Germany’s documenta exhibition presents new perspectives on Arab art

Germany’s documenta exhibition presents new perspectives on Arab art
Members of Ruangrupa and the documenta 15 artistic team, including Lara Khaldi (left) and Mirwan Andan (center, in checked shirt) in Kassel, Germany in 2021. (Supplied)
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Updated 17 June 2022

Germany’s documenta exhibition presents new perspectives on Arab art

Germany’s documenta exhibition presents new perspectives on Arab art
  • ‘We wanted to avoid getting stuck in identity politics. We are about the idea of the collective,’ says member of Palestinian collective exhibiting at the show

BERLIN: This year’s documenta — the contemporary art exhibition that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany — eschews the idea of the individual artist working in isolation and embraces the collective. The show, which runs from June 18 until September 22, explores the intersections between art and life, less object-driven and more process-driven; artistic practice as social structure.

Mirwan Andan, a member of this year’s artistic directors, the Jakarta-based collective ruangrupa, tells Arab News: “We realized from the beginning that involving people from different backgrounds will enrich the idea of the collective. It’s not enough to involve artists.”

Ruangrupa have conceived documenta 15 around the idea of the “lumbung” — an Indonesian term for a communal rice barn. In this case, conceptually and in practice, it is similar to the Islamic notion of the jam’iyah, in which participants pool resources and redistribute them.

The Question of Funding, how to work together, 2019. (Supplied)

In fact, many of the organizing principles of documenta 15 are driven by aspects of Muslim culture, such as working groups forming a majlis, and the public program, entitled Meydan. “We don’t separate daily life from our practices, so lumbung is not a theme, it’s more (like) a software that can run on any hardware,” says Andan. “We want to experiment with this practice, which takes place in the Southern Hemisphere, rather than hijack the art world as curators.”

Ruangrupa are perhaps better known for the convivial spaces they open up in an urban context than the art that they make. For example, at the Sharjah Biennial in 2019, they staged “Gudskul” (pronounced “good school”), a public learning space established with two other collectives that provided a toolkit for knowledge sharing. Here, the roles of the teacher and the students were interchangeable.

“Many of the aspects of the ruangrupa space in Jakarta — a house, an exhibition space and a library of pirated books — which I came across in 2015 on a visit with the De Appel Curatorial Program, resonates with the informal artistic scene in Ramallah,” says Palestinian cultural worker Lara Khaldi, a member of documenta’s artistic team. “And what ruangrupa call ‘ekosistem’ — a set of relations you cannot define — are like the conversations that happen at home, in the garden and cafés.

Yazan Khalili. (Supplied)

“The curator has become very much about the auteur, which isn’t an honest way of defining the role, since it is always about collective authorship,” Khaldi continues. “It’s interesting to look at the lumbung as a pre-colonial Indonesian practice that is also present in our cultural scene in the region.”

In addition to an artistic team, ruangrupa have created an international lumbung network of 14 collectives (whose work together will continue beyond documenta), including Question of Funding, a group of Palestinian cultural producers whose exhibition space in Kassel was recently subject to vandalism and fascist slogans.

Despite the expanded ways of thinking about geographic and political configurations — this year ruangrupa announced the participating artists based on time zones — the organizers still have to deal with Germany’s complex political and cultural climate as a place affected by both anti-Semitism and anti-Palestinian sentiment. It’s ironic because, as Amany Khalifa, formerly a community organizer at Grassroots Jerusalem and now a member of The Question of Funding, tells Arab News: “We wanted to avoid the representation of Palestinian art in documenta and getting stuck in identity politics. We are about the idea of the collective. Since 2016, we’ve met informally in kitchens and gardens, trying to create different economic structures, models that were left out by civil society. It’s the question of who owns the means of production, and this is applicable not just to Palestine.”

SADA, film still, Journey Inside the City, by Sarah Munaf in Sada, 2022. (Supplied)

Drawing from what they call the “NGO-ization” of Palestinian civil society in the 1990s, The Question of Funding was formed in 2019 by NGO workers and institutional representatives of Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center and Popular Art Center, among others.

