Art and the Arab Spring
Art should have a prominent position in revolutionary politics, but as “signposts, not as overt political manifestos”.
|Sculptor Abdulrahman Katanani is one example of the fact that Arab artists are ‘already among us’ [Al Jazeera]|
The function of art – one of the functions of art – consists in bringing spiritual [geistigen] peace to humanity. I believe one cannot characterise the state of consciousness in contemporary art any better than by saying: more and more people are becoming conscious that spiritual peace is not enough because it has never prevented, nor could it ever prevent, real strife, and that perhaps one of the functions of art today is also to contribute to real peace – a function that cannot be foisted upon art, but must lie in the essence of art itself.
– Herbert Marcuse, “Society as a Work of Art”
Doha, Qatar – Cai Guo-Quiang’s exhibit in Doha was exquisite. Incorporating techniques from Islamic artistic heritage such as miniature paintings, Saraab (“mirage”), the celebrated artist’s inaugural solo exhibition in the Arab world creatively synthesised the hitherto unexplored historical and cultural dynamics of the Arab Gulf and China.
For instance, through controlled gunpowder explosions, he produced a dazzling canvass of 99 horses that simultaneously highlighted the symbolic nature of the number 99 – a reference to the 99 names of God in the Islamic tradition, and a symbol for infinity in Chinese culture – and of the horse more generally, with the majestic steed featuring prominently in both cultural milieus.
One small problem, though: in my several hours of marvelling through the Mathaf, the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, I counted fewer than ten other patrons there to take advantage of Cai’s exhibit. Even more disappointing, every one of those vagrant visitors looked foreign, without a Qatari (or Arab, for that matter) in sight to savour the fruits of Cai’s labour.
Even the plethora of advertisements for the exhibit prominently plastered around the city, it seems, were insufficient to generate serious interest.
For an institute whose stated mission is to present “a unique Arab perspective on modern and contemporary art”, its reception was less than encouraging.
Qatar hosts biggest daylight fireworks show
Indeed, Professor Hamid Dabashi made precisely that observation on these very pages, shortly after his visit to Doha for Saraab’s opening on December 5. Marked by a spectacular outdoor exhibition held on the outskirts of the museum, the opening expo – dubbed “Black Ceremony” – staged a thunderous spectacle of dynamite explosions, producing colourful blossoms of ink across an open-sky canvas.
Art aficionados from around the world were drawn to Doha to celebrate the momentous occasion, happily noshing on complimentary salmon and beefsteak hors d’oeuvres as the internationally renowned Chinese artist made his debut performance in the Arab world.
But as Dabashi astutely cautioned, the euphoria produced by this opening extravaganza has limited staying power, and by itself says very little about the viability of the exhibit as representative of a greater Arab public sphere. And as he predicted, once the cameras and art critics moved on to their next exhibit, public interest quickly dissipated.
For however admirable Cai Guo-Quiang’s efforts were at subtly forging links between the cultural and historic milieu of the Arab region and his native China, the exhibit failed to sufficiently address the Arab world’s historic moment: the heightened and rapidly transforming Arab consciousness embodied in the Arab Spring.
Artistic Arab public sphere?
Unencumbered by the revolutionary sentiment presently engulfing the rest of the Arab world, and bolstered by enormous material wealth, Qatar is in a unique position to creatively channel the Arab world’s great historical moment into a vibrant arena of artistic expression. Such a forum, properly situated in the lived reality of this renewed Arab consciousness, could stand to inspire the entire region. But alas, one cannot simply buy a cultural public sphere, as Dabashi pointed out.
The extent to which Gulf states such as Qatar gloss over the grounded realities of the Arab Spring – namely, the underlying call for human dignity undergirding each of these movements – is the extent to which its aesthetic output becomes reduced to lifeless commodities, no matter how extravagant.
Opulent displays such as Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art – designed by none other than the renowned Chinese architect IM Pei – or the Doha Film Festival simply cannot stand on their price tags alone, but must respond to the region’s organic impulses in order to gain serious currency as part of an Arab public sphere.
That said, even in Doha, amid the nihilism Dabashi aptly inveighs against, there nonetheless exist nascent pockets of precisely the artistic Arab public sphere he clamours for. I refer in particular to an exhibit I recently visited in the Al Markhiya gallery in Doha’s Souq Waaqif aptly titled Isharat, or “Signposts”, featuring artists from around the region, whose work fully embodies the Arab Spring’s clarion call for liberation.
