The Bigger Picture
ASIDE FROM TOPPLING REPRESSIVE REGIMES, THE ARAB SPRING DEMONSTRATIONS DREW ATTENTION TO THE ARTISTS OF THE MIDDLE EAST. Leanne Mirandilla GETS TO KNOW SOME OF THEM AND HOW THEY’RE ADDRESSING REGIONAL EVENTS IN THEIR WORK
The revolutionary paroxysms that have swept across the Middle East since 2010 triggered a blossoming of artistic expression. As the protests and civil wars of the Arab Spring gradually and spectacularly pushed despots from their seats in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, artists gave voice to the ideas and events roiling the region. Often playing an important role in the protests demanding regime change, they gained global exposure as the world watched events unfold. For example, as dissidents in Egypt marched, staged huge sit-ins and defied the military in 2011 to oust Hosni Mubarak from the presidency, artists expressed their ire through their creativity. Graffitists took to the streets and plastered buildings with images of prominent revolutionary figures and symbols of war, adding victims of police and military attacks as the violence became deadly. Though the works were scrubbed off by authorities, artists continually replenished the walls with fresh images.
This month sees the third anniversary of the eruption of a series of protests around Cairo’s Mohamed Mahmoud Street, near Tahrir Square, in reaction to a brutal attack on peaceful protesters on November 19, 2011. Mohamed Mahmoud Street, and a concrete wall erected by authorities to block protesters from reaching a sensitive government building, became the focus of graffiti artists’ attention.
Some artists slept on the street for months to maintain their protest. One was 34-year-old Ammar Abo Bakr, a well-known graffiti artist and muralist who took leave from his role as assistant professor at Luxor University’s arts faculty to spend time on the street with the artists, who included one who had returned from her base in Berlin to participate in the protests. “People helped us in different ways. They didn’t only paint with us, but stayed with us and saved us from different situations,” Abo Bakr says. “They carried our equipment, shouted when a bomber arrived and warned us to run away from different situations. Many of the artists were young and not professionals.”
Abo Bakr’s work has been shown at galleries in Egypt and abroad. His most recent show was a group exhibition at AB Gallery in Lucerne earlier this year. He wasn’t the only professional
“IT’S UNDENIABLE THAT THERE WAS AN EXPLOSION OF CREATIVITY IN MULTIPLE FORMS THROUGHOUT 2011 AND 2012” —GANZEER
to throw his lot in with the revolutionaries, though; another was Ganzeer, who has been cited as one of Egypt’s top-selling living artists by European TV channel Arte. Aside from graffiti, Ganzeer also works in graphic and product design, comic book art and videography. The next project he has planned is a long-format graphic novel. The nature of Ganzeer’s work has led some in the Egyptian media to call him a terrorist.
“I can’t help but think we haven’t done enough,” Ganzeer says of his involvement in Egypt’s protests. “But it’s undeniable that there was an explosion of creativity in multiple forms throughout 2011 and 2012.”
Abo Bakr agrees. “When the revolution started, everything changed,” he says. “Artists started to be more free. They fought to present what they wanted in the street and in art galleries. Everything is moving up; I feel very positive about this.”
Other countries affected by the events of the Arab Spring also saw a proliferation of art, particularly works centred on revolution. Tunisia is one such nation. Though it faced strict censorship under Zine al-abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorship from 1987 until he was forced to flee in 2011, the country has been able to push the envelope of free expression quite a way since. But it’s still a difficult environment for artists. For example, sculptors Nadia Jelassi and Mohamed Ben Slama faced up to five years in prison in 2012 for showing works that depict banned imagery—in Jelassi’s case, that of veiled women after stoning.
Hela Ammar, a Tunisian artist who identifies herself as a militant feminist concerned with women’s rights in the Middle East, believes the government’s repression of artists ironically elevated Tunisian art to a new level in the international arena. “The role of artists was particularly marginalised, and they often paid a high price during these last three years, both from extreme political groups and even from the government,” she says. “But that’s the way politics has drawn attention to Tunisian art.
