The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged The arts
The uprisings and the arts in the Arab world

One of the key people to follow for Middle Eastern news — particularly analysis of the media and cultural scenes — is Andrew Hammond, who works at Reuters. He also has a blog where he posts the occasional non-Reuters article, the latest of which is about the arts scene after the uprisings. After first discussing worries in arts circles about the rise of Islamists, Hammond writes:

However, I think a more pertinent issue to raise here is the general state of the al-wasat al-fanni, or the arts scene, as it is often referred to in Arabic, since this is what exercises the minds of these new players on the political scene. It is utterly corrupt. The arts were and are an intimate part of the rotten structure of Arab state politics. To rise to the top in Mubarak’s entertainment world you had to play the game with the regime, because the state placed itself at the centre of artistic production, giving the more sordid aspects of fame familiar anywhere a more sinister turn. Numerous actresses have fallen out of favour because they didn’t want to submit to the sleazy rules of fame laid down by Media Production City and its former boss Mamdouh al-Leithy. Wealthy ministers or princes from Gulf countries enter into the equation, funding films or promoting actresses who might receive a phone call from an intermediary offering them a three-day trip to visit the prince, ferried on a private jet without need for stamping passport, and topped off with a large amount of dollars placed in bank account (something Lebanese presenter Tony Khalifa once fished at in questions to two well-known actresses on his show). Egyptian independent and opposition newspapers often hint at these deals, with articles noting the sudden wealth of so-and-s0 who now has a limousine, or who just returned from a major shopping trip to Paris or the Gulf. The transnational corruption of Arab arts was hinted at by the murder in 2008 of a not-so-talented Lebanese singer taken out in Dubai by a hitman sent by her former tycoon lover in Egypt.

Read the whole thing, and while you're at it you might want to get yourself a copy of Andrew's book, Popular Culture in the Arab World.

Ahmed Basiony at the Venice Biennale

Artist Ahmed Basiony, during the Egyptian revolution, a few days before his death.

In a review of Arab art at the Venice Biennale, a tribute to Ahmed Basiony - FT:

And so to Egypt, where wasted energy was also the inspiration for a performance piece by Basiony. In February 2010, he wired himself inside a transparent sweat suit and ran on spot for a month in a glass vitrine. The film of that happening is now part of an exhibition put together by two friends of Basiony, artist Shady El Noshokaty and curator Aida Eltorie. The other work is footage of the protests in Cairo last Janaury, which was shot by Basiony himself three days before he was killed by snipers.
Certain critics assert that the informal nature of this latter film invalidates it as art. How wrong they are. In an installation whose success depends on its simplicity, the juxtaposition of Basiony’s caged, relentless jog with his nerve-wrackingly unpredictable images of the crowds as they chant, pray and flee from police, is riveting. Watching those impassioned yet peaceful faces brings to mind Robert Rauschenberg’s declaration that he worked “in the gap between art and life”. That was long ago, and in another country. Basiony may be dead but the promise of his revolution lives on – not least in this year’s rich panorama of Arab art.


Six cool things about Morocco

 As most readers of the blog know, Issandr and I spent the summer visiting and reporting from Morocco. What follows is a belated, personal and haphazard list of some cool things I discovered there. 

1. Music. Hindi Zahra, a Berber-Moroccan-French singer-songwriter. 

Hindi Zahra - Stand Up
Uploaded by EMI_Music. - Watch more music videos, in HD!

2. The online magazine Mithly, the first Arabic magazine by and for gay men (Click here to hear my interview with the editor).

3. Casablanca's new "culture factory"--the city's old abandoned colonial-era slaughter-house, which has been taken over by a collective of artist and cultural professionals. Although the government is dragging its feet in recognizing and funding the space, it's already amazing. 

4. The Cinematheque of Tangiers. This movie theatre--beautifully restored and lovingly run by photographer Yto Barrada--has been around from some time, and remains one of my favourite spots in the country. 

5. Abdel-latif Laabi. The Moroccan poet and 2009 Goncourt prize winner is immensely talented; his poems pull you back and forward between the lyrical and the ironic, the poetic and the mundane. 

