signs and symbols is pleased to present About An Arabesque, the first New York solo exhibition by visual artist and choreographer Jonah Bokaer. The exhibition marks a moment in which the interplay of disciplines in Bokaer’s practice can be perceived and encountered within a gallery setting. Through their confrontation of stereotypes and iconoclasm, the featured works explore the complexities at large in Western representation and identification of individuals in the Middle East and North Africa. The arabesque as a visual motif and building block of Western dance — along with the orientalism implied — provides a visual portal into the complexities of this genre, across disciplines. The exhibition features an array of works developed by Bokaer during his awarded residency at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation in Captiva, Florida (2019). Works include lithographs and serigraphs with multiple color separations and choreographed overlays of drawing, created with master printer Patrick Miko / Long Road Projects. The exhibition also presents two video works and a brute color image-transfer installation onto wood. On March 6th, during New York’s Armory Week, Bokaer debuts The Genie, a performance that deconstructs the representation of men within the Middle East and North Africa through the emblematic image of a genie. Bokaer’s extensive travels to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Jerusalem, Tunisia, and Pakistan form the basis of the imagery exhibited.
The Arabesque is a formal term, visual motif, and technical movement with a long and complex history. Its linguistic associations and physical manifestations have evolved since its earliest appearance within the work of craftsmen of the Hellenistic period. The arabesque became formalized in its use in Islamic cultures as a decorative style. Today, we associate the arabesque perhaps most closely with the fundamental ballet technique. Early classical ballet iconography was often inspired and adopted from the visual arts — prior to centuries of evolution in western classical dance. The famed 19th century Italian ballet teacher and writer Carlo Blasis writes that “we have derived [arabesques] from antique relievos, from a few fragments of Greek paintings, and from the paintings in fresco at the Vatican, executed after the beautiful designs of Raphael” (74-75). The arabesque stems from many sources and produces varied cultural associations. Bokaer infuses his exploration of the arabesque with his own personal history, allowing his Tunisian heritage to open new windows of understanding and identification. Bokaer weaves together and pulls apart the multitude of significations derived from each form of the arabesque. He dissects and expands the history of the arabesque without collapsing it, following the strands into each discipline he works within — and reconciling unexplored tensions between the graphic and choreo-graphic arts.
About An Arabesque explores associations of other kinds as well, in those pertaining to individuals and particularly men in the Middle East, who are often depicted as ruthless, tough, and belligerent. Bokaer traverses these con-temporary representations in sifting through the underdeveloped significations. Appropriating imagery of crossings of the Mediterranean, Red Sea, and Persian Gulf, including groups and individuals in refugee camps, he sees a reality of men more to do with sensibility. Sensibility being a major component of Bokaer’s reality — it provides him with a method and means through which to explore an image, an idea, a movement. The work is unforced, gentle, and intimate yet does not shy from exploring what can be hard or harsh, weaving personal, structural, and geopolitical overlays into a deeply interwoven whole.
During his residency at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Bokaer spent five weeks last spring challenging himself by choosing to work in the massive rotunda where Rauschenberg worked later in life. Bokaer recalls dancing in his twenties on the Foundation’s lawn for Rauschenberg, visiting that fabled workspace as the youngest dancer ever hired by Merce Cunningham — and the only dancer of Middle Eastern origins in that canon. During that visit, Rauschenberg gifted Bokaer two impactful items: Bokaer’s first artwork (a signed Rauschenberg Monotype), and a personal totem (a Titanium Ring fit for Bokaer’s ring finger). Overwhelmed, Bokaer wore the ring for decades, never removing it during performance. Of the event Bokaer notes, “Imagine artists not literally wedding each other, but reaching out to help each other — across time. That ring never left my body. So I began to read Calvin Tomkins, in order to cope with it.” Since that time, Bokaer has firmly developed his own individual practice and career — having established three arts facilities through the Jonah Bokaer Arts Foundation, his eponymous dance company, as well as his own visual art practice along with numerous artistic collaborations. It is fitting that as Bokaer melds together the choreographer and visual artist within himself, he returns to where he has come from: engaging with a significant milestone in his career and his own ethnicity and artistic heritage, within one unified body of work. David Velasco describes certain responses of modern dance to key features of modernism as being “not beyond the pale: they are a rendezvous with and within a canon” (8). In his expansion of definitions within choreography and visual art, in his examination of their presence today and in the past, Bokaer’s work is a rendezvous with a number of personal, cultural, and historical canons.
Blasis, Carlo. The Code of Terpsichore: a Practical and Historical Treatise, on the Ballet, Dancing, and Pantomime; with a Complete Theory of the Art of Dancing: Intended as well for the Instructions of amateurs as the Use of Professional Persons. Translated by R. Barton. 1928. Dance Horizons, 1976.
Jonah Bokaer is an interdisciplinary artist working in the fields of choreography, visual art, video, and research. Since 2002, Bokaer has cultivated a new form of choreography merged with visual art and design. He has created over 63 works in a wide range of mediums, such as film, opera, mobile apps, and installation, in a variety of venues ranging from stages, museums, and galleries to architecturally resonant locales. Bokaer has presented works that operate between choreography, visual art, and moving images at many museums including the Guggenheim Museum, MoMA PS1, New Museum, Cooper Hewitt, Museum of Art & Design, MASS MoCa, Musée d’Orsay, Ludwig Museum of Budapest, MAC Marseille, Miami MoCA, IVAM Valencia, Palazzo Delle Arti Napoli, Kunsthalle St. Gallen, Delaware Art Museum, SCAD Museum of Art, MUDAM Luxembourg, and Whitney Museum of American Art, among others. Bokaer is a recipient of a Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Residency (2019), a UNC DisTIL Mellon Foundation Fellowship (2019-2020), the Mohr Prize at Stanford University (2019), among numerous others. His work resides in many private collections and in the permanent public collections of the Parrish Art Museum and Center for Jewish History, New York. In his dance and choreography practice, Bokaer has worked with Merce Cunningham (2000–2007), John Jasperse (2004–2005), David Gordon (2005–2006), Deborah Hay (2005), Tino Sehgal (2008), and many others. He has also interpreted the choreography of George Balanchine as restaged by Melissa Hayden. Bokaer is also a frequent choreographer for Robert Wilson (2007–Present). Jonah Bokaer Choreography, Bokaer’s multi-ethnic dance company, has authored 63 original works produced in 34 nations, 27 American states, and 292 cities across the globe, and is currently exhibiting and touring worldwide with 8 international dancers. In addition to his artistic practice, Bokaer has established a non-profit practice that has succeeded in delivering 3 permanent arts facilities for younger artists: Jonah Bokaer Arts Foundation is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization which through the support of its Board, generous donors, foundation grants, and government support, the organization has triumphed in crafting and fulfilling a dual mission: to foster the development, research, and presentation of new performance works across disciplines, while establishing affordable art spaces for artists, notably Chez Bushwick (2002) & CPR (Co-Founded 2008), adjacent affordable studios in Brooklyn, and Space 428 Hudson (2016): incuba-tor of The Hudson Eye. Bokaer is Tunisian-American and an LGBTQIA leader.