A forecast of the Arab spring

Image of Peter Aspden

On the lower ground level of London’s City Hall, a large mural celebrates the opening of Shubbak, a three-week festival of contemporary Arab culture that runs until July 24. The mural, by Egyptian artist Hala Elkoussy, portrays a society in turmoil: a shrill photo-montage that cheerfully mixes myth and fact, homage and critique, affection and distaste. We get a sharp sense of the bustle and the bombast that colours present-day Cairo. The Egyptian capital is in the throes of revolution; yet this piece, winner of last year’s Abraaj Art Prize, predates the events of the Arab spring by a year.

You need to be an Egyptian national to understand fully every reference in Elkoussy’s work. Yet, as with all effective art, its tenor is clear. In the middle of the nine-metre mural, a blacked-up military figure stands ridiculously on a prosthetic cow leg, and wields a fishing net as his sole weapon. If I had been one of the country’s now-discredited leaders, the image would have disturbed me. But then hardline regimes are not famous for their engagement with contemporary art – still less their sensitivity to visual metaphors.

They may perhaps remedy that blindness as they look for new ways of passing the time. What Shubbak shows is a vibrant and eclectic art scene, some of which is coming out of the countries leading the Arab world’s revolt against political repression. Here are music and poetry, staples of traditional Arab culture, as well as more contemporary art forms, all making their presence felt.

Much of the comment contained in them is elliptical. They are not political tracts. But they speak of restless societies that are questioning themselves. They speak, too, of young people thinking creatively and freely, plugged into global trends, and communicating speedily with each other through social networks.

Khaled Fahmy, professor of history at the American University in Cairo, visiting London during the opening of Shubbak, told me that he had been struck by the vitality of the burgeoning art scene of the Egyptian capital. In a country where basic freedoms cannot be taken for granted, the opening of a gallery exhibition becomes a charged affair – even a rallying point, he said.

I asked Fahmy if it even made sense to talk so broadly of the “Arab world”. He nodded vigorously. As he witnessed some of the events in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, he said he noticed Syrian and Libyan flags flying too. Culture gave voice to so many of the differences within the Arab world, that it paradoxically prompted people to wonder what they had in common. “This is not the 1960s,” he added. “This is not hard-edged nationalism.”

Cultural solidarity is a more subtle affair. It is, to borrow from Joseph Nye’s political vocabulary, a “soft solidarity” that brings people together in vague, unpredictable ways. The existential quest has replaced the angry march. But it is no less effective. Art opens minds, and where there are open minds, reaction follows. What appear to be strange and self-indulgent blasts of free expression are as mortars to those who seek to curb fundamental liberties.

Sometimes, art finds itself at the leading edge of sociopolitical ferment. One of the speakers due to appear at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts this weekend is Jack Persekian, former director of the Sharjah Biennale, in the United Arab Emirates. Persekian earlier this year unceremoniously parted company with the Biennale following a censorship row. One single work, by the Algerian artist Mustapha Benfodil, was judged sufficiently explosive to provoke the rupture.

The offending installation included Arabic phrases that were deemed blasphemous. Persekian, a notable figure in the contemporary Arab art world, told me on the telephone from Jersusalem that it was the presentation of the work – which he had not supervised – that should have been adjusted to accord with the sensitivities of the Biennale’s public.

“What happened was a failure on the curator’s part,” he said. The installation, which commented on the “sabotaging” of Islam by radical fundamentalists during the Algerian civil war, should have been more carefully contextualised.

Here was an important point to bear in mind when considering artistic freedoms in countries that have only recently begun to engage with contemporary art. “The point is to start a dialogue,” said Persekian. “I always say to artists, you have to put things in context, you don’t come up to people and slap them.”

The imperative for artists to meet their public halfway is not a fashionable one in western countries, which can barely feel the distant reverberations of the shock of the new. But here is another form of “softness”. Artists who want to effect change – and which true artist doesn’t? – need to find alternative strategies to all-out attack. Art can be gently subversive, and still make waves. Its primary purpose is interrogative, not prescriptive. But the right questions can hurt.

Of course the kind of culture that is being celebrated in the UAE, full of lustrous new museums and cash-jangling art fairs, is very different from the grass-roots activities of young people in the unstable states of Egypt, Libya and Syria. Yet those two manifestations of culture will meet somewhere in the middle. Money is attracted to art scenes. And collectors love to feel the sharp tang of radicalism as they go shopping.

London is a natural home for festivals such as Shubbak, and for the debates that they generate. It used to be that British diplomacy was renowned for its subtle and wily ways (and doesn’t the Arab world know plenty about that?). That is not so much the case these days, but nevertheless London’s cultural diversity brings something new in its place.

To live in a meeting point for the world’s new artists reminds us that multiculture means more than eating kebabs and listening to reggae. It affords us glimpses into the future. None of the world’s political scientists predicted the Arab spring. Perhaps they weren’t looking and listening in the right places. The hobbling soldier with the fishing net had plenty to say.

‘Shubbak’, presented by the mayor of London and sponsored by HSBC, runs until July 24


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