Perspectives ,

With the Banned: The Art World Should Mean the Whole World

A map of the hometown of the author’s parents in Syria.

COURTESY RUBA KATRIB

For most of my life, no one really seemed to care that I am Syrian. Early on, whenever I was singled out as an Arab, it was usually by people who didn’t know much about what that might mean. As a kid, I was embarrassed when friends came over to my house—worried that my dad would be wearing a caftan or my mom could be making kibbe or ful, food that smelled strange to American kids. Classmates in school would sometimes call me “camel jockey,” “towel head,” and “sand nigger”—not in a mean way, necessarily, but in a mocking tone that I would laugh off for social survival. While it never felt like more than childish name calling, I always wondered how kids knew those terms while still in their early years of elementary school.

I am the first American-born child of Syrian immigrants. Both my parents are from the same small town, near Homs, north of Damascus and a few hours from the coast. We are Muslim, Ismaili minority. My first language was Arabic. I used to visit Syria in the summer as a kid, traveling around to different cities to visit relatives and hanging out with cousins in the courtyards of my grandparents’ homes. I would go regularly until teenage interests took my focus elsewhere.

My father came to the United States as a young man to finish medical school. After I was born, in Baltimore, we moved around while he was looking for work, in part because many hospitals didn’t want an Arab doctor in the 1980s. We finally settled in Charleston, West Virginia, as did many immigrants—from Pakistan, India, and elsewhere—who served as physicians, surgical specialists, and engineers. Workers of my father’s kind were welcome because the education system of West Virginia wasn’t producing many doctors and, in coal-mining country, there was big demand for health care. Immigrants filled the gaps; they were willing to live in rural areas where success for others often meant getting out.

In 1990 my third-grade teacher asked me to stand up in front of the class and point out Syria on a map. It provided a chance, in the early stages of the first Gulf War, to explain that Syria was not Iraq, though general proximity and a shared border were still troubling enough for many of my classmates. I remember being eager to share something about my cultural heritage to a ready audience but then also feeling a defensiveness that only underscored perceptions of my family’s homeland as a potential problem. Syria, for me, had been a point of pride, but the entire region had been entangled in conflict. Everyone in my family had been yelling about politics in the Middle East—and U.S. intervention and policy there—for as long as I could remember.

As an adult, whenever my Syrian roots come up, people’s responses range from indifference to mild curiosity to genuine interest. Over the course of my decade-plus career as an institutional curator, I have met only three other people in the art world with biological ties to Syria, and I have knowingly come across only a few other Muslim contemporary museum curators working in Europe and America. I hope there are others, but we are not always easy to spot. In any case, most of the curators I have met with specialties in contemporary Middle Eastern art are non-Muslim and/or white.

It has always been meaningful to connect with colleagues of shared heritage, when a certain understanding can pass between us. But as a Syrian-American, I haven’t actively sought out others from the Middle East, partly because of insecurities owing to Syria being socially and politically closed off. My anxiety has been heightened in part by the comparative confidence I have perceived among Lebanese, Egyptian, and Iranian artists and intellectuals who are more prominent in the art world. Local politics, religious differences, and colonial histories factor into the inter-regional dynamics, but, as an Arab-American, the situation is complicated further because my engagement in the Middle East carries cultural baggage of its own. For example, among outsiders working in the region I see more white Americans and Europeans than foreign curators of Arab descent, and I imagine they must be unfettered—for better and worse—from the complex cultural issues I have inherited. I have a strong desire to be more active in the Middle East, and a deep longing for Syria, but I also have experiences and emotions that complicate my position.

Besides notions of social complexities or insider/outsider status, since the Syrian civil war started in 2011, the status of Syrians within the Middle East has undergone a dramatic shift. Relations are particularly tense in Lebanon, with the influx of millions of displaced Syrians there. But young people are bridging differences that for my parents’ generation are more entrenched. On a recent trip to Beirut to visit a cousin who was displaced, I witnessed strong resentment toward Syrians, though it seemed like people my age are far more open and engaged. And members of the Lebanese art world were interested in and optimistic about the new energy that young Syrian émigrés are bringing to their country. Despite all this, before the war began, it was never such a big deal to be Syrian, in the Middle East or elsewhere. Syria was rarely represented by name in the media. Syria was never urgent.

Now, Syria is one of the select few countries that U.S. President Donald Trump held out for special attention in the context of his unprecedented proposals for an international travel ban. In the days following his first such order, which was struck down by a federal court a few days after it went into effect in January, the legislation—regardless of its changing shape or ultimate outcome—unleashed what will likely be long-term confusion, chaos, and uncertainty.

Artist Mathieu Kasiama at the Met Breuer.

COURTESY RUBA KATRIB

On the eve of the first travel ban, I welcomed an artist from Africa to New York City for an exhibition at SculptureCenter devoted to a collective he helps lead: Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (Congolese Plantation Workers Art League, or CATPC). We had worked for six months to get Mathieu Kasiama’s birth certificate, passport, and visa sorted out. The overall effort cost nearly $3,000, plus countless hours filling out paperwork and seeking advice from a pro bono immigration lawyer. We solicited letters from high-profile individuals to make a case for the visit, and we placed regular calls to the U.S. embassy in Congo. Kasiama had to spend hours a day waiting in line to complete each part of the process, sometimes being sent away at closing time without having made any progress. Miraculously, his visa was finally approved—no minor feat.