“We are using this dilemma as a framework to think of communal practices, and not just theoretically,” says artist and Question of Funding member Yazan Khalili. “The Question of Funding is a historical question. It attempts to move away from a critique of the donor’s economy to rethink what funding can be, and learn from other economic models.”

Khalili, became the chairman of the storied Sakakini Cultural Center, the first cultural NGO in Palestine, in 2015, after his MFA in Amsterdam. “Our approach was to take the economic crisis and flip it into a cultural one. We call this the total work of the cultural institution. It can be argued that the main tool for cultural practices in Palestine is an institution which is not only a means of production but also an ideological structure. So how do we practice institutionalism without recreating an institution? How do we form structures of production through the critique of the cultural institution as such? We are interested in creating artworks that look like they are of an institution, while producing structures in which the critique of the cultural institution can be practiced.”

Borrowed Faces installation, Fehras Publishing Practices. (Supplied)

While, as a whole, the exhibition does emerge from a position of critique — of institutions, the art industry, and of exhibition-making itself — Khalili says that it’s an affirmative one. While the world is unstable — with pro-Palestinian, anti-apartheid thinkers and artists subject to smear campaigns — spaces in the art world are being created for alternative ways of thinking outside the political arena.

“What scares us the most is this buildup of McCarthyism and mass fear,” says Khalili. “But we’ve had support from German artists, academics, and collectives in Kassel. There is a lot of space to fight back.”

For documenta, The Question of Funding is organizing exhibitions and communal spaces with other collectives, including the Eltiqa Group for Contemporary Art in Gaza. With the help of writers and illustrators, they will also create a children’s book about the economy and a new economic medium called Dayra, a form of money-less exchange using blockchain technologies.

El-Warcha Courtyard project, Hafsia, 2019. (Supplied)

“Eltiqa is a unique example of a collective in Palestine,” Khalili says. “They produce paintings, sculpture and photography in a collective space that also supports young artists from Gaza. And they managed to do this without becoming an NGO. During the last May 2021 war on Gaza, a member of the group, Mohammed Hawajri, posted a comment on Facebook on what it means to show solidarity. He proposed going beyond the level of funding by showing the work of artists from Gaza. There needs to be support on an intellectual and artistic level, not just sending money. And so how do we use documenta as a resource to support another group that is also trying to produce something outside given structures of cultural production?”

With Berlin-based Syrian art collective Fehras Publishing Practices presenting “Borrowed Faces” — a hybrid archival research project on Arab globalization and political agency, as well as a fictional story on the female figures of Afro-Asian Solidarity Movement in Tashkent, Cairo and Beirut; Tunis-based El Warcha bringing their idea of the workshop to Kassel with a library and public art installation; and Sada curating an exhibition of commissioned video works from Baghdad, there’s a great deal of collective action and alliances from the Arab world at documenta 15.

It remains to be seen what artists as researchers, collaborators and thinkers can propose in a non-hierarchical format but this feels like a decisive shift in the way practices, and artists, from the region are presented on the global circuit — non-essentialized, transdisciplinary and more collaborative.

Arab style stars tapped to show off Italian brand Etro’s latest accessory

Arab style stars tapped to show off Italian brand Etro’s latest accessory
Updated 29 March 2023

Arab style stars tapped to show off Italian brand Etro’s latest accessory

Arab style stars tapped to show off Italian brand Etro’s latest accessory

DUBAI: Iconic Italian luxury brand Etro, known for its ready-to-wear looks with luxurious fabrics and paisley prints, has added a new bag to its roster and collaborated with fashion-forward influencers from the Middle East to show it off.    

The brand has tapped names from the region — including Karen Wazen, Ola Farahat and Rym Saidi — to advertise its first-ever bag designed by Creative Director Marco de Vincenzo. 

Other popular faces in the campaign include Saudi beauty influencer Yara Al-Namlah, Iraqi blogger Deema Al-Asadi and Palestinian social media star Julia Hussein.  

