In 2011, a small piece of graffiti demanding the fall of the Syrian regime instigated a vicious crackdown by the government upon its young perpetrators. This graffiti was arguably one of the catalysts that led to the Syrian Revolution, which has since deteriorated into the now four-year-long civil war. It is somewhat fitting then that today, the cultural and artistic responses in the war-torn country have been described as the only positive development of the conflict. Despite the widespread devastation – which has seen over 230,000 people killed, more than 4 million fleeing as refugees, and almost 8 million internally displaced – Syrians have been responding to and documenting their crisis creatively, taking advantage of greater freedom of expression of an essentially collapsed state (compared to the fierce censorship that reigned during Assad’s unchallenged rule). That is not to say that artists are free from the repercussions of their work – many artists have been forced out of work, threatened, beaten, imprisoned, forced to leave the country or, in some cases, killed. In spite of the danger, and beyond the sounds of shelling and bombardments that try to drown them out, many artists both inside and outside the country continue to battle against tyranny to make their voices, and those of the Syrian people, heard.
The trend for contemporary Korean art is hitting the Middle East. Ana: Please Keep Your Eyes Closed for a Moment (until 2 January 2016) at the Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah is the first exhibition of contemporary Korean art at a public institution within the region.
As well as introducing young Korean artists to the art scene in the Gulf, the exhibition looks at wider notions of identity. “I wanted to question what it means to be Korean or what Korean art is,” says JW Stella, the London- and Seoul-based curator of the show. “Contemporary art from Korea was (and still is) relatively unfamiliar to the Middle East, particularly in comparison to art from China or Japan.” The exhibition features works by 12 Korean artists and one from Saudi Arabia. Standout works include a 15m-long mural by Gayoung Jun and an installation by Juyeon Kim comprised of 7,000 Emirati newspapers covered in sprouting seeds.
The project title ‘ARA-B-LESS ?’ is a neologism born of a play on the word ‘Arabness’ (Arabism). Two designs hint at the meaning behind “ARA-B-LESS ?” – the first emphasising ‘BLESS’ suggests that Arab identity is a blessing, while the second emphasises “LESS’, the ways in which what it means to be Arab have evolved over time, perhaps losing something along the way. ‘ARA-B-LESS?’, as a question, also focuses on whether we, the artists, consider ourselves to be more or less Arab for having been born and brought up in the West, albeit by parents from Arab countries.
From ‘Scenes and Types’ to Shehrazade and El Sham: studio photography in the Arab world
The value of a photograph – its principle charm, at least – is its infallible truthfulness. We may have long revelled in the poetry of the East; but this work enables us to look, as it were, upon its realities1.
So said the 19th century Orientalist, Sophia Poole. Poole’s perception of photography’s unique ‘claim to truth’2 was widely held by early photographers from the West, to whom the colonial realms of the Middle East provided their principal training grounds3. In her seminal book, On Photography, Susan Sontag challenged the ‘presumption of veracity’ that had long been associated with photography, arguing that photographs are ‘as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings’4. But to what extent is this appreciated today? Whilst many claim to have developed their understanding of the art from the idea of a visualised ‘truth’ to a moment of representation, people continue to search for realities within photographs, particularly withinarchives. How useful is it to mine such documents for historical and social ‘realities’? Can these momentary representations of individuals, as captured in a photograph, be extrapolated to speak of an entire society, time, or people?
The Nour Short Film Night was a showcase of young Middle Eastern and North African film talent, offering eight short films screened in the resplendent Leighton House Museum. A treat for both enthusiasts of Middle Eastern film and those encountering the cinema of the region for the first time, these shorts have all been released in the last two years and are fresh off the festival circuits, with many prizes to their names.
Speaking to the Nour Short Film Night curator, Yasmin El Derby, the desire for inclusivity was raised as a central theme in her selection process, trying to incorporate “as wide a range as possible of film genres and of countries of origins.” In this, the Short Film Night is very successful: genres range from documentaries and docu-dramas, a satirical comedy and a horror film, to more experimental art films. The directors are indeed equally diverse, hailing from Jordan, Egypt, France, Libya, South Africa, Tunisia, Lebanon and the UK, and many of them representing the Middle Eastern art diaspora.
The issues that each film deals with are also incredibly broad but when one looks a little closer it’s possible to see that each is in dialogue with another. For example, My Dreams in Granada (2015) poetically documents the struggle of a Libyan artist working in Granada, Spain, and speaks directly to both Coffee (2014), a simple but powerful artistic short that looks at how belonging to two different cultures influences the visual style and cultural views of a storyteller, and Facing the Sea (2014), about a Tunisian artist who is secretly hiding his sexuality from his sister and worrying about his position in society. Pyramids Hostel (2015) has issues of conflicting post-revolution sentiments in Egypt lightly woven into its script, whilst documentary The Runner (2014) faces the issue head on.
The standout film is undoubtedly Hotel Zaatari (2014), a docu-drama that captures the lives of four Syrian refugees – two adults and two children – living in the Zaatari camp in Jordan. The deep voiced, winding narrative that overlays haunting images of everyday life in the camp, sounds almost like poetry and adds to the feeling of aimlessness that is depicted in the film. The main soundtrack to the piece is the whistling desert wind, which only adds to the feeling of desolation and hopelessness visually portrayed – as the film states it is a story “with no beginning and no end”.
The run of films is certainly a journey. In fact it’s almost cyclical, with the first film, A Cold Morning in November (2014), opening with a mournful wake and the last, Ceci n’est pas une menace (This is Not a Threat) (2015), ending with a gun pointed directly at the camera. Ultimately, through the framework and lense of the Middle Eastern region, all of the films dealing with issues of life and it’s fragility, it’s legacy and it’s diversity.
Six multi-generational characters, three interconnected stories, one overarching theme that binds them together… Sounds familiar? New Egyptian film Cairo Time(Betawqeet El Qahira, 2014) is a classic multiple-storyline film. It’s a winning combination that is increasingly used in popular contemporary film, showing a cross section of life in one place, at one time, and the inextricable connectivity of life in our modern world. It can be found in the seamlessly interwoven British film favourite Love Actually(2003) and in Arab films such as Merzak Allouache’s The Rooftops(Les Terrasses/Es-Stouh, 2013) and the cult classic The Yacoubian Building(Omaret Yacoubian, 2006). Such an approach to film-making has the ability to highlight the spectrum of a human and societal difference as well as a variety of pertinent issues and concerns.
Widespread outrage. National and international mourning. History redefined. These are the terms used to describe the destruction caused by Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) who, since bursting into the international limelight by capturing Mosul in June 2014, have made acts of iconoclasm – the purposeful destruction and defacement of art and artefacts – key to their strategy of inducing fear, exerting power, and garnering support. The Temple of Baalshamin and the funeral towers in Palmyra, which both date back almost 2,000 years, are the latest targets in ISIS’s increasingly widespread and rapidly growing attack on history that now includes ancient sites in Nimrud, Hatra and Mosul in Iraq and Aleppo and Palmyra in Syria. These acts are constantly discussed in terms of Islamic fundamentalism and the ultimate loss and waste of human history – but is there more to iconoclasm than these reductionist portrayals?