CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Throughout history, various cultures have been lumped together into the broad categories "East" and "West" in order to distinguish an "us" from a "them," according to art historian David O'Brien. This habit continues today, he says, "but at the expense of cross-cultural understanding, and despite the fact that the lives of many people now cross the East/West divide."
Some major contemporary artists who share a connection to both worlds are now traversing boundaries, dismantling stereotypes and seeking to broaden perceptions on both sides of the global divide. A traveling exhibition organized by the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois will bring the work of seven of these artists together for the first time.
"Beyond East and West: Seven Transnational Artists" opens Jan. 23 at the museum and will be on view there through March 28, before traveling to various venues throughout the United States through 2005. Featured artists are Jananne Al-Ani, Ghada Amer, Mona Hatoum, Y.Z. Kami, Walid Ra'ad, Michal Rovner and Shahzia Sikander. Each artist is represented by a choice selection of works, ranging from large installations and video projections to miniature paintings, prints and sculptures.
The exhibition is co-curated by O'Brien, and David Prochaska, professors of art history and of history, respectively, at Illinois. Additional in-house curatorial assistance has been provided by museum curator Roxanne Stanulis.
Several events have been planned in conjunction with the exhibition's run at Illinois, including a conference on Feb. 6-7 in the museum auditorium. The conference is free and open to the public; registration is not required. Participants include artists Al-Ani, Ra'ad and Sikander, and leading scholars.
Keynote speakers will be Okwui Enwezor, a visiting professor of art history at Illinois and professor of art history at the University of Pittsburgh, and Salah Hassan, chair of the art history department at Cornell University.
All of the artists represented in the exhibition were born in the region stretching from Egypt to Pakistan, and have lived and worked in the United States or Europe. Their work reflects a familiarity with diverse forms of artistic expression and is shaped by what O'Brien calls "competing cultural allegiances."
"The art in this show addresses various experiences of travel, exile, diaspora, alienation and integration, feelings of longing and belonging, memories of places and people, encounters with divergent views of sexuality and gender, alternate political understandings of the world, and cultural practices that both divide and unite us," O'Brien wrote in an essay that appears in the exhibition's companion catalog. The catalog also includes an essay by Prochaska, excerpts from conversations with the artists and color illustrations of their work.
"We began the organization of this show several months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks," O'Brien said. Naturally, he added, the attacks and subsequent military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq have focused greater world attention on the region, and "make the show more immediately relevant to a broader audience."
The featured artists are linked by similar cultural forces and common experiences - the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a direct experience of war and American and European domination in the region, for instance. However, O'Brien notes, "the exhibition's goal is not to define a culturally specific aesthetics or politics that unifies these artists, and certainly not an artistic movement. Rather," he writes, "the exhibition focuses on (the) variety of cosmopolitan interpretations of displacement and intercultural experience by artists who have followed a specific trajectory."
And while the artists' cosmopolitan world-views are apparent in their work, O'Brien said, each manages to "preserve important particularities from their individual histories and those of their homelands."
Sikander, for example, who was born in Pakistan, combines techniques and media associated with traditional South Asian miniature painting in her work. She updates the work and makes it her own, however, by incorporating Muslim, Hindu and Western images and icons representing both high- and low-brow cultures.
Similarly, O'Brien notes, paintings by the Egyptian-born Amer that include imagery of autoerotic and lesbian sexual activity "engage familiar debates about feminism and sexuality, but they also raise very different debates when viewed in an Egyptian or Muslim context."
Following its opening at Illinois, the show will travel to the following venues: April 16 through Sept. 4, Louisiana State University Museum of Art, Baton Rouge; Oct. 9 through Dec. 12, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H.; and Feb. 19 through May 15, 2005, Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Mass.
More information about the Krannert Art Museum - including location, hours, exhibition and related-events listings - is on the Web.