New Strokes: The Rise of Middle Eastern and North African Art

‘Art is one of the few reliable loudspeakers that can help one understand what exactly has taken place in a region where memory is constantly interrupted and distorted by chronic violence’ (Arie Amaya Akermans:2012:Re-Orient) [1]

It is a given to say that the political tensions that have surrounded the Middle East and North Africa, and the subsequent media exposure of such events to western societies have steered the world’s attention to parts of the region.

The media spotlight has encouraged the recognition of art within the region as well as provided a platform for those artists to express themselves and be heard without the constraints of censorship. Evocative articles such as: ‘Think Middle East Politics Are Hot? Try Middle Eastern Art’[2] and ‘Art in the Middle East: Foment of the Moment’ [3] to name but a few, have been an important factor in putting Middle Eastern Art ‘on the map’. This publicity has also provided support and a sense of solidarity amongst the entire art community; as artists come together, collaborate and express themselves on both a national and international stage.

Their voices aren’t just limited to making a statement or documenting events. There is a keen agenda amongst some artists to attempt to evoke thought amongst civil society. Reminding them that the ‘fight’ isn’t over, and that as a society they have a civil responsibility to ensure that they are part of building a Middle East that is authentic to them.

Abdulnasser Gharems: Capitol Dome

Abdulnasser Gharems: Capitol Dome

One such artist is the leading Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem, known to many as a pioneer in conceptual art. His contribution to the political discussion is his miniature version of the US Capitol Dome which was recently part of the ‘#COMETOGETHER’ exhibition in London’s Brick Lane. The Dome’s exterior is an exact copy of the original Dome; however the interior has been designed to resemble a Mosque. The piece is representative of the current situation the countries involved with the Arab Spring now face, as their battle deepens and their search for a political structure continues. Gharem notes a lot of attention is being paid to the US model of democracy; as the history of ‘no democracy’[4] within these countries creates a situation of unease and confusion with regard to the direction that should be followed. However he is keen to assert and remind civil society that the Middle East isn’t the US and they have their own destiny to follow. He urges the Middle Eastern community to ‘talk’, and explains his work as a platform for conversation, thought and new perspective.

Theatrical directors/writers as well as visual artists within the MENA[5] region have also experienced a revival, and their social and political relevance has been re-discovered. Ibraaz’s Cleo Jay notes that:

Egyptian artist Hanaa Abdel Fattah called for a revolution in Egyptian theatre in a March 2011 interview for Ahram Online, noting that ‘Prior to the 25 January Revolution, Egyptian theatre productions were totally isolated and distanced from the social and political situation in the country. Theatre did not hear the social voices calling for democracy.’[6]

The play L’isoloir (The Voting Booth) directed by Taoufik Jebali, is a play about taking the next steps to democracy after the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia. It represents the new challenges faced by Tunisians as they elect a new government. Writers such as Kamel Bouaouina (2012) and Jay Cleo (2012) note that the play invites thought and questions within the audience, and sends out a similar message as that of Gharem’s Capitol Dome.

The revolution in politics has offset a revolution in art, and there is a clear message of solidarity and empowerment. The ‘movement’ has not only set to bring together the art genres and the art community, but the entire Middle Eastern community on a wider level.

In essence these artists are working as mediators within society; working to empower civil society and encourage them to be proactive within the current situation and essentially be that society that not only pioneered a revolution, but made it work.

Written By Kiran Sahib: CAF Writer/Editor

[1] Arie Amaya-Akkermans on October 31, 2012, http://www.reorientmag.com/2012/10/impossible-possibilities/
[2] Forbes Online Magazine, Contributor: Abigail. R. Esman,18/4/2012 http://www.forbes.com/sites/abigailesman/2012/04/18/think-middle-east-politics-are-hot-try-middle-eastern-art/
[3] The Economist Online Magazine, 24/05/2012 http://www.economist.com/node/18438073
[4] Abdul Nasser Gharem, October 2012 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DO9T_jCOkis
[5] Middle East and North Africa
[6] STAGING THE TRANSITION IN NORTH AFRICA: Theatre As a Tool of Empowerment, Ibraaz Online Magazine, Cleo Jay, 2/11/2012