A dictionary of the revolution

Artist Amira Hanafy -- whose work I've written about here before -- is doing a kickstarter campaign to raise money for her next project, a dictionary of the revolution. She will travel around the country soliciting people's definition of various terms that have come into heavy use in the last years. 


From a press release about the project: 

“I’m not interested in creating one uncomplicated narrative for the revolution,” says Hanafi. “You could say, I’m not interested in “the Truth”. Instead, I’m interested in the truths that people believe. Egypt’s population is around 85 million. That means 85 million unique perspectives, 85 million truths. For one unique and incredible moment, it seemed that a great majority of those people were in agreement on what the country needed. But what’s happening in Egypt today is a clash of many truths. I’m interested in documenting the complexity of this moment.”


Welcome to the desert of the real

Voila Capture14

The above pic from a gallery by Julien Chatelin at Guernica:

The images of a crowded and riotous Tahrir Square are the most recent portraits of Egypt burnished in the public imagination. They offer a glimpse into a constantly evolving narrative of a nation whose political upheaval has transformed our understanding and perceptions of politics in the Arab world.

Far from Cairo’s tumultuous center, however, lies a world trapped in time, cities littered with the remains of real-estate promoters’ pharaonic projects. It is an abandoned landscape where a solitary figure wandering the empty streets seems to endlessly linger, and the half-built apartment buildings scattered on the sides of the road give the impression not only of defeat, but a cruel absurdity.

These images are wonderful, and really do capture the surreal nature of scenes on Egypt's desert roads. To me they evoke something quite specific, as many of the structures in the pictures are of abandoned military installations and a lot of that desert land once belonged or was controlled by the military. Military installations that serve no purpose, military land that was sold for profit — all symbols of a military whose greatest success has been snatching domestic political victories from multiple defeats on the battlefield, which exiled or put under house arrest its few heroes, whose own grasp on power is more brittle than it has ever been, even if it retains terrible repressive powers. In this sense the surrealism of Egyptian politics is a reflection of the cognitive dissonance between the military's claim to being the last great institution left standing and its sheer mediocrity.

Mediocrity can still crush bones and crack skulls, of course. Egypt is divided, political factions are cowardly and mistrustful of each other, and there is little appetite for further unrest. The country has reached a fork in the road, yet two years ago who could even guess that there was a choice ahead?

Voila Capture15 

Looking through walls



This mural was painted a few days ago on the wall blocking Sheikh Rihan Street, at the corner of the American University in Cairo. There are still at least half a dozen cinder-block barriers cutting off streets in Downtown Cairo -- most notably the major artery of Kasr Al Aini Street. Many of the walls block the way to the Ministry of Interior (after clashes between demonstrators trying to reach the ministry and police). Others just block the way to Tahrir Square, create enormous traffic jams, and seem part of the ruling generals' general passive-aggressive strategy of making life in Egypt as uncomfortable as possible right now ("how do you like that whole revolution thing now?"). No one knows, but at this point it looks likely that the streets will remain closed until after the presidential elections. They are a spectacularly apt metaphor for the short-sighted heavy-handedness and senseless obstruction that has characterized the military leadership's handling of the transition.

And this artwork is a sweet reminder that the current barriers won't last forever. 

Culture and activism

I have a new piece up at the Middle East Research and Information Project about cultural production and cultural activism in Egypt. There is so much different kinds of cultural activity going on these days that it's hard to categorize, and there are many more artists and projects I could have referenced.  I've tried to make some general observations:

It is not easy to combine aesthetic and political ambitions in order to creatively address the revolutionary moment. For one thing, many artists and writers have continued to be active in the protest movement itself -- they have little detachment from the events of the last year, and their energies are depleted by their participation in protests, organizing meetings and advocacy campaigns. In their political work, they can face significant personal risk, like their fellow citizen-activists. In late December, at a press conference convened to deny army responsibility for the horrific violence visited by soldiers upon protesters near the cabinet, a blustering member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces suddenly denounced Muhammad Hashim -- head of the independent and widely esteemed publishing house Merit -- as one of several conspirators being investigated for instigating attacks upon the army. (His crime, it appears, consisted of supplying protesters with blankets and helmets.)

