Late spring in the Middle East is filled with book fairs, open-air festivals and brave new exhibitions with a dose of discontent about the present and visions of a dystopian future.
Election fever hits Turkey’s art scene: Concerns among Turkish citizens about democracy, human rights and basic liberties have found expression in several art exhibitions as Turkey approaches the June 24 snap elections, the first presidential and parliamentary balloting since the adoption of a presidential system in April 2017.
At the Galata Greek Elementary School, “First Round,” featuring 80 works from the private collection of Banu and Hakan Carmikli, takes a look at the current political and social scene in Turkey. A work by Ferhat Ozgur, “Tower of Democracy,” consists of old ballot boxes stacked on iron-framed shelves. Nearby, Ozgur's larger-than-life wolf, made of wooden ballot boxes, raises its head as if howling. The ballot boxes and the wolf recall the Nationalist Action Party, whose symbol is a wolf, and its new rival, the Good Party, whose leader, Meral Aksener, is nicknamed Asena, which means “she-wolf.” In Serra Behar's “Untitled,” a medicine cabinet, empty except for a few rosaries, is affixed to the wall, offering a thinly veiled criticism of the conflict between doctors and Islamic healers in Turkey. The exhibition's title, “First Round,” suggests the current debate on whether Turkey's incumbent president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will emerge victorious in the first round of voting. The exhibition runs until May 12.
A few steps away from “First Round,” artSumer, a small gallery in Karakoy, is displaying large works by Deniz Aktas, a millennial from the southeastern city of Diyarbakir. The barren landscapes, in hues of gray and beige, bear the devastating marks of the forced evictions and demolished homes and buildings in his city, which is scarred by decades of armed conflict between state security forces and Kurdish militants. The exhibition, aptly titled “No Man’s Land,” runs through May 12. It will be followed by a collective exhibition on destruction and hope, “The Sun is Still There,” which will hang through June 30.
“All Aboard!”: At the American University of Beirut's Center for Arts and Humanities, a collection of rare photographs and archival documents awaits anyone fascinated by the political and historical role of the railways built by Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II in the Middle East. Organized in partnership with Dar El-Nimer for Arts and Culture, an independent art foundation, “Holy Rail” documents the establishment of the Hejaz railway, which ran from Damascus to Medina and is considered the first major infrastructure project the Ottomans financed and built on their own, ostensibly to aid pilgrims trying to reach Mecca and Medina, but also to transport military equipment should war break out, which it did, in 1914. The exhibition continues until June 2.
Sci-fi for Palestine: “Sci-Fi Trilogy,” also organized by Dar El-Nimer for Arts and Culture, brings together three of Larissa Sansour’s short films — “A Space Exodus” (2009), “Nation Estate” (2012) and “In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain” (2016). They meld the language of science fiction with glossy production in exploring loss, belonging, heritage and national identity. The works reflect a dystopian vision of a Middle East on the brink of apocalypse. The films are projected alongside related installations, sculptural and photographic works held by Dar El-Nimer. The exhibition runs until June 6.
Books, books, books: The Abu Dhabi Book Fair, one of the largest events for publishers in the Arabic-speaking world, wrapped up May 1, but avid readers and collectors have an opportunity to attend two more fairs this month. The 11th Palestinian International Book Fair, which takes place May 3-13 in Ramallah, hosts more than 500 publishers. Now might be a good time to grab a copy of “The Second War of the Dog,” the dystopian novel by Ibrahim Nasrallah that just received the International Prize for Arab Fiction, dubbed the Arab Booker. Meanwhile, the 31st edition of the Tehran International Book Fair also takes place May 3-13.
Fresh air: Spring in the Middle East means open-air exhibits with street art of various kinds and a variety of music. Jaffa Fest in Israel offers more than 80 theater and dance performances, live music concerts, exhibitions, workshops and children’s programs throughout May. In Amman, the 6th edition of the Baladk Street Art Festival takes place May 5-10, bringing together graffiti and street artists from Jordan, the broader Middle East and Europe. The theme this year is “People.” In Mardin, a Turkish city known for its striking architecture, a group of international artists are using old buildings as settings for contemporary works of art in the 4th Mardin Biennial, which runs May 4 to June 4.
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