Al Markhiya is certainly a much smaller and boutique operation than the more glitzy and flamboyant Mathaf, but is nonetheless highly respected in Qatar and boasts a significant patronage. It is thus somewhat disappointing that a renowned intellectual and cultural critic such as Professor Dabashi was not informed about an exhibit in the city embodying the very aesthetic impulse he yearns for.
Granted, Dabashi was a guest in the city for only a few days, and as such can be excused for not having attended. But the problem is much more systemic than an innocent overlooking of this or that artistic or cultural exhibit. Rather, avant-garde artists in the Arab world have been neglected and undernourished – not only by the curators of Gulf’s most opulent museums, but by the region’s very patrons whom these artists ostensibly seek to inspire.
Especially in the Palestinian context, the artistic scene in the Arab world has all too often become obsessed with the lachrymose: emancipatory impulse is cast aside in favour of an inordinate focus on struggle, loss and dispossession – with Handala at least partially superimposed over the canvass.
“The artists of the Arab Spring do not need to be found… indeed, they are already among us.”
Meanwhile, artists such as Abdulrahman Katanani, whose work was featured in the Isharat exhibit at the Al Markhiya gallery, receive scant attention in comparison. A Palestinian sculptor born and raised in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, Katanani insists on using raw materials from the camps themselves in all his sculptures.
Only by doing so, he argues, can he keep the spirit of freedom and hope alive amid an environment that seems diametrically opposed to those impulses. Under this rubric, the artist can transform an otherwise desiccated piece of scrap metal into a captivating exhibit of camp children flying kites: the chain-linked fencing wire previously used to sequester and ensnare them has been reconstituted as the kite’s drawstring, inextricably connecting them to their soaring vessel and the limitless freedom it symbolises.
Katanani’s sculptures embody precisely the emancipatory potential Dabashi envisions, yet he is woefully underappreciated. Not only did a visiting critic such as Professor Dabashi not receive adequate word of the showing, but even the Palestinian ambassador in Doha, despite having gotten numerous invitations – in person, via phone and via SMS – has to date not attended any of Katanani’s exhibits.
The artists of the Arab Spring do not need to be found, as Dabashi suggests at the end of his essay: indeed, they are already among us, even in the Khalij. Their discovery is proving elusive, I submit, because of a misplaced expectation of art’s role in the revolutionary moment in the first place.
What distinguished the Isharat exhibit at the Al Markhiya gallery in particular was its decidedly non-political focus: each artist, while wholly committed to the Arab Spring, offered no specific political message in his or her aesthetic interpretation of that event. The patron in the Arab art scene, it seems, all too often expects to find explicit political messages in a piece of art, and judges the work on that basis. Artists such as Katanani, it follows, are neglected for failing to sufficiently inform our political impulses.
This is the cardinal mistake. It is beyond the purview of the artist to provide a detailed blueprint to guide a political movement to fruition, be it through the motif of exile or otherwise. Indeed, it would have been naive for the social movements of the 1960s to have expected Bob Dylan to offer a detailed understanding of how society operates at its most visceral level.
Art’s role, as Dabashi correctly describes, is to imagine the emancipatory politics of our impossibilities. To imagine is not to chronicle in minute detail. The artists of the Arab Spring are tasked with simply igniting a spark, of reinjecting the radical imagination into Arab society, through envisioning the utopian possibility of hope and a better life, undergirded by the basic dignity of the Arab people as non-negotiable and sacrosanct.
Their aesthetic impulses must lead our revolutionary politics, as Dabashi describes, but as signposts, not as overt political manifestos. Only under this rubric can the legions of brave Arab artists, painters and sculptors inspired by the Arab Spring truly make sense as purveyors of the region’s renewed collective consciousness, and the Arab public sphere Dabashi envisions finally come to fruition.
Daanish Faruqi is the editor of the recent book From Camp David to Cast Lead: Essays on Israel, Palestine, and the Future of the Peace Process (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, April 2011), and is currently a research fellow based in Doha.
Follow him on Twitter: @daanishfaruqi
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.