When Sana Makhoul started studying for her master’s degree in art history at San Jose State University, she noticed that her native Arab culture was either unexamined or misrepresented in all the books she used for class and decided to find out why.
After two years chronicling the history of art portraying Arabs and Muslims, from 19th Century paintings to modern movies, she’s put together a show called Somewhere Elsewhere, which opens today (Tuesday) at UC Berkeley’s Worth Ryder Gallery.
The show features eight different Arab and Iranian artists who work in various art genres including painting, sculpture and film. Each artist’s piece is meant to confront stereotypes and misrepresentations about Arab and Muslims in the Middle East.
“I decided [that] instead of writing another thesis to sit on the shelf I wanted to do something that I could interact with,” said Makhoul, an Arab-Palestinian who grew up in Israel.
Makhoul said her research was heavily influenced by Edward Said, and especially by his book, Orientalism, about the assumptions and inaccuracies in some Western portrayals of the Middle East. Said, a Palestine-American professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, died last year. There will be a screening of a movie about Said as part of the show.
Many of the pieces in the show look at stereotypes about the Middle East. Others examine the particular forms of discrimination that Arabs and Muslims faced after Sept. 11.
In one of her sculpture pieces, Iranian artist Haleh Niazmand places several circular pieces on the wall, each with a small picture of a woman’s body part. They are meant to represent peep-holes through which the western world sees women.
“We are very used to a fragmented view of women,” said Niazmand. Western advertising has reduced women to their individual body parts, she said. This is also the case when Westerners consider the plight of women in the Middle East, she said, such as when people assume that veils are ubiquitous and must be a form of oppression. Niazmand said those assumptions are incorrect and a second sculpture by her mocks that notion by showing the bodice of a woman that is covered by a veil.
Another piece of Niazmand’s is a sculpture of a vagina. She says it depicts Westerners' obsession with virgins in the Middle East.
“There are a lot of assumptions,” said Niazmand. “The traditional notion that the girls in the Middle East have to be virgins until the time of their marriage, it’s a stereotype.”
Dorris Bittar’s two paintings in the show both use the American flag as their background with patterns and images imposed on them. In one, “Stars and Stripes: From Zaragosa to Shiraz,” Bittar paints the flag with patterns associated with the Middle East, using an Islamic design from Zaragoza, Spain, as well as a design from Shiraz, Iran.
The piece forces the viewer to acknowledge the diversity of the Middle East, said Bittar, who is Lebanese but was born in Iraq and now lives in San Diego. The different patterns are proof of a geographic diversity and an artistic diversity, which contradicts the one-dimensional image of an “Arab” or the “Middle East.”
The backdrop of the American flag is meant to show America’s own emphasis on diversity, Bittar said.
“I wanted to put the most starred and striped culture, which is the Middle Eastern culture, with the most patterned flag in the world and draw similarities about how they have dealt with diversity,” she said.
Some of the pieces are narratives but are also open for interpretation. Abdelali Dahrouch’s “Yellow Citizen” is a multimedia piece that shows images of Japanese people in internment camps during World War II and images of Arabs and Muslims after Sept. 11. The juxtaposition, he said, is meant to remind the viewer that the United States often forgets its own history.
But beyond the connection, Dahrouch leaves the rest up to the viewer.
“I want a space where those connections are manifest,” said Dahrouch, not “didactic.” Dahrouch was born in Algeria, grew up in France and moved to United States about 20 years ago. “I like to create poetry through my art with that ambivalence.”