Can Arab Artists Survive?

Can Arab artists survive the shrinking space for freedom of expression in many of their home countries? Can they survive the difficulty of finding a place to work with colleagues? Can they survive being endlessly turned down for visas?

Can they survive the risk of becoming like a luxury brand name for collectors, a Rolex watch, instead of helping the wider public open their eyes, hearts, and brains?

Those were some of the questions at the center of an all-day symposium held at the British Museum recently on the “Survival of the Artist.” The event had the subtitle “How can art and artists in the Arab world survive and respond in times of conflict and censorship?”

A series of artists and those who support them tried to answer the question, and the many questions layered underneath it. They wondered whether an Arab artist who wants to paint flowers in an original way can find an audience, when many art lovers expect Arab artists to be like war photographers. They debated if censorship can actually help drive creativity, or if that in itself is a disturbingly oppressive question.

Art education was rarely mentioned, though there was a glancing reference to the lack of scholarship. “I find it upsetting that there is very little research [on Arab art] by academics or even journalists,” said Shireen Atassi of the Atassi Foundation, an independent organization that promotes Syrian art and culture.

Abdulla Alkafri, a playwright and executive director of Ettijahat, which supports independent Syrian art and culture, laid down some “commandments” that he believes are needed to nurture the arts in the Arab world, ranging from the obvious (“Thou shall not accept stereotyping”) to the less obvious: “Thou shalt not make what is popular now.”

A Palestinian artist, Khaled Jarrar, spoke about his artistic journey, in which he has gone beyond flirting with risk to embracing it. He created a passport stamp for Palestine and stamped 700 passports with it. He said later that he felt it strange that Israelis were welcoming visitors to Palestine, and that the stamp was a way of protesting that. “I’ve been fighting the occupation since the age of 10,” he told the British Museum audience. “Art became the only medium of resistance after stones.”

In Palestine, Jarrar has made art from concrete hacked out of the walls Israel has erected around itself and painted a section of the wall in rainbow colors. He took his artist’s sensibility during the 2016 U.S. presidential election to the border between the United States and Mexico. During his visit to both sides of the border, he welded a metal ladder from parts stolen from the wall and erected it in Juarez, Mexico. The locals named the sculpture “Khaled’s Ladder.” (A video about his experience is here.)

The theme of borders and distance also has emerged in the work of Khaled Barakeh, a Syrian artist now based in Berlin. Barakeh brought an interest in division to Northern Ireland, where he created a new sculpture out of an iconic older one. He served as an artist in residence in the city that has two names, Derry and Londonderry, due to a political dispute. An Irish sculptor, Maurice Harron, had already created a statue, known as “Hands Across the Divide,” of two men reaching out to each other but not quite touching. The sculpture is on a bridge between largely Catholic and largely Protestant areas.

As part of the Shubbak Festival, Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj created an installation of old hardback book covers. (photo: David Wheeler)

Barakeh was struck by the fact that the men in the statues were perpetually unable to complete a handshake. Using a laser camera, Barakeh measured the space between the hands, then used three-dimensional printing to create a cast that resulted in a sculpture of the space. The new sculpture is named “Materialized Distance” and is part of a larger group of connected artworks including panoramic photos, videos, billboards and 8,000 t-shirts. (Barakeh wrote about the experience of creating the installation in an essay.)

Going beyond his work as an artist, Barakeh is also creating the Syrian Culture Index, a combined database and map to connect Syrian artists who are still in Syria with those who are scattered around the world. The resource would be apolitical. “We live in a world of extreme division,” he said. “I’m proposing this as a space for everyone.”

Those who attended the symposium got the chance to experience art, not just to discuss it. As they sat in an auditorium downstairs, upstairs in the museum’s famous Great Court an artist from southwestern Saudi Arabia, Zahrah Al Ghamdi, was creating a temporary installation of sand, colored stone, crushed grey stone, and fabric scraps that mourned the loss of architectural heritage. Nearby was an installation by a Syrian artist, Issam Kourbaj, made up of hardback book covers spread out over the floor and on a bench.

In the middle of the symposium, a performance took place called “For the Absent Ones.” The work’s format was a tribute to the many times Arab artists are not able to travel to reach their audiences. Those attending the symposium went into a separate auditorium, where they were given headphones, and listened first to sounds that gave them the sensation of being under water.

The sculpture, “Materialized Distance,” by Khaled Barakeh, a Syrian artist, resulted from time he spent in Northern Ireland. (Photo: Khaled Barakeh)

The audience then heard the story of a Syrian family that begged for news about their son, who had been jailed for giving water to protesters. The work was, a curator later noted, a work of both great imagination and great truth, as the central story it was based on was factual.

In the end, the symposium answered its own question, with the sheer variety of art discussed and displayed in one day. Yes, the Arab artist can survive. Put it down to an unquenchable desire for expressing the human spirit, which no conflict or censorship can snuff out.

But there are many more questions to ask.

Will more Arab philanthropists rise to the occasion of supporting Arab artists, especially those arrested, imprisoned or made homeless?

Can art connect better to education, so a wider public appreciates it?

Can the artists’ work find homes in public spaces, private homes, and art lovers’ galleries?

Editor’s note: The symposium was part of the Shubbak Festival, a two-week “window on contemporary Arab culture” that ended last week. The Mosaic Rooms was a partner in the symposium. Other arts-supporting organizations with representatives who spoke at the meeting included Artists at Risk, Al Mawred Al Thaqafy (Culture Resource), the Ruya Foundation, and the Townhouse Gallery.


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