Saturday, 29 November 2008

Meanwhile on the Edge of Arabia

While the controversy surrounding the display of some works by Sarah Maple (see the post of 22 November 2008)could easily lead to pessimism regarding art's potential for breaking down cultural stereotypes, another exhibition elsewhere in London opens up more hopeful perspectives.

The Brunei Gallery at SOAS is host to a collection of artworks by contemporary artists from Saudi Arabia. Although not exactly a country invoking spontaneous associations with pushing the boundaries of cultural conventions through ground-breaking artistic expression, visitors to the Edge of Arabia Exhibition will certainly come away with a different impression of the oil-rich desert kingdom.

Featuring paintings, photographs, mixed media and graphics, sculptures, and installations by seventeen artists, the works shown are perhaps not as provocative as Sarah Maple's, but they certainly shed an unexpectedly light on the cultural atmosphere of a country with a reputation for religious intolerance, which translates also into cultural austerity. Edge of Arabia evinces not only the sea change that has transpired there in the course of the past decade, which -- having spent the better part of the 1990s in Saudi Arabia myself -- I would have deemed impossible and unimaginable at the time. It also affirms the tremendous paradoxes characteristic of societies in the process of reinventing themselves. Because alongside these remarkable signs of innovative artistic expression, other elements inside Saudi Arabia have become even more virulently anti-Western.

This event is not only important because of the exposure it gives to the state of affairs in the Gulf art scene (one of the exhibiting artists lives currently in neighbouring Bahrain); the fact that seven of the participants are women is significant too. And yet, old habits die hard: only one of the female artists, photographer Manal al-Dowayan, is herself recognizably shown in a picture.

But then she is from the Eastern Province, which since the start of oil production in the 1940s has been transformed into a Middle Eastern variant of Texas. Before seeking a 'rich and non-structured education' in photography in Saudi Arabia itself, as well as Dubai, Bahrain, and London, she grew up in Dhahran's ARAMCO compound, a company she currently works for herself. Manal's work is all the more exceptional, because it features images of other women as well -- still considered a bold thing when measured against Saudi standards of propriety (even when the women are veiled). An example is the photograph on the left, entitled 'I am a Petroleum Engineer'

More conventional in tone are fellow photographer and member of the Saudi royal family Reem al-Faisal's reportage-like portfolios from around the world. A granddaughter of the late King Faysal, she was educated in Saudi Arabia and France. When not traveling the world in pursuit of new images, she still divides her time between Jeddah and Paris. Her collections include impressions from Syria, Egypt, Turkey, China, and Saudi Arabia's western region of Hijaz. The exhibits at Edge of Arabia deal primarily with America's 'Nation of Islam'

Shadia and Raja Alem have embarked on a joint project called 'Jinniyah Lar' merging art and literature. Author Raja Alem composed a number of short stories based on medieval Arabic narrations matching the images created by her sister Shadia, which depict 'genies' featuring in this ancient story-telling tradition. Together with Tom Donough, Raja has also written a number of novels. These include Fatma: A Novel Of Arabiaand the experimental My Thousand & One Nights: A Novel of Mecca.

The composition of this ensemble of artists is also geographically balanced, with representatives not only from the country's mega-cities Riyadh and Jeddah, the urban centres of the Eastern Province, or the holy city of Mecca, but also three graphic artists originating from the Southwestern Asir province, on the borders with Yemen. Abdulnasser Gharem, Ahmed Mater Al-Ziad Aseeri, and Mohammed Farea were all contected with the Miftaha Arts Village in Abha, capital of the Asir, although Farea later joined the Riyadh Fine Art Group, to which fellow exhibitors Ali Ruzaiza and Sameer al-Daham belong as well.

Conventional molds are most evidently broken in the work of Abdulnasser Gharem and Ahmed Mater al-Ziad Aseeri. Gharem's work, which has also been on display at the Saatchi Gallery, straddles the media of painting, photography, typographic and installation art. The art of Ahmed Mater al-Ziad Aseeri, who co-curated the exhibition, betrays signs of his other profession. An established GP, he uses X-ray images in his compositions. Bahrain-based Faisal Samra's triptychs in 'Distorted Reality' are combinations of performance and installation. 'In a formal sense they are reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s legendary triptychs. Each performance is unscripted, with no contrived start or finish, and together they form part of Samra’s polemic against what he calls the ‘made-up images’ of advertising and globalised news media. His desire throughout is to present the viewer with images that are rigorously unmediated.'

EDGE OF ARABIA runs until 13 December 2008. An exhibition catalogue by Henry Hemming is for sale at the SOAS bookshop and online

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Another 'Culture War'?

Last Thursday, I participated in a panel discussion on the reactions to the first solo exhibition by budding artist Sarah Maple. Of British-Kenyan (Muslim) extraction, she is the recipient of the 2007 4 Sensations Prize awarded by London's Saatchi Gallery and Channel 4. Both the exhibition, entitled This Artist Blows, and the panel discussion were hosted by SaLon Gallery, run by Samir Ceric, a London-based art dealer of Bosnian Muslim origin. The debate was moderated by art critic and journalist Tom Flynn, who has covered the 'Sarah Maple affair' on his own blog.