From his collection Mon Cher Double, a poem called "Matin gris" ("Gray morning"):

Matin gris

Images marquées au fer rouge

d'un autre matin gris:

rictus d'un fauve

juché sur ta poitrine


te mettant les tripes à l'envers

insultes pleuvant

sure le sexe et la religion 

de ta mère

loque sanguinolente de ton corps

trainée, jetée dans un debarras

couche à meme le ciment

pain sec en guise d'oreiller

Nuit succédant aux nuits

plus de matin

meme gris

et nul sauveur

nul témoin

I can't translate this poem, which seems to be about someone homeless, the victim of violence--but the last lines read: "lay flat on the cement/dry bread for a pillow/night following upon nights/no more morning/not even a gray one/and no saviour/no witness." You can read Laabi's poetry in French at his own site and others. Unfortunately, he has been little translated into English. 

6. Did I mention music? This song ("Schizo Country"), by the well-known group Hoba Hoba Spirit. The video is also very cool.

The art of development
Last week I attended a cultural festival in the small northern town of Asilah.


A mural on the walls of Asilah's medina and a "A vendre" ("For Sale") sign on the right. A mural on the walls of Asilah's medina and a "A vendre" ("For Sale") sign on the right.


Morocco has dozens of cultural festivals, most of them dedicated to music. These are often fantastic--I had an unforgettable time at the Gnawa festival in Essaouira three years ago. But as I note in an article that just came out in the National, many of the festivals are sponsored by powerful politicians and seem to be motivated by issue of personal prestige. The idea that a cultural festival is enough to put a town "on the map"--and attract tourism and investment--has become a common-place, but the results aren't always there to back it up.
New Bidoun
Great new issue of Bidoun out--the interview issues are always my favourites.

There is a lot of wonderful content available online, including Elizabeth Rubin's interview of Pakistani writer Daniyal Mueenuddi (whose "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders" should be on your reading list) and Negar Azimi's profile of the Lebanese comic artists behind the tri-lingual, graphic publication Samandal (below are a few snapshots from the first issue, available for download). 

[gallery link="file"]

(Disclaimer: I also have a small piece in this issue, a review of the Kennedy Center's "Arabesque" festival).
The Bad Minister
It appears that Egyptian Minister of Culture Farouq Hosni's bid to be the next head of UNESCO has been derailed, or at least seriously damaged. I agree that it would be disgraceful for him to be made head of the cultural institution--but for entirely different reasons than those mentioned so far. 

Hosni was set to easily win the plum position, when this letter appeared in Le Monde, spear-heading a campaign against his candidacy based on accusations of anti-Semitism. The most damaging and oft-cited incident is the following: last year Hosni was challenged by hostile members of Parliament over the inclusion of Israeli books in the Alexandria Library. He replied that if there were such books "he would burn them himself." (I have been trying unsuccessfully to find an account of the original exchange in Arabic, to see if it was a discussion of "Israeli books" or "Jewish books"--both are used interchangeably in the English and Arabic reporting, although it seems a significant difference to me). 

Hosni replied by penning an apology of sorts in Le Monde. Western and Arab media joined in to comment on the controversy. 

Hosni--who is a an abstract painter and good friend of First Lady Suzanne Mubarak--has been at a the center of several previous scandals. There were calls for his resignation after a fire at a poorly maintained national theater left 46 dead. And he was again at the center of a firestorm when he told a female veiled journalist that the veil was a sign of "backwardness."

Hosni's remarks about burning books were of course idiotic--if completely unsurprising to someone familiar with Egypt's political climate and the widespread hostility to Israel. A few points need to be made, however. It is convenient but incorrect for Israel's supporters to reduce the cultural boycott of Israel--which is adhered to by the overwhelming majority of Egyptian artist and intellectuals--to anti-Semitism. It's a political position--a matter of showing solidarity to the Palestinian cause and disapproval of Egypt's choice to normalize relations with Israel. 

Also, while it's accepted that it's anti-Semitic for the Egyptian authorities to reject or denigrate Israeli culture, one doesn't hear similar criticism of the Israeli authorities for their intolerance towards the cultural initiatives of its Arab citizens or occupied Palestinian subjects (see the harassment of the Palestine Literature Festival for example). Plenty of Israeli officials have made sweeping, negative comments about Palestinian/Muslim/Arab culture, and in 2000 Israel wasn't ready to include two poems by Mahmoud Darwish in a school book. 

Farouq Hosni shouldn't be the head of UNESCO. Not just because of his (probably entirely politically opportunistic) Israel-bashing. But mostly because he is the longest-serving minister (22 years) in an autocratic state that does not respect freedom of expression; because he presides over a corrupt and mediocre ministry and has acted in the interest of the regime rather than the interests of culture time and again; because he is generally loathed by Egyptian artists and writers of any standing. He shouldn't be head of UNESCO not because of his disrespect for Israeli culture--but because of his much deeper, more damaging disrespect of Egyptian culture.
A list of links to recent interesting things that I've just gotten around to reading:

At Words Without Borders, Carol Perkins translates a short story about adultery--"The Masseuse and her Adulterous Husband"--by Syrian writer Salwa Al Neimi. (It has some striking information about adultery laws in Tunisia). 

