Art Is a Window to the Arab World’s Soul

If you want to understand the Middle East (in Washington, D.C.), ditch the think-tank panels and catch the photo exhibits and hip-hop shows by Arab artists.


The Egyptian soldiers looked incongruous, armed yet peaceful. The layering of an amateur shot of a Cairo street in upheaval over a traditional Japanese screen painting created a new, imagined world — perhaps one where the Egyptian revolution ended well. Hanging on the wall of Washington’s National Museum of Women in the Arts, Nermine Hammam’s perspective on the heady days of her country’s 2011 uprising was a creative exploration of the different layers of the revolution and the limitations imposed by censorship.

This was one of many photographs by Arab and Iranian women on display at the museum – part of a wave of creativity by Middle Eastern artists currently hitting the American capital. “She Who Tells a Story” is a powerful exhibit offering new perspectives on the complex region, by women pushing back against stereotypes not only of their country but also of their gender. The week before going to that exhibit, I went to the National Building Museum for a compelling, poignant installation by Lebanese artist Tania el Khoury, which told the personal stories of 10 victims of Syria’s war who were buried in their garden. I also found time to browse a pop-up shop of Lebanese fashion designers in Georgetown, in a hip minimalist loft space with a live DJ. (I would put this at the top of my list of recommendations, though I am biased as a Lebanese.)

Then there was the evening I spent listening to Kuwaiti hip-hop at the Busboys and Poets café, part of an event focused on art and pop culture from the Arabian Peninsula organized by the Middle East Institute. One of the speakers was renowned Saudi artist Ahmed Mater, who also happened to have his photographs and videos on display at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery in the first solo exhibition by a Saudi artist in the United States. The show, “Symbolic Cities,” chronicles the extraordinary transformation and urban redevelopment of Mecca over the last few decades.

Five years into the Arab uprisings, as the news out of the Middle East is dominated by headlines about the Islamic State and failed revolutions, many in the West are asking: Where are the young, pluralistic, forward-thinking Arabs, the ones who can lead the region to a better future, the ones who shape the landscape?

Well, some of them are right here, on the doorstep of the American capital. There’s been a sudden proliferation of Arab art shows, in larger numbers than before – and they are no longer just confined to niche cultural centers, but are being given center stage at Washington’s most prestigious platforms.

So if you really want to learn about some of the complexities of the Arab world and its people, skip the think tank panels and head to the museum, where you can also meet some of the artists. I, for one, certainly welcomed the visual relief from pictures of war and destruction, and embraced this reminder of the beauty, creativity, and even normalcy that the Middle East still offers.

At the National Women in the Arts Museum, award-winning photographer Rania Matar’s series of pictures of young women in their bedrooms in Lebanon is such a window into the mundane. It provides glimpses of what binds young people everywhere: stuffed animals on the beds, a portrait of Marilyn Monroe on a wall, a chaos of beauty products on the night dresser.

In an election season where the Middle East only comes up in connection to the so-called Islamic State or the nuclear deal with Iran, when the whole region seems to have been reduced to a counter terrorism problem for policy makers and policy thinkers, Washington has been missing the picture — literally. Thankfully, at this time of almost total breakdown in understanding between the Arab world and the United States, some American think tanks, cultural organizations and museums have recognized that art can offer a much-needed channel for dialogue.

Arab artists have recognized the same thing. Many of the region’s creative voices have felt compelled by the Arab uprisings to become more socially engaged, and to challenge the politics and the social structures in their countries. And that’s part of what has made it easier for them to come to Washington in larger numbers than ever before, and engage in a conversation with American audiences.

Before the uprisings, art in Arab countries was usually confined to state sanctioned galleries or museums and the rarefied circles of elites who patronized them. Independent art operated within the limits of state censorship, while anything potentially considered subversive art was forced underground. In Gulf countries, this is still the predominant model. Many young artists are forced to face enormous risks: In Saudi Arabia — a country without any museums — Palestinian-born poet Ashraf Fayad was recently accused of renouncing Islam and initially sentenced to death. The sentence was later downgraded to eight years in jail and 800 lashes.

In much of the region, however, art has been a catalyst for change. The regional upheaval has acted as fuel for artists working to reclaim contested public spaces and give a voice to a new generation’s hopes. During the Egyptian revolution, Cairo saw a proliferation of graffiti artists, who used the city’s walls as a way to protest and communicate. While much of the revolutionary graffiti has been painted over in an effort to by the authorities to erase the memory of the revolution, some still lives on, as a testament to that moment.

Much of the Arab art now winning acclaim predated the region’s current chaos, but is only now enjoying a wider hearing. Mater, who trained as a doctor, developed an appreciation for art as a young boy thanks to his mother, a calligrapher and painter of traditional murals in Saudi homes. He now runs an art studio in Jeddah and worked closely with Fayad.

