Art + Culture Blog
Kelby Olson | 27 Feb 2014
That the Mubarak regime encouraged football spectatorship to distract Egyptians from political affairs is widely known. By directing people’s energy and attention towards rivalries between cities and countries, political figures hoped to deflect and somewhat contain the unrest of the disenfranchised youth. But over time, the Ultras fan clubs evolved into something dangerous to the stability of the regime.
James Dorsey’s most recent post for his blog on soccer in the Middle East raises interesting questions about the new Egyptian regime’s stance on professional soccer in the country and the Ultras. If true, an investment of $93 million into new pitches is an expensive initiative given the current state of the economy and numerous workers’ strikes throughout the country. Is the new regime reverting to old tactics to channel dissent into contained spaces?
An Egyptian government initiative to build more than a thousand new soccer pitches to “keep youth off the streets” against the backdrop of a rising number of clashes between fans and security forces and a likely extension and expansion of the ban on spectators attending matches highlights the opportunities and threats the beautiful game poses for Middle Eastern and North African autocratic rulers.
A youth ministry official told Al-Shorfa.com, a news website operated by the US military’s Central Command, that the government was investing $93 million in 1,100 pitches across soccer-crazy Egypt that would be built by the end of this year. An Egyptian Football Association official told the website that the pitches would help produce a new generation of professional soccer players.
The decision to build the pitches came as 25 policemen were injured in clashes with militant soccer fans, a court sentenced 15 other fans to two years in prison for demonstrating without a license in an earlier incident, another court acquitted six security officials on charges of responsibility for the death of 83 protesters during the 2011 popular revolt that toppled president Hosni Mubarak in which fans played a prominent role, and world soccer body FIFA censored the government for interference in the affairs of one of the country’s soccer clubs.
The incidents reflect the dilemma that soccer creates for Middle Eastern and North African autocrats. The pitch offers itself in autocratic countries alongside the mosque as the foremost contested public space that autocrats cannot fully control and are unable to simply shut down. At the same, time it also creates opportunities for them, including the ability to polish their image through association with the region’s most popular form of entertainment, the possibility to distract public attention away from widespread grievances, and at times the chance to manipulate public emotion in their favour.
Read the full post.
Kelby Olson | 13 Feb 2014
Hassan Hajjaj’s solo exhibition ‘Kesh Angels is a vibrant layering of consumer branding, electric colors, and Moroccan culture. The exhibit can be seen at New York’s Taymour Grahne Gallery through March 7, 2014.
The upstairs portion of the gallery features a series of portraits celebrating female bikers in Marrakesh. The photographs, themselves colorful juxtapositions of tradition and corporate capitalism, are complemented by frames of found branded objects, such as soda cans. The result is a stimulating assemblage of cosmopolitanism.
Slightly reminiscent of the work of Kehinde Wiley, the series is another playful contrast of expected motifs.
Downstairs, Hajjaj displays his artistic versatility in a video, an installation, limited edition objects, and a playful series of portraits of dolls on motorbikes printed on the cardboard bottoms of soda cases.
Born in Morocco and based in London, Hajjaj is heavily influenced by both the hip-hop and reggae scenes and styling of London as well as traditional Moroccan aesthetics.
Hajjaj has already received much positive attention for his first exhibition in New York, with coverage in the New Yorker, the Guardian, and the following short video about the exhibit from Blouin ArtInfo:
Besides the current exhibition in New York, Hajjaj also has an ongoing exhibit at LACMA in Los Angeles.
Livia Bergmeijer | 5 Feb 2014
Two weeks ago I wrote a blog post about a two-part exhibition currently on display at London’s The Mosaic Rooms Gallery entitled “Threads of Light//Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here” featuring art work by Iraqi artist Hanoos Hanoos and a multitude of other Iraqi and international artists. The Financial Times published yesterday an excellent review of the exhibition, which it calls an “elegiac celebration of Iraqi culture” and says it “fosters hope through the redemptive power of the imagination.” It is important to promote such events, if only to demonstrate how the Arab world is producing, now more than ever, art work of immense power and beauty that cannot and must not be overlooked. Such exhibitions are a modern-day testament to the millennia-old tradition of art in the Middle East, and in Iraq in particular – the Cradle of Civilisation.
If mainstream media are your chief couriers, you might be forgiven for thinking that serious exhibitions about Arab artists only popped up in London last year with, for example, the monograph at Tate Modern devoted to Saloua Raouda Choucair from Lebanon.
