Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Contemporary Art.. in Egypt?

‘In the Arab world art is something women can learn about, and when they get married they may use it to decorate something or other’

Taher Qassim, Chair of the Liverpool Arabic Centre, and Yemeni by birth, put across how art is regarded in many Arab nations. When such nations are undergoing deep political unrest, and ordinary citizens fight for their freedom of expression, how will art play its part in this revolution?
Ahmed Basioney

Amongst several others I took part in a discussion about ‘art in revolution’ in FACT gallery where Ahmed Basiony’s work was exhibited. By the end I felt how the revolution may have  inadvertently sparked a new small kind of revolution on its own. Ahmed Basiony was an Egyptian artist, a contemporary artist, who experimented with tools of new media. In the right hand side of the gallery on a screen played the video of his work ‘Thirty Days Running in the Place’, where Basiony can be seen wearing a plastic jumpsuit of some sort, running on one spot for an hour while on a projection opposite the energy he produced was visualised into an abstract portrait.


(Now if you are not a great enthusiast of such contemporary art work, and like me find it tedious having to work out how such an art is supposed to have any sort of impact, bear with me!)

About a year later after he produced this work in the garden of the Cairo Opera House, Egypt started to revolt against Muabarak’s regime. Basiony filmed these energetic demonstrations in Tahrir square, the film of which was being played on the left hand side of the gallery opposite ‘Thirty Days Running in the Place’ video. Suddenly the connection between the energy of one man running on the spot, and the energy of thousands protesting a year later became very apparent. Basiony was shot by a sniper by pro-government forces and killed on the bloodiest of these demonstrations. The footage taken on this day was never found. His shocking death has made his work all the more poignant. You could even say that this is the very reason his work is being displayed in a small gallery in Liverpool miles away from where it was taken, attracting 20 curious people to gather around and discuss the relationship between dissidence, art and revolution.

In the Arabic culture, much like Asian culture, to study and work in art is seen as a hobby not worthy of dedicating your life to as opposed to being an engineer for example. FACT’s curator even admitted during the discussion that his Egyptian father often asks him to do a PhD just so he can tell the family he is a doctor! Going back to what Taher Qassim said, when asked about what part he thought the ‘apparently’ insignificant art played in this Arab Spring he pointed out that it was through art many expressed their anger at the injustice, and managed to captivate the attention of the outside world. From street graffiti to placards, from rhythmic chants to patriotic body paints, to seizing the endless and infectious energy through video and photographs! All of this in defiance against extreme violence and injustice played a crucial role in fuelling the momentum of the movement.

'there was an artist, along with his many students fighting against impossible social and political construct'
It’s undeniable that both Basiony and his work gain more attention in the backdrop of his shocking end. However, what we should really take from this is that even when Egypt was under the stronghold of Mubarak’s suffocating regime, there was an artist, along with his many students fighting against impossible social and political construct to exercise his right to produce contemporary art work long before the revolution. Such is the will of an artist! The Egyptian revolution has made many ordinary citizens realise what an important part art played in expressing their passion to the outside world. This sense has not died down after the fall of Mubarak’s regime. An example is a young 16 year old Egyptian girl who sparked much debate and controversy for posting nude photos of herself on the internet, to oppose the on-going suppression of young revolutionaries by the current military regime. Reminiscent of dissident artist Ai WeiWei, who produced nude pictures of himself in defiance of the oppressive Chinese government don’t you think?

'To many of us whom have only a glimpse into this world, we can only collectively refer to them as martyrs. Such is our capacity as human beings.'

I want to bring to the forefront the most significant point. Through his art work, he has made a mark. Countless numbers have died and are dying during the Arab revolution. Their families and friends will remember their names and the sacrifice they have made for their country. To many of us whom have only a glimpse into this world, we can only collectively refer to them as martyrs. Such is our capacity as human beings. But we have remembered and will remember one who died among the thousands, because he has created works through which we can immerse ourselves into, and attempt to understand. For artists, it is only through their work they express themselves, and it is an invitation to everyone to share in what sometimes cannot be articulated into words. Basiony may be no longer, but his work has helped him live on. Undeniably, the most important aspect of art is that it makes a mark that cannot be as easily erased as a life.

As many martyrs fall for their country, as many artists will be born out of the flames of this Arab revolution.

