The “first comprehensive American survey” of Lebanese artist Walid Raad’s work is on display at the Museum of Modern Art, in a retrospective that runs to the end of January.

The exhibition focuses on The Atlas Group (1989–2004) and Scratching on things I could disavow (2007–ongoing), previously covered on this blog. Glen Lowry, director of MoMA, has discussed Raad’s work, alongside that of Emily Jacir and Oraib Toucan and others, as “making history.”

Raad’s work is discussed  in the recent book, Dissonant Archives: Contemporary Visual Culture and Competing Narratives in the Middle East, in Chad Elias’ article “The Museum Past the Surpassing Disaster: Walid Raad’s Projective Futures.” The surpassing disaster here refers to the phrase used by Jalal Toufic.

As Holland Cotter writes in the New York Times review of the exhibition, Raad is part of a generation of artists  “like Akram Zaatari and Rabih Mroué, and the writer Jalal Toufic” whose work involved “trying to get a grasp on recent history by sifting through its physical traces, which included documentary photography.”

In the 15 year project the Atlas Group, exploring the Lebanese civil war, Raad “produced fictionalized photographs, videotapes, notebooks, and lectures that related to real events and authentic research in audio, film, and photographic archives in Lebanon and elsewhere.”

Scratching on things I could disavow (2007–ongoing) investigates the Gulf-fueled art boom in the Arab world, alongside the conflicts of the region, a project where “the artist’s docufictional sensibility” is put “into the service of a distinctive brand of institutional critique.”

Encountering Raad’s work, the “what’s the point?” question comes up surprisingly frequently: this was the case with the Q&A following Raad’s talk at the Walker Art Centre back in 2007, which you can see here. 

However, in an article on Raad’s “spectral archive” Alan Gilbert stresses the “very material results” of “docufictional” history. Gilbert goes on to emphasise that:

“Much has been made, and at this point maybe too much has been imitated, concerning Raad’s use of fiction and artifice in fashioning his documents of recent Lebanese history. Yet what has sometimes been overlooked by scholars, critics, and Raad’s audience is that fiction was always the means and never the ends.”

Gilbert makes the point that in contrast to”Lebanese artists who appropriate and manipulate imagery from the prewar years—such as Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s literally burnt and torn postcard series, Wonder Beirut: The Story of a Pyromaniac Photographer (1998–2006)—Raad’s work has almost never depicted an irrecoverable time or geography.” In Raad’s work, absence is internalised; it is not nostalgia for a pre-war Lebanon that suffuses the work, but the ironies and transfigurations that occur in war:

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