Yet a succinct, intelligent focus on the Arab world has been unfolding at the Mosaic Rooms gallery in Earls Court since 2008. Set up in that year, it is the UK arm of the A.M. Qattan Foundation, created by the eponymous family who have roots in Palestine, the UK and Kuwait. While the foundation aims to foster culture and education in Palestine and the wider Arab world, Mosaic Rooms is devoted to promoting Arab culture in the UK.
Although it collaborates with better-known projects such as the Delfina Foundation and the Arab cultural festival Shubbak, the Mosaic Rooms’ refusal to engage in what director Omar Qattan describes as the “academic jargon of the contemporary art world and the trivialising effects of a global art market” has shielded it from art that grabs headlines with either conceptual shock tactics or auction records.
Currently, however, the gallery is hosting a pair of exhibitions that deserve wider recognition for their elegiac celebration of Iraqi culture.
On the top floor, two rooms are devoted to paintings by the artist Hanoos Hanoos. Born in Kufa, south of Baghdad, in 1958, Hanoos left his native country in 1981 to study in Madrid. As Iraq was swallowed by one war after another, it grew too dangerous to return, and the Spanish capital became his home. Although he has exhibited widely in Spain, and will have a retrospective at the Casa Arabe in Madrid next spring, Hanoos has never thrust himself on to the international stage.
His exhibition at the Mosaic Rooms, Threads of Light, takes its title from the eponymous work by the Iraqi poet Abdel-Wahab al-Bayati, who also lived for a time in Madrid. The poem roams through Spain, Rome, India and Iraq in pursuit of a figure who is simultaneously bullfighter, matchseller, teacher and prophet. When he dies “covered in blood and alone”, Al-Bayati sees him “stretched out from one generation to the next, a thread of light/In a world of chaos”.
To continue reading the review see here.
Kelby Oson | 3 Feb 2014
The Yemen Peace Project organized the first International Yemeni Arts and Film Festival on January 25 and 26 in New York. The festival featured a photography exhibit and screenings of a collection of Yemeni films, and gathered an impressive group of activists and filmmakers together for panel discussions.
One of the standout films from the festival was Sarah Ishaq’s Oscar-nominated Karama Has No Walls.
The powerful story of the attack on protestors in Change Square on March 18, 2011 is a sobering reminder of the personal and national tragedies on that day. The footage, collected from different cameras filming that day, contests the government narrative and is a testament to the importance of documentation as events are ‘historicized.’
Another favorite, Musa Syeed’s The Big House, is a short allegory of the revolutionary experience, beautifully shot and produced.
Nawal al-Maghafi’s The President’s Man and His Revolutionary Son is a fascinating portrayal of the infamous regime spokesman Abdu al-Janadi and his activist son. The film follows the relationship of father and son as events in the country force them into opposing camps.
Continuing the trend of political films, Hamdi Mansour’s For You I Will Go highlights the stumbling blocks to national dialogue in the country, as a young activist encounters various forces opposing progress in a series of nightmares. The question of how to move forward was further addressed in the panel discussion, where activists, filmmakers, and journalists contemplated the repercussions of Saleh’s immunity agreement and pursuing justice.
Many films addressed women’s issues, including Sawsan al-Areeq’s Photo and Mohammed al-Asbahi’s Adult’s Only. Khadija al-Salami’s The Scream conveys the complexities Yemeni women’s involvement in the revolution. Each woman in the film complicates preconceived tropes of the ways women understand and interact with politics and society, demonstrating that there is no simple narrative of how women participate in revolution.
While the majority of films were inspired by the political turmoil of the last three years, the feature presentation was the full-length film shot and produced entirely in Yemen in 2005: Bader Ben Hirsi’s A New Day in Old Sana’a
The festival concluded with a beautiful Oud performance by the incredibly talented Ahmed Alshaiba.
Keep up to date with the latest Yemen Peace Project news and events on twitter @YemenPeaceNews
Hanif Zarrabi-Kashani | 31 Jan 2014
In the past decade, the geo-political relationship between Iran and its South American ally Venezuela has largely been defined by two people, neither of whom hold political office anymore, and both of whom are largely absent from the public eye, albeit for different reasons.
But, the political and ideological connection created between former president’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez has given way to a cultural and socio-religious bond between their two countries, with the help of the Venezuelan electrocaribe band Bituaya. The group has dedicated its brand new song and music video titled, “Solos,” to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Based in Caracas, Bituaya’s music blends electronic sounds with Afro-Caribbean rhythms, hip-hop, and reggae.“Solos,” which translates as “alone” in Spanish, was directed by Iranian filmmaker Hossein Mokarrami and was shot over a three-day period inTehran in mid-October 2013 during the band’s visit to the Second Annual Latin American Cultural Festival held at the Venezuelan embassy. The purpose of the festival was to introduce the culture and traditions of Venezuela to Iranians through the arts.
