Arab Artists Respond to a World Disrupted by Covid-19

/ 10 Apr 2020

Arab Artists Respond to a World Disrupted by Covid-19

As the deaths mount from Covid-19, Arab artists, writers, musicians and curators are pondering what their place will be in the post-coronavirus world.

Some hope that the shift to more art online will democratize art, making it more accessible to those who can’t afford a ticket to a major art exhibition in Dubai or Venice or a performance at the Cairo Opera House. Others ponder aloud about putting art in supermarkets and other businesses still allowed to be open in a world shut down in an effort to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus and Covid-19, the disease it causes.

But while art and music fans are reveling in the sudden availability of art online, artists dependent on sales for income are not clear about more basic questions, like how they will pay their rent and what will become of their careers.

What is clear is that the sweep of cancellations of concerts, film festivals, and art fairs has decimated the Arab culture calendar for the spring, and probably into the summer.

Live Events Are Canceled or in Limbo

This is usually a busy time of year for art, with talks, art exhibitions, fairs and biennials taking place. Sharjah’s annual March Meeting, Jeddah’s first film festival and the Art Dubai fair were all cancelled, postponed or hastily reformatted as digital-only events as the scope of the Covid-19 pandemic became clear. It has yet to be confirmed whether Jordan’s Jerash cultural festival, the biggest event of its kind in the kingdom and regularly held in July, will go on this summer.

Book launches and author tours have also been cancelled owing to travel restrictions. This year’s run of Palfest, the Palestine Festival of Literature, cancelled, and Abu Dhabi’s International Book Fair, set for April 15 to 21, has been postponed, initially to the end of May.

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For the Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany, author of the best-selling book The Yacoubian Building and recipient of many awards, including the International Cavafy Award, it meant the postponement of a lecture and signing tour in Europe for his new book, The Dictatorship Syndrome. “It’s a setback,” he said, “but once things resolve themselves I’ll travel again. I’ve been using this time instead to focus on writing and continuing my work from home.”

“It’s a setback, but once things resolve themselves I’ll travel again. I’ve been using this time instead to focus on writing and continuing my work from home.”

Alaa Al Aswany   the Egyptian writer

For musicians and performers, concerts moved online as performers such as the singer Tamer Ashour held live sessions through Instagram to help boost morale.

“It’s been fun ‘attending’ these concerts with my friends virtually,” says 25-year-old Noha, who’s currently based in New Jersey but connected to friends back home in Alexandria. “With these performances online, I’m getting to see more, and although it’s earlier in the day here, I get up and dance and laugh with friends who’re all in different locations but all tuned in.”

In the visual arts, artists are grappling with the question of what this might mean for their work and careers in the long run as both commercial and exhibition opportunities have been postponed, or altogether cancelled. The potential lack of sales is at the core of many artists’ worry, and galleries face the risk of not being able to cover necessary expenses such as rent owing to their being forced to close for the time being.

An artist who had work prepared for sale at Art Dubai expressed concern about what this might mean for an ecosystem that is still new and one which had never experienced anything quite so dramatic curtailing its sale and exhibition activities. Would Arab art be able to recuperate from a market slowdown or period of inactivity? wondered the artist, who asked not to be identified.

A partial answer was perhaps revealed by Sotheby’s, which was forced to cancel its live Middle East art auction in late March only to move it online. Bidding was slow in the first couple of days but picked up during the last few hours of the March 27–31 sale when Sotheby’s sold most of the lots on offer for a total of more than two million pounds sterling, the auction house said in a news release.

In the absence of international fairs and biennials that oftentimes cater to a small segment of the art world, Nonurban Maayouf believes it’s a moment of reckoning for the global art world.
In the absence of international fairs and biennials that oftentimes cater to a small segment of the art world, Nonurban Maayouf believes it’s a moment of reckoning for the global art world.

’The Show Must Go On-Line’ 

Just like elsewhere, Arab artists, museums, nonprofits and galleries are reacting to a new reality of art creating and viewing–some quite ingeniously.

Initially, Art Dubai, the region’s most successful and popular art fair, announced a cancellation of the fair itself but a commitment to the fair’s collateral events which have traditionally targeted a Dubai-based community of cultural practitioners, artists, students and writers alike.

