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Art in Isolation: Arab Artists Express Emotions Evoked by Covid-19

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His piece in the exhibition, titled #796, is a mixed-media work with rows of small squares cut into a painted wooden panel, symbolizing the loss of identity when lives are reduced to numbers. The work is part of a collection called Arqam, which means numbers in Arabic, a theme Ata worked on around the time of the civil unrest in Iraq in 2005-7 when the news headlines were dominated by the number of fatalities that day.

“During our current situation, this approach seemed more relevant than any other time, especially since it was global,” he said. “This made me revisit the idea one more time with the pandemic in mind, and where once again we were being counted as a statistic with very little humanity attached to it.”

“It has been a strange year for all of us,” Ata said, “and we are all trying to deal with the situation the best we can. As an artist it has given me ample material to express that sense of solitude, loss, loneliness, longing, etc. … There is a lot that needs to be said and expressed, and in that way, art has been my savior.”

‘A Cure for What We’ve Been Through’

In Saudi Arabia, Moath Alofi, is a photographer and video artist who is also the head of cultural programs at the Madina Development Authority. His two works in the show touch on his sense of isolation and longing to travel. “I’m used to traveling and exploring a lot,” he said, “but since the lockdowns started, I wasn’t able to roam.”

In one work, titled Alliance, he expressed those feelings through the use of junked cars, spread widely apart across a desert hillside. Another work, Float, shows a solitary, unoccupied prayer rug lying on a wide desert expanse.

Like Ata, Alofi also said the ability to express his sense of constraint through art has been therapeutic. “It’s definitely a sort of a cure for what we’ve been through,” he said. He hopes those viewing the show will share the artists’ emotions through empathy and connection.

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Zughaib also said she found contributing to the exhibition to be cathartic, allowing her to feel both seen and heard. “With so many gallery and museum shows closed, postponed or canceled, just to have our paintings up on the wall in this gorgeous gallery, where people can see our work, has been uplifting,” she said. The experience gave her a feeling “like there will be a tomorrow,” she added.

And showing her art alongside works by artists from places like Iraq, Sudan and Gaza, she said, has reinforced a sense of community and empathy. Wherever an artist’s studio may be, she said, “the ability of artists to create work, whether, spoken, written, performed or of course painted, has the power to go beyond our physical world and the constraints we find ourselves in at this moment.”

Jadallah, the curator, also emphasized the power of art to help people process a challenging situation. “Looking back at this time in the future, we can use the artwork to further understand the impact of the pandemic in the region and globally,” she said.

Art in Isolation continues online and by appointment at the Middle East Institute’s Art Gallery, in Washington, D.C., through January 29, 2021.

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