The video for “Solos” was officially released online on January 20, 2014, and its cinematography beautifully captures street scenes in Tehran in a way complimented by the Spanish lyrics.
The video is bursting with colorful visual shots of the band’s members , as well as Tehran’s famous landmarks, such as Milad Tower, the packed halls of the Grand Central Bazaar, Azadi Tower, the artsy Friday Bazaar near the money changing district, and boulevards full of automobile traffic. The video includes a “selfie” shot of Bituaya’s lead singer, as he weaves through Tehran’s main thoroughfares on the back of a motorbike. Band members sport Faravahar necklaces and prayer beads around their necks (Faravahar is a winged-symbol associated with Zoroastrianism, but has remained a common symbol throughout ancient and modern Iranian history), while others wear Basij style kafieh’s (scarf).
Demonstrating their respect for Iran’s Islamic culture, band members not only shot scenes in front of a mosque, but actually prayed alongside Iranian men inside the crowded mosque during prayer services.
One might expect this group of “foreigners” to have a “tourist’s” perspective on Iranian society, but this is far from the case. The manner in which Bituaya and its talented young director visualize Iranian culture and society is flat out impressive.
On the band’s SoundCloud page, lead singer Piki Figueroa explains his desire to create the song and video in order to communicate peace, solidarity, brotherhood, and love: “In the song we talk about people that are misinformed and how they think Iran and Venezuela are alone and suffer under dictatorships, but we’re not alone, because of the support of other countries like Iran.”
During their visit to Iran, Bituaya toured and performed in three different cities including Shiraz where the band performed in front of a packed audience at Hafez Hall. A clip of the performance reveals both male and female audience members clapping and cheering the band on stage. Watch the official video of Bituaya’s latest song “Solos” below or visit the YouTube page here.
Kelby Olson | 23 Jan 2014
Fabrica, an Egyptian musical theater initiative, is currently in the United States on tour performing the music of Les Miserables translated into Egyptian Arabic.
The schedule of free performances is as follows:
Friday, January 24 at 7:30 pm at the Emmanuel Church in Boston (featuring music from the Musical Theater Ensemble at Berklee College of Music)
Sunday, January 26 at 2:00 pm at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater in New York City
Wednesday, January 29 at 1:00 pm at the Vermont State House in Montpelier.
Besides the performances, the trip includes collaborative workshops and meetings with artists and performers in Boston, New York, and Vermont. The tour is sponsored by Izdahar, Meridian International Center, and the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
The group has previously performed at the Cairo Opera House and on Bassem Youssef’s “Al-Bernameg.”
Kelby Olson | 16 Jan 2014
Last Tuesday, January 7, the International Prize for Arabic Fiction announced the longlist of 16 novels contending for the 2014 prize. The list will be shortened in February, with the final prize awarded in Abu Dhabi at the end of April. Arablit posted an initial summary of the books selected for the prestigious prize:
A number of well-known authors are on the list, including Egypt’s Ibrahim Abdelmeguid, with his third in a trilogy, Clouds Over Alexandria; previously shortlisted Sudanese author Amir Tag Elsir with 366; popular Egyptian author Ahmed Mourad with The Blue Elephant, Kuwait’s Ismail Fahd Ismail with his The Phoenix and the Faithful Friend, and acclaimed Syrian author Khaled Khalifa for his No Knives in this City’s Kitchens, which also won the 2013 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature.
Others on the list who have been previously longlisted for the award include Iraqi novelist Inaam Kachachi, on the list this year for Tashari, Palestinian novelist Ibrahim Nasrallah, listed for The Edge of the Abyss, and Algerian novelist Waciny Laredj, longlisted for the third time for his Ashes of the East: The Wolf Who Grew Up in the Wilderness.
Ahmed Saadawi, who’s on the list for his Frankenstein in Baghdad, took part in the IPAF “nadwa” in 2012, under the tutelage of his fellow longlisters Inaam Kachachi and Amir Tag Elsir. Last year’s shortlisted novelist Mohammad Hassan Alwan also had taken part in an IPAF nadwa, or writer’s retreat. An excerpt from Saadawi’s novel appeared in the Beirut39 anthology.