- Follow discussion on the Egyptian girl who posted nude photos of herself on Twitter using #NudePhotoRevolution 
      This has gotten many people talking: Here's two opinion I found on the blogsphere:
        Aliaa Elmahdy: Unnecessary, Useless "Freedom"
        Democrati.net: Egyptian girl naked photo. Is Egypt ready for nude art?
FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) is a Liverpool based cinema and gallery
- Find out more about Ahmed Basioney and his work
- Also might interest you in following Chinese dissident artist Ai WeiWei on Gaurdian: Culture -Art and Design - Ai WeiWei

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Yemen and the Invisible Media

From Egypt’s struggle to bring stability, to Libya’s rush to set up a government before the extremists start acting up, the Arab Spring has dominated the media for the past few months. In fact the words Libya, Syria, Egypt, Turkey has been repeated countless times, that when an article called ₁‘Explaining the Silence on Yemen’ caught my eye, I suddenly realised, Yemen is still part of the Arab uprising!

The country almost always crops up when a terrorist is suspected to have trained there. Amongst Pakistan, it’s regarded by the West as a place where extremist views of Islam breed. So my question is this, when a country considered as a ‘terrorist hot spot’ is demonstrating for peace and democracy, why are we not encouraging this? Surely if the western countries believe Yemen is a breeding ground for al-Qaeda, helping the Yemeni’s would be helping fight terrorism in the long haul. Then why has it been side-lined into the watery abyss of media ignorance?

Going back to the article, it highlights that the Yemeni’s have been peacefully protesting against the government since February, and in the past week there has been sudden horrific and senseless attacks on the protestors in the capital Sana’a. Al Jazeera has been reporting of the injured in hospitals crying out for the West to intervene and help them in their fight. Doesn’t it all seem a bit cruel helping out its neighbours, celebrating their victory while Yemen drowns in its battle for democracy?

Ultimately it’s about helping out the countries that are able to help the West out economically in return. A democratic Libya and Syria would be a great strength to the West, with ₂Libya having 3% of the entire world’s oil reserve, that’s $3.9 trillion worth of oil! Whereas Yemen is the poorest nation in Arabia, ₃with 40% unemployment rate, little oil reserve and therefore have the lowest prospect of being economically profitable. I believe this is the reason Yemen has been side-lined.

It’s harsh, and it is echoed from the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, to the silence of the failed Tamil genocide in Northern Sri-Lanka. 9/11 has been unashamedly used as an excuse to only find and kill Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The promise of restoring the broken countries has been shattered as Obama gets ready to prematurely pull American troops out, even with the news of heavy bombings in Kabul and the killing of  Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of Afghanistan’s high peace council in the ‘safe green zone.’ I don’t know what else could possibly reiterate how unstable the country is than the killing of the head of the peace council.

In terms of Sri Lanka, if any under-developed country had such a vast amount of evidence of war crimes, it would have been subject to immediate and harsh punishment by the UN and the rest of the world. But Sri Lanka is anything but economically under-developed. In fact ₄Reuters reports that Sri Lanka’s economy is expected to grow by 8.5% this year, significant for a country bouncing back from 25 years of civil war. From a purely business perspective, would you condemn this government for its inhumane treatment of civilians during the last few months of the civil war, or would you jump at the chance of making deals with a country that is growing in economic power? The harsh reality is, is that country’s such as China and Iran know this value, and do not want to act on such allegations for want of profit. To an extremist fearing government such as America, they are given excuses from the Sri Lankan government, ‘Well we got rid of a terrorist organisation (Tamil Tigers) in the process didn’t we?’

This is not to say we should sit back and sigh, wondering what the world is coming to where everything is just business. We are living in a time where strong minded individuals from all across the world are taking it upon themselves to fight for their rights. The international Tamil community have persistently fought to get the UN to probe into the human rights violations. As many as 10,000 demonstrators are expected to gather at the UN’s European headquarters this week to protest. Even if the Western media doesn’t quite know how to approach the Yemen situation, and jumps on the default ‘shove it out the way until crisis point’, the Yemeni community have arranged for an international protest on the 24th September, (this Saturday) to bring attention to this silence. I think this has been arranged by ‘Noon Arabia.’ Check out her blog www.notesbynoon.blogspot.com to see how you can get involved.

Also worth checking out is Al Jazeera’s new programme, ‘Active’, which gives a truly human insight into activists around the world.  http://english.aljazeera.net/programmes/activate/

Sunday, 11 September 2011

On the Death of bin Laden: Should We Celebrate?

