Recently, while attending a conference in New York focused on art and social change, an Egyptian artist remarked: "We have to make art about Tahrir, or the revolution, to get noticed." This was offered up as a joke, and drew knowing laughter from the audience in attendance—but some of those among the crowd could detect a subtle, yet sobering, edge.
“How many more projects do we need to see with titles like ‘Voices of the Arab Youth?’” asked yet another artist in attendance.
Uprisings, protests and politics—in notoriously varied nature and form—have come to characterize the Middle East for an international audience. Thus they have also come to characterize the Middle Eastern artist, which has been particularly evident over this past year.
The uprisings that first erupted in 2011 have created a landslide effect in the Middle Eastern arts and creative communities. First, it gave way to a welcome wave of international exposure for artists across the region which carried contemporary artists, musicians, filmmakers and others to the forefront of a growing and popular international arts scene. International sales—the universal indicator of commercial success—of contemporary Middle East art boomed.
But after the initial rush, artists from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) risked finding themselves pigeonholed by the politics their regions have come to be known for. Revolution, uprisings and struggles for new political and social realities have produced a new, less obvious, challenge for Middle East artists around the world: How do we make our voices heard outside the obvious political sphere? Must we always speak in a language that relates our work to protest, politics and revolution?
In the wake of Egypt’s January 25 uprisings in 2011, Ahmed El-Attar, the Egyptian theater director, playwright and founder of Studio Emad Eddin Foundation, responded to questions in an interview with Mark Ball, artistic director of the London International Festival of Theatre, by saying: “My problem with art and the revolution is . . . I don’t think I’m personally capable of representing the revolution, and I doubt that anyone can.” He added, “The revolution is a concept. It’s not just about that particular circumstance.”
In the post-uprisings era, the dilemma of an imposed revolutionary or Arab Spring identity is particular—though not limited—to independent and emerging artists who rely on international support in some form, and whose success hinges on recognition and commissions in the international arts sector.
The catch is that, while the political climate opened up a valuable arena for political artists in and from the region, whose contributions have served as an invaluable barometer of culture and politics, revolution politics does not characterize all Middle East artists or, more importantly, all that they have to offer. The stereotype of the politically focused artist has therefore been both a triumph and a burden born by MENA artists.
Of course, issues of imposed identities and stereotypes are far from new for the MENA artist. In 2009, well before the Arab Spring was introduced into popular vernacular, art commentary blog Art Threat posited that “there is a prevailing Western myth that the Middle East can only be represented in traditional political terms, and that necessarily all expressions derived thereof must be seen through this lens.”
The arts sector and creative communities in the MENA region are particularly complex, and they are made no less complex by the upheavals that have plagued the region in recent years. The failure of the international community to grasp the complexities and nuances that characterize different regions, people and political dilemmas now appears to be holding artists back, particularly as it relates to funding opportunities.
With the first major eruption of the 2011 uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, media attention was trained on images painted by graffiti artists and activists, from Egypt’s vibrant military-constructed walls sealing off protests on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in downtown Cairo, to colorful manifestos in Yemen and Libya. The signage of the revolutions became a study in and of itself.
But the complexity deepened in the months, then years, following the toppling of Tunisia’s regime, Egypt’s two ousted presidents, and the continuous, scarring tragedies in Syria that are now spilling into Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. With an international community increasingly at a loss for a characterization of a region, which in reality is far from homogenous, artists often find themselves becoming stand-in ambassadors for their states.
Artists are intrinsically powerful commentators on the societies in which they live. Art and politics are barely separable. What is problematic, however, is that what began as an empowering outlet through which to give voice to strong political messages has now come to limit the creative expression of the very people who were originally championed for breaking the mold.
Speaking to artists who view themselves as deeply political, the issue seems to be that the politics involved is far more complex, far-reaching and nuanced than audiences—especially international ones—care to see or support.
People are far more than the conflict that they endure. Art can cast an ironic glare on the intersection of humor and grief without including mention of the revolution or the Arab Spring. But, will it sell? This is the question that creates both anxiety and agitation among emerging and independent MENA artists.
In an article this month in the Canadian publication Reorient, sound artist Asma Ghanem explored themes of sonic art and representation through interviews with six musicians from the Levant, during which one of the artists, Sary Moussa, reflected: “We cannot confine everyone that is experimenting with music and who happens to be an Arab in the same category . . . We still have to admit that our cultural identity is ever-changing and not necessarily related to one single geographical reference.” Perhaps this also needs to be iterated for cultural and political reference.
As seductive as a revolution sounds, the political reality is that most countries remain in states of upheaval and transition. While artists, writers and scholars are often the torch-bearers of social change, this has also placed limitations on the movements and creative parameters of a field that is defined by its very lack of constrictions.