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Art and the Arab Awakening

By Nama Khalil Created: August 5, 2012 Last Updated: August 13, 2012
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Graffiti on a wall mocks deposed leader Moammar Gadhafi on Oct. 18, 2011, in Benghazi, Libya. The visual landscape of the Arab world has changed greatly as various forms of creative expression have flourished in the days since the Arab Spring. (Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)

Graffiti on a wall mocks deposed leader Moammar Gadhafi on Oct. 18, 2011, in Benghazi, Libya. The visual landscape of the Arab world has changed greatly as various forms of creative expression have flourished in the days since the Arab Spring. (Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)

In the days following Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolation in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, burnt and battered cars piled up inside state-owned lots throughout the country. Tunisians were expressing their anger and pain by setting fire to cars. This destruction did not last long. The image of ashes and despair soon turned into a positive, rejuvenating project.

Tumultuous change is still sweeping the Middle East, inspiring artistic expression and breaking through the decades of censorship and fear.

Faten Rouissi—a Tunisian artist, activist, and resident of a suburb north of the Tunisian capital of Tunis—took notice of all the burnt cars crammed into a vacant lot near her home. Rouissi successfully reached out to artists, performers, students, and youth to help transform the burnt cars into “blooming objects in bright colors, adorned with revolutionary graffiti.” Her Street Art in the Neighborhood project established a contemporary public space to promote art as a creative collective.

The breadth of creative expression displayed on the cars is considerable. Peace signs and the Tunisian flag are common icons. Amid the rubble and destruction, rainbow-painted cars are marked by phrases like “freedom,” “revolution,” and “long live Tunisia.” One car in particular summarizes exactly how Tunisians feel. It was first painted in a light blue tone with blotches of yellow, green, and white paint, an indication that many participated in its design. Then, in bold, red letters, the phrase “Game Over” is spray-painted across the side of the car.

One of Rouissi’s goals is to push the Tunisian Ministry of Culture to promote art in the public sphere. This project celebrates an extraordinary present, a nation’s dream for freedom and dignity. Each car also represents agency, solidarity, and hope in the future of the revolutionary movement.

The visual landscape of the Arab world has changed greatly as various forms of creative expression have flourished in the days since the Arab Spring. Graffiti and street art not only played a distinct role in the political dissent of this revolutionary period. Art has also been an ongoing experience for revolutionary youth that is strengthening civil society and the democratic process.

Tumultuous change is still sweeping the Middle East, inspiring artistic expression and breaking through the decades of censorship and fear. A cultural awakening is taking place alongside the political revolution. Artists are making art that engages in critical discussions about politics, religion, culture, nationalism, and identity. They are questioning the relationship between the state and cultural production and imagining new ways for culture to transform society.

Cultural Policy and Civil Society

Walking through the gardens of the Tuileries in Paris, you come across a labyrinth made out of grass. Once you enter the maze, you discover that the neatly cut grass has been purposefully laid out in an octagonal shape; a motif often repeated in Islamic architecture to convey unity in multiplicity. Children who play around the maze become part of the design. Only after you take a few steps back and see the maze from afar do you notice that the interlacing elements combine to make the revolutionary slogan “The People want the fall of the regime.” Designed in Kufic script, one of the oldest Arabic calligraphies, “the maze symbolizes the troubles in the Middle East,” states the artist Moataz Nasr. Through this playful and immersive form, Nasr suggests that the regime has fallen and people have collectively proven powerful. The ultimate outcome, however, remains difficult to identify.

Nasr is an artist and an activist. His work not only addresses social issues but also embodies a quest for peace and social justice. It is one example of how artists are civil society actors. Throughout history, artists have used visual arts, literature, and music to open dialogue about how and why to change society. Paintbrushes, cameras, pens, and instruments are all tools used to promote or direct social, political, and cultural change. Artists help create an independent space by creating opportunities, through art, for people to engage with others about social issues.

Civil society, as theorist Larry Diamond explains, is the “realm of organized social life that is voluntary, self generating, self supporting, autonomous from the state, and bound by a legal order or set of shared rules. … It involves citizens acting collectively in a public sphere to express their interests, passions, and ideas, exchange information, achieve mutual goals, make demands on the state, and hold state officials accountable.”

This concept, paramount to building democracies, has been in flux in the Arab world. In the decades following independence from colonial powers in the region, authoritarian regimes in the Arab world severely restricted civil society organizations, often forcing them to conform to government agendas. According to the International NGO Training and Research Center’s 2007 report on the viability of civil society organizations in the Arab world, Egypt has traditionally had one of the most vibrant NGO sectors in the region, but the government has had limited associational activities since 1981. Neither Libya nor Syria showed much sign of independent organizations, whereas in Tunisia, women’s organizations as well as cultural groups were quite active despite a law prohibiting NGOs from engaging in political activity.

Next …Street art and political cartoons went viral across the region.





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