Artworks worth a thousand words: El-Qassemi traces politics in modern Arab art

Soha Elsirgany , Wednesday 7 Dec 2016

Emirati commentator on political and cultural affairs Sultan El-Qassemi's recent presentation at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina's covered almost 70 artworks by Arab artists in the 20th century

Sultan El-Qassemi speaking at Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

In the grand but intimate setting of Bibliotheca Alexandrina's small hall, Sultan El-Qassemi, an Emirati columnist and commentator on Arab political and cultural affairs and the founder of the UAE-based Barjeel Foundation, gave a talk spotlighting the political undertones in Middle Eastern fine art during the 20th century.

On the same day, after his talk, and in a neighbouring hall at the Bibliotheca was the opening of an exhibition titled ‘Hurufiyya: Art & Identity’ curated by the Barjeel Foundation, which manages, preserves and exhibits El-Qassemi's art collection of over 600 works from the Middle East. Lebanese writer Charbel Dagher gave a lecture that presented and contextualised the exhibition prior to it's opening.

Prior to his talk at the Bibliotheca, in October El-Qassemi had delivered a similar talk in English at the London School of Economics, titled "Politics in Modern Arab Art."

El-Qassemi is well versed on his subject, having previously written an article in 2014 for the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Practices titled "Egypt’s long history of Activist Artists." 

This talk, however, had a wider scope, including artists not just from Egypt, but the region.

It provided a comprehensive panoramic timeline of 20th century artworks, while zooming in on how artists in the region have expressed their views on political events, characters, and shifts during or after they occurred.

Aided by a Powerpoint presentation on the stage behind him that displayed the long list of over 70 artworks, El-Qassemi presented a compressed history lesson that allowed his audience strong engagement.

Hamed Ewais, 'The Protector of Life' 1967-1968 (Photo: Courtesy of Sultan El-Qassemi/Barjeel Foundation)

Part of a whole

Placing Egypt in the context of world politics, El-Qassemi referred to the 1937 exhibition ‘Low Art’ that was held in Munich, Germany.

The infamous exhibition, organised by Adolf Ziegler and the German Nazi Party, gathered 650 artworks that Adolf Hitler felt “insulted German feeling”, or in other words did not reflect how Germany (under Nazi rule) wanted to express itself.

“The work was even badly displayed to make it look worse,” El-Qassemi added.

International artists and thinkers deemed the exhibition an attack on modern art, and Egyptian artists’ voices were among them, taking part in the global discussion.

“While international intellectuals such as Andre Breton and Diego Rivera issued response statements in the same year, Egypt’s Art and Freedom Group also responded with the ‘Long Live Low Art’ manifesto in 1938,” he said.

The group was created by five Egyptian artists and intellectuals: George Henein, Ramses Younan, Fouad Kamel, Anwar Kamel and Kamel El-Telmessani, and viewed art as a means of resistance and liberation.

The group stated its refusal of the Munich exhibit’s war on modern art, and declared themselves “in support of bad art,” describing it as the art of the future.

“This was the first time for a group of artists in the Middle East to make a political move,” El-Qassemi highlighted.

He added that in the past five years there was a rediscovery of the Art and Freedom Group, which was seen through a talk at Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery, an exhibition at the American University in Cairo, and a September exhibit at Cairo’s Palace of Arts titled "The New Surrealists," in addition to an exhibition at Paris’s Centre Pompidou.

However, the Palace of Arts exhibition highlighted the group’s surrealist themes, presenting them as trailblazers for the surrealist movements that followed and developed in Egypt, and focused less on their politicism.

El-Qassemi gave examples of painters who took as their subjects significant political events that occurred previously, such as Nicola Saia’s 1918 piece on the surrender of Jerusalem to the British, and Ingy Afflatoun’s piece on the Denshouai massacre, where a dispute between an officer of the British occupation and Egypt's villagers led to the death of many locals in 1906.

“The Denshouai massacre was an important event that had a very strong effect that echoed outside the boundaries of the village [of Denshouai]. By painting it, Afflatoun archived this historic moment by giving it a visual embodiment,” El-Qassemi said.

Arif El-Rayyes, painting 'Algeria' 1950 (Photo: Courtesy of Sultan El-Qassemi)

Hailing and critiquing, the artists are watching

Afflatoun was also jailed for joining in demonstrations against then President Gamal Abdel Nasser who, though he had many close ties with artists, had enemies who didn’t believe in him.

“When she was out of jail, Afflatoun never spoke against Nasser, but continued to depict her views through her paintings,” El-Qassemi said, giving an example of her paintings on jailed women dated between 1953 and 1959 as an important addition to her body of work, which in a bigger context represented a wave of nationalism and pan-Arabism in the arts.

Artists like Hamed Eweis and Mohamed Sabry featured depictions of Nasser in a style of painting that was known as Socialist Realism, hailing the leader and celebrating his accomplishments.

Looking at a number of Sabry’s paintings — The Peace Speech at the UN (1960), and The Cairo Agreement (1970) — El-Qassemi points to the relatively large size of the former president in comparison to those around him, an indication of the artist’s respect and/or idolisation of Nasser.

Hamed Ewais’ piece titled Nasser and the Nationalization of the Canal (1957), is another example of the same technique.

It was interesting that these paintings raised a brief debate within the audience at the Bibliotheca, who discussed whether the seating arrangement of Middle East rulers at the UN was accurate or was used by the artist to favour some and insult others.

The audience, which ranged from informed artists, historians and scholars to casual attendees, settled that the artist’s depiction would have been accurate at the time it was painted.

