At #OCCUPYARABART we believe that the study of text-inclusive contemporary Arab art should not be limited to exhibition space at all. As the graffiti of the Arab Spring illustrates, one of the most visible platforms for the expression of identities and ideologies has become the walls and streets of cities throughout the Arab world. Free from the professional constraints of the museum and gallery context, text, in the form of street graffiti, has become a powerful tool for the expression of the political identities of a struggling generation.
In Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria the street walls became the canvas for speaking out, described in the book Revolution Graffiti: Street Art of the New Egypt:
“The Egyptian Revolution that began on 25 January 2011 immediately gave rise to a wave of popular political and social expression in the form of graffiti and street art, phenomena that were almost unknown in the country under the old regime. ..the skill, the humour, and the political will of the young artists and activists who have claimed the walls of Cairo and other Egyptian cities as their canvas.”
For those young artists caught up in revolution a powerful and public form of artistic expression through graffiti, stencil, imagery and word represented their outrage, struggle and hopes.
Street Art from the Arab Spring, various locations, various artists.
Arabic text is often viewed as a signifier of ‘the other’ this has not restricted its use as a hugely effective tool. Calligraphy has a unique position in the history of Arab and Islamic art and therefore can be considered an undeniable and positive element of Arabic culture. With this heritage in mind, #OCCUPYARABART support the concept of employing this signifier of Arab identity, its ability to represent many stories and points of view and the many dynamic and contemporary manipulations of expression. Artists should incorporate this to their own advantage, the implied alternative, to rid contemporary Arab art of any expected representations including that of text would in fact be pandering further to the dominant West.
A piece that I propose embodies this concept is one by Lebanese-Egyptian art historian and artist Bahia Shebab. Commissioned by Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany in 2010 for an exhibition entitled The Future of Tradition – The Tradition of Future, Shebab was asked to create a piece to commemorate 100 years of Islamic art in Europe. The show’s curators stipulated that Shebab must use Arabic text in her piece, a request that refers back to the Orientalising of work from this region discussed throughout this study. Shebab, constrained by these conditions, and as an Arab artist exhibiting in Europe fighting against expected representations felt compelled to say ‘no’. In Arabic tradition to emphasise a no response one says ‘no and no a thousand times’. Shebab, in her 2012 TED talk, said that “at this time I felt I had a lot to say no against”, and began to search for every example of ‘no’ written in books, artefacts, ceramics and architecture produced under Islamic patronage over 1400 years.
In opposition to her original standpoint of refusal Shebab saw the artistic and historical strength of the written Arabic word and chose to use it to express her feelings against expected representations. Gathering 1000 stylistic representation of ‘no’ Shebab created a Plexiglass curtain, 3.5 by 7 meters to create a singular piece that speaks of text, identity and ‘the other’.
By 2011 the Arab Spring had spread across North Africa and was met with violent opposition by military forces. Shebab felt compelled to be part of the resistance in solidarity with those she felt she shared an identity with. Taking a ‘no’ she had discovered in a 7th century tombstone at the Islamic Museum in Cairo, Shabab began stencilling the word around Tahrir Square and the streets of Egypt, adding messages, such as, no to military rule, no to violence, no to blinding heroes, no to unveiling women by force, no to burning books, no to barrier walls.
The artistic expression of political identity through graffiti came to symbolise the revolution in Egypt as a group of artists painted a life size tank facing a man on a bicycle carrying bread to protest against violence on civilians. This piece became a changing representation of the struggle as other artists added to the wall, imagery of blood and protestors with written messages of freedom and the need for peace.
Military officials came to deface the work. They added new messages with sprayed text, that of Egyptian rule and Army rule being the overpowering authority. In true revolutionary style to artists retuned and in turn painted over the military commands with depictions of the head of the military as a monster. This almost ‘tit for tat’ conversation through a creative medium is a surreal light hearted moment of artistic activism in the midst of very serious political unrest.
At this point Shebab had gathered momentum with her stencils of ‘no’ in support of human rights during the Egyptian revolution, when she became aware of the painted tank she was compelled to add to the message, and left her personal stamp on the transitory conversation. Shebab painted her no’s all over the tank, to represent defiance and a strong message of united identity for the freedom of Egyptians. This final message is how the wall remained for the duration of the revolution.
This emotional expression of a collected identity illustrated the strength of text for the contemporary Arab artist. It’s power is profound, with only two letters of the alphabet, laam and alif Shebab was able to demonstrate her views towards reclaiming signifiers of identity from the Orientalist. A process which in a different context was then able to create an impactful unified political message and an expression of identity as an Arab, an Egyptian, an artist and a humanitarian.
Please watch Bahia Shebab’s 6 minute TED talk below about this inspiring project, in which she leaves us with one of the most moving and inspirationa ‘no’s’.