Unfortunately, but also predictably, cynical media manipulation turned the exhibition into yet another incident in a series of controversies, which can be traced back to Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. Since then, it seems that any artistic and cultural issue involving Muslims becomes an inevitable hostage of the undeniably increased political antagonism between 'the Muslim world' and 'the West'.

This time it all started on 10 October, with an article in The Telegraph, which insinuated that the vice-president of The Muslim Association of Britain had demanded the removal of the offending pieces. It has since turned out that no such demand was made. However, by then the issue had already snowballed into a full-blown scandal. Other self-proclaimed spokespersons of the Muslim community, as well as individuals, added their voices to an increasingly acrimonious media hype. The issue received even coverage in the BBC's Arabic language programme. Eventually, SaLon Gallery was subjected to an act of vandalism in which the windowpane was smashed, while both the artist and gallery staff received a substantial volume of hate mail.

Some of Sarah Maple's pieces can certainly be considered controversial, designed to provoke a reaction, but not -- as the artist repeatedly assured herself -- intended to mock or insult. Moreover, many of her paintings and photo collages also evince a sense of humour -- a quality sorely missing from any discussion on issues involving Islam, but which is actually eminently suited to take the edge of things -- a point recognized by several of the panelists, including the writer of this blog.

To put the issue into perspective, the moderator also noted that intolerance towards controversial artistic expression is not a Muslim monopoly, reminding the audience of the cancellation of last year's exhibition of the artwork 'My Sweet Lord' at New York gallery the Lab. In that case, Catholic civic rights organization The Catholic League was successful in having the 'chocolate Jesus' by Italian-Canadian artist Cosimo Cavallaro taken down. On the other hand, as panelist and media commentator Peter Whittle rightly observed, nobody was physically hurt, while in a number of occasions in which Muslims took offense people were killed.

There seemed to be also a general agreement among the participants regarding art's potential for building bridges between divergent cultures, because it can -- as Tom Flynn put it -- 'fly under the radar' of political disagreements or conflicts, and appeal to a shared humanity. However, at the same time, part of the way in which the debate unfolded appeared to affirm once again the very issue under discussion: namely how media-savvy interlocutors succeed time and again in turning such events into a tool serving their own agendas.

Peter Whittle, who with his New Culture Forum has jumped on the bandwagon of The Right, joining its 'Culture Wars' against the Liberal Left, was challenged by former BBC producer Najma Kazi. Although both clearly agreed that freedom of expression was an inalienable democratic right that must be upheld without compromise, they staged a polemical display which steered away from a substantive discussion on the role of art in a multicultural world. Subsequently, Peter Whittle's rendition of the debate on his own website, presents him as the only one in the forum who realized the gravity of the issues at stake. Thus he succeeded in exploiting the panel for waging another battle in the new Kulturkampf, which is turning Samuel Huntington's 'Clash of Civilizations' thesis into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

The cosmopolitanism of Hamid Dabashi

Hamid Dabashi
Hamid Dabashi is an intellectual omnivore I heard recently speak at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. He was the keynote speaker at the launch of the newly established Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication. Currently he holds the Hagop Kevorkian chair in Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Aside from his literary studies, his interests straddle the history of Shi'a Islam, Sufism, Islamic philosophy, the intellectual history of Iran, and Iranian cinema and theatre, especially the cineast Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

I am reading his Iran: A People Interrupted. Critical of the prevailing tendency to see tradition and modernity as an oppositional relationship, he argues that this is only applicable to what he calls 'colonial modernity'. As an alternative, Dabashi suggests a cosmopolitan approach,which transcends the modernity vs. tradition binary. For this reason, Dabashi can be considered as belonging to the 'new Iranian intellectuals described by Farhad Khosrokhavar (and also discussed in my posting of 16 September 2008). But I believe it places him also in conversation with scholars firmly rooted in the Western academe, like Ulrich Beck, whose Cosmopolitan Visionadvocates a 'realistic cosmopolitanism', building on his concept of 'second modernity' or 'reflexive modernity', which had developed in earlier publications, like Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity and Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order.

Aside from these scholarly interests, Dabashi is what Gramsci called an 'organic intellectual', with strong opinions about other matters affecting the Muslim world. When expressing his views on the Question of Palestine, for example, his feelings about the grave injustices surrounding this difficult issue led him to making such passionate statements that he got into trouble with the other camp. Thus he was once deemed worthy of a personal attack by the Neo-Conservative commentator(demagogue?) on things Islamic, Daniel Pipes, who called him 'Columbia's Hysterical Professor'

His most recent publication is Islamic Liberation Theology: Resisting the Empire. For a more detailed impression of his research interests and publications, visit his personal website.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

YES WE CAN work with Obama.

Reactions from Muslims and the Muslim world to the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States.

