Until I read Carol Solomon's introduction to the catalog for "Memory, Place, Desire: Contemporary Art of the Maghreb and Maghrebi Diaspora," I'd been under the impression that the area of North Africa known as the Mahgreb was Morocco. In fact, as visiting professor Solomon - who organized the exhibition of contemporary art from that region for Haverford College's Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, - explains in much greater detail, the Maghreb comprises most of North Africa west of Egypt and is sometimes said to include Egypt.
Nevertheless, the Maghreb Solomon describes is only partially represented in this exhibition. More than half the artists here originally hail from Morocco (two were awarded Mellon Creative Residencies at Haverford last spring), a curiosity that is hard not to notice, and the others are from Algeria and Tunisia. Unrepresented are Libya, Mauritania, and West Sudan, which makes one wonder if those countries have failed to produce contemporary artists of merit.
What is here, though, is a not particularly diverse group of works by 13 artists who clearly are well-acquainted with various trends in contemporary art. Political dissent is a common theme. Video and photography are prominent; painting is negligible. Women number four.
Mustapha Akrim and Mohamed El baz, the two Moroccan artists awarded the Mellon Creative Residencies, are the conceptualists of the show - and, I'd guess, admirers of Bruce Nauman.
Akrim's Article 25, a tilted, wall-mounted oval shape composed of Arabic letters cast in reinforced concrete, is taken from the most recent draft of Morocco's constitution, and reads "All citizens have the freedom of thought, ideas, artistic expression, and creation." In a work from El baz's ongoing photos-feu (fire photographs), a naked man is shown submerged in a pool to his shoulders with a flame superimposed on his face; nearby, a video installation (also involving images of fire) has a neon version of a human brain hanging above it as if floating in space.
The most poetic work here belongs to Nadia Kaabi-Linke, who grew up in Tunis, Kiev, and Dubai; studied in Paris at the Sorbonne; and now lives in Berlin. Study (III) for Berlin a fleur de peau, is one of many works she has made using forensic techniques and materials to make transfers of graffiti she finds in bus stations and subway stations to pieces of Plexiglas.
There is one blockbuster painting here, by El Seed, a calligraffiti artist born to Tunisian parents in Le Chesnay, on the outskirts of Paris, and whose name is a play on the medieval Spanish hero, El Cid. On a large, steeply vertical stretched canvas, his In the desert of language, calligraphy is the shade where I rest depicts a vortex of black Islamic calligraphy over an background of more loosely handled, dripping red calligraphy.
The show's anomaly - and a welcome diversion - is courtesy of yet another artist with Tunisian ties, Nadia Khiari, a painter and gallery director who lives in Tunis and took up cartooning after former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country in 2011. Willis from Tunis began as street art and a blog and soon became famous through social media. The three ink-on-paper drawings here are typical of Khiari's political satire, showing Willis, a clumsily frank liberal cat at odds with his small-minded feline contemporaries.
Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, Haverford College, 370 Lancaster Ave., Haverford, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays - Fridays (Wednesdays to 8 p.m.), 12 to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. 610-896-1287 or www.haverford.edu/exhibits. Through Dec. 14.
Eads and more Eads
It's always interesting to see a gallery owner hone her eye over time. Christine Pfister's roster of artists at Pentimenti Gallery increasingly has become composed of those who deploy unexpected materials with unexpected results, among them Tim Eads. (Donald Martiny and Osvaldo Romberg have recently signed on as well.)
The entire space has been given over to Eads' first solo show here, a departure from Pentimenti's usual exhibitions of two or more artists - and a good idea in the case of Eads, who has taken full advantage of this largesse, if not in the way Eads-watchers might have anticipated.
Most of the 19 works are small, autonomous, wall-mounted sculptures. Only My Fluorescent World, a gorgeous installation in the gallery's Project Space utilizing fabric, conduit, nylon cord, and LED black-lights, could be said to be related to the sprawling, nutty-professor installations Eads is known for.
The small works seem to be channeling ethnographic art and Bridget Riley (or, perhaps, this being Philadelphia, Edna Andrade) and sometimes both, as in Spire, a vertical geometric composition of acrylic pieces painted with elongated triangles of black and white, zebra-style. His painted acrylic Acoustic Panel (baby blue) and Acoustic Panel (black), look like shelves Andrade might have dreamed up. Other works bring to mind tribal adornments as seen through a modernist lens, such as Hard Tension, an accumulation of bent steel wires attached to a fiberglass "necklace."
Hard to imagine, but Eads has outdone himself.
Pentimenti Gallery, 145 N. 2d St., 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 12 to 5 p.m. Saturdays. 215-625-9990 or www.pentimenti.com. Through Dec. 15.
If you haven't been to the Cheltenham Center for the Arts recently, go now. Its ambitious "Visions in Prints," curated by Amze Emmons and Francine K. Affourtit, gathers works by the Cheltenham Printmakers Guild and Invited Artists (a total of 35), among them Nancy Alter, Cindi Ettinger, Matt Neff, Alexis Nutini, Ron Rumford, Merle Spandorfer, Shelley Thorstensen, and Rochelle Toner.
Cheltenham Center for the Arts, 439 Ashbourne Rd., Cheltenham, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 12 to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. 215-379-4660 or www.cheltenhamarts.org. Through Dec. 13.