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

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