War: Here, There, and Elsewhere


Rokni Haerizadeh. Subversive Salami in a Ragged Briefcase, 2014. Gesso, watercolor, and ink on printed paper; 11 3/4 x 15 3/4 inches. Courtesy the artist and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai.

Depictions of war have been seen for centuries in classical art, and works by Jacques-Louis David, Francisco Goya, and Pablo Picasso are some of the best representations of the ravages of battle during important periods in history. Yet the impact of war and the need for transformation has rarely been displayed with such urgency than in the spate of recent exhibitions showcasing art from the Middle East. The show Here and Elsewhere, at the New Museum, and several exhibitions of contemporary Iranian art in New York City have featured work made from the most excruciating personal circumstances with the most public ramifications.

Violence, devastation, and history often dictate these artists’ choices of medium. Their unconventional, non-monumental methodologies steer away from sentiment or propaganda as they take on the challenging subjects of identity, dislocation, and deracination. Issues of nationalism are embraced as artists from the Middle East make a powerful case for art that does not merely reflect troubled times as much as it gives shape to cultural identity. Their works make clear the importance to look at art from the region as game-changing in the way that viewers are affected.

Mosireen. Tahrir Cinema during July 2011 occupation of Tahrir Square. Mosireen was established in Tahrir Square during the original eighteen days of the revolution in January 2011.

Mosireen’s Tahrir Cinema during July 2011 occupation of Tahrir Square. Photo: HamnoT. Image via Wikipedia.

For the US-born, Cairo-based artist Sherief Gaber and other members of Mosireen, an independent media collective in Cairo, the innumerable videos posted on social-media outlets of the Egyptian revolution since the end of Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule on January 25, 2011, have become important tools for producing new environments of truth and authenticity. Generated by a passionate interest in social justice, videos such as The Martyrs of the Egyptian Revolution (2011) and Blood by Night, Grief by Day (2011) are made from raw footage of civilians being beaten, bulldozed, and ruthlessly eliminated by the military. With Gaber’s US training in urban planning and law, Mosireen’s work is geared towards the transformation of quotidian spaces. In We Empted Our Pockets Out of Joy (2013), ordinary streets where people were killed, tortured, and kidnapped during skirmishes with the police become important places and moments in history. Media activism is used by the collective to counter state-produced narratives and to broadcast a new form of nationalism centered on Egypt’s grassroots revolution.

Rokni Haerizadeh. "Fictionville, Some Breath Breathes Out of Bombs and Dog Barks," 2011. Gesso, watercolor, and ink on printed paper, portfolio of nine works; 8 1/4 in x 11 3/4 inches each. Courtesy the artist and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai.

Rokni Haerizadeh. Fictionville, Some Breath Breathes Out of Bombs and Dog Barks, 2011. Gesso, watercolor, and ink on printed paper, portfolio of nine works; 8 1/4 in x 11 3/4 inches each. Courtesy the artist and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai.

A different kind of truth telling emanates from the art of the Iranian expatriate Rokni Haerizadeh, who lives in Dubai. Deeply critical of the religious mullahs in his country who have stifled Iranian citizens since the 1979 revolution, his series titled Fictionville (2011) creates provocative portraits of a fundamentally flawed society. Inspired by Persian literature and ancient Indian allegorical tales, half-human, half-animal creatures inhabit his canvases to reveal the savagery of human nature. In this series, prints made from images from the news media and YouTube of worker strikes, women’s rights protests, and political uprisings in Iran are partially painted over. Grotesque figures being victimized, harassed, and arrested seem to squirm and move on the canvas; they trace experience in time, just like action paintings that leave the viewer with a sense of a gesture. In Haerizadeh’s work, anxiety from surveillance and the power of the media to control the populace drives a deep form of activism.

Ziad Antar. "Murr Tower, Wadi Abu Jmil, Built In 1973" from the “Expired” series, 2009. Gelatin silver print; 19 3/4 x 19 3/4 inches. Courtesy the artist and Selma Feriani Gallery, London.

Ziad Antar. Murr Tower, Wadi Abu Jmil, Built In 1973 from the “Expired” series, 2009. Gelatin silver print; 19 3/4 x 19 3/4 inches. Courtesy the artist and Selma Feriani Gallery, London.

The notion of home and identity is recontextualized in Ziad Antar’s photographs. Born in Saida, Lebanon, but based in Beirut and Paris, Antar has made faded black-and-white images that reflect on the accuracy of archival imagery and representations of colonial Lebanon. In the Expired Series (2009), Antar photographed abandoned structures and unfinished monuments after the 1975 civil war using expired film with a 1948 Kodak Reflex camera. These grainy, seemingly vintage photographs question the verity of images. Antar’s technique not only blurs the line between what one sees and believes but also creates an antiheroic stance that breaks with the tradition of monumentalizing colonial histories.

Viewers can experience a kind of transformation from such images that document, protest, and reexamine various ethnic, political, and authoritarian regimes that fundamentally alter these Middle Eastern states. In these exhibitions, artists from different countries come together in their shared purpose of presenting personal histories that symbolize a larger collective journey and identity—that ultimately communicate the significance of life. Such art evokes larger emotions and a transcultural sensibility that attests to its relevance in the world today.


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  2. Nadia Tomaszewski says:

    Art is one of the most effective forms of communication between peoples. These artists who created such personal manifestations of their feelings have articulated something words could never do. Art is the pure form of expression, allowing the artist to speak his or her mind in complete authenticity without having to convolute ideas through language. In doing so we can understand without even understanding the situation. We simply see and we feel. That is why art is so effective in communication of the atrocities of war. It is the expression of the people layed out in a format that shows their truest sentiments. It is very humanizing compared to what we see on the media, and lends a feeling of sympathy and compassion, even the piece itself is angry, violent or hateful. By exposing people internationally to the art that comes out of the world’s heated war zones, we can help ourselves to globally connect and understand one another.

  3. Charles Jenco says:

    I believe artwork during times of war, is one of the greatest ways to display the idea of the “Melting Pot”. For the most part when we see photos of crowds during TOW, they are unified, standing as one. As for the observer on the other side of the picture, it can give them a slight feel of what they are going through. I think these photos are some of some of the more “honest” pictures. I say this because you can see the true emotion of the ones photographed, rage from protestors, fear from children and so on.

  4. Art is a form of communication to many and is an outstanding language. Artist are very profound at what they do and their language is one of a king; to be able to catch something with the twinkle in their eye. Movement, depiction, thoughts, and emotions one can tell from a beautiful well explained portrait. Artist painted how they felt and obviously this one here is telling a major story that only this painter will be able to tell true meaning. In this explicit portrait the artist had to feel some type of rage towards something he has been holding in. In this portrait you can see what seems to be like a big fish attacking the back of the building to portray the wrong doing of the govt. Art also helps one if life and also help other people see light in situation. Art is life; a beautiful craft which one and many are perfecting each day to make the world a better place.

  5. Derryl says:

    I think this painting is very emotional , it shows the struggle and pain that was going on durin the war and the things they were going through . If you look closely at the pic ,it looks like people are suffering and everything they worked for is gone

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