We mourn the passing of the great Palestinian artist, Kamal Boullata, who died on August 6, 2019. Kamal was a dear friend and colleague, and closely associated with MERIP from its earliest days. We offer the following tribute.
In January 2015, Christie’s announced that a painting by the Palestinian Suleiman Mansour, Camel of Burdens II (Jamal al-Mahamil), would be the highlight of its annual auction of modern and contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish art held in Dubai. The piece was listed as the second version of the 1973 original, which was thought to have belonged to Muammar al-Qaddafi, the long-time Libyan dictator, and to have been destroyed in the US bombing of his Tripoli military compound in 1986. An iconic portrayal of Palestinian steadfastness (sumud) in the struggle for a homeland, it was expected to sell for somewhere between
$200,000 and $300,000.
Khalid Albaih is a political cartoonist “from the two countries of Sudan,” in his words, who is now based in Qatar. His drawings appear at his Facebook page, entitled Khartoon! in a play on the name of the Sudanese capital. Katy Kalemkerian and Khalid Medani spoke with him in Montreal on November 9, 2014, and conducted a follow-up interview by Skype after the January 2015 attack on the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, notorious for its regular caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in degrading or humiliating poses.
“We are not just talking culture and art for the sake of having a vision (lil-tanzir), holding exhibitions irrespective of who comes or doesn’t. To the contrary, we have a mission!” At the press conference in Ramallah on October 21, 2014 for the second edition of the Qalandiya International Biennale (QIB2), impassioned organizers responded to a pointed question about the role art could have in protecting Palestinian identity and overcoming Israeli oppression. The spokesperson, Jack Persekian, proclaimed that naming the biannual Palestine art event for the infamous checkpoint in the Israeli separation wall could transform the barrier into a bridge.
Two clouds kissed silently in the Baghdad sky. I watched them flee westward, perhaps out of shyness, leaving me alone on the bench beneath the French palm tree (so called because it stood in the courtyard in front of the French department) to wait for Areej. I looked for something worth reading in that morning’s al-Jumhuriyya, and found a good translation of a Neruda poem in the culture section, besieged on all sides by doggerel barking praises of the Party and the Revolution. The breeze nudged the palm fronds above my head to applaud. It was April, “the month of fecundity, the birth of the Baath and the Leader,” as one of the posters on the college walls announced.
In recent years, walls have proliferated in Egypt. Some, as Samuli Schielke and I write in the new issue of Middle East Report, are liberally decorated with political graffiti and other, more quotidian types of writing. Whether thus adorned or not, the barriers confront citizens with political and economic power rendered in concrete.
It is argued that the celebrated Arab protest movements have changed the path of visual arts in the region. Headlines predict that art inspired by the uprisings will be freer and more critical. Artists have partaken in the displays of mass dissent, demonstrating in the streets and protesting further through their work. Inflated claims notwithstanding, and despite unfulfilled hopes, the protests have indeed directed welcome attention to art scenes in Arab cities. Change, many still hope, is finally possible.
The Arab uprisings have brought major challenges, as well as unprecedented opportunities, to the culture industries. According to a flurry of celebratory news articles from the spring of 2011 onward, protest art is proliferating in the region, from graffiti in Egypt to hip-hop in Morocco to massive photographic displays and political cartoons gone viral in Tunisia. These articles then adopt a predictably ominous tone to express the concern that resurgent Islamist forces represent a danger to arts and culture writ large.
On January 7, under a clear chill sky, the monthly culture festival al-Fann Midan (Art Is a Square) took place in Cairo’s ‘Abdin plaza. In the sunny esplanade facing the shuttered former royal palace, spectators cheered a succession of musical acts, took in a display of cartoons and caricatures, and wandered from tables selling homemade jewelry to others handing out the literature of the Revolutionary Socialists or the centrist Islamist party al-Wasat. The drama troupe Masrah al-Maqhurin (Theater of the Oppressed) put on a series of skits requiring audience participation. In the first, a daughter left the family house against her father’s will, and with her mother’s connivance, to attend a birthday party. She was caught and reported by her brother, and then beaten by her father. In the participatory iterations that followed, a young woman from the audience chose to play the brother and, to much laughter, told the sister: “I won’t tell Dad I saw you in the street if you don’t tell him I was at the café.” Another audience member played the mother, working arduously but in vain to convince the father to allow the girl out of the house under her brother’s supervision. Interestingly, no one in the audience chose to incarnate — and change the behavior of — the authoritarian and violent father.
