Little Puffles and Honey had a grand day at MoMA last May.
And now they love MoMA even more. In times of injustice, the Museum of Modern Art ― one of the most influential art institutions in the United States ― is not remaining neutral and is displaying works by artists from banned Muslim countries as a response to the travel ban.
In one of the strongest protests yet by a major cultural institution, the museum has reconfigured its fifth-floor permanent-collection galleries to showcase contemporary art from Iran, Iraq and Sudan, whose citizens are subject to the ban. MoMA’s fifth floor galleries focus on Western art from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries, so the new works represent a clear break with what a viewer would normally encounter. The curators wanted to put the new works into conversation with the artworks already on display.
A Picasso came down. Matisse, down. Ensor, Boccioni, Picabia, Burri: They made way for artists who, if they are alive and abroad, cannot see their work in the museum’s most august galleries. There are seven works now on view including pieces by painter Ibrahim el-Salahi (Sudan), sculptor Parviz Tanavoli (Iran), painter Tala Madani (Iran), architect Zaha Hadid (Iraq), painter Charles Hossein Zenderoudi (Iran), photographer Shirana Shahbazi (Iran) and painter Marcos Grigorian (Russia, of Persian descent). More works by artists from Muslim nations will likely be added to galleries currently under renovation on MoMA’s fifth floor. MoMA is also hosting an accompanying film series beginning February 13, which will feature work from Mohammad Rasoulof (Iran), Manijeh Hekmat (Iran), Ossama Mohammed (Syria), and Kais Al-Zubaidi (Iraq).
The works will be up for several months, and alongside each painting, sculpture, or photograph is a text that makes no bones about why it has suddenly surfaced: “This work is by an artist from a nation whose citizens are being denied entry into the United States, according to a presidential executive order issued on January 27, 2017. This is one of several such artworks from the Museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth-floor galleries to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum, as they are to the United States.”
In the recently redesigned Picasso gallery, that Spanish artist’s Card Player of 1913-14 has been replaced by The Mosque, a small oil painting from 1964 by the Sudanese artist Ibrahim el-Salahi. Mr. Salahi freely interweaves Modernist abstraction, Arabic calligraphy and architectural motifs. There’s a tonal rhyme between the burnished browns of The Mosque and the mucky beige and mushroom pigments of Picasso’s analytical Cubist tableaus — and Picasso’s own deep debt to African art is further underlined by his new company.
The Matisse gallery, where the masterworks Dance and The Piano Lesson hang, has been refitted with a large, intricate work on paper by the Iranian artist Charles Hossein Zenderoudi.
In his Mon Père et Moi (1962), stylized gold hands and feet accompany jam-packed squares containing concentric circles and dancing glyphs. Are the two figures performing sujud, the act of prostrating oneself during Muslim prayer? They are too abstract to say with certainty. Like Matisse, Mr. Zenderoudi translated bodies into pure shapes, informed by patterns gleaned from the decorative arts.
An untitled canvas covered in dried, cracked earth, by Marcos Grigorian, who grew up in Iran, now hangs amid similarly geological works by Alberto Burri and Antoni Tàpies. The gallery devoted to futurism has a small bronze totem by Parviz Tanavoli, one of Iran’s foremost sculptors. (Mr. Tanavoli, who divides his time between Iran and Canada, was briefly detained last year by Iranian authorities.)
Now, next to Henri Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy is a painting by Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born British architect who died last year. Hadid’s depiction of Hong Kong as an allover composition of interlocking shards satisfyingly fractures the gallery’s timeline of art around 1900, and other works, too, are installed almost as intentional disruptions.
A massive 2011 photograph of three billiard balls by Shirana Shahbazi — who has German citizenship but whose Iranian birth means she is now barred from this country — incongruously dominates the gallery devoted to Dada, right behind To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour, Marcel Duchamp’s impish painting on glass.
Next to a large, Expressionist street scene by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, a 2007 video, Chit Chat, by Tala Madani, who was born in Iran, plays on a loop. The frames of the stop-motion animation derive from bold, brushy compositions Ms. Madani paints and repaints. But where Kirchner depicts the streets of Dresden with a certain alienated distance, the video — depicting men grabbing each other by the throat and vomiting up yellow paint — is quietly urgent.
The speed and directness with which MoMA — not an institution usually thought of as nimble — has responded to the travel ban are impressive. Its particular force comes from the curators’ decision to present these works on the fifth floor, in the galleries most steeped in MoMA’s flowchart narrative of Modernist development. The Iranian, Iraqi and Sudanese art does not merely disrupt the old timeline of art history; it disrupts MoMA’s own institutional character. It says: Even the room in which Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon hangs is not irreproachable, but rather a particular story told by individuals, who at times must speak out.
In the years to come, all institutions, from the most experimental to the most established, will have to decide whether to keep their heads down or whether to reply. This welcome new voice, less Olympian and more pluralistic, is not how MoMA has spoken in the past — but, then again, this is not how presidents have spoken in the past, either.