Jessica Hunter Larsen cuts straight to the point.
"It's such a broad field, to be talking about the 'Islamic world,' and to be talking about 'contemporary art,'" says the curator and director of Colorado College's InterDisciplinary Experimental Arts (I.D.E.A.) program. "The intention of the show is not to be representative of huge swaths of culture. That's impossible."
That might sound like a pretty humble thing to say about an exhibition titled Cross-Currents: Tradition and Innovation in Contemporary Art of the Islamic World. At second glance, however, it makes perfect sense that a show featuring the artwork of Arabs, Bosnians, Pakistanis and Persians would reveal not the homogeneity of that so-called "Islamic World," but its multiplicity and even its contradictions.
It is art, after all, that has the unique capacity to play with huge cultural formations while representing nothing but itself. And here, Hunter Larsen says, "We've really isolated seven pretty unique voices, to just sort of look at what these individual artists ... in their particular circumstances, backgrounds and interests are thinking."
The show, which includes paintings, prints, calligraphy, clothing, collage and even what Hunter Larsen calls a "video painting," kicks off a year-long Cross-Currents series at CC. According to a release, the series "examines current social, political and cultural issues of the Islamic world."
Those are exactly the kinds of issues with which Ayad Alkadhi has engaged, even years after leaving his native Iraq following the first Gulf War. "Many Arab artists depicted the 'Arab Spring,'" the New York artist writes in an e-mail. "My aim was to spotlight the role of social media as a tool used by the youth to empower the [uprising]."
Certainly, his paintings, illustrations and collages at the exhibition do exactly that — just not in the way you might expect. One portrays a nude, featureless body surrounded by swirls of Arabic calligraphy, painted over Arabic-language newspapers. All of which is then overlaid, jarringly, by an instant messaging-style speech bubble that asks (in plaintive Helvetica typeface), "well, what the fuck does it mean?!"
Obviously, the viewer is left asking the same thing; Alkadhi points to another work for answers. This one features the mystical "third eye" traditionally used to ward off evil, here boxed in by all-too-familiar "Like" buttons.
"'Third Eye' was created at the very beginnings of the [revolutionary] movement in Syria ... The red box is none other than Youtube and its role in facilitating communication and awareness between the people especially during the early days, and bypassing the censorship of the governments in charge."
That seems straightforward enough, until you actually see the work. The YouTube frame seems haphazardly drawn and small, its hyperlinking icons trivial and impuissant when juxtaposed against the defiant confidence of the anonymous figure behind it. Blue paint dripping from the third eye supersedes and transcends the frame.
These "incongruous elements," as Alkadhi calls them, really cut to the heart of the exhibit's cross-cultural experiments: They don't provide the answers, but they do raise plenty of questions.