Rose Issa has become widely recognized as the doyenne of Arabic and Iranian art and film in Europe and beyond since being inspired to put on a small Arab Film Festival about the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Of mixed Lebanese and Iranian heritage, Issa realized that the Arab world was not being accurately represented, and since then has passionately promoted the voices of Middle Eastern artists. “It is still my priority to find out the things that are most relevant to me and the artists from the region, and provide a platform from which to share them,” she says at her gallery in central London.
It is perhaps appropriate, then, that the gallery’s first group show of 2014 is called “Open Your Eyes,” a phrase borrowed from a striking 2002 work by Mourad Salem depicting orchids in full bloom. Issa believes in the visionary abilities of artists, as though they feel the pulse of the world around them. The work by Salem was painted several years before the revolutions that rocked the Arab world, but clearly, says Issa, the alarm bells were already ringing in his ears.
“We wanted to start the year with something positive and inspiring,” explains Issa, “so this show is not about politics particularly, but about opening our eyes to everything around us, be it aesthetic, political, conceptual, regional or international. We must be open in how we see ourselves as well as others, and be aware of our responsibilities, in order to make better choices.”
Among the diverse selection of artworks included in the exhibition are maps dating back to the 17th century, revealing the excitement of early cartographers about accurately recording the worlds they ware discovering, right up to contemporary photography and paintings that document a much more modern world.
The most recent work to be included is that of Egyptian artist-photographer Nermine Hammam, in her latest series Wetiko: Cowboys and Indigenes. As with previous series, Hammam manipulates paintings and photographs to her own ends, with arresting results. In one work, the viewer sees a classic Orientalist painting, with a familiar, highly saturated Arabic scene from afar, but on closer inspection armed American soldiers in combat gear can be seen entering the building, allowing a completely different interpretation of the image.
“We think we know how to look at something, but if we change one element it affects our entire reading of the scene. How do we re-read the story if one element is missing or replaced with another? In Wetiko, I deliberately use the chronological collapse between images not only to heighten the absurdity of the situation but also to mimic the realism and historic authenticity [of source material],” says Hammam.
Elsewhere in the show, Osman Waqialla gives a more traditional showing, with the beautiful simplicity of his “Eiyn,” a glyph meaning “the eye,” or “the source” in Arabic, painted in the single, smooth stroke of a master calligrapher. Iraida Icaza, exploring the ambiguity of how we see ourselves and how others see us, continues the exhibition’s theme in her defocused photographic diptych “Persona.”
Issa does not only promote Arabic and Iranian artists, but also those whose focus is on the Middle East region. Matthew Corbin Bishop, an emerging artist from Taplow in Buckinghamshire, England, is one of the youngest artists in Issa’s pool. Continuing his study on the making of the modern world, Bishop’s obsessively executed, beautifully rendered enlarged replicas of stamps from colonial-era Middle East states are stunning in their perfection. Each stamp takes two to three months to paint, and reveals something of how the history and culture of these countries were once represented.
The show holds together beautifully, with the theme being told and retold in many different and imaginative ways, always urging us to open our eyes—and hearts—to everything, and not be blinkered in our understanding of what we see in the world around us, both near and far.
Open Your Eyes runs at Rose Issa Projects, 82 Great Portland Street, London, from January 15–February 14, 2014.