On the 2nd of May the world woke up to the news ofOsama bin Laden’s death. The leader of Al-Qaeda who had eluded the most powerful army in the world today, for nearly a decade.  A symbol of extreme Islam, killed by a single bullet to the head. With the threat of fuelling more hatred towards America in the minds of young Muslims, the immediate question here is not ‘How do we celebrate?’, rather, ‘How do we deal with this change in a delicate manner?’
Even before President Obama had officially revealed the news of the ‘successful’ raid on bin Laden’s compound at Abbottabad, Americans brimming with revived patriotism flocked to the streets to cheer Obama for his victory. On the other side were the Pakistani government, dumbstruck at what had unravelled in the dead of the night in their own backyard. The presidentAsif Ali Zardari had always denied that the government may be helping hide Bin Laden, and had sworn that they were helping officials around the world in stopping al-Qaeda. Now questions are arising as to whether the country can be trusted ever again. Indeed keeping the raid a secret from the government is telling of how much trust there is from the American government themselves. Hesitation towards Pakistan, certainly from America, can be felt despite Obama stating that ‘co-operation with Pakistan has helped lead us to bin Laden.’
A great number of Pakistanis are dubbing the incident as the ‘Osama drama’, claiming that Osama was not in the building where the raid had happened.  In the wake of the first brutal revenge bombing at Shabqadar by the Taliban where 80 soldiers were killed, many feel they are being wrongfully punished. A Taliban spokesperson claimed that they were allies of America and therefore an enemy. America is putting pressure on Pakistan to fight the militants, while the militants are targeting Pakistan for it.
There is bitterness from some Pakistanis who feel that the sudden raid itself is a major breach of trust, and has violated international law by killing a man in such a way. Certainly some argue that Osama should never have been killed, but brought to trial lawfully, as was done with Saddam Hussein. There is anxiety over whether killing Osama has made him a martyr for some. No doubt that in some minds this will spur even more hate towards the ‘west.’ At such a sensitive time, Obama was right not to glorify his death, and not publicise the images of bin Laden’s corpse. The gruesome photographs would have profound psychological effects on many. Psychological studies have found that such images tend to increase emotional arousal, such as anger, and hinder objective logical thinking. These images lead to increased group identification. People in support of his killing, victims of al-Qaeda, would feel closer and stronger as a result. Studies show that this leads to somewhat unnatural behaviour, as sympathy would be given to members of the group who express racist views. As for people who share the views of al-Qaeda’s, images of his corpse will increase sympathy for extremist groups and will increase hostility towards those seen as enemies of what he stood for.
Already some Muslims feel that their traditions have not been respected, due to the improper burial of Osama’s body, which was buried at sea.  President Obama explained that this was to stop militant groups creating a shrine for the al-Qaeda leader.
Such a milestone in the fight against extremist Islam is also a very delicate matter, and how it is dealt with will benefit the fight for peace and freedom in the long term.  His death must not be celebrated so blatantly in the face of delicate young Muslim minds who do feel oppressed by the West. The videos released of an aging Osama, covered in a blanket in a bordered up room as opposed to the strong young man he comes across in his propaganda videos, is being interpreted to show how deceitful he was in order to make his followers and enemies believe that he was as strong as ever. What needs to be realised is that to others, it shows an old man, who had fought for a decade for what him and his followers felt was defending the right of Islam, who was in hiding from an aggressive opponent, and  whom, in the end, shot him dead mercilessly.
I, for one, am grateful that the Arab revolution, showing young Muslims fighting for a religious and politically free country, is going on at a time where such a killing threatens to radicalise. However, for the security of a better more peaceful future, Osama Bin Ladens death should not be celebrated, and SHOULD NOT be glorified, however non – deserving he is of respect.