British playwright David Hare spends time in Israel and the Occupied Territories talking to people about and visiting different points in the wall that now separates the two; he writes a personal, provocative essay in the New York Review of Books. Here's a passage:
And that's what I feel in Jerusalem as well. Jerusalem used to be the spiritual capital—after all, that's what the argument was about. You could feel it, on every street corner, you could feel the history, but now with the hideous wall and the overbuilding and desecration of the landscape—I mean, what is going on? Aren't they destroying the very quality for which the city was meant to be precious? Aren't they killing the thing they love? Or is that my problem? Am I just a decadent Westerner who can't help thinking spirituality must have something to do with beauty? Jerusalem used to be beautiful. Now it isn't. As far as I'm concerned, Jerusalem is spoiled—How can it not be spoiled? It has a great concrete wall beside it—but then Jerusalem was never intended for me. It was intended for believers.

At The National, George Packer reviews a book about an Iraqi general, his family, and their complicity in Saddam's regime; Robyn Creswell reviews Adina Hoffman's biography of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali (he says it is "a triumph of sympathetic imagination, dogged research and impassioned writing" and "the is the first biography of any Palestinian writer in any language"--can that be true?)

And finally, ArteEast has a new issue of their digital magazine up; this one focuses on the Art of Engagement--on the intersection of political activism, political engagement and art, the "limits and possibilities of publicly engaged art and participatory practice in the Middle East."
Graphic novel on trial
Today Magdy Al Shafee and his publisher are going to court to face charges of "indecency" against the graphic novel "Metro" (which I reviewed last summer). 

Here's a statement by Words without Borders (which published translated portions of the graphic novel) and the author. There's also a Facebook group you can join to follow the case/show support.
Saatchi discovers Middle East art
I've been meaning to write about the new exhibition of Middle Eastern artists at the extremely fashionable London Saatchi gallery for some time..

Saatchi is an advertising mogul turned art collector and he's famous for discovering and promoting the artists featured in his very influential Young British Artists shows in the 90s. More recently, Saatchi has turned his attention to foreign art. I visited the gallery's exhibition of Chinese art in December and was very impressed. 

But reviews of Saatchi's Middle Eastern show--which is about 50% Iranian, with some Iraqi and Syrian, and several artists who now live in the West--have been mixed. Here's a review or two. I can't help being a little surprised by the British coverage, in which reviewers often talks about this show as the "first" time they've experienced modern Middle Eastern art, and make free use of stereotypes. 

But there has been some criticism of the show's curatorial shallowness. In the Review at the National Kaelen Wilson-Goldie writes that: 
Geography makes for a miserable curatorial conceit. All of these exhibitions start from maps rather than artworks. They propose to introduce regions rather than explore the nuances of an individual artist’s practice. They shoehorn artists into a format that is set in advance (pick the region first, the talent second) rather than letting their works give rise to ideas that could, if given the time and consideration they deserve, structure exhibitions from the inside out. Inevitably, regional shows end up playing at representation, with the artists put in the position not of expressing themselves but of interpreting, packaging and reducing for easy consumption their culture or their country. This elevates biographical over critical interpretations. It flattens complexities and panders to those in search of the exotic, the foreign and the monolithic other. It’s all rather patronising, as if the artists from a given region aren’t good enough, interesting enough, accomplished enough or successful enough to stand on their own. And when it comes to the Middle East, a part of the world that houses so many countries, languages, dialects, religions, sects, socioeconomic classes, educational systems, social customs, traditions, cultures, histories and contemporary political situations, it simply makes no sense. 

(You can read the rest of that review here.)

 And really, couldn't they think of any better title than the trite "Unveiled"? 
Iraq National Museum re-opens
More than half of the collection is still missing. But: 
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki pushed to reopen the museum, against the advice of his own Culture Ministry, as a sign of Iraqi progress. Symbol it was, and symbol it remains — not only of how much Iraq has improved, but of how far it has to go.
Art patronage in the Emirates
Yesterday I mentioned a censorship controversy at the Dubai Literature Festival and wondered about the problems that art patronage in the Emirates might run into. It turns out that the last issue of ArteEast's online magazine has the answers to most of my questions. It's entirely dedicated to the arts in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Christopher K. Brown's opening article is a good place to start to get a sense of the (incredibly expensive and expansive) art patronage going on in Abu Dhabi. Brown asks:
With so much emphasis placed on appearances and the obvious desire to look impressive, will these cultural initiatives really serve the needs of the public?  

