Radical Bleak: Art’s conflicted relationship with the Arab Spring by Negar Azimi



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‘Is there any need before we go to bed to recite the history of the changes and will we in that bed be murdered?’ John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings (1961)

Like many of my colleagues who live or spend time in the Middle East, I’ve received emails from around the world – from curators, writers, charitable foundations and miscellaneous others – curious as to the sort of art being produced and imbibed in these revolutionary times. These emails inevitably open with a bland honorific and, only occasionally, include a half-hearted caveat along the lines of, ‘Of course, I realize how foolhardy my question is.’ Throughout the past year, these queries have climaxed in a bounty of topical articles, books, panel discussions and exhibitions. Whatever you think of these platforms and initiatives – and it may very well not be much – they can’t help but leave you lingering over the sort of questions they raise and, indeed, wondering whether too much is being asked of art in times of revolution.

Many before me have narrated the sudden and surreal rise in interest in contemporary art from the Middle East over the past ten years. For the most part, this has been a phenomenon of the post-9/11 dispensation, a period during which the Middle East – then as today – entered the public consciousness in a powerful way. Married to a surge in capital in cities in the Gulf in particular, the evolution of Middle Eastern contemporary art represents a case of the cart preceding the horse: many cities in the region did not have the luxury of art schools, museums or critics, much less bustling contemporary art scenes, even at a time when bulky hagiographic coffee-table books were being devoted to their artists. Ten years on, that post-9/11 interest in the arts has only been amplified by the recent (and telegenic) uprisings in the Arab world. It is not an unfamiliar instinct, and certainly not an ignoble one, to want to know how artists are responding to these heady times. But sometimes good intentions are the companion of misplaced efforts, which begs the question: what if contemporary art is not the zeitgeist of the current moment? What if there are more pressing forms of culture to think about, explore and nurture – both from within and without?

For years, culture in the Middle East has been tightly entwined with affairs of the state. In Egypt, officially sanctioned arts events – from the Cairo Biennale to the city’s annual Youth Salon – have historically been festooned with bloated political themes, from Palestinian intifada to world poverty to American imperialism. For the most part, this embrace of political content has been conveniently outwardly orientated (officially there is no poverty in Egypt) and served up a safe, neutered version of principled engagement with the world. Works were emotionally charged, shallowly existential, neatly cropped one-liners that had more to do with paying lip service than engaging our senses.

In the aftermath of the uprisings, which began on 25 January 2011 and which climaxed with the fall of president-for-life Hosni Mubarak, that relationship to politics has remained largely intact – though the dominant narrative is now concentrated squarely on a singular dramatic mode: the heroism of the revolution. A state that was scrambling to hold on to power has now, predictably, co-opted the very narrative that threatened to dismantle it.

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Khaled Hafez Revolution, 2006, DVD still

Commercial galleries, too, have appropriated this logic, offering up their own steady stream of shows – some as early as a month after the event – monumentalizing the revolution. Their names – such as ‘Our Revolution, Our Pictures’, ‘The Art of Revolution’, etc. – reveal their simultaneously expansive and limited vision. Witness images of purposeful children holding the Egyptian flag, heroic soldiers beaming patriotically and, of course, the famously witty protest signage of Tahrir Square (my favourite remains ‘La Vache Qui Rit: Muuuh Barak’). The revolution, in a sense, has offered itself up as a readymade; it has become an engine for producing artistic flotsam that, for the most part, looks like lobby art for the United Nations and mines the language of consensus (for how can one argue against art that represents such a historic moment?). 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.

The market for Revolution Art exists internationally, too. A number of exhibition projects have emerged that have the Arab revolutions as a reference or organizing zeitgeist. Though not always explicitly, these shows seem to ask of artists what we barely even expect of journalists anymore. Many of their mission statements are marked by an intoxication with the notion that artists are experiencing unprecedented freedoms. A piece in Reuters in August, says this: ‘People whose ideas had been suppressed during the Mubarak regime, such as the deaf-mute artist Hanan el-Narhrawy, are allowed to spread their work without fear of retribution.’ Deaf-mute! Hardly radical chic; most of this work mines in radical bleak. Witness multiple hastily put-together shows scrambling to capture the current moment artistically, among them an Arab Spring platform at the recent Bamako Biennial of African Photography (and lo, an Egyptian, Khaled Hafez, won the video prize). There was, too, an Arab Summer in London named ‘Shubbak’ which, though organized by the Mayor of London’s office before intimations of revolt, certainly referenced it. Multiple panel discussions have canonized the current artistic moment and, as my colleague Kaelen Wilson-Goldie argued in the October 2011 issue of frieze, abundant money to nurture this expression has flowed, too.

There are risks attached to the sudden interest in and market for Revolution Art. Artists are asked to swiftly respond to the changes in their midst, but this demand is out of touch with the tenor, spirit and temporality of art production. Now might be the time to look at other forms of culture that are more pliant, and that may respond to the current moment in more organic ways. Theatre, for example, has been a prime space for improvisation and experimentation, as has music. Graffiti, too – though it has admittedly been written about to death – reflects a form that is more faithful to the texture of daily life in a city such as Cairo today.

There is another risk. By insisting on the finished art work, catalogue or film, one risks communicating that the revolution has come and gone and is a static, undynamic, finite topic suited for reflection. Instead, these revolutions – as ongoing military trials, abuses and mass protests in Egypt testify – are anything but over. How can one possibly reflect on, much less make a sculpture or film about, a moment that remains in progress and, ultimately, in flux? As an editor of an arts and culture magazine that tried to do this very thing, I can testify how difficult it is.

And, finally, a point that is close to my heart. What if the proliferation of articles, books and exhibitions depicting a happy emerging art market in a happy emerging democratic state serves to mask more trenchant realities? The use of culture as a facile façade for more grim truths and, equally, as a marker of freedoms (of expression, for starters) is a tactic as old as the Cold War (witness Louis Armstrong paraded around Europe, care of the State Department, to belie the realities of Jim Crow racial segregation laws in the US). Today, however, with international interest at its peak, such shows may serve to mask the infrastructural problems and violence embedded in systems that will take generations to undo.

One year after the fall of the House of Mubarak, it may be time to stop zealously memorializing the Arab Spring through artistic platforms. The revolutions in the region, at best having toppled a handful of dictators, will have wrought many things – not least among them, a lot of timely mediocrities and, well, a lot of bad art.

Negar Azimi