The first thing you need to know about "History Is Not Here: Art and the Arab Imaginary" is that not all of the artists identify as Arab. If this sounds perplexing, that's good.
The 17 artists hail from as near as Lansing, Mich., and as far as Beirut, which suggests the challenges in trying to assemble a show reflecting the "Arab world"— 22 countries that have distinct histories, ethnicities, religions and languages.
Thus, the "Arab Imaginary," a notion coined by the curators of this exhibition, which opened Thursday at the Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul to mark the 20th anniversary of the St. Paul-based Arab cultural organization Mizna.
The phrase suggests the complexities of the Arab diaspora while also questioning the colonial nature of geographic boundaries, according to Mizna's visual art curator, Berlin-based Heba Y. Amin, and Maymanah Farhat, a New York-based writer and independent curator.
Aiming to provoke deep conversation, they have mixed easier-to-read pieces about anti-Arab racism in the United States with more culturally specific topics like the complicated history of Baghdad's urban planning, the dogmatic rhetoric of an Egyptian Muslim television preacher, and aviator Amelia Earhart's never-realized visit to Palestine.
Language, cultural integration, the U.S. intervention in Iraq, and exile are just a few of the heavier issues broached in this show. There is a touch of humor. In "Self-Portraits With Foreign Fruits and Vegetables," Beirut-born, Berlin-based artist Raed Yassin gets shirtless and poses with a variety of German fruits and veggies, sometimes putting them into his mouth. Learning a new culture's dietary customs is absurd.
Most of the work here is serious, though, and rightfully so. Lansing-born Joe Namy, who is of Lebanese descent, creates the sound installation "Half Blue," a hypnotizing room where police lights flash on the floor while audio of media and police reports echoes through the space. Namy's cousin was murdered in Tulsa in 2016 by a neighbor who had been harassing the family — Lebanese Christians who had lived in the United States for decades — shouting "Dirty Arabs!"
In the main gallery, Bahrain-born, Sudan-based Alaa Satir's ink drawings of abstracted female figures, which went viral on social media, speak to women's role in the Sudanese uprising to oust President Omar al-Bashir. London-based Algerian artist Zineb Sedira examines the challenges of maintaining familial heritage and language in the face of cultural assimilation in her three-channel video "Mother Tongue."
But the most timely element of this show was unplanned. The artist Fadlabi, who was born in Sudan and lives in Oslo, was denied entry to the United States last week. He's still scheduled to give a talk at 7 p.m. Monday at Forecast Art in St. Paul in conjunction with the ChromaZone festival, where he's been commissioned to paint a mural.
The artists in this exhibition offer unique cross-cultural perspectives that deserve even more space than they got. This is the type of challenging, internationally relevant show that Minnesota needs more of.