New York Arab Cultural Initiative Attempts to Showcase Young Arab Voices
On Saturday Oct. 13, the Brooklyn Museum opened an exhibit called “Syria then and now: Stories from Refugees a Century Apart.” This exhibit marks the beginning of the 2018-2019 “New York Arab World Art & Education Initiative,” in which museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim, as well as colleges like Columbia University are, according to the initiative’s website, coming together to “build a greater understanding between the United States and the Arab world.”
The initiative was launched by the Misk Art Institute established last year by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with the goal to “nurture the appreciation of Saudi and Arab art and enable international diplomacy and exchange.” The institute and initiative reflect Prince Salman’s continued attempt to establish an image as a young reformist leader through the projection of soft power.
Ahmed Mater, director of the Misk Art Institute, said in a statement that “This initiative developed out of our strong desire to share the stories of young Arab artists with the U.S. audience and create a reciprocal exchange between New York institutions and the diverse cultural production coming from the Arab world.”
This initiative is reminiscent of past attempts to change or “improve” the narrative of Middle Eastern nations commonly created by American and European media. In 2006, the World Economic Forum on the Middle East focused its efforts on how to rebrand the Middle East, namely trying to promote the idea that Middle Eastern nations are adopting liberal values and reforming corruption in the government and labor market. A video from the USA’s Travelindex Network and Travel & Tourism Foundation in 2011 called “Egypt Land of Legend,” attempts to market Egypt as a the “cradle of civilization” and “guardian of the past” while also trying to make it seem “modern” by advertising nightlife and diving excursions that encourage tourism.
The initiative’s emphasis on young Arab artists, most of whom have spent time in America, will likely feature artwork that upholds liberal values. It is important to consider what this initiative is setting out to do and how it influences how people see Middle Eastern nations, especially Saudi Arabia, which is closely tied to or funds most of the organizations that are part of this initiative. In light of recent accusations that the Saudi government killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it’s important for these organizations to consider where their money is coming from and whether they should continue to work with a government that has a long list of human rights abuses.