Video Art from the Middle East: Personal and Political

Videos, installations, photo montages, prints, and paintings by 24 contemporary female artists of Middle East heritage are on display in a series of “Fertile Crescent” exhibitions in New Brunswick and Princeton.

By Susan Wallner

Zeina Barakeh. Still from Scenarios of Return (chapter two), 2012 Video animation, duration variable.
Videos, installations, photo montages, prints, and paintings by 24 contemporary female artists of Middle East heritage are on display in a series of “Fertile Crescent” exhibitions in New Brunswick and Princeton. One of the first things a visitor notices is the sheer variety and sophistication of the art. Although rooted strongly in content and imagery from their countries of origin, these women are operating “on the world scene,” as co-curator Judith Brodsky puts it. They are international artists, but with a shared experience of the flux and turmoil found across the Middle East today. It’s a presence in even the most poetic and personal of works.

Zeina Barakeh is a Palestinian-Lebanese artist who addresses politics directly but with an almost comic touch. Barakeh now lives in San Francisco. She says that when she moved to America, the distance showed her how she had been formed by the daily experience of violence growing up in Beirut. She works in a variety of media now, including video animation. Two of these are on display at Princeton University’s Bernstein Gallery through October 19. Each is an animated tale that puts an imaginative twist on historical events. For instance, in “Scenarios of Return,” an avatar representing Barakeh revisits Jaffa in Palestine (where her father was born) to fight the British and reverse history.

Judith Brodsky, co-curator of the Fertile Crescent, says that many women artists from the Middle East, “start out in one country, then go to another country, perhaps they go to a third country; they’re moving back and forth not only geographically but conceptually, between maybe a traditional, religious background and secularism.” In fact, many of the pieces featured in the Fertile Crescent exhibitions aim to make connections between opposites, drawing lines between the personal and the political.

Still from Dancing for Maya, 2005 by Sigalit Landau.
One of the few featured artists still living in her country of origin is an Israeli, Sigalit Landau. Her three-channel video installation “Dancing for Maya” is playing in the entrance gallery of the Princeton University Art Museum through January 13th. An aerial of a beach shows two women, one light, one dark, approaching from opposite sides, drawing lines in the sand that are soon erased by waves. One of these women is Landau, who is also a dancer. She says that in Israel, the only peaceful border is the western coast of the Mediterranean; she sees it as a playful border as well, because of the waves. “Dancing for Maya” is a multi-layered meditation on the common experiences of different women and the impermanence of drawn borders.

The idea for The Fertile Crescent: Gender, Art, and Society began five years ago when co-curator Ferris Olin visited the Istanbul Biennial, and saw exciting work by artists she did not know. Olin and Brodsky, co-directors of the Institute for Women in Art, began to plan the series of exhibitions and events that is now in full swing. “I hope that people coming to the shows will have their eyes opened about art in general, art made by women and art made by women from the Middle East,” says Olin, “the work certainly has changed since we started selecting work five years ago because of current events.” These events include, of course, the Arab Spring. In fact, some artists were only able to be included on the Fertile Crescent’s website, because of the difficulty of shipping art from countries such as Syria and Egypt.


Artists Sigalit Landau (Israel) and Zeina Barakeh (Palestine/Lebanon) introduce their videos.

Fertile Crescent exhibitions, lectures, performances, film screenings, and concerts are taking place at venues in New Brunswick and Princeton, New Jersey, through January 2013. Visit for a full calendar of events, and for images and biographies of the artists.

Look for an in-depth story featuring more artists from the Fertile Crescent exhibitions on the Sunday, October 21st episode of State of the Arts.

Susan Wallner is an award-winning producer with PCK Media. She is a long-time contributor to State of the Arts, airing on NJTV Sundays at 8 pm. Follow her on Twitter @SusanPCK.