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Art and the Arab Citizen: Raising Public Consciousness through the Arts

English | Arabic

Samah Hijawi, Imagined Memory (Thakira Khayalieh), 2007. Amman, Jordan. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Samah Hijawi, Imagined Memory (Thakira Khayalieh), 2007. Amman, Jordan. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, Ramallah Syndrome, 2009. Audio installation. Installation view: Palestine c/o Venice, Venice Biennale, 2009. Photo: Courtesy John Halaka

Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, Ramallah Syndrome, 2009. Audio installation. Installation view: Palestine c/o Venice, Venice Biennale, 2009. Photo: Courtesy John Halaka

No creative medium has captivated Arabs more than poetry—it remains to this day the region’s most widely prized form of artistic expression. The Prince of Poets Festival, an event broadcast annually on Abu Dhabi TV, now draws more than seven thousand contestants and is watched by over seventy million viewers.1 As Ibn Abbas, the Companion of the Prophet Muhammad, claimed in the 7th century, “Poetry is the register of the Arabs.”2 There are no known studies of the number of Arab visitors to exhibitions of visual art, but they certainly don’t fill football stadiums to capacity, as did the crowd that gathered for a public reading by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in Beirut in 2008. Yet during the Arab Spring, public spaces in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and Syria witnessed an unprecedented civic response to art. Is it possible that, one day, the visual arts might also be considered a “Register of the Arabs”?

Over the past decade, new forms of artistic presentation and reception in the Arab world have contributed to the political and social empowerment of local communities. During the Arab Spring, this was seen in the spontaneous display of artworks—murals, graffiti, comics, videos, and installations—in public spaces. A style of practice that emerged two decades ago as a form of personal expression had become a social practice aimed at broadening awareness of a host of issues, from human rights to social justice.

In the 20th century, artists in a number of Arab countries and in the Arab diaspora addressed sociopolitical and other concerns at varying levels of complexity. For example, in Egypt during the 1920s and ’30s, art reflected the rise of nationalism and the struggle for independence from British rule. In 1938, artists and intellectuals including Ramsis Yunan (1914–1966) and other Surrealists formed the Art and Freedom group, which published a manifesto that opposed fascism and called for “free art” and individual liberty. And in 1960, artist Inji Efflatoun was imprisoned by Jamal Abdel Nasser for her political views. Yet artists continued to respond to political and social issues. However, with few exceptions, these artists were not engaged directly with the general public. What distinguishes 21st-century artistic practices is their openness to participation and their use of the public realm as a site of production and presentation. Additionally, artists have begun collaborating with persons from other disciplines, including architecture, theater, and anthropology. Such encounters promise greater relevance and accessibility.

The following examples of public engagement with the arts were initiated by artists, artists’ collectives, and artist-led nonprofit art organizations around the Arab world. The reference to the region as “Arab” rather than the problematic “Middle Eastern” is intentional. The term Middle East is an arbitrary coinage of American naval officer and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan, who used it to refer to the region between Europe and India; today, it denotes the area between Morocco and Afghanistan. Aside from its political implications, the use of the term obscures the region’s common history, culture, and language—as in the example of the poetry that is shared by Arabs from Morocco to Iraq. At the same time, differences must be acknowledged and understood within the context of local social, economic, and political forces—influences in constant flux throughout this troubled region.

Art and Cultural Activism in the Public Sphere

Prior to the Arab Spring, artists in Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, and the Arab diaspora developed research-based work dealing with sociopolitical issues of concern to the majority of their respective populations. This art is complex and has been exhibited regionally and internationally. During the Arab Spring, another form of art was promoted, one that prioritized message and empowered its public. In the galleries, photographic collages showing demonstrators carrying banners emblazoned with popular slogans sold well—everyone, it seemed, wanted a piece of the Arab Spring. In an interview with curator Dorothea Schoene, Lebanese-Egyptian artist-activist Lara Baladi (b. 1969), co-founder of Tahrir Cinema,3 admitted that standards of art production and discourse were threatened: “With all the speed and pressure under which things are happening here,” he observed, “and with the expectation that everything we do is targeted toward imposing political change, there is a tendency to forget critical thinking and to privilege the immediate politically activist message rather than mature reflection.”4

In all of the Arab Spring revolutions, art engaged and empowered the public and played a significant role in shaping public consciousness. But will the public be moved by what Baladi describes as “political art-ivism” to seek and appreciate art of “mature reflection”? It is too early to judge whether more people are yet visiting galleries. There is, however, a growing number of artists in the Arab world who are working with long-term socially engaged art projects; some practitioners have even dedicated their time and energy to running nonprofit art organizations that serve marginalized communities.

