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Image by Emily Broad

Understanding the Present Through the Past: A Review of Go Back to Move Forward

The Curatorial Practice Class Exhibition “Go Back to Move Forward” presents a uniquely thought-provoking analysis of historical and contemporary civics, all displayed through the lense of aesthetic brilliance.

Dec 7, 2019

Philosopher Walter Benjamin writes about the importance of historical materialism. He argues that viewing history through this convention allows for art to transcend its relevance to not only resonate with the historical moment in which it was produced, but also with the present.
He wrote, “For the person who is concerned with works of art in a historical materialist mode], these works integrate their pre as well as post-history… Works of art teach that person how their function outlives their creator and how his intentions are left behind. They demonstrate how the reception of the work by its contemporaries becomes a component of the effect which a work of art has upon us today.”
Like Benjamin, the NYU Abu Dhabi art exhibition “Go Back to Move Forward” encourages us, the viewers, to examine the artwork and reflect on its relevance today. The topics cover the Arab world in revolt and span across regions from Syria and Egypt to Lebanon and Iraq. This exhibition invites us to think about the turbulent past of this part of the world and how, despite the spectrum of issues these countries and artists faced, a common affective anxiety emerges from their art.
The exhibition is curated by the students of the Curatorial Practice class taught by professor, curator and art historian Salwa Mikdadi. The works are chosen from the private collection of HE Zaki Nusseibeh, a UAE Minister of State. His collection consists of modern and contemporary art predominantly from the Arab world. This exhibition displays artworks by artists from Lebanon, Palestine, Algeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, many of whom have ties to the West. Whether living in the Arab world or in the diaspora, a common sense of anxiety and disquiet, about the past, present and future emerges in these artists’ works. This puts them in critical dialogue with one another and with the turbulent histories that produced them.
As per the title, the artists interrogate “the present and the past… [and] envisage a future, using science fiction, symbolism and metaphor to construct a futuristic image.” However, I would argue that more importantly, the title also invites the viewers to put these artworks — products of a recent past — into conversation with our turbulent present. This invitation is quite welcome, reminding the viewer that this exhibition is about politics as much as, if not more than, it is about aesthetics.
Next to the curatorial statement at the entrance, Lebanese Marwan Sahmarani’s 2012 work Houroub 1 opens the exhibit. At first glance, this work seems to be an abstract canvas, splattered with splashes of brown, red and blue. On a slightly closer examination, however, the painting reveals an epic scene: soldiers on foot, a nude woman, horses, soldiers on horses. It depicts the site of a massacre. Despite the violence and chaotic splatters of red paint, there is something meditatively intricate about the smooth curves that ornate some parts of the painting. As the piece's title suggests, this work is about war. Growing up in Lebanon during the civil war between 1975 and 1990, Sahmarani’s piece reflects the violence and trauma of the war. Teetering between abstraction and representation, this work attempts to make sense of the world. If we look at this painting as Benjamin — and the curators — ask us to, we realize that it resonates with contemporary issues of war, violence and bloodshed, regardless of the viewer’s experience of the world, be it the Arab world or elsewhere.
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Image by Emily Broad
On the opposite side of the gallery space, another work curiously resonates with Sahmarani’s: The Martyred Camp by Abdul Rahman Katanani from 2008. With colors similar to Houroub 1’s, this work fools the eye into seeing an abstraction, only to eventually reveal a human figure amidst the chaotic thick brushstrokes. The piece blends together red, blue, black and white paint. Katanani — a Palestinian artist who was born and now lives in one of Lebanon’s refugee camps — repurposes materials he finds around the camp in his work attaching fabric, nails and bottle caps to the corrugated metal. This wall installation is typical of his work. His “canvas” is a tin sheet, a material used as makeshift roofing for the houses in refugee camps. It is the negative space — the unpainted — human figure charging toward the ground or toward the unknown. In other words, here, the human figure is bare, ossified and frail, like a metal roof that leaks when it rains, heats up when the sun strikes it and rattles when the winds are strong. Despite its anonymity, the human figure prompts us to wonder: who are they? Are they a refugee in Sabra Refugee Camp? Are they an Arab? Are they all of humanity, angry and damned? Perhaps, it is beside the point. The movement this painting evokes — the circular colorful brush strokes surrounding the human figure and the irregular shape of the tin — contrasts with the bare metal that creates the figure. Yet, this contrast only further propels the notions of turbulence and fury that the work suggests. The vigorous, deep brushstrokes are no less disturbing than the bareness of the silver tin, which reminds us of its origins in a refugee camp.