Zeina Maasri, Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War (London: I. B. Tauris, 2009).
Something’s happening here. In one of the largest street demonstrations in Tehran since the 1979 revolution, thousands filled Vali Asr Street (formerly known as Pahlavi Street) on Monday, forming a human chain nearly 12 miles long and stopping traffic for nearly five hours. They wore strips of green cloth around their wrists and heads in support of presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. They sang “Ey Iran,” the unofficial national anthem composed in the Pahlavi era by one of the leading figures of classical Persian music, the late Ruhollah Khaleghi. Banned for a time by the Islamic Republic, the song’s lyrical melody touches a deeply patriotic vein.
The poet Esmail Khoi once remarked to Ardeshir Mohassess that many of his drawings focused on oppression, depicting both the oppressor and the oppressed as ugly and animal-like. “You seem to suggest,” Khoi observed, “that those who suffer from oppression are no less cruel that their oppressors.” Ardeshir responded, “Perhaps I see both as equally responsible.”  Throughout an artistic career that spanned nearly five decades, Mohassess’ evocative line drawings depicted the heavy burden of the contest for power on the lives of Iranians. Above all, Ardeshir saw himself as a reporter, and his body of work forms an archive of twentieth-century Iran.
Music from the Arab world has traditionally been a minor player within world music, the marketing category encompassing a wide variety of international music that emerged in the late 1980s. Aimed at an NPR listening “adult” audience, world music has a small market share of roughly 2-3 percent (comparable to classical music and jazz), but its audibility increased during the 1990s. Rai music from Algeria and Algerians in France — the most important Arab presence in world music — opened the way for other Arab artists to enter the scene during the 1990s.
It’s Possible, A Joint Exhibition of Palestinian and Israeli Art
“It’s Possible” is the theme of an exhibition by Palestinian and Israeli artists currently touring the United States. Twenty-four artists — 12 Palestinians and 12 Israelis — are displaying their works together in the first such effort outside Israel and the occupied territories. The exhibit curators are Kamal Boullata, a Palestinian artist and design editor of this magazine, and Yona Fischer, senior curator of the Israel Museum; New York-based Israeli sculptor Shulamith Koenig serves as the exhibition administrator.
All revolutions require aesthetic means for representing changes in consciousness. The French Revolution saw itself as something new and universal, and generated a rich elaboration of aesthetic categories of the sublime (storms of nature, volcanoes, earthquakes), the beautiful (island of calm, meadow after a storm) and the grotesque (metamorphoses) as vehicles for thinking about social change and the future. Most revolutions since then have seen themselves in relation to predecessor revolutions, from which they borrow tactics, organizational forms, strategies, rhetoric, symbols and graphics.
During the summer of 1986,1 spent a month in the West Bank, keen to learn for myself about the effects of Israeli restrictions on Palestinian forms of expression, particularly in the visual arts and local crafts. A quick look at different cultural products indicated that traditional aesthetic values have for some time been rapidly eroding. Alternative aesthetic values were more often than not crudely colored by the reactive rhetoric intrinsic to the cultural ghetto created by the occupation. I set out to explore for myself the process that brings into being products which stir a sense of pride among Palestinians living under occupation, and to understand the components that endow these cultural products with their uniquely Palestinian character.
A ragged, barefoot boy, hands clutched behind his back, stands witness to the scene before him. The small boy in the cartoon is Naji al-‘Ali, popular cartoonist, at age 10, when he was expelled from his native Palestine to Lebanon in 1948. Naji used to say that the boy was a symbol of the Palestinian people and, more personally, of his aborted youth. “They tell little children to turn their backs, but I don’t turn. The boy is the age I was when I left Palestine, and he will not grow up until I return.”