Middle East Uprising: Egyptian Victory

I had been watching the Egypt uprising avidly. I don’t know why. I’m not from Egypt. I don’t think I have any family or friends from there. There have been several such uprisings in the middle east, albeit on a smaller scale. They did not draw this much attention from a person who has about a million things that need this attention. But there I was, buyingThe Guardian in the weekdays when I know the weekend ones alone will be cheaper and provide a summary of the week.
I felt it was different, and now I know it was. Unlike any revolution I have come across or read about, this was the most unified. I was watching history unravel… I was finally seeing evidence of a phrase I had learnt to disbelieve, ‘strength in numbers.’ Video images showed Egyptians marching in their thousands, with passion… with one aim. People halting their lives, work and education, encouraged by the electrifying energy of millions of others and driven by the idea of freedom.
As I was watching, I was sure this would come to a halt. Mubarak had claimed,  ”I will not separate from Egyptian soil until I am buried underneath.” Several protesters had already been killed. Families were suffering from not being able to work. I thought that the protesters would turn to violence surely. On the contrary, their passion was strengthened.
I have to mention that social networking played a big part in this. I will even go so far as to say it gave them a second voice to the world. Twitter especially, where protesters and influential people voiced their anger towards Mubarak as well as their praise for the Egyptian people. Shocking videos of protesters being killed appeared on YouTube, strengthening the pressure on Mubarak to step down.
The people of Egypt and only them deserve this victory as I do not see any other party having helped. Obama had jumped the fence from supporting Mubarak to asking him to step down in seconds. It will suffice to say that America’s relation with Egypt will be edgy in the future. Whereas David Cameron… where was he again?
I am quite glad that no other parties were needed to establish this victory, it only makes it sweeter. If anything, Egypt only proved that to get what the people want, all you need is passion, unity and a vision of a better, a more perfect future. Right now in my room I have A3 picture from ‘Eyewitness Decade’ of the Egyptian people at Tahrir Square, to remind me of this, and give a person like me, hope.

Channel 4 News and the Sri Lankan Civil War Crimes

Since last year I have switched from BBC News 24/7 to watching Channel 4 news from 7pm til 8. I have never praised a news broadcasting service so much since then! Jon Snow's audacity to scrutinise politicians until it's an all out argument to Krishnan Guru Murphy's subtle approach to serious matters has captured my young attention.

However my praise for them has mostly come from their insistence upon reporting on  the war crimes committed by Mahinda Rajapaksha against civilians, especially during the concluding weeks of the 26-year long Sri lankan civil war.

Last year video footage of civilians naked and bound being executed by Sri-Lankan soldiers was thoroughly analysed for it's validity and publicised. I can't help but be critical and say that had this footage only been handed to the BBC, we may never have known of it's existence. I will repeat what many others have said in the past and, as cynical of this as I was years ago I thoroughly believe it now, is that the BBC news is biased. It will not publicise news that will be an 'annoyance' to the government. After all, foreign countries see the BBC as a representative of the British government. How could the BBC criticise Mahinda on war crimes without creating tension between the two countries? What worries me though, is it's influence on select societies. With the BBC being world's largest broadcast news organisation it has  an influence on a vast majority of the population. Is this healthy? For matters of self-preservation it is bound to ignore very controversial subjects, and worse, put a 'shine on things.' Does this not make some ignorant to matters that need attention? Such as the shocking information revealed on Wikileaks of the Iraq secret files and the exploitation of the poor during Africa World Cup 2010?

On the subject of the Sri lankan Civil war, it worries me that it only gets a small mention on the BBC, making this vast audience assume it to be a small matter. I do not know many who would go to even the smallest length to find out more about it. Such a subject has to be brought to everyone's attention. This was done not only by Channel 4 News but also by hundreds of Tamil protesters in London, outside the Parliament as well as conducting marches. I noticed that when this protest was shown by the BBC, the presenter was more concerned about the traffic problems this has caused rather than of the actual reason for it! That would be tricky subject to cover now wouldn't it?  I had not heard of a single policitician promising to look into it yet. It makes me quite sad to admit that politicians would be jumping all over the atrocities that took place in Sri Lanka if the civilians looked more western... more 'beautiful.' It shocks me to says this, disgusts me, but a part of me sees that this is true. Perhaps if Sri Lanka had valuable natural resources like oil? Maybe the Americans would have gotten involved shouting vaguely about human rights and what not. On the other hand... maybe not the Americans.

Along with Tamil civilians protesting, Channel 4 continues to raise light on the matter, attempting to question the leader himself, gaining opinions of the video from professional analysts, international human rights lawyers, and from the Sri Lankan embassy themselves whom continue to call the video a 'fake.' It has analysed documents on Wikileaks which proves that the United States believes war crimes took place. What matters most is that they are pressing the importance of this matter to the United Nations, whomm are concluding gathering evidence as part of their independent international war crimes inquiry.

I urge anyone reading this blog to spare just 5 minutes reading up on this matter, browsing through Channel 4's news stories on Sri Lanka as a beginning point. I do feel strongly on this matter, not because I have links to this country, but because we have been given undeniable proof that atrocious and dehumanising crimes have taken place and we know who by, and if we turn a blind-eye now, we will be seen ignorant and weak as a humanitarian society... and eventually, give other leaders confidence to believe that they can do wrong, and not be questioned.