Mahmoud Darwish, the infamous Palestinian poet, writes in his self-elegy “In the Presence of Absence”:
"Remember yourself
before all turns to dust
so that you may grow up
Remember, remember
your ten toes and forget the shoe
Remember the features of your face
Forget the winter fog
Remember your mother and your name
and forget the letters of the alphabet
Remember your country and forget the sky
Remember, remember! "
These words curiously resonate with what both Katanani’s work and the exhibition demands of us — to remember ourselves “so that we grow up,” or in the words of the exhibition, to “go back to move forward.” “Before all turns to dust” is a phrase that transcends yet emphasizes the ‘now.’ It urges us to examine the past within our present context in hopes of retaining one’s identity and hence generating a fruitful future. This phrase elegantly weaves the ideas of Walter Benjamin on the notion of history, the concept of the exhibition and the artwork themselves, which demand that we interrogate them and locate their significance in our contemporary moment, wherever and whenever that might be.
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Image by Emily Broad
While most artworks respond to a turbulent world, Idris Khan’s work explores another world entirely, all without unsettling the viewers. Khan’s 2015 “Go Back to Move Forward” consists of a series of nine stamped music sheets — some appropriated and others, original scores. Arranged sequentially from decipherable to obscure, one cannot but contemplate these works. Faded and subdued, the sheets, however, fail to assimilate into the exhibition; Khan’s work lacks the urgency and turbulence present in the other works in the exhibition. While Pakistan also has a turbulent recent history, Khan — who was born and raised in the United Kingdom — questions authorship and artistic originality, as well as his religious identity as a Muslim. As the label says, “Khan credits his obsession with rhythm and repetition to his ritualistic faith in Islam.” This implies that his interest in Pakistan is more spiritual and contemplative rather than political. That is not to say that he is by any means expected to produce a certain kind of art. Rather, I am suggesting that this kind of work is not the most suitable in this exhibition’s context. The work’s title does invite viewers to reflect on history, on the ‘then’ and the ‘now’ like the other works do.
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Image by Emily Broad
Etel Adnan’s “Untitled” also raises questions of assimilation, for it formally and aesthetically differs from the rest of the works. But in comparison to some of Adnan’s other pieces, this one’s colors are deep and somber. Within this intricately crafted canvas of various colors, the burgundy patch — which creates a resonance with Sahmarani and Katanani’s pieces — cannot but alarm the viewer despite the painting’s abstraction. Given Adnan’s iconic status in the modern and contemporary Arab art scene, I am compelled to put Benjamin’s historical materiality aside and accept a historicist justification for Adnan’s inclusion in this exhibition, keeping in mind the same goal of exploring the past, present and future.
“Go Back to Move Forward”, thus, is a mosaic of artworks by Arab artists with a noticeable bias toward Levantine artists that come together to demand that the viewers — who are in the UAE — reflect on this region’s past in order to envision a new, brighter future for the Arab world. And while Benjamin is more concerned with making the past relevant to the present than he is with the future, Darwish implores us to “remember” “so that you may grow up.”
“Go Back to Move Forward” was curated by students in the Curatorial Practice class at NYUAD, with the supervision of Professor Salwa Mikdadi. The exhibition features works by Etel Adnan, Shadia Alem, Ghada Amer and Reza Farkhondeh, Kader Attia, Ayman Baalbaki, Abdelkader Benchamma, Hiba Kalache, Nadine Kanso, Abdul Rahman Katanani, Idris Khan, Steve Sabella, Marwan Sahmarani, and Larissa Sansour.
The exhibition is on view in the Project Space at NYUAD. Nov. 27 to Dec. 14, 2019; Saturday to Thursday; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Tom Abi Samra is a contributing writer. Email him at
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