The government has granted art a social role and an international visibility it has not had so far. The revolution has put the spotlight on the Tunisian art scene and the rest of the world finally discovered that we exist. However, it would be wrong to limit Tunisian art exclusively to politics.”
Some artists, such as Tunisia’s Nadia Ayari, have specifically moved away from politics in order to avoid being pigeonholed. For this year’s Art Dubai, Ayari created Selfie Booth, WC, a pair of frescoes in the women’s and men’s toilets. Positioned opposite the mirrors, the frescoes encouraged viewers to take “selfies” on their phones and share them with others. The work illustrates Ayari’s move from the political to the personal. In the early 2000s, she frequently addressed social issues and cultural identity related to her roots, painting veil-clad women and the blue and white of Tunisia’s cobbled streets. As of late, however, she has departed from those types of subject matter.
“For me, it is a refusal to self-fetishise and to be put into a category, because those boundaries are limiting the practice of making art,” Ayari explains. “For a while in the art world, those topics were cool, and that coolness sold, but now it’s exhausted.”
Indeed, while political incidents have featured prominently in artworks coming out of the region in recent years, art drawing on its politics and history is hardly unprecedented. Mohammed Kazem, an Emirati artist, creates conceptual pieces and works in various mediums. Much of his work is inspired by geographical elements. His Directions series heavily features GPS coordinates constructed out of aluminium or stone, or painted onto canvases. Kazem often draws on the personal; Walking on Water, which was shown at last year’s Venice Biennale, is an immersive installation based on his fishing experiences in the 1980s and ’90s, particularly on one occasion where he fell into the sea and was lost in the waves for half an hour before being rescued. However, his geographically inspired
work often addresses social and political issues as well; Kazem says that he often reads newspapers to get inspired.
“Sometimes my work is about political, social, economic or environmental issues,” he explains. “Sometimes it’s labour, here in the United Arab Emirates and also in China or India. Artists cannot give an answer or solve political issues, but we can provoke through our work.”
Kazem also detects a growing global impact by the region’s contemporary artists. “Many things have changed since the ’90s,” he says. “In the United Arab Emirates, contemporary art started in 1979, but there was more focus on modern art. Now, there are new generations of artists in Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine and Syria who are representing [the Middle East] in many events all over the world.”
Drawing creative inspiration from further back in history rather than contemporary issues is Egyptian artist Wael Shawky, who works primarily in film—and with marionettes. For the Cabaret Crusades film series, for instance, he researched Pope Urban II and the Crusades triggered in 1095 as the pope called on Christians to reclaim the Holy Land from Muslims. The result is an animated series featuring 110 marionettes, 45 of which Shawky refers to as the “main characters.”
“My interest was really more in the way we write history,” he explains. “I based the film on Arab writings instead of European writings. I referred to the book The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by a Lebanese writer called Amin Maalouf. I’m trying to discover myself and my history through this research, but I also don’t want to fall into the trap of believing in history that much. I take it as a human creation and I play with it as a human creation.”
Many artists have mixed feelings about Middle Eastern politics changing the inherent attractiveness of their art. Abo Bakr is careful to separate the art he sells in galleries from the art he created as part of the Arab Spring; he believes that selling the revolutionary art would be exploiting the very people he aimed to help. “I’m not against galleries, just against selling certain kinds of pieces,” he says. “If you created some work during the revolution and become famous, the success is because of the revolution, not because of your skill.”
looking ahead A guest at this year’s Art Dubai contemplates a septych by Maïmouna Guerresi
writing on the wall From left: Egyptian street artist Ammar Abo Bakr; his piece Noeyesmural
Strong statement A mural by graffiti artist Ganzeer, who has been labelled a “terrorist” by some Egyptian media outlets
Sharp focus Tunisian artist Hela Ammar frequently addresses political and social issues through photography and performance art
back to basics Tunisian artist Nadia Ayari has moved away from the political themes of past work; her oil painting Beirut
solemn salute Emirati artist Mohammed Kazem and his print Photographswithflags
riding high Egyptian artist Wael Shawky looks at his nation’s history and culture through video and puppeteering; a still from Telematchcrusades