Some artists who witnessed big political shifts documented their changing views in changing times, such as Abdelhady El-Gazzar.

In 1948, his iconic piece The Hunger (El Goa) was seen as an insult to the (Egyptian) monarchy when it was displayed in an exhibition, and landed the artist in jail for his depiction of empty plates in front of a row of figures.

Many years and several political stages later, in 1962 he painted The Charter (El-Mithaq).

“In stark contrast to the hunger piece, it celebrated a new era in Egypt and social harmony. He went from critiquing to celebrating,” El-Qassemi said.

Mohssin Harraki, Instalation 'Concrete Books' 2010 (Photo: courtesy of Sultan El-Qassemi/Barjeel Foundation)

Art marks the spot

There were also occasions were political art built on previous works, literally and figuratively.

French artist Paul Landowski created the stone sculpture Monument to the Dead (1928) in Algeria mourning French soldiers lost in Algeria during the French occupation.

The piece was an audacious affront for Algeria, which 50 years and liberation later commissioned an artist of its own, Mohamed Issiakhem, to replace it with a new piece.

“Issiakhem knew better than to simply destroy Landowski’s piece to replace it. Instead the new sculpture, completed in 1978, ingeniously built over the first piece to bury it, turning it into the enemy’s sarcophagus,” El-Qassemi says.

According to El-Qassemi, the Middle East didn’t see much in the way of public political artworks until the mid-20th century. One public art piece was a government commission to member of the Baghdad Fine Art Society, Iraqi artist Jawad Selim, who was asked to make a piece celebrating the end of the monarchy.

His piece, titled "Monument to Freedom", is a panel of bronze sculptures mounted on a stone wall. The figures are depicted tearing apart jail bars, posing in warrior stances that evoke strength, their chests open and arms raised up in victory.

Larissa Sansour, video work 'Nation Estate' 2011 (Photo: Courtesy of Sultan El-Qassemi/Barjeel Foundation)

Through thick and thin

A significant year in Arab politics was 1967, which saw the Six-Day War (known as El-Naksa) that cost Egypt the loss of Sinai to Israeli occupation.

El-Qassemi describes it as “a black year ,with a lot of distress.” The difficulty of the time was echoed in artists work, as well as the need for hope, such as in Hamed Ewiss’s piece titled The Protector of Life (Homat El-Hayah).

Half the canvas is dominated by a male figure dressed as a peasant, but holding a soldier’s gun. In the foreground a crowd of smaller sized figures are engaged in everyday activities, like a child riding a bicycle and a couple getting married.

“It’s like the painting is saying ‘life goes on’. The large figure is holding space for the residents of the village to carry on with their daily lives in peace. The aim is to instill safety in people hearts, and trust in the army’s efforts,” says El-Qassemi.

In 1982, art was used to bridge connections between the same two enemies, Egypt and Israel, with an exhibit of Mahmoud Said’s work organised by the newly-opened Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv.

According to El-Qasssemi, this marked the only time for an Egyptian artist to hold an exhibition in Isreal.

The occupation of Palestine was another subject many artists, both Palestinian and others, were tackling.

Some iconic works on Palestine include Soliman Mansour’s Camels of Heavy Burden (1980) depicting a man carrying the country of Palestine as a heavy load on his back, and Dia Azzawy’s Sabra and Shatila piece (1982), dubbed the Arab World Guernica.

There were other works that were more subtly political, such as Israeli-Palestinian painter Assem Abo Shaqra’s Cactus with City in the Background (Sabbar Fel Madina, 1988)

“If you don’t know the context, it seems simply to depict a cactus pot on a windowsill. But it has a political background as the artist compares himself with a cactus,” El-Qassemi explained.

Abo Shaqra’s work frequently featured the cactus and always depicted it outside of its natural habitat, as he himself lived in London.
Straddling his mixed identity of Palestinian and Israeli, his existence was inevitably political as both sides continue to claim the bigger influence on his artwork, from his death in 1990 to this day.

Tireless voices

Political work continues to be a sensitive topic tackled bravely by artists, who with time shifted to more contemporary mediums.

Recent artistic resistance examples can be seen in the work of Palestinian artist Khaled Garrar’s 2008 "Volleyball," made with cement parts of the Israeli separation wall. Another example is Larissa Sansour’s 2011 video work "Nation Estate," in which she satirically envisions an ultra-modern high rise building, with each floor housing a Palestinian city.

“Sansour was rejected from a Swiss exhibition because the work was regarded as too political. In the end she raised money and completed her project,” El-Qassemi says.

Palestinean Lebanese artist Mona Hatoum, Egyptian artist Hoda Lotfi, Syrian artist Sulafa Hijazi and Fadi Hamwi are some contemporaries whose work was political even before the Arab Spring came to influence many artists.

The Arab Spring brought with it a wave of graffiti, one of the most politicised forms of art.

“We don’t speak about it much and its relatively recent art form. People are upset when it is removed, but its in the nature of the medium to be short lived,” El-Qassemi said showing an example of Mohamed Mahmoud Street’s murals in Downtown Cairo.

The talk, however, did not delve into graffiti, nor did it cover political cartoons, as noted by an audience member in the discussion after. Not undermining either of these mediums, El-Qassemi clarified his focus was on fine art.

It is difficult to mark when the timeline ends, seeing as the relationship between art and politics continues to unravel amidst rapidly changing political scenes.

El-Qassemi, however, is concerned with the big picture, highlighting the broad strokes of a painting still in the making.

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