Saudi Arabian fashion influencer Yara Al-Namlah with the Etro bag. (Supplied)

“XOXO gossip girls… There were rumors of a new #EtroVelaBag. Paparazzi say it’s the new age of ‘functionality’ in hand,” posted Al-Namlah on Instagram, along with a few shots of her carrying the bag.   

“Makin’ my way downtown— in @etro,” posted Wazen, the Lebanese fashion entrepreneur and social media influencer based out of Dubai.  


The classic bag draws inspiration from the nautical world as “its sharp silhouette and dynamic contours seem to ‘cut through’ the wind like a sail,” according to a press release. 

The V-shaped closure features a flexible zipper and a chain with a medal engraved with the Etro logo on one side and a Pegasus on the other, made with the same technique used to mint coins.  

The handbag comes in black, ivory, gianduja chocolate, and seasonal colors. A double detachable shoulder strap allows the bag to be worn on the shoulder or cross-body.  

Tunisian model Saidi, who turned heads at the recent Dubai World Cup, also took to Instagram to show off the bag.  

At the Dubai World Cup, the Tunisian model wore a red ensemble by Fendi, which celebrity stylist Cedric Haddad paired with a Virginie.O headpiece.  


A post shared by Ola (@olafarahat)

Meanwhile, in a recent interview with the New York Times, new Etro Creative Director de Vincenzo talked about being the first non-family member to lead the Italian luxury label.  

The previous co-creative directors were second-generation siblings Kean and Veronica.  

“It was an opportunity to be part of a story,” said de Vincenzo.   

US rapper Ice Spice champions Romanian Jordanian designer Amina Muaddi at awards show

US rapper Ice Spice champions Romanian Jordanian designer Amina Muaddi at awards show
Updated 29 March 2023

US rapper Ice Spice champions Romanian Jordanian designer Amina Muaddi at awards show

US rapper Ice Spice champions Romanian Jordanian designer Amina Muaddi at awards show

DUBAI: US rapper Ice Spice attended the iHeartRadio Music Awards this week wearing a small purse by Romanian Jordanian designer-to-the-stars Amina Muaddi. 

The “Boy’s a Liar Pt. 2” singer chose the Superamini Baby Girl bag in black satin. The bag has leather lining, along with a crystal-embellished logo and “Baby Girl” text. 

The bag has leather lining, along with a crystal-embellished logo and “Baby Girl” text. (AFP)

She matched the purse with a black-and-white dress by French fashion label Jean Paul Gaultier and black platforms by Saint Laurent. 

At the star-studded event in Los Angeles, Ice Spice – along with British rapper Pink Pantheress – presented the Song of the Year award to superstar Taylor Swift who won the award for her hit “Anti-Hero.”  

Trailblazers: Safia Farhat — Tunisian artist, educator and activist now gaining global renown 

Trailblazers: Safia Farhat — Tunisian artist, educator and activist now gaining global renown 
Updated 29 March 2023

Trailblazers: Safia Farhat — Tunisian artist, educator and activist now gaining global renown 

Trailblazers: Safia Farhat — Tunisian artist, educator and activist now gaining global renown 
  • In this series, we highlight pioneering female artists from the Arab world in honor of Women’s History Month

DUBAI: Tunisian artist Safia Farhat was not only a dynamic tapestry creator, but had an impressive resumé including ceramicist, educator, women’s rights activist, and publishing pioneer. She was a woman who accumulated a list of historic firsts in her lifetime. 

She contributed to the growth of visual culture in independent Tunisia under the progressive leadership of President Habib Bourguiba. Farhat designed national stamps, had her fiber art displayed in the country’s banks, hotels, and schools, and worked with expert weavers and artisans in her studio.  

Safia Farhat pictured in 'L'Action' in 1956. (Supplied)

Farhat was born in the harbor city of Rades in 1924 and raised in a well-to-do family. It was her maternal aunt, who was skilled in knitting and crochet, who cultivated Farhat’s love of art. She went on to study at the Tunis Institute of Fine Arts and was reportedly just the third Tunisian woman to enroll there.  

She later became the institute’s first female director in 1966 — remaining in the role for more than a decade. She encouraged female students to take part in the institute’s programming. Farhat also founded Tunisia’s first magazine for women, “Faiza,” delving into feminism and decolonization, among other social issues.  