For another, it is too early for artists or anyone else to map the contours of the current juncture with any clarity. In late January 2011, there was a rupture in the reality Egyptians had known for so long. Many artists and novelists, returning home elated if exhausted from weeks of protesting, simply scrapped whatever work they were doing. Since then, the rapid pace of events -- or, many would say, of reversals -- has rendered it nearly impossible to fix a vantage point from which to consider developments. The Egyptian revolution is not yet a subject of art; it is an ongoing experience.

And I only just saw the trailer for this cool-looking documentary, "The Noise of Cairo," -- on artists and their relationship to the revolution. 

The Noise of Cairo (Trailer) from scenesfrom on Vimeo.

Revolution and art

I've been struggling with the (largely nonsensical) question of "revolutionary art" for a while now, as I work on a forthcoming piece for MERIP on cultural production in Egypt over the last year. It was therefore and extra pleasure to read this piece by friend of the blog Negar Azimi, which neatly sums up some of the pitfalls of the genre:

A survey of titles of works from recent exhibitions in Cairo reveals the following: ‘Freedom’, ‘Drink Freedom’, ‘Shadow of Freedom’, ‘People Demand’, ‘Man Crying’, and so on. This, it turns out, is the sort of revolution-kitsch the market seeks. Mona Said, the owner of the Safar Khan Gallery in Cairo, told Reuters that she had held a show of revolutionary art in March that was so successful that she sold four times the amount she expected and ended up shipping works to clients all around the world. To be blandly political is in vogue and to be apolitical risks flirting with philistinism. This is, of course, not entirely surprising in a country in which the faces of revolutionary martyrs have been mass-produced on car air-fresheners.

It is not surprising at all to me that artists should have trouble representing the revolution right now -- it's a ridiculous demand to make of them in the first place. On the other hand, as Negar also points out, there has been an outpouring of creative energy which in particular forms (graffiti, theater, perhaps music) has spoken to this historical moment in some very meaningful and moving ways. The use of Tahrir itself as a dramatic performance space has of course been remarked upon by many, and there have been some great new ventures, like Tahrir Cinema and El-Fan Midan

Also worth checking out: the last issue of Bidoun magazine, which Negar edits, dedicated to cleverly and creatively trying and (by its own admission) failing to address the Egyptian revolution. 

On The New Yorker's approach to Islamic art

Peter Schjeldahl wanders blind through the Met's new Islamic wing | Sean Rocha

Sean Rocha makes a good point about this amateurish review of the Metropolitan Museum's new Islamic wing in the New Yorker:

Would Schjeldahl ever approach a contemporary art exhibit this way?

I mean, would the New Yorker send someone who knows nothing about, say, modern art to review a Picasso or Schiele collection? finishes his piece by saying Islamic art made him acutely aware of his own European heritage. Wouldn't insights on the new wing based on its own merits make for a more interesting review?

Cultural revolution

Since Mubarak's ouster, I've been trying to follow some small portion of the many creative reactions to this time in Egypt's history. Many of the artists and writers I know personally were in Tahrir Square, and have since been struggling to make sense of their experience; to balance their work and their political commitments; and to take advantage of new opportunities for collective action, free speech, and making use of public space. 

A mural in Downtown Cairo (since painted over) created as part of an art awareness campaign

For the design magazine Print, I put together a selection of images that speak (or spoke, a few months back -- these things change quickly) to the visual legacy of the revolution.

And I just wrote a piece on "cultural revolution" for Foreign Policy looking at some of the many grassroots cultural initiatives taking place now; at artists' efforts to contribute creatively to the revolution (and their many acts of opposition, well before it, to the Mubarak regime); and at how the cultural landscape might be changing. There is also an accompanying slide show

Revolution and art

Since I cover culture in the Arab world, I've been curious how literature and the arts will be affected by the upheavals of the last months. The focus of so many novels and films of the past years has been stagnation and stasis--now there is a whole new reality to grapple with.

