Expect the Unexpected

The much anticipated Saatchi Gallery has finally re-opened in the Duke of York’s former headquarters in Chelsea. The building itself could not be further from the converted paint factory which became Charles Saatchi’s first gallery in St John’s Wood. The exterior is magnificent in itself and the Georgian design gives it a similar sense of antique grandeur as that of the National Gallery.

This makes entering the gallery itself somewhat of a shock when you are presented with the sort of decadent modern architecture one would more likely expect to find on a particularly financially unrestricted episode of Grand Designs, or failing that, in Saatchi’s actual home. Strolling around the gallery’s fifteen naturally-lit display rooms silences any thoughts of modern architectural spaces as only being airport-like, cold and bland. It is easy to become distracted by the gallery’s simple yet elegant design, which begs the question of how much Saatchi spent on the finished product. Frustratingly, this is one of many details about the new gallery that Saatchi refuses to comment on, but as the finished product covers a total of seventy thousand square feet my initial guess would be: a lot. Charles Saatchi’s exhibitions have consistently acted as landmarks in the British art world and he can be seen as the driving force behind the Young British Artists (YBAs) which catapulted big names like Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin into the public eye. Consequently, people have been expectantly awaiting big things from this gallery. As ever, Saatchi has surprised his public. After launching the gallery with a widely acclaimed exhibition on contemporary Chinese art, the second and current exhibition of the new gallery is entitled Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East. The exhibition addresses issues that seem somewhat far removed from his usually more light-hearted, celebrity-focused preference of art. These up and coming Middle Eastern artists collectively present a more serious political outlook on life in their various home countries as well as commenting on the social injustices perhaps overlooked by the Western world. The variety of media displayed throughout the exhibition makes for an interesting opportunity to really absorb the diversity of the art. The room of photographic triptychs by Halim Al-Karim sets an eerie and somewhat sinister tone to the exhibition. Karim’s use of silk over the photographs creates the illusion that the images are unfocused which in turn plays with vision forcing the viewer to step back in search of a clearer image.

Claiming to be very influenced by the works of Goya, Ahmed Alsoudani’s expressionistic paintings are overtly violent and visually articulate the fear and tension that he experienced as a child towards the various global conflicts as well as his flight to Syria during the first Gulf War. Arguably the most memorable piece in the exhibition is Ghost by Kader Attia. The spectator is presented with a large installation of a group of Muslim women in prayer. However, using aluminium foil Attia presents us with the empty shells of these women; they are faceless and without individual identities, as the title suggests – like that of ghosts. Again, an important social statement is being made, this time about fundamentalist Islam’s treatment of women. The images and issues presented in the exhibition are striking not only because of their content, but also because of the fact that they come from the Middle East. When thinking about this area of the world, images of war and conflict come to mind; contemporary art is not something you would immediately think of. It is interesting and somewhat relieving that Saatchi has chosen to stray so far from British art. These Middle Eastern artists have an opportunity to express their attitudes towards their various cultures and its social and political problems in the context of the very different British culture. In this way, the manner in which we perceive this art and our own interpretation of such a different way of life is in some ways a vital part of the artistic process for the artists. One of the contributing artists, the Iranian Tala Madani, even had to conceal her identity by not submitting a public photo of herself for the exhibition. Indeed, it is interesting and somewhat apt that such a powerful figure of the art world like Saatchi should remind us with the opening of his new gallery of the privilege we take for granted of producing and displaying art without fearing for our lives.

Unveiled: New Art From The Middle East runs until May 9th 2009


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