“Art has a voice — I believe in art that pushes change, social and political,” he told me during his visit to Washington. “Our art is revolution, art is not separate from society.”

Mater’s art puts him at odds not only with the Saudi state but also with the powerful religious establishment, which frowns on human representation. He navigates the boundaries carefully. But he speaks of his art as part of a global conversation highlighting common concerns, including the “commercialization that has invaded all of us”.

His stunning pictures of Mecca juxtapose the spiritual journey to the holy city of Islam with the glitzy hotels and incongruous placement of advertisements for American products such as Coca-Cola. He also documents the harrowing conditions of the construction workers, showing them dangling dangerously from construction towers or packed by the dozen into a room in their living quarters.

In a very different register, Caravan Beirut, the pop-up fashion shop in Georgetown earlier this month, was also a rousing success. Over four days, the designers attracted 2,500 visitors and sold $140,000 worth of fashion items, ceramics, and clothing. My favorite item was a funky evening purse, featuring Andy Warhol-like imprints of the bust of famous Egyptian singer and icon Um Kulthum. Although she has never really fallen out of fashion, the singer who enraptured millions of Arabs is being re-appropriated as a new symbol of cool — a reminder of another, more culturally rich era in the Arab world. The National Museum of Women in the Arts is also planning an homage to the singer in July, with performances and artists talks.

No, a handful exhibits or art shows isn’t going to change how Washington views the Middle East. But Lyne Sneige, the director of the Arts and Culture program at the Middle East Institute, said the recurrent programming around the region’s vibrant arts and culture scene may well have an impact.

“When policy makers get briefed about the region, they don’t get the pulse of the street, so these conversations give you anther insight into the region that you wouldn’t get otherwise,” she said. “It’s important to recognize that there are people working on these issues [of freedom and expression in the region] and give them a platform in Washington.”

MEI worked on Khoury’s Syria exhibit, as well as collaborating with the Sackler museum to bring Mater to Washington. These artists’ voices will redefine the region’s cultural landscape, and propel forward its political conversation. They are a window into the vast changes underway in the region. That’s why it’s so important for Washington policy makers to gain exposure to them.

These are some of the 77 percent young Arabs who in a recent, remarkable survey declared that they too were concerned about the rise of the Islamic State, the 52 percent who said religion plays too big a role in the Middle East, and the 67 percent who said Arab leaders should work harder to improve the personal freedom and rights of women. David Ignatius wrote an excellent piece after reading the survey, counseling: Don’t give up on the Arabs.

The Arab uprisings brought great hope followed by bitter disillusionment, especially for young people. It has been such a dark hell for so many of them for five years. But the second wave of change is coming — you can see it in the renewed protests in Egypt or the fresh faces, with an actual political platform, trying to break through in the upcoming municipal elections in Beirut.

The Caravan Beirut pop up and Khoury’s Syria installation are already gone, but you can still tour the Mater exhibit at the Sackler. The women photographers’ exhibit is still on the show at the National Museum for Women in the Arts, which is organizing a series of talks with some of the photographers, including Yemeni artist Boushra al-Mutawakkel.

To top it all off, it seems Washington is even ready for the Middle East’s most irreverent, subversive indie pop band, the Lebanese group Mashrou’ Leila, which will perform at The Hamilton in June after rave reviews of their shows in London and New York.

They have been slowly maturing in style and growing in popularity since 2008, and have been joined around the region by a number of new, rebellious bands redefining the sound of the Middle East with their political lyrics and pop-electronica.

The band sings about religious, political, and sexual freedom, and their lyrics — along with their openly gay lead singer — sometimes get them in trouble in the Arab world. They were recently banned from an upcoming performance in Jordan – though the kingdom was just forced to lift the ban after local and international outcry.

Mashrou’ Leila often puts to words what thousands of young Arabs no doubt felt as they took to the streets in the uprisings. “Whenever you dare to ask about the worsening situation, they silence you with their slogans about conspiracies. They call you a traitor every time you demand change in the nation.”

These sounds and pictures of the new, creative, young vibrant Middle East are a welcome addition to the conversation about the region in Washington. They deserve to be seen, heard, and amplified.

Nermine Hammam, Dreamland II, from the series “Cairo Year One: Upekkha,” 2011; Chromogenic print, 5 7/8 x 8 1/4 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Rose Issa Projects, London

Kim Ghattas is a BBC correspondent covering international affairs and a senior visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She is the author of "The Secretary: A Journey With Hillary Clinton From Beirut to the Heart of American Power." Twitter: @BBCKimGhattas

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