muffled, shows a series of female faces wearing hijabs and masks. One figure’s mask has the words “I can’t breathe,” touching on the impact of what Zughaib calls “the second pandemic,” the racial injustice highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement.

“In Muffled, I have used the mandatory masks during this pandemic as a unifying factor,” she explained. “The mask also serves to point up injustice globally, people’s voices not being heard, muffled, drowned and snuffed out—the difficulty we have all faced during this time of Covid in trying to hear what people are saying behind their masks, as well trying to make ourselves understood behind our own.”

Her second piece, Oh Tarek, also alludes to the role of facial coverings in silencing those whose voices are rarely heard. It shows a cartoon-style image of woman’s face behind a decorative screen adjacent to a thought bubble with the words, “Oh Tarek! You’re not wearing your mask!”

The work is from Zughaib’s “mashrabiya” series, in which she uses humor to deal with her own anxiety and sense of confinement during the coronavirus lockdowns. The piece also brings up the controversy surrounding wearing masks, the ability to hide behind one’s mask, and what the mashrabiya, an intricately carved wooden window screen, represents, “shielding the woman from being seen from the street below and creating a physical barrier from one another.”

Art as a Therapeutic Outlet

Another artist in the show, Sina Ata, is an Iraqi who was born in the United States but now lives in in Amman. Trained as a civil engineer, he was drafted as a soldier in the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s and served for almost five years. A self-taught artist, he found in art a therapeutic outlet to help deal with the atrocities of war. “Immersing myself in art helped me process the horrors we were all experiencing,” Ata said.

Gallery: Creativity in the Time of Covid-19

His piece in the exhibition, titled #796, is a mixed-media work with rows of small squares cut into a painted wooden panel, symbolizing the loss of identity when lives are reduced to numbers. The work is part of a collection called Arqam, which means numbers in Arabic, a theme Ata worked on around the time of the civil unrest in Iraq in 2005-7 when the news headlines were dominated by the number of fatalities that day.

“During our current situation, this approach seemed more relevant than any other time, especially since it was global,” he said. “This made me revisit the idea one more time with the pandemic in mind, and where once again we were being counted as a statistic with very little humanity attached to it.”

“It has been a strange year for all of us,” Ata said, “and we are all trying to deal with the situation the best we can. As an artist it has given me ample material to express that sense of solitude, loss, loneliness, longing, etc. … There is a lot that needs to be said and expressed, and in that way, art has been my savior.”

‘A Cure for What We’ve Been Through’

In Saudi Arabia, Moath Alofi, is a photographer and video artist who is also the head of cultural programs at the Madina Development Authority. His two works in the show touch on his sense of isolation and longing to travel. “I’m used to traveling and exploring a lot,” he said, “but since the lockdowns started, I wasn’t able to roam.”

In one work, titled Alliance, he expressed those feelings through the use of junked cars, spread widely apart across a desert hillside. Another work, Float, shows a solitary, unoccupied prayer rug lying on a wide desert expanse.

Like Ata, Alofi also said the ability to express his sense of constraint through art has been therapeutic. “It’s definitely a sort of a cure for what we’ve been through,” he said. He hopes those viewing the show will share the artists’ emotions through empathy and connection.

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Zughaib also said she found contributing to the exhibition to be cathartic, allowing her to feel both seen and heard. “With so many gallery and museum shows closed, postponed or canceled, just to have our paintings up on the wall in this gorgeous gallery, where people can see our work, has been uplifting,” she said. The experience gave her a feeling “like there will be a tomorrow,” she added.

And showing her art alongside works by artists from places like Iraq, Sudan and Gaza, she said, has reinforced a sense of community and empathy. Wherever an artist’s studio may be, she said, “the ability of artists to create work, whether, spoken, written, performed or of course painted, has the power to go beyond our physical world and the constraints we find ourselves in at this moment.”

Jadallah, the curator, also emphasized the power of art to help people process a challenging situation. “Looking back at this time in the future, we can use the artwork to further understand the impact of the pandemic in the region and globally,” she said.

Art in Isolation continues online and by appointment at the Middle East Institute’s Art Gallery, in Washington, D.C., through January 29, 2021.

By: Melanie Swan


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