March 15, 2017


By Nancy Adajania

 “Your last name does not sound very Indian,” said a perplexed but smiling immigration officer on my recent trip to the US. I was tempted, like the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, to make up a fictitious genealogy for myself: “I am Adso of Melk, a Benedictine monk from Umberto Eco’s grand murder mystery; I’ve learnt, to my detriment, that to laugh is to commit heresy and that the book can be a dangerous object. I am the French actress Isabelle Adjani; I was witch-hunted for speaking out against anti-immigrant, anti-Algerian prejudice in France. I am Adze, sharp as an adze; my ancestors were ship-builders who worked in complicity with the colonial rulers. One of them defiantly wrote inside the prow of a vessel he had built, ‘This ship was built by a d—d black fellow.’ ”

I am, at the risk of being deported, siempre Indian.”

In our parlous times, people feel threatened by the poetics of ambiguity. They will not rest until the whole world is corralled and reduced to binaries that fall smoothly on either side of a slash. It was extremely disconcerting to be in the US at a time when President Trump had, by an executive order, prohibited people belonging to Muslim-majority countries such as Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Syria and Libya from entering the country. But equally, it was inspiring to experience the intense show of solidarity represented by Women’s Marches that brought millions of people, including black women, Muslim women, Native women, lesbian, queer and trans-women, into the streets to protest Trump’s inauguration. The ‘Women’s March on Washington’ could also be seen in the longue durée of resistance movements such as Martin Luther King Jr’s Great March on Washington in 1963, when he made his historic speech, “I have a dream”.

On arriving in New York, I headed for MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art, which, like most established art institutions, is not normally suspected of moving speedily in response to political crisis. For the most part, in peacetime and in wartime, MoMA’s commitment to the Western art-historical canon has remained firmly in place. It came as a huge surprise, then, to witness the rehang that MoMA’s curators decided to mount – improvising around the institution’s permanent collection – in protest against Trump’s executive order. The rehang is a commendable gesture. Overnight, some works by Picasso, Picabia, Matisse and other modernist masters were replaced with works by artists from the blacklisted Muslim majority countries. Among them were seven artists from Iran – Faramarz Pilaram, Parviz Tanavoli, Charles Hosein Zenderoudi, Siah Armajani, Shirana Shahbazi, Tala Madani, and the late Marcos Grigorian – as well as Ibrahim el-Salahi from Sudan and the late Iraqi-born British architect Zaha Hadid.

MoMA’s founding director, Alfred Barr, famously pictured the museum’s trajectory as that of a torpedo, moving chronologically and triumphantly from one avant-garde movement to another with “its head the ever-advancing present, its tail the ever-receding past of 50 to 100 years ago”. Barr’s torpedo model does not easily lend itself either to reflection or pause, to abrupt rupture or a shift of flight path. Disruptions, when they do occur in MoMA’s hegemonic narrative of modernism and contemporary art, are quite rare. A stellar example was ‘Information’ (1970), the Trinidad-born curator Kynaston McShine’s pathbreaking exhibition presenting a broad spectrum of conceptual art practices.

‘Information’ is remembered to this day for the artist Hans Haacke’s contribution, ‘MoMA Poll’, a questionnaire that asked viewers whether they were aware of the connections between Governor Nelson Rockefeller and MoMA’s board of trustees, long a bastion of the Rockefeller family, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, of which the Governor was a proponent. With this mock poll, which inaugurated the turn that art historians call ‘institutional critique’, Haacke exposed the complicities between political power, capital and cultural institutions. Similarly Andrea Fraser’s video performance, ‘The Public Life of Art: The Museum’ (1988-1989), which was filmed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA, raised questions related to sources of funding and the social and economic power structures of the museum. But these are classic examples of institutional critique where the artists point to and evaluate the museum’s implicit politics.

The curatorial rehang at MoMA marks a momentous shift in this history. Here, the museum has transited from an institutional critique performed by artists to an institutional self-critique. Artworks that had been acquired many decades ago and have been lying forgotten in the reserve collection, because they could not be legitimised within the Euro-American narrative, have emerged as forceful presences. While this is a tactical response to the provocation posed by Trump’s executive order, the rehang has potentially far-reaching consequences. Now that MoMA has, at long tardy last, tentatively acknowledged the legitimacy and value of the productions of non-Western modernisms, it will be difficult to push the genie back into the bottle. The question that many of us, especially from the global South, are asking, is this: What took MoMA so long, and why did it only embrace a genuinely global and cosmopolitan understanding of plurivocal modernisms under external pressure?


Walking around MoMA at this poignant moment in world history, we are immediately drawn to the Armenian-Iranian Marcos Grigorian’s penumbral painting, built like a low-relief sculpture with encrustations of parched earth. Part of his Earthworks series (‘Untitled’, 1963), it alludes to a cosmic mandala but also to the adobe mud houses of rural Iran. It is seen in conjunction with Alberto Burri’s 1953 work made of organic materials – burlap stitched and patched roughly to form a tapestry of gashes and wounds – and Antoni Tapies’ ‘Space’ (1956), rendered in inorganic materials, a dark field of latex paint interrupted with a dried scab of marble dust. If we were to zoom out and take in the whole room – opposite Burri and Tapies, we find the abstractionists V S Gaitonde and Mira Schendel, from India and Brazil respectively – we find ourselves in the midst of a rich transcultural dialogue afforded by diverse artistic practices. At the same time, we see a striking portrait of shifting American geopolitical strategies, and their resonances in culture.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when private and institutional American collectors were buying the works of Grigorian, Pilaram, Tanavoli and Zenderoudi – and when some of these Iranian artists were travelling around the art world’s professional circuits, having shown at the Venice and Sao Paulo Biennales – the Shah’s Iran was a key US ally and client state in the Middle East. As was Ba’athist Iraq. Together with Turkey, Pakistan, and the UK, Iran and Iraq were members of CENTO (Central Treaty Organisation) from 1955 to 1979, yet another of the Free World’s frontline alliances against the Soviet Union.

