For the past decade, Dearborn's Arab American National Museum has celebrated Arab culture of all kinds with exhibitions, productions, concerts, and other programming. To celebrate this milestone, the museum is showing Ten: The Exhibition, a showcase of contemporary Arab-American artists (including two from Michigan — Joe Namy and Wafer Shayota). To learn more about the show, we spoke to AANM's Curator of Exhibitions, Elizabeth Barrett Sullivan (though her last name is Irish, she is Syrian on her mother's side).
Metro Times: So the AANM turns 10 this year. Tell us about what this new exhibition celebrates.
Elizabeth Barrett Sullivan: The museum started out 10 years ago, and the first exhibition they had was one of Arab-American artists called In/Visible, and it was an important exhibition because there has never really been a lot of Arab-American artist exhibitions in other art institutions, so we've always recognized that our museum is a place for that to happen. So this is kind of just another great way for us to bring our Arab-American artists together and show them and promote their work and connect them to a larger American community.
MT: Are the artists featured in this show predominantly national or international?
Sullivan: It's kind of a mix. We've predominantly focused on Arab-American artists and their stories and their work, but there have been artists sometimes that are a little harder to pin down. A lot of them split their time back and forth, especially first-generation immigrants who split their time back and forth between the U.S. and their ancestral land. If they identify as Arab-American we're very happy to have them.
MT: Is this a multidisciplinary show?
Sullivan: It's kind of a neat exhibition because we do include your standard visual arts painting on a wall but then we've got some installations, some digital media, several videos, and an audio essay. It's diverse in its range, and I hope that challenges people's ideas of what Arab-American art is. People tend to think it's just Islamic art or just mosaics and calligraphy and stuff like that, but it's much more diverse.
MT: Can you tell us about some of the more interesting works in this exhibit?
Sullivan: Hamdi Attia is an Egyptian artist, and his piece is world map. It's a printed map where he plays with the concept of geography and place-finding in relation to specifically Palestine. He's done it in different iterations, like on different types of material before, but ours is a printed vinyl banner. It kind of resembles like a school map, like a pull-down school map that you'd have in elementary school. He plays with the concept of the archipelago as a group of islands, so he split up Palestinian territories and cities, and kind of spread them out over what starts to resemble the world map. It's kind of abstract as well.
Joyce Dallal is an Iraqi. She was born in the U.S., but her parents are Iraqi-Jewish, and her piece is an installation of dealing with her father's journey to become an American citizen. She didn't know that he had this struggle when she was a child, and that her family was at risk of deportation at any moment. She discovered this later in life, and created this installation of documents from the State Department and news clippings of stories and his passports and things like that. She's got all of those framed, and then she's created this rug out of maps and pages and linoleum and photographed documents and it's in the shape of a compass. And that sort of discusses the orientation of place-finding and finding home.
She also includes a table and chairs and a backgammon set, and encourages people to play a game of backgammon. The rules of backgammon are you move your pieces around the board and try to bring them "back home," so that's another metaphor for finding home. And it's a popular game in the Middle East especially, so that's another tie-back as well.
MT: Is the Arab-American experience a thread that unites the work in this show?
Sullivan: Definitely aspects of it for sure. That was a conscious thing that we were trying to focus on the idea of people trying to find a place in the world, especially for Arabs in the diaspora and how that affects them.
MT: What was the curatorial process like?
Sullivan: We selected all the artists. Maymanah Farhat, the guest curator, came with a list of potential artists that she wanted to include and the museum side had our couple of names that we wanted to add to that list. She and I sat down and kind of hashed it out and looked at various things to narrow it down to our final ten.
MT: Anything else big on the horizon for AANM?
Sullivan: We're doing the film festival in a couple weeks, the first week of June — Cinetopia, we're one of the venues for that. In July we'll be part of the Concert of Colors again, and we'll have some more exhibitions come up in July as well.
The museum is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday; 13624 Michigan Ave., Dearborn; 313-582-2266; arabamericanmuseum.org. Runs until Oct. 4.
Staff writer Lee DeVito opines weekly on arts and culture for the Detroit Metro Times.