Her colorful, thickly lined tapestries depict animals, plants, and men and women wearing traditional clothing. “When I saw her work, I was really fascinated by its sculptural elements, the color, the various techniques that were embedded in it — and by their stories,” Jessica Gerschultz, a professor of African studies at the University of Kansas, told Arab News.  

Safia Farhat's tapestry 'Mother and Children,' created around 1960 - Image courtesy of Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah. (Supplied)

“She seems to really play on self-referentiality,” she continued. “Her works are referring to her other works, so there are many symbols — lots of triangles and zigzags — integrated into her weavings and other works that she did in ceramics and iron.”     

Farhat, who died in 2004, is a name still recognized by some older people in her homeland, but she has been generally overlooked, ironically, by young art students in Tunisia. “At the institute, maybe students know her name, but they’re not very familiar with her,” noted Gerschultz. “Maybe they don’t know her at all.” 

International interest in Farhat, however, was boosted last year as a result of her works being showcased at the Venice Biennale. “It’s wonderful to see her contributions now being viewed more widely,” said Gerschultz.  

Celebrity-loved Roksanda Ilincic talks dressing Rajwa Al-Saif and design inspiration

Celebrity-loved Roksanda Ilincic talks dressing Rajwa Al-Saif and design inspiration
Updated 28 March 2023

Celebrity-loved Roksanda Ilincic talks dressing Rajwa Al-Saif and design inspiration

Celebrity-loved Roksanda Ilincic talks dressing Rajwa Al-Saif and design inspiration
  • Roksanda Ilincic’s designs have been worn by the likes of Kate Middleton, Anne Hathaway and Michelle Obama
  • Crown Prince Hussein of Jordan’s Saudi fiancee Rajwa Al-Saif wore a Roksanda creation to Princess Iman’s recent wedding in Amman

DUBAI: London-based designer Roksanda Ilincic has quite the clientele. From British royalty like the princess of Wales to Hollywood A-listers Anne Hathaway and Blake Lively, her technicolored dresses are a go-to for many celebrities. 

Closer to home, the Saudi national and the fiancee of Crown Prince Hussein of Jordan, Rajwa Al-Saif, was in the news for the elegant bright yellow cape dress by Ilincic that she wore to Princess Iman of Jordan’s recent wedding.


A post shared by Roksanda (@roksandailincic)

Arab News caught up with the designer to learn more.

Al-Saif wearing her Neolitsea dress to the royal wedding came as a big surprise to the designer. “It was an absolute joy and such a privilege to see! I love the dress for its cape and the drama happening at the back,” said Ilincic.


A post shared by Roksanda (@roksandailincic)

Royalty aside, the designer is also very popular with the regional style set in the Middle East. Last year, she spoke at Riyadh’s Fashion Futures and visited Kuwait for a lunch hosted by Harvey Nichols. “Riyadh was a wonderful experience — I love meeting my customers in person and discovering new ways of wearing my designs. Arab women are very educated in fashion — they know what luxury fabrics are and are open to experimenting,” said Ilincic. 

In addition, she believes women in the region love and understand her aesthetic, featuring bright colors and unusual shapes.


A post shared by Roksanda (@roksandailincic)

The Serbian-born designer studied architecture and applied arts at the University of Belgrade before moving to London for further studies. Ilincic graduated with her master’s degree in womenswear from Central Saint Martins in 1999, where she trained under the late professor Louise Wilson OBE. “When I interviewed at the institute, Louise Wilson asked me, ‘what do you want to do with your life once you graduate?’ So I said I want to start my own label, and I remember she was laughing at the time and thinking, ‘wow, those are very ambitious plans,’” she recalled.

For Ilincic, expressing herself and communicating through clothing was always an inner calling, and in 2005, she presented her first collection at London Fashion Week. Then, in 2014, she took the plunge and opened her flagship store on London’s Mount Street, designed by legendary architect Sir David Adjaye. 