Most of the Iranian artists raised to visibility at MoMA this year belong to this long-ago period of transcontinental strategic alliances, now almost totally eclipsed by the insistent and demonized presence of the Iran of the Ayatollahs. The MoMA rehang reminds us of how countries that once occupied pride of place in the CIA’s atlas have now been relegated to the status of hated enemies, not least through the US’s own misguided interference in their internal politics.


It is interesting to track the exhibition history of the paintings by non-Western modernists now on view at MoMA. The exquisite Gaitonde painting from 1962, where his Zen preoccupations meet Whistler’s proto-abstraction was first shown at MoMA in a 1964 show, ‘Recent Acquisitions: South Asian Painting’. Curiously, the works by Zenderoudi and Pilaram from the MoMA rehang were also first shown in the same show; the museum’s definition of South Asia was evidently quite capacious in the early 1960s. Why were these works from MoMA’s permanent collection not exhibited for more than fifty years? Did it need a Trump to goad MoMA’s curators into breaching the Western art-historical canon?

Apart from Grigorian, two other Iranian artists – the Los Angeles-based Tala Madani and the Iranian-Canadian Parviz Tanavoli – leave a lasting impression, the former for her critique of the patriarchy and exploration of male sexuality, and the latter for his privileging of a relaxed, multi-dimensional understanding of Islamic culture.

Madani’s intensely visceral and painterly video animation, ‘Chit Chat’ (2007), is placed next to Max Ernst’s ‘Woman, Old Man, Flower’ (1923-24), redolent with archetypal masculinist fantasies. Like the other male surrealists, Ernst subverted various social and sexual taboos, only to treat his female subjects either as muses or as dominatrices. Madani, in sharp contrast, is not interested in negotiating the representation of the female subject, veiled or otherwise. Instead, in what could be read as a counter-intuitive move, she mostly paints bigoted male figures, reducing them to incontinent, vomit-spewing caricatures subjected to a relentless female gaze. Madani’s work is located in the same sightline, as a result of the rehang, as Meret Oppenheim’s celebrated sexually charged fur cup and saucer (‘Object’, 1936). Oppenheim, with Leonora Carrington, remains among the very few Western women surrealists that museumgoers at large would recognize, despite a few exhibitions and publications devoted to surrealism’s many female exponents in recent times.

Parviz Tanavoli’s bronze sculpture, ‘The Prophet’ (1964), is a hybrid figure with lattices for arms and a hooded head. Tanavoli belonged to the saqqakhaneh movement of the 1960s, which privileged the material culture of the masses. These artists reconfigured motifs from Shi’a popular culture, as well as the Islamic arts of calligraphy and illumination. The movement is named after the intricately decorated public water fountains that memorialize Shi’ism’s martyrs, Imam Hussein and his family and supporters, who were cut off from all sources of water and killed at Karbala by the tyrant Yazid. The lattices on the sculpture are influenced by the exteriors of the fountains, where people leave threads and locks representing their wishes. At a time when Islam is viewed largely through the filter of an ultra-conservative Wahhabism that forbids ecstatic rapture and sensuous devotion, Tanavoli’s saqqakhaneh sculpture reminds us of an earthy, profane celebration of the sacred within the Islamic tradition.

Oddly shown next to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s ‘Street, Dresden’ (1919), Tanavoli’s demotic prophet sits uncomfortably near the German artist’s expressionistic, alienated figures. But the most inappropriate curatorial pairing would be Zaha Hadid’s ‘The Peak, Hong Kong’ (1991), with its Lissitzky-like Constructivist structure, partnered with Henri Rousseau’s phantasmagoric painting, ‘The Sleeping Gypsy’ (1897). The Sudanese artist Ibrahim el-Salahi’s ‘The Mosque’ (1964), a magnificent abstract work that draws equally on Arabic calligraphy and Western modernism, was acquired for the MoMA collection by none other than Barr himself. While it is paired here with a Picasso work, possibly to make a comment about Picasso’s appropriation of African art, it seems to bear a far greater affinity with that other Spanish painter, Joan Miro. El-Salahi was a foundational figure for African modernism, whose fortunes rose and fell with the political upheavals that affected his family, which was involved with politics, and his country.


It is very important that MoMA should not go into hibernation after the immigration crisis passes. It needs to provide fast-track visas to non-Western artworks that have been destined to a long night in its reserve collection, so that they can announce the suppressed or untold histories of modernism and contemporary art. Only when the lessons of the rehang inform the institution’s regular exhibition programme will we be assured that it was not merely a tokenistic gesture. Paraphrasing Shakespeare in this situation, we would say: “We know not how to tell thee who we are. Our names, dear saint, are not hateful to ourselves. Because they are an enemy to thee.”

Gold in Farsi,
‘Stalking Wolf’ in Sioux Native American,
Bright star in Tagalog,
Young palm tree in Arabic,
To tell a tale in Samoan,
A beat, a rhythmic pattern in Indian classical music. 


Nancy Adajania is a cultural theorist, art critic and independent curator based in Mumbai, India