A new festival in London reveals the changing realities of life in the Middle East and challenges lazy assumptions about Arab artby Munira Mirza / July 5, 2011 / Leave a comment
An image from Hala Elkoussy’s work ‘Myths and Legends Room: The Mural,’ on display at the Chamber Exhibition Space in Camberwell
Few, if any, political analysts predicted the Arab Spring. The raw energy of millions of protestors in the streets of Tunis and Cairo came as a surprise to many who believed that Arabs were essentially reconciled to their governments and non-democratic rule. Yet the signs had been there for some time—in the contemporary Arab art emerging from the region. A new generation of artists, film-makers, musicians, designers, playwrights and poets had been making work for years that expressed the yearning manifest in the uprisings.
Currently on show at the Delfina Foundation in London, Wael Shawky’s ‘The Larvae Channel” (2008) is a prescient video piece that explores the tensions bubbling beneath the surface of Egyptian society. Ordinary individuals are invited to speak into the camera on whichever subject they choose. Without exception, they complain about the government and the sense of tragic despair that accompanies tyranny. One young man becomes so worked up about the state of the nation that he insists that the interviewer go tell the government, religious leaders, or anyone who will listen. He is so enraged that he even gives his address, unafraid of the repercussions. Such desperation, beautifully filmed, reveals in hindsight the promise of change.
Shawky is just one of a number of artists who have benefited from the expansion of the global art market in the last decade and the increasingly international outlook of major cultural institutions. Many organisations like the Tate, British Museum, and V&A have looked to build their Middle East collections, whilst large venues such as the Young Vic, Barbican, Southbank and Sadlers Wells have brought over Arab musicians, theatre companies and writers.
Now these artists are in the spotlight, with a London festival running from 4-24th July called “Shubbak: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture.” At a time when the Arab world is changing fast, an initiative like this can go a long way to challenging preconceptions, showcasing both familiar names (such as the novelists Hisham Matar and Adhaf Soueif) as well as less well-known talents (such as the award-winning Lebanese-American photographer Rania Matar, or Egyptian, Ramy Essam, whose songs performed on Tahrir Square formed the soundtrack to the revolt).
There is much disagreement about what Arab art is and who defines it; governments are just as aware of…