Panel 2c. Pushing the Status Quo: Liberation in art and cultural practices in the modern Middle East

Chair: Hanan Toukan

Transgressing Reality or the Dissolution of Borders in the Egyptian Surrealist Approach
Monique Bellan, Orient-Institut Beirut

In 1938 a group of young intellectuals (writers and artists, Egyptians and non-Egyptians) was calling for the defence of the so-called “degenerate art” in a manifesto entitled “Long live Degenerate Art” in which they condemned European Fascism and its stance against modernist art. In the following year, the surrealist group “Art et Liberté” was founded in Cairo. This paper will look at this movement´s idea of freedom and its political and aesthetic implications thereby exploring notions such as alienation, liberation, emancipation, and freedom. How was the state of freedom supposed to be achieved, or was it a purely utopic concept? For this purpose the movement´s relation towards authority in general, and art academies as well as aesthetic discourses and bourgeois values in specific, will be analysed. The Surrealists advocated the deconstruction of rigid perceptions of life and the liberation from simplistic binary dichotomies that lead to reductionism and confine imagination. This approach naturally implies the dissolution of borders such as between life and art, the conscious and the unconscious, dream and reality, and between the different arts themselves. The social, political and aesthetic realities were perceived as oppressive, hence the surrealists envisioned a reality that lies beyond reality. The Art and Freedom group´s short-lived magazine and its emblematic name Al-Tatawwor (“The Development”) hints at this relation between present and future. As part of a network of independent revolutionary art, the group was embedded in international as well as national discourses thereby balancing between solidarity, dissension and resistance.

Ministry of Culture or No Ministry of Culture? Lebanese cultural players and authority
Nadia von Maltzahn, Orient-Institut Beirut

In the early 1970s, a group of Lebanese artists called for the creation of a ministry of culture in Lebanon. Not content with their interests being nominally represented by the ministry of education, they drafted a declaration on why they wanted a ministry of culture. A debate on whether a ministry was needed and what form it should take ensued. It was not until 1993 that such a ministry was created, albeit with a limited budget and responsibility. Calls for a greater involvement of the state in cultural production have resurfaced periodically. This paper will look at the relationship of Lebanese artists and cultural players to state institutions, in particular the ministry of culture. Why and at what moments do cultural players in Lebanon call for the state’s involvement in cultural production, while in most countries of the region they wish for less involvement? Where do they see a role for the state? Not content with the status quo, what is it that artists and cultural players ask for? By looking at the debates around public cultural institutions, this paper seeks to shed light on who makes cultural policies in Lebanon and to add a dimension to our understanding of the Lebanese state, the viability of which is often questioned. Reversing the notion of liberation, it questions whether liberation is inherently a process moving away from authority and institutional structures, or whether the existence of the latter can also be liberating.

Cultural Practices of the PLO
Dina Matar, SOAS

This paper addresses the complex and changing face of the Palestinian national liberation movement at the end of the 20th century. Focusing on the formative years of the PLO in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it explores how the mediation of image and language constructed an overarching ethos of “liberation” as a political consciousness that would develop its own symbols, tropes and mythology. With the movement becoming a touchstone for projects in cultural and political rebellion, activists and idealists gravitated to its iconoclastic and aesthetic impulse, composing a vibrant field of political and cultural innovation. As a social and cultural force, the liberation movement galvanized a plurality of backgrounds, classes, ideologies and faiths, emerging as a fulcrum for new modes of pan-Arab collaboration. Drawing on ongoing research, the paper addresses how the liberation movement acquired much of its formative aesthetic content, and support, in its mediation through different cultural genres. The paper will argue that critically engaging with the role of the PLO’s cultural practices contributes to broader debates concerning the constitutive relationship between politics and communication prior to the digital media age, and between cultural production and grassroots mobilization. By demystifying the roles PLO media production and dissemination played in this way, the paper advances a critical historical account of political media and resistant cultures that is of contemporary comparative value in light of more recent movements in the Arab world aimed at disrupting organized power and liberating political cultures.

Critics or Caretakers? Renegotiating the role of Saudi artists between national and global expectations
Danijel Benjamin Cubelic, Heidelberg University

The kingdom of Saudi-Arabia has become home to one of the Middle Easts pioneering art movements. Founded in 2003, the Edge of Arabia initiative connects more than 30 young artists from Saudi-Arabia and showcases their work in a series of much-publicized exhibitions from Jeddah to Istanbul and London. By positioning themselves as a voice of Saudi-Arabia’s „Generation in Waiting“ and seeking an active role in the conversation on the kingdoms social challenges, the groups artists are carving out a new emancipatory space for artists in Saudi society. A process which is embedded in an area of conflict: Western publics question if art production in a context of censorship and blasphemy laws is possible at all, expecting them to be scorching critics of their home countries cultural and religious practices and reproducing the narrative of the persecuted emancipatory non-western artist seeking refuge in the „liberated“ West. Saudi state-led agents on the other side demand international cultural ambassadors rebranding the image of Saudi-Arabia in an edgy but not too critical way and defend its social values. Taking their 2012 Jeddah exhibition „We need to talk“ as a starting point, the paper wants to explore how Edge of Arabia artists position themselves between these expectations as caretakers of Saudi society in a global art world and being its critic and negotiate an emancipatory space to open up discussions on pressing social issues without alienating its society and be seen as betraying its culture.

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