Healing in The Spotlight: Platforming Arab Storytelling

FASA Presents Shams: Uplifting Arab Voices Exhibition

Exhibit inspired by Edward Said a bastion of Arab talent. Courtesy Saria Chatila

From March 11 to 17, the Fine Arts Student Alliance hosted Shams: Uplifting Arab Voices–a curated exhibit featuring the artwork of ten Montreal Arab artists.

Held at the Eastern Bloc arts centre, a white-walled space that warmly welcomed curious guests, Shams exhibited an array of sculptures, videos, photos and paintings. 

Shams–meaning ‘sun’ in Arabic–was created to highlight artists who seek to explore the self while reappropriating Arab stereotypes. Themes encountered in the multimedia exhibit included the intersectional duality of Arab identity, as well as multiethnicity.

“I wanted the show to be as versatile as possible; I didn’t want it to be homogenous”, said FASA outreach coordinator Nesreen Galal, the organizer and curator of Shams

Shams was brought to life with the help of several grants from FASA and the CSU. Tricia Middleton, the faculty designate of Concordia's Fine Arts department also provided funding. Thanks to the grants she received, Galal was able to pitch her idea successfully.

“I really wanted to do a project that would fill a gap in the art market […] I’m half Syrian and half Egyptian, and I felt like there was a gap for Arab artists to express their creativity,” explained Galal. “That’s why I used the term ‘Uplifting Arab Voices’, to bring them to the spotlight.”

Galal explained that the goal of this exhibition was to steer away from oriental fantasy, fetishization and the barbaric connotations attributed to Arab cultures by the West. She said that what inspired this project was Edward Said’s book Orientalism, a critique of the Western settlement in the Middle East and the invention of the Orient. 

Orientalism presents a challenge to the dichotomy between the East and the West–a division that Said posits was invented to legitimize colonial projects. Said points out that defining the East becomes about the West defining itself and its own sense of superiority more than it becomes about the East. Throughout the work, the reader realizes that the only thing that the East starts to mean is “not West”. Said was critical of how historically, knowledge has been employed to support systems of power and dominance. He argues that the information created by Western scholars frequently served to legitimize and sustain colonialism’s attitudes and actions.

Following Said’s paradigm, Shams aims to discredit the stereotypes by showcasing marginalized Arab voices. Queer people, women, immigrants, disabled people and refugees were among those whose artwork was displayed. Galal said that she wanted anyone who identifies with any of those to harness a safe space and a home.

Some featured artists were Concordia Fine Art students, while others were from Montreal’s Arab community at large. All works blended together to create an introspective journey of what it means to be Arab in a Western society. 

Lebanese sculptor Rafaël Khoury presented “A Lesson Between Sculpture.” According to Khoury, his sculpture tackles exposure to both the vernacular and classical forms of the Arabic language, and nurtures notions of self-compassion and acceptance.

“My piece relates to Said’s argument and how people from the East have been othered throughout history,” Khoury said. “The sculptures themselves are meant to be imbalanced. Even though they're standing, they appear asymmetrical, as if they’re trying to pace themselves as best they can on these square points. This idea of being othered but trying to fit in was definitely part of the work.”

Khoury further touched on the hardships of feeling like an outsider as an Arab creator in Montreal’s artistic scene. He explained that orientalism in the media reduces entire cultures to a few words or phrases, which is dehumanizing and not accurate. It is a product of symbolic representation rather than a true understanding of the culture.

“There are so many ways that the media will find shortcuts to explain how other cultures exist and I feel like one aspect of Edward Said’s work is this notion of being able to describe a culture with a few words.” said Khoury.

Concordia student artist Ranime El Morry engaged in the conversation about redefining the meaning of being an Arab artist in Montreal through her painting Just a Lookalike II. Centered around a mask that appears to be a self-portrait, the work is made of disposable paperlike material, moulded and folded over a face to show vague protruding facial features. El Morry’s work illustrates autistic masking, self-discovery in regard to autism and how art can be understood.

“My work is about unmasking and revealing your identity; what your actual personality is after hiding who you are and creating different personalities with each person,” El Morry said.

Touching on the impact of Shams, El Morry stated that withstanding Western society’s outlook on Arabs–perceiving them as being unable to have powerful identities or think for their own–is a very painful experience to undergo. 

These biased and inaccurate depictions lead artists to consider a certain paradox of subjection, explained Galal. This paradox being that while one resists that power, it reinforces their own. The artists she selected for Shams use the resistance against these stereotypes as a way to heal.

“Resisting is also a form of healing because you’re not internalizing that […] Growing up, I always internalized stereotypes because [they’re] so in-your-face, and I think by being aware of that gaze, awakening our subconscious, we’re more prone to resist and make a change for ourselves and for our community,” she said.  

This article originally appeared in Volume 43, Issue 14, published March 21, 2023.