Relations between the United States and the Muslim World -- not to forget the country's government and its own Muslim citizens -- have not exactly warmed under George W. Bush's watch at the White House. Not surprisingly then that the election of Barack Obama rises expections for an imminent improvement of these relations, although many remain cautious. Here are some reactions from Muslim quarters to the Democrat's victory.

The altmuslim website, based -- of all places -- in Austin (Texas), greeted Barack Obama with a special three-part report entitled 'Assalamu aleikum, Mr. President: Obama prevailed. So will we', "exploring what an Obama victory means for Muslims in the US and around the world"

The Muslim Council of Britain said it was "confident the vast majority of Muslims, not just in the UK, but worldwide, would welcome an Obama victory. The last eight years under Bush are viewed as hugely damaging ones, not just for America, but for the world" [...] "Obama is seen as a person who will hopefully be more inclined to take into consideration the views of other people. We hope Obama will work with other countries. "As someone from a minority background, he embodies America's best ideals in practice. Obama's victory in the election is living proof of America as a symbol of hope around the world."

French Press Bureau AFP reports that, in the Middle East, the Obama win was hailed "amid mixed expectations of change". Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Palestian Authority President Abbas are looking forward to Obama's plans for restarting the Peace Process. Banned from participating on the grounds that the US 'does not negotiate with terrorists', the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas was reserved in its response. But it 'urged the Democrat leader to learn from the "mistakes" of previous US administrations in dealing with the Muslim and Arab worlds'. Spokesman Fawzi Barhum accused the Bush administration of having "destroyed Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine".

Gamil Matar, director of the Arab Centre for Development and Futuristic Research, warned that even with Obama in the White House and the Democrats a majority in Congress, "the policies of the neocons are not going to vanish overnight." Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia it was 'business as usual', as Saudi King Abdullah sent Obama a congratulatory message, hailing the "historic and close" ties between the two countries.

Put in the 'Axis of Evil' by outgoing President Bush, many Iranians have their hopes pinned on president-elect Obama, but a BBC assessment of the prospects for any immediate improvement of relations is not overly optimistic for the near future.

Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, a senior adviser to Iran's Surpeme Leader, Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, said: "Obama's election displays the failure of America's policies around the globe. Americans have to change their policies to rescue themselves from the quagmire created by Bush." Prominent MP Hamid Reza Haji Baba'i said Obama's victory was an "opportunity and test" and that the Islamic republic had been waiting for a change.

In neighbouring Iraq, the sentiments of Shi'ite leaders were not very different from their Iranian counterparts, although the movement of Iraq's anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr welcomed Obama's victory. "We consider his victory as a wish of the American public to withdraw forces from Iraq. This is what we are looking for," spokesman Sheikh Saleh al-Obeidi said in the holy city of Najaf.

For a detailed account of the intricacies of the US relationship with the Middle East, and Iraq in particular, read Juan Cole's Informed Comment

One country appears to be unreserved in its welcome of the new president. Indonesia is not only the world's most populous Muslim country, but Barack Obama lived there for four years (1967-1971) after his mother married geologist Lolo Soetoro. Obama's halfsister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, even addressed the Democratic National Convention. One of the top stories carried by The Jakarta Post reports on the reactions at Obama's former school in Jakarta's Menteng District. The country's president Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, meanwhile, "welcomed Mr Obama's election", but concentrated in his comments on economical issues, rather than the disturbed relationship between the US and the many parts of the Muslim world: "I want to congratulate Senator Obama for his success in being elected as US President. I also want to congratulate US citizens [...] Indonesia hopes that the US will continue to play a role in bringing peace and security in the world and a fair global economy. [...] In particular, Indonesia hopes the US can take concrete measures to settle the global economic crisis and the financial crisis in the United States."

Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, founder of the Liberal Islam Network and one of Indonesia's most prominent young Muslim intellectuals, commented from Boston, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Harvard University, that "The election of Obama is clearly a punishment for [a] miserable four years of Bush administration! Salute to [the] American people".

On the Northwestern fringe of the Muslim world, in Turkey, the focus is also on economic issues rather than anything else. Prime Minister Erdogan, whose AKP or Justice and Development Party walks a tightrope between its own stress on 'Islamic values' and the country's staunchly secular constitution, congratulated the newly elected president, but added that "I believe that Turkish-American relations should be defined by the strategic ties between Turkey and the United States, not by government changes there". He went on to say that Obama would "have to shoulder a heavy burden at a time of global financial crisis and compelling international issues." Turkish media are cautiously optimistic, pinning their hope for a better future on Obama, or adopting a 'wait-and-see' attitude.

This somewhat lukewarm response can be explained by the Turkish reservations towards Vice-President-elect Joe Biden, who as a senator went on record stating that the emergence of a Kurdish state in the border regions of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey would have to be reckoned with as a feasible possibility. In addition there is apprehension over Americans of Armenian descent advocating the Armenian issue with a Democrat occupant of the White House. The largest contingent of American-Armenians lives in California, the state of the current Democrat Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, who would be in a position to facilitate access to the new administration.