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October 24, 2011updated 08 Jan 2016 5:41pm

Art in the Middle East, after the Arab Spring

By Spear's

Cultural Shifts

Anthony Downey, editor of new culture venture Ibraaz Publishing, describes how the project evolved against a backdrop of dramatic upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa
in a small village in Tunisia, a seemingly insignificant slap in the face was to have reverberations that are still being felt today — and will no doubt continue to be felt for some time to come. The facts surrounding the slap are now relatively well known: on the morning of 17 December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed Tunisian, was selling vegetables from a cart when he was harassed, slapped by a municipal official and had his wares confiscated.

At 11.30am, almost one hour after this assault, he purchased a can of gasoline (or possibly paint thinner), doused himself with it in front of the municipal office, and set himself alight. These are the brute facts of the matter: a slap translates into an unforgiving act of self-immolation and thereafter into a conflagration that has brought with it both unforeseen freedoms and brutal repression in equal measure.

In light of these events, and during a time when people are being murdered in the streets by the apparatus of totalitarian states and demented despots, it may seem inopportune or even insensitive to talk about culture. However, I would suggest that this is precisely the time to talk about culture; in fact, there is perhaps no better time to talk about it than now. Culture and its institutions involve forms of debate, representation and engagement — the very ideals that are at stake in the revolutions being fomented throughout the region.

Colour Correction by Palestinian artist Yazan Khalili offers a unique view of the Al-Amari refugee camp in Ramallah

As it involves debate and engagement, culture can also open up a space for plurality to emerge. Despots and self-styled rulers are therefore right to fear expressions of culture as they do those other bugbears of totalitarianism: education and critical engagement, both of which we find in progressive cultural institutions.

Although launched six months or so after the events described above, Ibraaz Publishing was initially conceived some years ago in an attempt to ameliorate what was seen to be a shocking (if not shameful) lack of information and critical engagement with the visual culture of North Africa and the Middle East, both within and beyond the region. Initially, we planned to look into the immediate past and the visual practices that were being overshadowed or forgotten. We planned to complement this with thorough and engaging discussions of present-day practices.

Needless to say, leading up to the launch of Ibraaz we were confronted with the present in all its immediacy and revolutionary zeal. However, we were still left with the same questions: what role does culture have in the social, political, economic, religious, civil, intellectual, emotional and everyday lives of people living in a region that has become synonymous — for some commentators at least — with repression and conflict?

Putting to one side that question, which needs considerably more by way of contextualisation, we were faced with more basic concerns when we decided to develop Ibraaz. What form, for one, could such discussions take and how could we reach the largest possible audience? First, the power of the internet needed to be utilised and was developed to harness that. (The term ‘ibraaz’ has a number of interconnected meanings, including the act of highlighting or foregrounding or bringing out the features of something or someone.)

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We commissioned and presented a number of original texts, interviews and artists’ projects for our launch, including essays on cultural desecration in postwar Iraq, the role of social networking in recent revolutions, hip-hop in the Palestinian Territories, ethnography and contemporary art practices and the (almost forgotten) films of the Lebanese film-maker Christian Ghazzi. To these we added an artist’s project by Dalia Khamissy on the so-called ‘disappeared’ of Lebanon’s war, and exclusive interviews with the Algerian artist Zineb Sedira and the Muslim scholar Mohamed Talbi. (Above: Anthony Downey (centre) and Kamel Lazaar (second right) celebrate the Venice launch of Ibraaz)
ONE ISSUE THAT preoccupied us from the start was the need for a plurality of voices to give resonance to the variety and diasporic complexity of a region that is often presented as homogeneous. (The use of the term ‘region’ here is likewise suspect for precisely that reason.) To address this, we developed the idea of a ‘platform’ that would pose a general question every six months or so.

The first question — What do we need to know about the MENA region today? — elicited more responses than we expected and among those kind enough to engage with platform one were architect and artist Tony Chakar, former Art Newspaper editor Anna Somers Cocks, the Chamber of Public Secrets, artists Ursula Biemann and Shuruq Harb (of ArtTerritories), art academy director Tina Sherwell, curators Simon Sheikh, Nadira Laggoune and Aida Eltorie, sociologist Saskia Sassen, and artists Jananne Al-Ani and Ahlam Shibli.

Our launch in June 2011 coincided with our first publication, the catalogue for the show The Future of a Promise, which was edited by me and our associate editor Lina Lazaar (who also curated this show for the 54th Venice Bienniale). While the launch of Ibraaz was a success — we have had thousands of visits since June and numerous downloads of our texts and interviews — there were still issues to be addressed regarding accessibility. It was with these points in mind that stage two of Ibraaz will develop further sections: one dedicated to artists’ projects and one to filmed interviews with individuals who play significant roles in cultural production in the MENA region.

Ibraaz is in the early days of its development but it has a number of individuals and institutions — specifically the Kamel Lazaar Foundation — committed to its long-term success. As to how we measure that success, the key, I would propose, is twofold. In the first instant, we need to attract and nurture projects in a manner that is sustainable and committed to the long-term production of knowledge.

Secondly, Ibraaz needs to engage as many people as possible in a public debate about culture. The key question, thereafter, is relatively straightforward: what role will culture play in the Middle East — alongside the social and political realignment of Arab societies — in the development of civil society, open debate and the institutions of democracy? (Left: Embrace, an installation by Palestinian artist Emily Jacir)
WHICH RETURNS US to a simple and yet far from simplistic question: what role does culture play in people’s lives? To this we must add a further question: what can visual culture tell us about the world in which we live? This latter is the question for platform two of Ibraaz. To ask such a question is to further investigate how culture operates today and to restate the importance of such questions in the aftermath of revolution.

If, as is being widely suggested, the demonstrations in the Middle East and North Africa express a manifest desire for a more democratic and open form of individual and political representation, then culture and the institutions it supports need to be an integral part of those debates. To be clear, culture cannot change the social conditions or political correlates of the Middle East. On its own, however, it can offer a substantial prism through which to consider the realities of a complex and increasingly divergent region.

Anthony Downey is the  co-author of Art and Patronage in the Middle East and co-editor (with Lina Lazaar) of The Future of a Promise. He is currently writing Art and Politics Today</em> (Thames and Hudson, 2013)

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