Institute of Arab and Islamic Art, NY, hosts Nabil Kanso’s works - GulfToday

Institute of Arab and Islamic Art, NY, hosts Nabil Kanso’s works

Nabil Kanso 1

Some of the artist’s works as seen in the studio.

Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer

The Institute of Arab and Islamic Art in New York is presenting (IAIA, Apr. 30 – Aug. 25) Endless Night by Nabil Kanso. Curated by Mohammed Rashid Al-Thani, it is the first institutional solo exhibition of Kanso (1940–2019), in New York. The show unveils Kanso’s practice, deeply rooted in themes of war and human suffering. Born in Beirut, Lebanon, Kanso grew up at a time when the geopolitical landscape of the Arab region was being reshaped by the Arab-Israeli War. The exhibition explores his long standing devotion to protest art by investigating the relationship between social injustice, myth, memory, and medium.

Coming from a region beset by war, Kanso found himself a foreigner in America during a tumultuous period in the country’s socio-cultural and political restructuring. In 1968, while completing his BA and MA at New York University, he set up his studio in Manhattan amid a climate of unprecedented protest against America’s military intervention in Vietnam. His large, unstretched paintings bring to life a powerful and confrontational cluster of human-sized figures – leaping and floating – reaching outward to a world in a state of complete disintegration.

He did not intend for his paintings to relate particular historical events, but rather to serve as an expression of emotions, and tragedies associated with global conflicts. His paintings unearth a visual iconography which weave together elements of neo-expressionism with mythological imagery, influenced by both contemporary and classical sources. In the early 1980s, Kanso created a series of 242 macabre tragicomedy ink drawings called Leaves from the Theater of War (1980-1992). They detailed his personal account of the realities of conflict. On view here for the first time since it was created, the drawings were made after Kanso’s visit to his homeland in 1982 at the height of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-90), during which Israel’s invasion saw the Siege of Beirut and the tragic Sabra and Shatila Massacres, which killed thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese Shias.

The dark-humored, sharp-edged drawings invoke Francisco Goya’s series The Disasters of War or Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, while providing a more explicit reading of the role political elites play in inflicting systemic violence and societal division. Kanso’s drawings, like his paintings, are living testimonies that emphasise no matter how distant or foreign a conflict is, one cannot be fully removed from the consequences of war and its impact on shared humanity.

Nabil Kanso 2 Nabil Kanso before one of his compositions.

In his commitment to protest art, Kanso’s work also reminds one that resistance, in its various forms, is a flag of unity and hope in a time of division, destruction, and terror. He became part of the art scene in the 1960s, while receiving his BA and MA from New York University. In 1971, he expanded his studio to include an entire five-story townhouse, which he called 76th Street Gallery; he held numerous exhibitions through the early-to-mid-1970s there.

Having witnessed the devastation brought about by the fifteen-year civil war in his homeland, he made anti-war activism a core tenet of his practice. His oeuvre swelled to take on accounts of many of the world’s gravest atrocities, offering a unique historical continuity that spans decades of both political and painterly movements and ruptures. Inter alia, his mural-sized paintings address messages of peace, pacifism, and humanism. In the 1980s, he launched his multi-exhibition project Journey of Art for Peace across Central and South America, the Middle East and Europe, which included solo exhibitions in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Panama, Kuwait, and Switzerland.

His work, notes Wikipedia, dealt with contemporary, historical and literary themes, and were marked by figurative imagery executed with spontaneous and vigorous handling of paint, often done on large-scale formats. They reflected movement and tension embodying intense colours and symbolic forms, addressing social, political, and war issues. The Vietnam War and the Lebanese Civil War profoundly affected the development and scope of his themes dealing with violence and war, wiki further notes.

“War and apocalyptic themes are central focus of Kanso’s works since the early seventies,” it adds. “They provide the primary basis for his large-scale paintings responding to war and depicting apocalyptic visions. “Over the course of his career,” an art critic writes, “Kanso created an extraordinary body of work dealing with war and apocalyptic themes that open up the visions of apocalyptic art.” “In dealing with horrors of war,” another critic writes, “Kanso creates enormous paintings that serve as powerful weapons in fighting war.”

His paintings show the whole gamut of human suffering and pain. The tortured language itself makes his work a universal manifestation of solidarity and protest against the proliferation of war. The canvases reveal a world permeated by a chain of chaos and violence in a hellish environment, from which people are desperately trying to escape in order to survive (sounds familiar?). They find themselves immersed in an incisive and violent totality, in which they are trapped.

IAIA is an independent, non-profit centre that promotes and advances the artistic and cultural dialogue between New York City and the Arab and Islamic worlds. Through outreach programmes, a multidisciplinary exhibition space, a knowledge-building facility, residency programme and an emphasis on collaborations with cultural organisations, it strives to provide a convivial, welcoming environment to learn about and engage with an often over-simplified culture, that lives on the eastern side of the Atlantic, stretching to the Indian Ocean and beyond to the Pacific.

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