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Middle East

To Arab Spring, or not to Arab Spring? That is the question


A conundrum faces artists in the Middle East. I have come to think of it as the: “To Arab Spring or not to Arab Spring?” question.

I do not mean to be flip.

This shorthand refers to the decision young artists must make as to whether they should politicize, genderize or, in short use the region’s issues to cash in on the Western market. Their answers go to the heart of the integrity of their art, and thus to the integrity of the entire market.

From the relative comfort of a Mayfair flat, a Park Avenue apartment or a Swiss villa, artwork with themes of democratic uprisings or the toppling of military dictatorships; the role of women and their rights (or in some cases, lack thereof) in a predominately Islamic culture might seem chic. But for the artists, and for their families, these issues are deadly serious.

For that reason - paradoxically - these are the issues that in many cases - they deliberately choose to avoid. Additionally, many resent being forced to address complexity and painful issues either because they find them too difficult to tie in an easy package - or because they feel “used” as sort of poster children for Western values.

It is a fine line when one takes this on. As one artist explained it to me. “On the one hand, you believe that people see the irony and the complexity, on the other you risk just promulgating the propaganda you are seeking to criticize.”

In many cases it is just this simple. They would like to be left to ponder - like artists in the past - unmolested by upheavals in their homelands - the universal themes of the human condition. They would like to create art about love and loneliness - rather than be forced to churn out images of tanks, tear gas, veils and victims.

Highly regarded Moroccan-born artist/photographer, Lalla Essaydi, is a good example. Essaydi is best known for her arresting images of women - often seductively reclining on divans - a la Eduoard Manet’s “Olympia.” Yet in her work every inch of the subject’s exposed skin is covered in what she refers to as “a calligraphic diary.”

Many viewers, especially women in the West, initially took up a “feminist” torch on Essaydi’s behalf - interpreting her work as a denunciation of the role of women in the Muslim world. But in her case they were over-simplifying and thus, wrong.

She set them straight. “In my art, I wish to present myself through multiple lenses -- as artist, as Moroccan, as Saudi, as traditionalist, as Liberal, as Muslim. In short, I invite the viewer to resist stereotypes.”

Similarly, Gazelle Samizay, an Afghan-born, but U.S. based artist tells me. “People think that I am some kind of activist or voice for Afghan women. Which is actually kind of funny, as I grew up in Pullman, Washington, in a small town in the eastern corner of a U.S. state on the West Coast of America, about as far from Afghanistan as you can get, both culturally and geographically. “And,” she adds. “We moved to the States when I was three years old”.

I ask her then how she came to create art that deals with the roles of women in the Middle East, Muslim women, and from the U.S., - a predominately secular and/or Christian culture.

Her answer was a revelation for me.

“It all came as I grew up and went to University and Graduate School and began to grapple with so many of the mixed messages and fragmented memories that my parents would share with me. I never had an epiphany where I decided, AHA, I am going to be a political, or a Feminist artist -- and as I researched other artists from the MENASA region, I was not unaware that if I was to shoot photographs of myself veiled and naked, I would perhaps be more commercially desirable. For me it was, and remains, a highly personal journey.”

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* MURALS AND FRESCOS: A Potted History of Public Art

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About the Author

Laura Stewart

Laura Stewart

Laura Stewart has been a professional in the art world for 30+ years. Her career has included work as a journalist, editor, public relations professional and non-profit management consultant. She bega...