The Big­ger Pic­ture

Hong Kong Tatler - - Art -


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


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

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