The temporary art exhibition, installed within 22 shipping containers assembled to look like a mosque, was conceived and set up just a few weeks after the deadly March attacks on The National Bardo Museum in Tunis.
“The day the attack happened, I was in the art museum in Sharjah,” says Lina Lazaar, exhibition curator and founder of Jaou Tunis. “I was so shocked that I couldn’t feel my knees. But as I thought about it more, I felt that maybe the mosque has lost its original purpose. It once used to be a place where people went to seek knowledge and to question. Nowadays, [cultural] institutions are like the mosques of the past, and so we decided to created a hybrid mosque-museum that questions everything in a respectful way,” she says.
Inside the containers, creaking with the weight of hundreds of visitors, were works by 22 artists from across the region.
At the entrance, a piece by the Tunisian artist Aicha Filali – featuring items that worshippers usually buy, such as perfume bottles, incense and prayer beads – has been erected in the shape of mihrab, which in a mosque indicates the direction of prayer.
Up the first set of stairs, works by the Tunisian artist Raja Aissa and the Moroccan artist Zoulikha Bouabdellah sit beside a large photographic piece by the Emirati artist Ammar Al Attar. Titled Sibeel Water 1, Al Attar’s work is a detail of the open water-taps found in Dubai and Sharjah.
“What I love about this image is that the taps merge into the mosaics,” says Lazaar, who is the daughter of Kamel Lazaar, the founder of the Kamel Lazaar Foundation and the host of Jaou Tunis. “For me, it is the most gentle metaphor on the process of ablution, which is essentially a spiritual preparation. This piece is about the symbolic process, not about the water at all.”
Up another level is Iraqi artist Adel Abidin’s installation Partout, made of shoes that spell out the Arabic word kul makan (everywhere), that knocks at the heart of the underlying message of the show – anywhere can be a sacred place, depending on the intention of the worshipper.
“This exhibition is about this whole community being fed up with an awful representation of what Islam is about,” says Lazaar. “We are sick and tired of having extremes at both ends, whether it is the hyper-secular or the hyper-religious. Choosing a non-sacred housing such as shipping containers and filling it with beautiful art is a metaphor for the impression of Islam. It is all about peace, love and tolerance.”
Adding to the exhibition’s stance against violence are works by Nasser Al Salem, a Saudi artist who cleverly uses calligraphy to comment on society; and Egyptian artist Wael Shawky’s video, The Cave, which shows him reciting a Quranic surah while walking in an Istanbul supermarket.