Divided We Stand
When I was invited recently to curate an exhibition at the European Parliament in Brussels, an event which coincided with the Parliament’s Arab Week in November 2008, the project revealed that censorship is just as common within the EP as in the rest of the world. It started with the title, which changed from Divided We Stand to Re-Orientations – Contemporary Arab Representations. Then, the cover image of the United States of Palestine Airlines, London Office, by Khalil Rabah, was deemed too reminiscent of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers!
Despite the many divisions in the Arab world, its political and financial inequalities, the countries of that region have more common elements that unite them than do the countries of the European community: first and foremost the language, which unites twenty-two countries; then masses of religious, cultural and architectural common codes; then the closeness of many ruling families, who meet more often and more informally than Western rulers, whether for a wedding or a charity party. These gatherings are evidence of the common ground that these countries share. The common concerns are however best reflected in the visual stories told by Arabs artists.
Key historical moments are seen in these works: dispossession, hope, liberation, independence, war, violence, direct or indirect colonialism, women’s rights, and a call for justice – whether for minorities or immigrant workers. These works also reflect on the West’s double standards regarding issues that remain relevant to artists and the general public alike in the Arab world: the question of Palestine, pan-Arabism, civil wars and its physical and psychological damage, the occupation of Iraq and its unrecorded casualties, and the emergence of the Gulf, not only economically but also artistically.
The plight of many Palestinians is read in the wonderfully tragic and witty images, where humour and talent overcome the disparities and injustices from which they have been suffering for sixty years. Hence Tarek al-Ghossein’s and Raeda Saadeh’s self-portraits, comments on representations and self-representation of the Palestinian.
Egypt, with its key geographical position and radiant historical culture, is a big player in the Arab world. This is what Chant Avedissian celebrates in his large panels – the icons of the Arab world, whether its giants or its ordinary workers. In Sumud el Arab (The Arab Resistance), the powerful figure of Gamal Abdel Nasser dominates the work: a man who, from an unknown soldier, became a hero, admired for his logic of liberation, something which echoed all over the developing countries. Two of Nasser’s objectives, authenticity and renewal (Al-Asala wa-l-Tajaddud), remain key ingredients to this day, in politics or in art. In Al Watan el Arabi (The Arab Nation), Om Kalsoum (who is still the best selling recording artist even thirty years after her death), defends the map of the Arab world, with Israel–Palestine still floating in the sea, an issue not resolved.
However, today’s icons are not politicians but artists, poets, writers, and filmmakers, some of whom are captured in the works of Youssef Nabil: the rebellious Youssef Chahine, who through his early films best described the feelings of the Arab population, icons such as Mona Hatoum, Ghada Amer, Lara Baladi, Jananne al-Ani, and Omar Sharif – all of whom have achieved international success.
The Emergence of artists from the Gulf
Home to expatriates of many nationalities, the Gulf countries’ emergence as a cultural hub is today incontestable. When King Faisal died in 1975, the same year the Arab world mourned the loss of Om Kalsoum, a whole generation of women in the Gulf who were studying at universities abroad saw the time for change. Oil became the primary source of domestic and international investment and influence. However, social change was slower than expected, and its impetus came from different parts of Arabia: from once-neglected, tiny, prosperous international hubs that were attracting Westerners, Asians and Arabs. Few today can ignore the importance of Dubai, Abu-Dhabi, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman or Jeddah, for they are competing culturally and economically on the world scene, and the boom is shared not only by the region’s citizens but also by outsiders from the West and the Far East. They are the Gulf’s buzzing cultural, economic and social centres, with ambitious art projects and museums, and are embarking on grand educational and cultural projects. But what impresses me more is the creative input of women from the region and their contribution to the arts scene in countries with few, if any, art faculties.
The works of Saudi Arabian artists Reem al-Faisal, Jowhara alSaud, Lalla Essaydi, and Manal Al-Dowayan (who is of Moroccan origin, but living in Saudi Arabia) are stunning examples of courage and creative invention, expressing choices, voices and new aesthetics. Their work speaks of concern for the environment, the promotion of women’s freedom, censorship, social inequality, and collective spirituality.
Today more than fifty years after the tumult of decolonization, the subsequent disappointment experienced after so much hope, the quarrelling among regimes, and the injustice suffered in Palestine, critical revisions and a change of direction are on the map: this is vividly expressed by artists from the region.
However, although the Arab world is abundant with talent, most of its artists and thinkers flourish abroad – Edward Said, Ralph Nader, Ahdaf Soueif, Mona Hatoum, Zaha Hadid, Walid Raad, Emily Jacir – and spend much of their time in the West.
If only world leaders followed in the steps of artists and transformed their discourses into weapons of mass discussion, then the best of the West and the Arab world could be shared to the benefit of all.