Some forms seem to be more "revolutionary" than others--translator and Arabic literature professor Elliott Colla has pointed out how poems are better at capturing revolutionary fervour, and novels at depicting post-revolutionary disillusionment. I would say that photography, street art, graffiti and graphic art -- which lend themselves to immediate, contextual commentary -- also thrive in these times. 

The excellent Jadaliyya website has a short interview with cartoonist Ahmad Nady (who also edits the great new graphic magazine Toktok) and a selection of his cartoons.


Meanwhile, the online literary magazine Words Without Borders has an issue dedicated to the Arab revolutions. I particularly enjoyed this letter to Mohamad Bouazizi, first printed in Le Monde newspaper, by Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal:

Dear Brother:

I write these few lines to let you know we’re doing well, on the whole, though it varies from day to day: sometimes the wind changes, it rains lead, life bleeds from every pore. To tell the truth, I’m not quite sure where we stand; when you’re up to your neck in war, you can’t tell till the end whether to celebrate or mourn. And there it is, the crucial question: whether to follow or precede the others. The consequences aren’t the same. Some victories can fall short, while some defeats are the beginnings of truly great victories. In this game where death always takes you by surprise, there is the time before and the time after, but only one extraordinarily fleeting moment to make up your mind.

Seif al-Qadhafi's art collection

FT.com / Arts / Collecting - The Art Market: Beware of buyers:

London’s Islamic art sales concluded last week with a notable absentee – Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. It turns out that the son of the Libyan leader was a buyer of mid-range items at previous auctions. Bidding through a London-based agent, he was collecting for an as-yet-unfinished museum of Islamic art in Tripoli. This buying has now stopped but Islamic art dealers were buzzing with the news that some consignors have been contacted because an unidentified buyer has failed to pay for purchases at the sales last October. From there, many concluded that Saif Gaddafi could be involved. Sotheby’s and Christie’s refused to comment.

Those art dealers must be taking a hit.

ElBaradei fan art


Looking through the Facebook group and various websites, I noticed that there is quite a collection of ElBaradei groupie art out there. Here's a gallery.

In the meantime, here are the first signs of harassment and beatings of ElBaradei supporters:

Attorney General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud ordered the launch of an investigation into an incident of torture that allegedly took place at State Security headquarters in Fayoum where a physiotherapist says he was beaten, tortured and stripped of his clothes after helping to organize activities in support of ElBaradei running for the presidency.

Update: ElBaradei condemned the treatment of his supporter.

Prisse d'Avennes and Ancient Egypt

A rendering of a purification ritual at the Necropolis at Thebes, from BibliOdissey:
Émile Prisse d'Avesnes (d'Avennes) (1807-1879) was an important mid-19th century French Egyptologist and something of a polymath. He was a soldier, engineer, writer, illustrator and talented linguist. From 1827 to 1844 d'Avesnes resided in Egypt, teaching cartography and working as an engineer for a time, but eventually he devoted himself to documenting and studying the archaeological treasures from ancient Egypt. He became proficient in hieroglyphs, on the back of Champollion's translations of the Rosetta Stone, and learned to speak at least half a dozen languages fluently during his expeditions around Egypt and further afield in the Arab world. Ransacking of the artefacts was rife in those days of course and d'Avesnes helped excavate and transfer a large shipment of portrait reliefs from the Valley of the Kings to France, ostensibly to prevent their theft and use as local building material. The brazen act would earn d'Avesnes the Legion of Honour award when he returned to his homeland.
I have vaguely related recent snapshots of the temples of Abydos and Denderra in Qena governorate, near Luxor, up on Flickr.
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Ad: Townhouse Gallery Benefit Auction

The Townhouse Gallery, one of Cairo's best art spots, is holding a benefit auction on 6 June 2009. Works by some of the prominent contemporary Egyptian and Middle Eastern artists will be available for sale, with profits funding the gallery's various programs to develop and promote local artists.
More info: Townhouse_International_Contemporary_Art_Sale_.pdf
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Links for January 22nd

Automatically posted links for January 22nd:

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