Our triumph came to feel strange as we learned of the travel ban, which left thousands stranded and in dismay. As Mathieu made his way around New York, on just his second trip outside the plantation town in the Congolese jungle where he lives and works—his first was to the capital, Kinshasa, to wait at the embassy for his passport and visa—I became even more aware of the good fortune of having him in my hometown. While in New York, he attended the opening of his exhibition, the first member of his collective to get to do so, and he spoke at a public conference about the project. He visited museums, finding himself transfixed by the monumental paintings in the Kerry James Marshall show at the Met Breuer and then frustrated at the Met’s main branch, where he was shown—but not allowed to handle—Pende masks in the collection that had famously inspired modernist painters awed by art taken from the region where he resides.

People like Mathieu Kasiama are discouraged from entering this country because they don’t have money to spread around—even though Western countries are rich in part from the exploitation of his kind of labor. As a palm cutter, gathering fruit to make palm oil used in all sorts of products, he is employed by multinational corporations that sell us wares for cheap prices. Yet he isn’t supposed to partake in these riches, even as a tourist. And it isn’t only Mathieu, of course, who meets with serious challenges in coming to the United States. Others might be a middle-class artist from Brazil or a highly regarded sculptor from Venezuela. Months before the travel ban took place, a revered Syrian-born musician with a German passport was prevented from entering the country.

While it has long been difficult to travel to America, there are now even more people with whom our current government would like to prohibit us from interacting.

There are already so many ideas, experiences, and exchanges that never come to fruition due to strict visitation and immigration policies. As anyone who invites international artists to work or exhibit on a regular basis will attest, it is already an expensive and logistically fraught challenge for people of many nationalities and castes to enter this country simply to give a lecture, put up a painting, or attend an opening. And we often have no idea why some might be denied and others approved.

Creating further hindrances with any list of banned countries would be detrimental, but, on top of that, the initial lists drafted by the Trump administration clearly reinforced an idea of Muslims and Arabs that is part of a bigoted and strategically executed assault. That people would be scared of Syrians makes little sense. The representation of Syria as a site of tragic violence and inhumane treatment has quickly turned into one of an unmanageable refugee crisis elsewhere. Images of masses huddled in train stations in Europe, drowned in capsized boats, and struggling to survive on the streets of Beirut now scare Westerners even more than the violence taking place in Syria itself. The notion that misfortune is contagious, a virus that somehow migrates on the backs of farmers, shopkeepers, factory workers, and family-minded citizens fleeing for their lives reveals the true absurdity of xenophobia.

The author, second from left, with her cousins and little brother in Syria, 1987.

COURTESY RUBA KATRIB

During the presidential election, my father and three of his siblings and their families based in West Virginia—who immigrated from Syria in the past ten years—were told by way of votes at the ballot box by their neighbors and friends that they were not wanted in the United States. I think this has caused a cognitive break for my father. He loves and believes in America so much that he cannot accept the changing reality. After all the lifesaving surgeries he’s performed and treatments he’s provided, people around him do not want him here. Even though his name and thick accent will always betray him, he tries to separate himself from conventional media representations of Arabs. He does so in part by downplaying, to himself and among others, the racist overtones of the new administration. This is exactly what racism and fear-mongering does: it causes people to turn against themselves and their communities in order to fit in. I knew this feeling as a child, and I know it now.

Beyond stamps and paperwork at passport control, how do we know who is who? If you don’t know I am an Arab, am I fine? Or maybe I am a different kind of Arab, not one of the bad ones on the news? What does it mean to be seen as an exception? I have heard people in positions of power in the art world complain about Arabs and Muslims right in front of me, unaware of my background. And I have seen others try to claim a connection to superficial aspects of Arab culture and the Middle East in a kind of collecting of intellectual capital that makes me wary of new versions of orientalist tendencies.

My heritage may not be evident to most. My curatorial work might not seem obviously “Arab” in nature. But my roots are there, and they inform everything I do. I can be illegible. I can benefit from the appearance of whiteness even as a woman of color. But I can also have my cultural identity stripped away, or turned back on me as a burden. I can watch as my relatives suffer and then get presented to my country as a threat, and I can feel the connection, guilt, loss, frustration, hope, regret, and solidarity. This is the place from which I operate and navigate the world.

Negative representations of Muslims and Arabs over my lifetime have haunted the popular imagination. Now, blatant racism and Islamophobia are accepted and passed off somehow as logical policy stances against a perceived and unquestioned menace. Under these conditions, the aim of global fluidity, in contemporary art circles and the world beyond, is falling apart. We are all, together, in a sort of prison. Who can move where, who is allowed in and out—volatility in questions of the sort affects everyone. Now more than ever, attention to the nuance in difference is paramount. Openness and curiosity about the specificities of individuals is essential. The complexities of people and places do not comply with vulgar nationalism and hate.

Ruba Katrib is curator at SculptureCenter in New York City, where she has produced exhibitions including the group shows “The Eccentrics” (2015) and “Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (Congolese Plantation Workers Art League)” (2017) as well as solo shows with Cosima von Bonin, Aki Sasamoto, and Rochelle Goldberg (all 2016).

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 40 under the title “With the Banned.”

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