A post shared by Roksanda (@roksandailincic)

Ilincic’s designs have become a celebrity staple through her eclectic color combinations and architectural silhouettes. Her inclination towards bold colors stems from her home country and is also reminiscent of the past works of the remarkable Christian Lacroix, who she considers an icon. 

“He’s definitely an inspiration, and so is home where there’s lots of sun, and everything surrounding me was in color. Even a trip to the food market would result in incredible color combinations,” she explained.

Her love for fluid architecture, too, lends itself to her designs. For example, she tries to avoid corsets as much as possible — for ease of movement and comfort for the wearer. “I use corsets when necessary, but I experiment to find alternatives. Sometimes I’ll use grosgrain ribbons or dresses with support on side seams. That element of comfort is really important and something that I never take for granted,” she said.


A post shared by Roksanda (@roksandailincic)

Elsewhere, it is art that often inspires her. Case in point: Her Fall/Winter 2023 collection that referenced the works of Japanese artist Atsuko Tanaka. The grandiose closing gowns consisted of dresses reminiscent of Tanaka’s “Electric Dress” — a creation made from colorful lights and electrical cords. “I took elements of the electric tubes from her art piece, and transformed them into soft, curvilinear tubes and draped them like curves around the body,” Ilincic noted. Despite their sculptural appeal, she believes they are dresses that women can still wear on the red carpet or on stage while performing.


A post shared by Roksanda (@roksandailincic)

So how does a bonafide dressmaker dressing royalty end up collaborating with athletic wear brands like Lululemon and Fila? “I wanted to challenge myself — what I do is so radically different from what was becoming a norm — leggings worn as trousers or puffer jackets alongside red carpet skirts. I was lucky enough to partner with Lululemon and Fila to create sporty, couture-like pieces, and both collaborations have proved to be very successful,” she explained.

Last December, Michelle Obama wore a Roksanda X Fila jacket on her book tour. Couture-esque pieces or glamorous sportswear – it is clear Ilincic has mastered both — and that explains her ever-expanding celebrity fanbase.

Winnie Harlow’s Arab street style turns heads in Los Angeles

Winnie Harlow’s Arab street style turns heads in Los Angeles
Updated 28 March 2023

Winnie Harlow’s Arab street style turns heads in Los Angeles

Winnie Harlow’s Arab street style turns heads in Los Angeles

DUBAI: Canadian model Winnie Harlow was spotted championing Lebanese designer Nicolas Jebran on the streets of Los Angeles. 

She donned a long textured green trench coat from the designer’s Fall/Winter 2023 collection that she wore over a brown turtleneck bodysuit.  

Harlow finished off her look with brown leather boots that extended up to her knees, a khaki structured purse and cat eye sunglasses that she tucked into the coat’s belt at her waist.  

The model wore the outfit for an eventful day. She attended a talk in Los Angeles where she spoke to business founders about her experience creating her beauty brand Cay Skin, she wrote in her Instagram caption as she shared pictures of her look.  

Harlow, who has over 10 million followers on Instagram, then went to celebrate one of her friend’s birthdays. “Long day, Work and Play. Speaking to new business founders about my experience my first year creating @cayskin then straight to the celebrations @mannyuk," she shared with her fans. 

The catwalk star is a regular visitor in the Middle East.  

She recently attended Saudi Arabia’s Formula E Diriyah E-Prix. 

“The experience at Formula E is unmatched and I’ve really enjoyed the vibe, people, atmosphere, and racing. I’ve been to Saudi Arabia a few times and always have a great experience, so I love that Formula E is in Diriyah,” Harlow said in a released statement in January. 

“Living in a more sustainable world and being able to enjoy motorsports at the same time is incredible,” she added.  

In November, she was spotted in Abu Dhabi. She attended the UAE’s Formula 1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and posed for pictures in front of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.  

To watch the race, Harlow wore a black sports jersey with green Swarovski crystals and black leggings with larger colorful crystals. She accessorized her look with a green bag and glasses.   

For her shoot, she wore a black form-fitting velvet dress with a matching turban by Omani label Atelier Zuhra, which was founded by designer Mouza Al-Awfi in 2015.   

She completed the look by layering chunky gold jewelry on her neck and wrists.