There are also several profiles and interviews with artists from the Emirates.
More Emily Jacir
The New York Times runs a review of Emily Jacir's show at the Guggenheim (I've already discussed their interview with her earlier). 
Dry, cerebral, fragmentary and stylistically derivative, the exhibition is less affecting and less informative than any number of newspaper and magazine articles about the Palestinian situation you might have read over the last 40 years.

I went to the show's opening and thought it was very affecting. 

Anyway, despite the NYT reviewer's claims that his problem is with the formal execution of the show--not with its political content--he spends a good deal of time questioning that content.
If one were to judge from Ms. Jacir’s work, Mr. Zuaiter was innocent of any connection to the Munich murders, eliminated rather because he was an eloquent spokesman for the Palestinian cause.

In the wall text that introduces the exhibition, however, there is a curious qualification. It says that Mr. Zuaiter was never “conclusively” linked to the Olympics murders. This introduces the shadow of a doubt. Is there a chance that he was somehow involved? Ms. Jacir’s exhibition can thus be viewed as a brief for the defense, but this is problematic. How can we know if the artist is manipulating her material, leaving out anything that might be suspicious or incriminating? 

Here's the wiki page on Zuaiter. It seems clear to me that while the Mossad suspected him of being linked to the Munich attacks, no evidence has been made public to prove this--and shouldn't the burden of proof be on them?
Emily Jacir and her "controversial" art
I haven't seen any of Emily Jacir's art in person, but I thought it sounded pretty fantastic when I read this article about her last summer. She's a young, successful Palestinian artists whose work is conceptually sophisticated yet politically engaged (one of her pieces tackled the assassination of Palestinian intellectual Wael Zuaiter in Rome in 1972; in another piece, "Where We Come From," she fulfilled the wishes of people in the Occupied Territories who couldn't get permission themselves to leave). 

So I've been pretty excited that an exhibition of her installation about Zuaiter, "Material for a Film," will be opening at the Guggenheim this Friday (she won the Hugo Boss Prize, given out every year by the Guggenheim). 

Yet from the moment she started getting recognition as an artist, Jacir has apparently been the focus of the kind of artificial controversy and double standards that, in the US, accompany any discussion of the life and history of the Palestinians. 

So I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that today's Sunday New York Times has an interview with her in which a great majority of the questions are awkward (if not inane) attempts to get her to comment on her "controversial" politics. 

Not only does the interviewer mention that "her politically provocative art has drawn some sharp criticism from those who feel it maligns Israel,"--without giving one substantive example of what this "maligning" consists of. 

The interview also includes exchanges such as the following. (A bit of context: in "Material for a Film," Jacir shot a thousand blank books. The idea came to her when she discovered that Zuaier had been carrying the 1001 Nights in his pocket the day he was shot by Mossad agents, and that a bullet lodged in the book.)

Q. Did you feel a sense of revenge against the Mossad?

A. Absolutely not, and that was not the intention of the piece.

Q. Steven Spielberg’s film “Munich” appeared in 2005 around the time you began work on “Material for a Film.” Was it a catalyst for your project?

A. Spielberg’s film appeared long after I was well into my research, and he didn’t bring anything new to the table.

Q. What would you like those who view this work at the Guggenheim to take away from seeing it?

A. Poetry.

Q. You’re active politically. In the past few weeks you have called for artists to boycott Israel and for New Yorkers to condemn Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s recent visit to Israel in support of Israeli military actions. How do you distinguish between your political activity and your art?

A. They are two completely different things.

Q. How so? Aren’t they conjoined, in a sense?

A. Yes, they are conjoined in the sense that this is like asking me how I distinguish between my love life and my art, or my family and my art, or the food I cook and my art. Or my physical activity and my art, or my intellectual pursuits and my art.


Honestly, no comment.
Egyptian art divide
The divide between the official (state-sponsored) and "independent" (mostly foreign grant-sponsored) cultural circles in Cairo is a common trope for analyzing the art scene in the city. But Kaelen Wilson-Goldie writes on the subject with her usual thoughtfulness and eye for detail in a just-out article  in The Review comparing PhotoCairo 4 to the Cairo Biennale.