Sultan al-Qassemi: Arab artists are key amid censorship

UAE-based commentator says artists are key in absence of civil society, free media and political parties in Arab world.

Sultan al Qassemi VCU Doha
Sultan al-Qassemi says Arab artists depict the anger and demands of their societies [Leila Natsheh/VCU-Q]

Doha, Qatar – “To Be Continued,” a 2009 video installation by the Palestinian artist Sharif Waked, features a young, handsome fighter sitting at a table with an assault rifle and a book. Behind him, a flag adorned in Quranic text and images of two guns is pinned to the wall.

The scene is reminiscent of dozens of videos to emerge in recent years of fighters who recite their will or deliver a political message before an attack. But listen carefully. He is reading a familiar tale, not declarations of war. Played by the Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri, the fighter reads an excerpt from One Thousand and One Nights.

As the story goes, queen Scheherazade spent each night recounting the folk tales to her husband, who planned to execute her the following morning. To prolong her life, she broke off the story each night before it ends. By depicting the “living martyr” as Scheherazade, Waked jolts the viewer into questioning the dominant narrative of the moment of sacrifice.

The artwork, acquired last year by the Guggenheim Museum, was one of around 60 pieces discussed by Sultan al-Qassemi at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar’s capital on Thursday.

“This character, far from wanting to die, wants to live another day,” Qassemi, an Emirati cultural commentator, art collector and founder of the Sharjah-based Barjeel Art Foundation, said of Waked’s piece.

The work shows that “a lot of people judge the [Middle East] region, but they don’t give the region a chance to explain”.

For nearly an hour, Qassemi took an audience of artists, academics and students on an encyclopedic journey through “Politics in modern Arab art”, briefing them on works from 1948 to the present day, including paintings, sculpture, mixed media and video.

Following his talk, Qassemi also touched on the role of art, censorship and how the region’s art scene is changing.

Here are some excerpts from that question-and-answer session:

Do Middle East artists simply reflect what the region is going through, or do they effect change?

Sultan al-Qassemi: Artists are more connected to the people. They experience the pulse of the street, more than governments. Government officials generally don’t mix with the people, the common man, the common woman. Artists are always there, so they hear things.

How else would the government know what the people think if it wasn't for art, since the media is basically censored?

Sultan al-Qassemi

There are a lot of artworks that depicted, for example, anger and frustration in Egypt pre-2011. There are a lot of artworks that called for freedom in the Arab world before the uprisings. There are a lot of artists that depict anger and Israeli crimes against Palestinians, whereas Arab governments just issue statements. You can see the anger in Arab artworks.

In some cases, Arab artists are reflecting society, but in some cases they were almost predicting what was going to happen – they know that anger is building up. They also reflect the aspirations, the positive demands, the things that Arabs want to see – they want to see a better tomorrow.

They’re a very important bridge, especially in the absence of civil society in the Arab world, the absence of free press, the absence of political parties. Artists are [some of the] only conduits in the Arab world between the government and the people. Think about it. How else would the government know what the people think if it wasn’t for art, since the media is basically censored?

What do you think about young Arab artists using social media to promote alternative perspectives?

Qassemi: Their presence is very important. Unfortunately, social media has been dominated by negative news.

We need these young people, whether they are Arab or Middle Eastern or Iranian or Pakistani – anybody from the region where they are stereotyped, where they are not represented in international museums enough.

We have to push our narrative into the global social media world. This is something that needs to be amplified I think, it’s very important … this is how we push back negative stereotypes.

Why are Arab artists missing on the international stage?

Qassemi: We are generally missing from a lot of conversations around the world because we have been so busy with ourselves.

But I don’t agree that we’ve been missing completely – there’s a lot of Arab art that goes on to be [featured in] international museums.

Even in places like Palestine and Syria, which have seen a lot of sadness, great culture is being produced.

Sultan al-Qassemi

When the Tate Museum bought [the Iraqi visual artist] Dia Azzawi’s work years ago, the “Sabra and Shatila Massacre” painting – that was a giant statement that Arab art really belongs alongside art from all over the world. I think that was a record for a piece acquired by a western museum. [Emirati artist] Hassan Sharif’s work has [also] been bought by the Guggenheim. A lot of artists have been acquired by museums around the world.

But our text and publications were really only in Arabic. It’s important to publish in Arabic, but we also have to make them available in English and French and hopefully Chinese and other languages.

We’re also now graduating a lot of people who become curators, there are a lot of young artists, a lot of people today who are active, a lot of Arabs working at museums around the world. I think things are changing. We are on the cusp of this change – the change started two or three decades ago, but I think now it is gaining momentum.

What can we do? Keep pushing the story of Arab art online, on Facebook. Instead of sharing something that would depress [people] about the region, maybe share something that’s positive. Let’s say for every 10 negative shares, [post] one positive at least, maybe something about art, about culture instead of everything bad that’s happening in the region. Even in places like Palestine and Syria, which have seen a lot of sadness, great culture is being produced. We also need to be balanced ourselves.

Have artists failed the Arab world?

Qassemi: Artists don’t have machineguns, they don’t have political parties. What they have is a brush, they have the tools that they can use to reflect people’s aspirations.

Unfortunately, that being said, there was a number of times when artists assumed positions of responsibility. In Egypt, for example, for 21 years an artist was the minister of culture. He was very close to the government, and we all know what happened in 2011. Rather than being the bridge between people and the government, he was part of the government. He lost touch with the people.

In many instances, I think artists take a political position.

READ MORE: When we spoke to Leila Alaoui on tackling taboos in art

George Bahgoury in Egypt, for example, had to go into exile in Paris from the late 70s to the early 80s because he was very critical of [President] Anwar Sadat, and he only came back to Egypt after Sadat was assasinated. He was critical of Sadat himself, and then he was even more critical of the Camp David treaty.

A lot of artists have paid dearly. [Artist] Ahmed Basyouni was one of the first people killed in the Egyptian revolution – his work was showcased in the 2011 Venice biennale. A lot of artists have paid dearly with their lives, in going into exile, having governments shun them, not being given exhibitions, not being allowed to sell their works. I have a lot of respect for artists, we need to acknowledge them.

Follow Anealla Safdar on Twitter: @anealla

Source: Al Jazeera