As the Hydrarchy Exhibition at the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC) in downtown Cairo enters its last week, the curators hosted a symposium on Friday 6 January, bringing together scholars and researchers. The day-long symposium was part of a project complementing the ongoing exhibition taking place on the floor above, Hydrarchy: Transitional and Transformative Seas, and was the second part of another conference and exhibition that took place in London in 2010. The project as a whole seeks to challenge the idea of the sea as a ahistorical void, and to explore the sea both as a site of power and resistance.
The symposium started with an introduction from exhibition curators Mia Jankowicz, Artistic Director of CIC, and Anna Colin, Associate Director of Bétonsalon in Paris, on the theme of Hydrarchy.
“This is a two-year project on the theme of Hydrarchy,” Jankowicz told Ahram Online. Placing the symposium in the context of the rest of the project, she said, “it is a body of production to work the theme in a different language than that of the art work. It is to provide a more extensive perspective on the theme in addition to the art work.”
Well-known scholar within the field of post-colonial studies and professor at the Oriental University of Naples Iain Chambers gave the keynote address. In his recent works, the professor has turned his focus of research into a series of post-colonial analyses of the formation of the modern Mediterranean. His lecture focused on how occurrences at sea are invariably part of cultural identification, even if they were not immediately recorded in history. His lecture explored different art works that had to do with the sea, “Art should not be considered a testimony but rather a critical expression,” Chambers argued.
“Art becomes an interrogation,” he argued, saying that the artistic image does not represent, but rather provokes.
Close followers of Chambers’ work, Take to the Sea’s Lina Attalah, managing editor of Egypt Independent and collaborator Laura Cugusi, Italian journalist and photographer ran the following session. Take to the Sea is a multimedia research endeavour seeking to document the topic of illegal migration across the Mediterranean from Egypt to Italy. Their contribution to the exhibition had consisted of a curated research archive. In their session, they presented a migrants’ real-life narratives alongside historic research on the question of migration. “Our work can be described as a series of dots that form constellations,” Cugusi said during the session.
Among the most interesting parts of their presentation was tapping on the theme of cultural colonisation. They presented extracts from the prison letters of Italian political and cultural thinker Gramsci where he explained how European culture has been affected by colonisation for generations, with the example of how African migration brought jazz, blues, rap and reggae music to European culture. The excerpt explained how this music came from African slaves and then became “the soundtrack of the modern world.”
Next Annie Rebekah Gardner presented her work, along with that of Kelsy Yeargain, a research paper in-progress titled “Borderlands and Buccaneers: Somali Piracy, Borders, and the Failed State.” With Gardner’s light-hearted manner of presenting along with the audience interest in the subject, this was the most engaging session during the morning lectures. She discussed the Somali pirates that dominated newspaper headlines, drawing attention to the fact that before their demonisation, they were referred to as Somalia’s Voluntary Coastguard as a result of state collapse in 1991.
“In the wake of the international community’s failed state discourse surrounding Somalia, as well as its disputes over international laws governing the sea, how does the case of Somali piracy challenge the current national order of what constitutes both statehood and borders,” the symposium notes read on the topic. “After all, one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter,” Gardner said during her lecture.
After a break in which the 50 or so symposium participants explored the exhibition, the conversation shifted to the Gaza blockade and international resistance in the form of the Freedom Flotilla. In seeking to breach the blockade by sea, the flotilla has brought international attention to the entire blockade, imposed by land, air and sea. Introducing the session, Jancowicz explained that the decision to insert a panel focusing on Gaza followed recent public debate on the flotilla.
The session began with Palestinian-American lawyer and human rights advocate Huwaida Arraf who spoke via Skype. She told the audience about her activism in Palestine during the Second Intifada, including co-founding the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), whch has been nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize. She explained the origin of the idea of sailing a boat to Gaza. “A former ISM volunteer had the idea of sailing a boat to Gaza,” she recalled explaining that at the beginning she along with others in the movement were sceptical of the idea.
The idea of the boat was not simply aid. Arraf explained that they had a lot of media attention and wanted to use this to show that “Israeli policy towards Gaza was not a security issue by confronting Israel with a peaceful boat with activists where if they stopped us it had to be violently.”
In the coming years, this boat would become a flotilla of boats that headed to Gaza with aid at different points in time. Notoriously in 2009, the Israeli military attacked the flotilla killing nine activists, injuring tens of others, and arresting hundreds.
“We challenged the biggest military in the world, supported by the world’s only superpower through civilian direct peaceful action,” Arraf stated.
Speaking in a different capacity from her earlier contribution about the Take to the Sea research, Attalah presented her experience on board the Tahrir Flotilla in November 2010. She was onboard collecting stories and narratives of the activists. “The status quo will not be changed by states and institutions but by people movements,” she said.
She went on to explain that the Egyptian resistance movement that eventually grew into a revolution that toppled president Mubarak actually started with solidarity protests with the Palestinian issue during the second Intifada in 2001. One of the challenges now, she said, was to “rejuvenate Palestinian solidarity movements [in Egypt] with different tactics and strategies.”
Amr El Shalakany, Professor of Law at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and Assistant Professor at Cairo University with a long history of involvement with the Palestinian cause was the third and final speaker in the session. He discussed anti-normalisation, which challenges the economic and cultural ties instituted by the Camp David Peace Treaty signed in 1979.
“The flotillas invite us to re-think the ethics of anti-normalisation,” Shalakany reflected. “The sea is important but it has its limitation despite its great potential,” he added.
As the discussion was opened to the floor, interesting reflections and questions came up. Professor Chambers perhaps had an alternative view that left many audience members nodding along in agreement. He explained that Europe is mainly the problem, since Israel can be considered the last form of European colonialism in the Mediterranean basin. “Europe is refusing to recognize its own colonial history,” he stated referring to the European guilt over the Holocaust.
The symposium was a great success in that it allowed interested participants to truly dive deep into the themes and topics explored in the exhibition, giving them a truly diverse experience. The project has precipitated a rare collision between the art world, the academic sector and activism.