Chair : Dr. Hilary Kalmbach (University of Oxford)
Catherine Sophie Cornet (University of Rome II and École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales)
When, on the 23rd of October 2011, Aliaa Al Mahdy posted on her rebel diary blog a photo of a naked self-portrait, she contextualized it as an artwork meant to assert her ‘freedom of expression’ in Egypt. Against essentialist stances, my paper will build upon the assertion that nude representation is as old as art, and that the Middle East is no exception to this. Similarly to Manet’s Olympia, it became one the biggest scandals in contemporary art, seen as the first nude in the region. Yet the works of Khalil Saleeby, Gazbia Sirry, Al Gazzar or more recently Asaad Arabi or Leila Nseir all display nudes, so why did Aliaa’s picture lead to such a scandal? What paradigms and cultural groups has she been threatening? Why did liberals, in particular, attack her so fiercely? What does that say about the new cultural norms in contemporary Egypt? Through the semantic and sociological study of positive and negative reactions across the region, I will inquire into the new and revealing role of art in Egyptian society and underline the ‘artistic democratization’ brought about by new media, entering at large into the debate between art, secularism and mainstream Islam.
Shaymaa Hussein (Durham University)
The voices of many novelists, such as Alaa al-Aswany, Yusuf al-Qaid and the young author Khaled al-Berry were inspirational and instrumental during the Egyptian revolution. Khaled al-Berry is particularly interesting because of his complex relationship with political Islam; a relationship he presents in the autobiographical novel al-Dunya Ajmal Min al-Janna (Life is better than Paradise). While many autobiographical novels written by Arab political activists tend to emphasize their roles in, and their ultimate disappointment with leftist movements and political parties, Khaled al-Berry’s offers a different path of personal progress from membership in al-Jamaa al-Islamiya to the civil consciousness of Egyptian liberalism. This paper will attempt to present al-Dunya Ajmal Min al-Janna as an example of the contemporary autobiographical novel of Arab activists. It will discuss how it shares with this sub-genre a critique of ideological trends that are prevalent amongst the Arab intelligentsia, how it foregrounds human rights issues concerning political dissidents, and how it uses the biographical form as a discourse of resistance in itself. This paper will also draw on al-Berry’s other novels, his columns in the post-revolution newspaper, al-Tahrir, and commentary from his social networks.
Nancy Demerdash (Princeton University)
Political prerogatives and artistic praxis in the Arab Spring: The aesthetics of revolution and the formation of an Arab avant-garde
This paper examines the intersections of revolution and artistic production in the wake of the Arab Spring. Fundamental questions arise: how is this continually unraveling Arab Spring shaping artistic expression in the region? How are political ends being bolstered or subverted through artistic praxis? In a region where autocratically enforced censorship laws clamped down on creative expression, how is a renewed collective consciousness channeling artistic will? From the generative works of Egyptian artist Mohamed Abla, to the graffiti artistic praxis of the Tunisian collective Ahl al-Kahf, or the rich photographs of Syrian artist Issa Touma, this paper explores the coeval emergence of an Arab avant-garde, despite nationalistic particularities or nuances. The paper also interrogates the ideological underpinnings of such practices, drawing historical parallels to comparable artistic developments under pan-Arabist movements of the 1950s and 1960s. What theoretical paradigms are being deployed so as to unify political claims of the avant-garde? What forms provide the aesthetics of revolution, and what is their moral calling? In summary, I argue that these recent works and their dissident makers are at once unearthing a forgotten or repressed past, seizing upon the determination of the present, and illuminating the political possibilities of the future.
Cleo Jay (School of Oriental and African Studies)
2011 has indisputably been a year of great change for North Africans, and the Arab Spring has been an inspiration for a wide range of cultural productions, from paintings to theatre plays. Artists in various in countries used art to reflect and gain hindsight on the events surrounding them: an interesting example is “Stone from Tahrir Square” by Ashraf Foda, who collected stones discarded by resistants and asked various important figures to sign them, dealing with issues around political activism and memory. The revolutions have also led to a greater freedom of expression, enabling artists to address issues previously considered taboos. I will look in particular at how theatre is used as an interactive forum for political debates, and I will work on a comparative basis. Theatre acts as a “mirror” for society, through which the youth can reflect on its issues and its hopes, and recent plays served as a prelude to the Arab Spring, by expressing the youth’s disillusion and disenfranchisement and focusing on relevant themes such as suicide, women’s rights or corruption of the authorities.
I will focus in particular on Morocco, the only country which has managed to start a peaceful transition, and has introduced a large number of reforms in the last ten years, and compare it to Egypt and Tunisia, which got rid of their oppressive leaders through violent demonstrations.