The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged art
High art and hard labour in the Gulf

This is form my review in The Nation of the book The Gulf: High Art/Hard Labour (edited by NYU professor Andrew Ross) which chronicles the boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi museum by the artist-activist collective Gulf Labour, in solidarity with the constructions workers building the museum. Below is some of the artwork included in the book. 


By asking, loudly and repeatedly, “Who’s Building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi?,” Gulf Labor punctured a convenient silence. Its other accomplishments are less clear. The Guggenheim pledged to respect workers’ rights and to house its laborers in a purpose-built model facility on Saadiyat. A field visit by Gulf Labor members in 2014 found that the camp was outfitted with Ping-Pong tables and a pristine cricket pitch, but it was also isolated and sinisterly regimented (the workers also complained that the food was terrible). Thanks to Gulf Labor and other groups, there is much greater, if superficial, international awareness of the plight of migrant workers in the Gulf, with newspapers regularly reporting, for example, on the number of Nepalese workers dying in Qatar on future World Cup construction sites. But as the artist-activist collective itself notes, despite meetings and assurances, the Guggenheim and the Emirati development company building Saadiyat “have yet to deliver any tangible results on behalf of workers,” who “continue to pay recruitment fees, to be forced into different jobs at lower pay than they signed up for, and to be controlled through the kafala system,” in which they are beholden to all-powerful local “sponsors.” 
In the spring, Raad, Ross, and the Indian artist Ashok Sukumaran, another member of Gulf Labor, were banned from entering the UAE. Western cultural institutions with branches in Abu Dhabi expressed no indignation over these bans, seeming to justify Ross’s claim that “far from promoting liberalization of speech, the presence of the museums and the university appeared to be generating exactly the opposite effect.”
The construction of the Guggenheim itself has been delayed, but not derailed. Given the creaky state of Western economies and public spending on the arts, Qatar and the UAE are clearly set to become significant patrons of international culture. It’s a good investment for them, one that will burnish their image and create strategic links with the West. And the new prizes, museums, and other cultural institutions recently established in the Gulf provide an important support to Arab writers and artists, especially as traditional cultural capitals like Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo totter or collapse. For many young academics, artists, and other white-collar professionals from the West, taking a job in the Gulf is also an opportunity that, in a spotty academic job market, can be hard to pass up. Defenders of -Saadiyat and similar ventures will say that art has always been patronized by elites, that it faces and weathers censorship everywhere, and that there’s a whiff of Orientalism behind the endless denunciation of oil sheikhs buying “our” culture. 

American Qur'an

The artist Sandow Birk spent 9 years handwriting and illustrating an American Quran, featuring scenes from his native California. From the artist's site: 

At a time when the United States was involved in two wars against Islamic nations and declared itself to be in a cultural and philosophical struggle against Islamic extremists, American artist Sandow Birk’s latest project considers the Qur’an as it was intended – as a universal message to humankind. If the Qur’an is indeed a divine message to all peoples, he ponders, what does it mean to an individual American in the 21st Century? How does the message of the Qur’an relate to us, as Americans, in this life, in this time? What is this message that we have spent so much blood and treasure fighting against, and how can the message of the Qur’an be applied to a contemporary American life? In short, what might the Qur’an mean to contemporary Americans?

 I love this, and you can see it all here. HT Simon. 

Palestinian iconography

The Palestine Museum -- a new museum that should open in Birzeit in 2016 -- has created a collection of images that mash up contemporary photographs with Baroque religious paintings. (Another series, also at this link, juxtaposes photos from the refugee camps today and decades ago). 

The Deposition (c. 1507) Raphaello Sanzio da Urbino 

Photo: Israeli soldiers kill a Palestinian and detain others, downtown Ramallah. 31 Mar. 2002 

byAlexandra Boulat

Art in Cairo
photo 1.JPG
Details of Clash of Forever, Ganzeer, from the Cairo Berlin show, sponsored by the German Embassy in Cairo

Details of Clash of Forever, Ganzeer, from the Cairo Berlin show, sponsored by the German Embassy in Cairo

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Freedom is Coming, Lara Baladi, Townhouse Gallery

Freedom is Coming, Lara Baladi, Townhouse Gallery

Discarded, Hoda Lutfy, Townhouse Gallery

Discarded, Hoda Lutfy, Townhouse Gallery

PostsUrsula Lindseyegypt, art
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 / 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.