Into the Garden


If you’re reading this, it’s not too late to experience the Garden of E-Arthly Delights, an online exhibition curated by research, arts and culture writer Ruba Al-Sweel. Hosted by Sumac Space, an initiative devoted to contemporary art practices of the Middle East, the exhibition features the work of eight artists from, or based in and around the GCC, whose works deal with memes as subject and medium. The exhibition explores wider expressions of gathering, ritual and community, with contributions from Nadim ChoufiAhaad AlamoudiBasmah FelembanChristopher Joshua Benton, Gulfgraphixx and many more.

Through video compilation, digital archival material and moving images, Garden of e-arthly Delights looks into what has fallen into the crevices of the web and what lies underneath the surface.

Read our interview with Ruba as we discuss the exhibition concept, why she believes the times impact art, and how she feels about the internet. 

What was your intention behind this exhibition?

I had no set intent for this exhibition except to have fun with it while foregrounding artists and works that are quite special, and really spoke to the ethos of a moment. I’m a writer and often lack the very visual language to articulate certain phenomena that resist categorization. Words can be very unnecessary sometimes and writing as a medium reaches capacity – text as an attempt to capture the zeitgeist becomes needless ekphrasis or incredibly trite. 

Persia Beheshti’s ‘Earthbound’ which looks at the rise of ‘angelcore’ aesthetics and internet subculture speaks to an ennui specific to lack of spirituality in modern life. By a focus on aesthetics and yearning for unearthly, celestial salvation, we track a generation’s bucking of organized religion and scientific rigor, in a quest for a reality beyond reality – a search for a sunken city and a hidden truth. It’s hard to theorize what Angelicism subculture really is but marketing executives are quick to view it as untapped cash cow of Gen Z behavior patterns. To me, it’s reconciling with the horrors of contemporary life, using the fervor of religion in fictive online lives.

Persia Beheshti, Earthbound, 2021

What personal interests and experiences led you to curating this exhibition?

My favorite type of art always incorporates filmic elements. I’ll often spend most of my time in museums or galleries marveling at video installations. I’m also very very ‘online’, so when I was presented with the opportunity to curate an online show about meme culture and what memes represent as a semiotic of time, it felt very meta and like the medium was also the message.

Can you share more about the “Artist Rooms” as part of the exhibition?

The artist’s room is like a little studio visit. In the context of viewing works by artists who use memes as subject matter and material, the meme-lord and the meme are inextricable, really.

Shamiran Istifan, Haunted by Kings and Kovboys, 2021

What is the greatest challenge when it comes to representing artists and their work? 

Funding. It’s a real problem. I’ve yet to master how to be a gainfully employed practitioner in this curatorial role. This has dire consequences because you can only run on collective passion for so long. 

Basmah Felemban, The Jirry Tribe Stop, 2020

Christopher Benton – Who Gets Paid for Digital Labor – Bedroom Intruder – 2019

What is the role of an artist today?

The artist has no active role beyond that which they themselves assume. I do think artists and art practitioners should play bigger roles in society though, through commissions and more readily available residencies that further discursive engagement in political and social life, beyond their aesthetic contribution. I love that the Shoura Council in Saudi Arabia appointed a number of high-level art and cultural academics and practitioners to serve in its various committees, including Dr. Maha Al-Sinan, Dr. Iman Al-Jabreen and Mona Abid Khazandar, amongst others.

You’ve touched on gate-keeping in the art world. Where is the industry missing the mark? What have been some notable advancements, specifically in the GCC?

I see the GCC following imported notions of inclusivity both in the fashion industry and in terms of filling quotas in the art world. What kind of artists get selected for endowments and residencies reflect a misguided albeit earnest understanding of what should be done. It’s great that we are starting to think about life in the margins but we could certainly do better, starting with more homegrown consultants and perhaps an organic evolvement into our specific GCC needs – it might take time to learn that, but it’s a lot less costly and embarrassing in the long-run. 

Are you finding yourself more curious and excited about the internet these days, or concerned?

Definitely excited – what I like most is that it’s what Žižek describes as the horror of the real. It’s our inability to reconcile with all its contents, to give it shape, to recognizing the depths of its horrors – this makes it so appealing, because its potential for bad mirrors its potential for good.

American writer H. P. Lovecraft described the internet before he even knew the internet when he said: “we live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” Essentially, the ‘island’ here is what digital footprint we’ve created from being online and ‘voyaging far’ is the endless scrolling and finding ourselves down an algorithmic rabbit hole, a few taps away from the Dark Web, or the greatest revelation of all-time. 

Fatemeh Kazemi and Maryam Faridani, shad bash, 2021

How are the times impacting art?

Time is not only a factor but also a medium and the very material that creates art. I never create enough time. That’s why I’m not an artist.

Nadim Choufi, I_m Here, 2018

What do you hope people will take away from this exhibition?

Enjoy the films. Don’t worry about meaning. That could be whatever you want it to be, depending on the type of day you’ve had.

Ahaad Al Amoudi, Hengli, 2020

All images courtesy of the artists.