Global Art Forum, a yearly transdisciplinary summit of talks that takes place simultaneously with Art Dubai, shifted to a live broadcast session. The forum allows visitors to engage with bigger questions about themes and trends affecting the art world, such as artificial intelligence and global trade. This year’s event, dubbed a “Newshour Special,” was dedicated to the art community’s response to the novel coronavirus and its impact, with guest speakers who dialed in.

The Venice Architectural Biennial, originally set to open in May, has been postponed to late August at the earliest. Several Arab architects, curators and academics were slated to show and speak at this year’s event, the architecture world’s biggest opportunity for designers and architects to showcase new work. Italy has been coping with one of Europe’s highest numbers of Covid-19 cases and a monthlong lockdown that was recently extended until early May.

“It might force me to perhaps be more inventive, and use materials I don’t normally use, but it might be a potluck in finding something that works.”

Laila Shawa   Palestinian artist

Galleries and curators have reported that they are scrambling to make use of months of exhibition planning by placing shows online to ensure that despite Covid-19, the proliferation of the visual arts in the Arab world won’t stop.

Some institutions and galleries have created new opportunities for viewing exhibitions, converting their websites into online viewing platforms. Adding some much-needed sass and entertainment, Al Serkal Avenue, Dubai’s main art gallery district, has shifted its art gallery week online, announcing a new platform with the pithy statement “The show must go on-line” to introduce the viewing platform alserkal.online. The website allows visitors to explore galleries and the new exhibitions that had been organized to open before Art Dubai.

Moments of Reckoning—Personal and Global

For Palestinian artist Laila Shawa, based in London, the impact of Covid-19 on the very creative process will present some challenges: Artists isolated in their homes or studios might be unable to restock necessary materials. “It might force me to perhaps be more inventive, and use materials I don’t normally use, but it might be a potluck in finding something that works.”

For Cairo-based artist Nourhan Maayouf, it’s a moment of reckoning for the global art world. In the absence of international fairs and biennials that oftentimes cater to a small segment of the art world (such as those who are financially capable of traveling to attend or participate in these events), the fallout from the pandemic might force a much-needed dose of the democratization.

“I’m worried because I’ve applied to a lot of open calls for biennials, artist-run spaces and exhibitions, and they’ve been rejected—possibly because of the coronavirus,” Maayouf says. “If such spaces shut down, they will affect opportunities for artists greatly.”

Maayouf is optimistic about a changing art world, however. “It would be dumb to stick to conventional ideas about art making and exhibiting, especially as the world is moving to making art now for dissemination through social media,” she says.

“Personally, I’m thinking of making more site-specific works in places that people are going to now, like supermarkets, and thinking about social media as an exhibition platform for my works. It feels like I’m looking at the future of art becoming more public and more commonly used by others also.”

Curators too are questioning whether their careers can handle this moment, and finding motivation to work in the absence of any upcoming events concretely set is a challenge.

For Cairo-based freelance curator Alexandra Stock, the challenges are prompting her to reconsider her career altogether: “Just a few weeks ago I was proud of a couple exhibition proposals I finished and articles I drafted, but now I’m entirely unable to work on anything. I’m not afraid of getting sick, I’m just a bit empty, as though I’ve been shadowboxing and now that I’ve stopped there’s no more movement. When you freelance, no one really cares if you stop working.”

For Stock, what the future holds for her is unclear, as art events and festivals get postponed potentially to 2021 and a professional vacuum sets in.

In the meantime, governments and institutions throughout the Arab world are inviting people stuck at home to tour their collections or listen to their music online. Morocco is offering virtual visits of its museums and Egypt’s Ministry of Culture launched an initiative called Stay at Home, Culture Is in Your Hands, providing access to older concert recordings through the ministry’s YouTube channel. Artworks that had been set for sale at Art Dubai can be viewed through the online catalogue.




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  1. Mary Sherman says:

    TransCultural Exchange would like to offer the artists an artists there this online, international global exchange platform ‘Hello World’:
    http://transculturalexchange.org/activities/hw/overview.htm

    ‘Hello World’ is meant to be a gesture of solidarity with everyone around the world, that we are in this pandemic together, a sort of greeting to our friends around the globe.

    We hope many artists there will participate. It is our hope the whole world will.


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