Artellewa Art Space, for example, is an independent, nonprofit project run by Egyptian artist Hamdy Reda. It is located in an informal urban settlement (ashwa’iyat) northwest of Giza in Greater Cairo. According to its mission statement, the organization emphasizes the social roles of art and artists, and promotes dialogue between artists and the local population. Its programs include exhibitions with local relevance, international residencies, film screenings, artist lectures, and music.

One of the region’s earliest public, site-specific artworks was a performance and installation by Lebanese artist Rabia Sukkaria (b. 1953). In 1987, during the 1975–90 Civil War in Beirut, Sukkaria took advantage of a break in the fighting to create a symbolic installation on the Green Line between East and West Beirut that separates the warring factions; she tied paper poppies inscribed with poetry onto charred trees. The blooms had been cut and colored by Lebanese children, who watched the performance on television. During the conflict, crossing the Green Line meant risking one’s life—a circumstance that did not escape the children, who watched with a mixture of pride and terror.

Participatory Art

A 2006–08 survey of Palestinian artists showed that the majority of their work dealt with occupation, war, displacement, and other results of the Israeli occupation; there was a marked detachment from domestic politics and a pronounced lack of self-criticism and debate. Artists Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti explore this situation in their installation Ramallah Syndrome, which was commissioned for the 2009 Venice Biennale.5 Intervening in the public sphere, Hilal and Petti collaborated with sound artists to create an aesthetic conversation from a series of discussions. Recordings of this are played in the work as interrupted sequences of speech, resulting in a multiplicity of voices. Inherently participatory, the work opens up various public spaces to debate, prompting intellectuals, artists, curators, and ordinary citizens to examine the rise of Ramallah as the de facto capital of a future Palestinian state, and the Palestinian Authority’s acquiescence to Israel’s political substitution of Jerusalem.

Loss of Public Spaces

Due to the popularity of roundabouts as sites of demonstration, municipalities are now fencing them off or demolishing them outright. Moreover, the commercial sector is encroaching on public space, limiting the number of sites available for mass gatherings. In response, enterprising cultural activists are devising alternative ways of accessing public space—through billboards, for example, or social media. Another approach has been to hold temporary exhibitions in deserted buildings, community centers, and refugee camps, as well as in neglected historical sites.

The diminishing availability of public space also inspired a project by Beirut nonprofit group 98 Weeks, in which participants used taxis as social spaces, recording conversations with the drivers and sharing their stories on the radio. In Kuwait, an intervention was staged at a commercial fair. In Jordan, an artists’ residency program took place in a village, with the cooperation of the village council and local families. And in Tunis, the ancient cities of Sfax and Tunis have been used as presentation sites for contemporary art.

Are such artist-led initiatives merely, as critic Claire Bishop argues, “feel-good charades” that displace good art?6 Do they act as a poor substitute for self-directed civic responsibility? In the case of the Arab world, they undoubtedly serve to bring young people together under the banner of art, in the process giving young artists a renewed sense of purpose. But questions remain: What kind of relationship exists between artist and public in the Arab world, where most people are not in the habit of visiting museums and galleries? Does art in the public sphere respond to a need for alternative ways to reach a nonspecialist audience? Will people view creative work in a different light after the revolutions, or after engaging with it for the first time? 

These and other questions demand further exploration. There is a dearth of scholarship on the impact of public art on the development of new work and new audiences, but any direct influence may be regarded as a positive step in a region where art education is absent from most public schools, and where access to art has traditionally been limited to the elite. Grassroots initiatives that seek to extend the reach of art, establish alternative art spaces, educate the public in contemporary practice, and mentor artists through residencies are all positive steps in expanding the audience for the arts and affirming their role in raising collective consciousness.

  1. Middle East Online, “ADACH to launch fourth session of ‘Prince of Poets,’” Middle East Online, April 4, 2010, accessed November 10, 2012, http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=38226.
  2. Ibn Abbas, quoted in Muḥsin Jāsim Mūsawī, preface to Arabic Poetry (London: Routledge, 2010).
  3. Tahrir Cinema screened demonstrations across Egypt on a wall in Tahrir Square.
  4. Lara Baladi, quoted in Dorothea Schoene, “Art in a Revolution: A Conversation with Lara Baladi,” Afterimage Online: The Journal for Media Arts and Cultural Criticism vol. 39, no 5 (2012), accessed October 2, 2012, http://www.vsw.org/ai/issues/afterimage-vol-39-no-5/.
  5. Salwa Mikdadi, Palestine c/o Venice, (Beirut: Mind the Gap, 2009). Ramallah Syndrome is an art project commissioned for Palestine c/o Venice, an exhibition curated by Salwa Mikdadi for the 2009 Venice Biennale.
  6. Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012).