As harmful stereotypes of Arabs lead to a rise in hate crimes and impact the formation of American immigration policy, the educational role that cultural institutions can play becomes increasingly important. “Cities of Conviction,” an exhibition of contemporary Saudi Arabian art at Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA) goes a long way towards addressing these problems and to expanding the parameters of Arab identity. At the onset, the show emphasizes shared commonalities between Americans and Arabs. Audiences discover a plethora of works where the concerns and curiosities of young Arab artists mirror our own.
Particularly poignant is Dana Awartani’s performative video, “I went away and forgot you,” which explores her desert heritage by sweeping away an ornate sandy floor, only to unearth a tile foundation beneath. Musaed al Hulis’ “Dynamic” prayer rug consists of hundreds of tightly woven bicycle chain links that embody the rigor required for religious devotion. Rashed al Shashai’s “Heaven’s Doors” effectively uses chintzy food baskets to explore the encroachment of consumerism into religious spaces.
Compelling as the works are, and they are genuinely compelling, the overall premise of the show is flawed. Hailing from the King Abdulazziz Center for World Culture (or ITHRA), “Cities of Conviction” advances a definition of Saudi Arabia that is both sanitized and misleading.
Struck from the picture is the country’s human rights record, which is among the worst in the world. Specifically, the prevailing legal system known as Sharia Law advocates for the stoning of adulterers, the amputation of thieves’ limbs, the imprisonment of dissenters and the hangings of LGBTQ persons. Yes, hangings. These practices are so barbaric, that Saudi Arabia has repeatedly been named the most authoritarian country in the world by The Economist’s Democracy Index.
The omission of this information from the show is to be expected from the Saudi organizers: It is the job of the curators at ITHRA to promote an image of Saudi Arabia that is palatable and progressive. More troubling, however, is the role of UMOCA curators, whose commitment to “critical independence��� is part of their institutional mission. Not only did curators fail in this regard, but the silence of local critics on this issue also speaks volumes. The omission of this information not only fails ITHRA’s pledge to present “authentic insight into the life and culture in Saudi Arabia.” Given the incendiary nature of American moralism today, it has the potential to mar the other artists in the show.
Finally, omitting Saudi Arabia’s human right’s record has implications for Utahns. Throughout the exhibition, UMOCA curators underscore commonalities along religious lines between by Saudis and Mormons, their shared experience of prayer and pilgrimage among other things. While it is valuable to see similarities between these two religious traditions, it is perhaps equally important to note important differences between them.
While “Cities of Conviction” falls short of painting a comprehensive picture of a foreign culture, it goes a long way to revising our antiquated stereotypes of Arabs. As such, it should be celebrated (and visited) for offering a glimpse into the sensibilities of young Saudi artists. Yet, as we see here, the rush to revise can fall short of the critical standard we have come to expect of our institutions.
The only conclusion to reach is that America needs more exhibitions about Arabs (and others), not less. In doing so, we may come to discover that we ourselves are not so innocent when it comes to homophobia and capital punishment. And so the opportunity exists for us to do a little soul searching of our own, in the true spirit of cultural exchange.
Alexandra Karl, Salt Lake City, is a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy and Humanities at Utah Valley University, Orem.