Kelby Olson | 2 Jan 2014
A bleak year politically, 2013 proved to be a vibrant year for the art in the Middle East. We feel privileged to cover such an exciting artistic time and are happy to share some of our favorite Art + Culture articles from the last year:
Iraq’s Art and Music Scene: More Vibrant than Ever by Livia Bergmeijer
Lebanese Designers Take Center Stage by Sarah Zakzouk
Acclaimed Iranian Director’s New Film Comes to American Screens by Nima Shirazi
The Voices of Palestinian Artists: From Palestine With Hope by Ruba Asfahani
When Hawjan Met Sawsan: Banning Books in Saudi Arabia by Jamila El-Gizuli
“Cops Are Dogs”: Prosecuting Tunisia’s Rap Stars by Maaike Voorhoeve
Libyan “Phobia”: Dilemmas and Challenges of Life after Gadhafi by Valerie Stocker
A Review of Ahmed Abdallah’s Film, Rags and Tatters by William Barnes
Identities and Temporalities: Thoughts From Home Works 6 by Silvia Mollicchi
Counterrevolution in an Egyptian Comedy by Meir Walters
Sisi, Nasser, and the Great Egyptian Novel by Ahmed ElShamsy
Band of Brothers: The Muslim Brotherhood’s Artistic Side by Paul Cuno-Booth
Looking forward to more in 2014!
Kelby Olson | 19 Dec 2013
Maha ElNabawi’s profile on Halim El-Dabh for Mada Masr this week is a terrific portrait of the first person to make and record electronic music.
Dabh studied agricultural engineering at Cairo University, but by 1942 his piano skills saw him drawn into the circles of a young Egyptian prince, who heard his compositions on the radio. He also won first prize in piano composition at the Egyptian Opera House. After graduating in 1944, Dabh said he joined his brothers in discussions at a local youth center, focused on avant-garde art and thought. He remembers conversing with anti-colonial intellectuals like novelist Naguib Mahfouz and socialist thinker Salama Moussa.
“These sessions very much shaped my ideologies and cultural interests. There was never much talk of religion, but more so the urgent need to move past colonialism as a means towards Egypt’s self-determination, national identity and modernism,” he said.
Mixing spoken word, singing and percussion with electronic signals and processing, Dabh stood out from other electronic pioneers, as music scholar Thom Holms has written, because his interest in ancient and folk music, rather than math, gave his works an organic quality. His piece “Leiyla and the Poet” — part of a remarkable electronic opera, but released by itself on a compilation by Colombia Records in 1964 — influenced many young composers. Overall, Dabh has created over 300 operas, symphonies, ballets, chamber music pieces, and electronic music works, and says he has hundreds more still unpublished. In 1961 he became a US citizen, but has continued to spend his life between Egypt, traveling through Africa as an ethnomusicologist, and his home in Kent.
In the late 1960s, Dabh was invited back to Egypt to work under Minister of Culture Sawrat Okasha by order of Gamal Abdel Nasser — it was then that he created the score for the Sound and Light Show at the Giza Pyramids. He says when he last went, in 2006, they were still using it.
For more on El-Dabh’s compositions, see Michael Khoury’s chapter in the newly released book The Arab Avant Garde: Music, Politics, Modernity edited by Thomas Burkhalter, Kay Dickinson, and Benjamin J. Harbert.
Erin Kilbride | 14 Dec 2013
Samira Abassy calls herself an “ambassador to Never-Never Land.” If she is an ambassador, charcoal drawings seem to be her medium of negotiation.
Abassy, a sculptor, painter, and sketch artist with work featured on three continents, moved to Britain as a child. As an Arab(a)-Iranian(b) immigrant(c) Muslim(d) woman(e) in Britain(f), her physical position demands that she constantly interrogate and produce succinct labels for her identity. Her “identity” must always be defined in direct relation to the (predominantly white) British citizens around her. As an immigrant, the expectation placed on her is to neatly summarize her origins in a way that places her firmly in the category “outsider,” without being so foreign as to be threatening.
While negotiating her place in British life, Abassy, like many immigrants who leave their homelands during childhood, was burdened with the responsibility “to interpret the culture of [her] parents without wholly understanding it.” She explains that her struggle was “typical” of diaspora communities, who face the dual-battle of integration into a new country and renegotiating ties with their culture of origin. She writes:
In attempting to explain my relationship to ‘my’ culture (not just Iranian, but Arab-Iranian), I found I knew little of what this culture really was. … I became a ‘fictional historian’ as I reinterpreted stories about a homeland that I only saw as child. To paraphrase Salmon Rushdie, ‘We are creating imaginary homelands and the cultural ground beneath our feet.’ It is as though I had become the ambassador of my own ‘never- never land’ from which I was exiled.
It was here, looking for a “mirror” in which to see her complex identity reflected, that she turned to art.
Abassy explains that she created her own mirror, drawing from both pre-Rennassaince art and the visual culture of many religious traditions. In a statement accompanying her paintings, recently featured in Muslima: Muslim Women’s Art & Voices, she writes that, “by its nature, the language of the sacred seemed to be more successful at conveying the metaphorical.”