Geopolitics of contemporary Mediterranean arts in North Africa

This article talks about how social movements in North Africa create new relationship between art, politic and citizenship. We wish to focus on revolutions in Southern Mediterranean coast in Tunisia, Lybia and Egypt. This reflections would like to go beyond “eurocentrism” explications of the social movements called “Arab spring”, trying to better understand how sociopolitical conditions as censorship, postcolonialism or mass media controlled by dictatorship, affected artists’production and its contents. We wish to talk about the situation before authoritarianism and how art practice changed the activities of creators. These changes have been catalyzed by network technologies, activism in the public space and by the artists as agents of action during the transition.
Mediterranean revolutions represent the biggest democratic movement in the XXI century. The “Arab Spring” for these movements or events is ultimately irrelevant. The expression “Revolution of Freedom and Dignity” and “Revolution of Dignity and Democracy” are the most widely circulated names given to describe them. These social movements created new forms of contemporary art and design due to a closer relationship that exists between politics and arts.
These social movements started to take place in Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Libya, Spain and Syria since January 2011. New social democratic movements followed European shores, particularly to Spain, Greece and Italy, countries that were inspired by the revolution of dignity. A paradoxical situation developed in 2012 because of that several dictatorships were overthrown, the last polls in whole Mediterranean countries returned back to conservatives political organizations, which resulted in the collapse of economic systems devastating the lives of millions. The resulting conflicts, wars and deep economical, social, political and environmental crises are now dangerously affecting the region, and all mankind at large.
Revolutionary movements inside these conservative rules created an uprising of connections between activism, contemporary arts and design. Political themes became a central topic in the Mediterranean contemporary art sector. Since 2011, artists started to use public spaces through forms of expression such as street art, performance and artivism. Artists often participate and contribute to demonstrations, in ways such as producing printmaking and murals to fully express citizen rights. With online social network tools, Mediterranean artists were able to give powerful records of political events in their own country, or share what happened in their own neighborhoods.
Since 2011, the Mediterranean countries are in the world’s spotlight. Contemporary art markets are increasing attracting attention from private collectors and museums. In this article I will discuss about censorship describing the changing behavior of artists in Mediterranean societies, public space and technology. This article will focus on geopolitical views to explore and to deeper understand how the sociopolitical context has influenced artists and art processes. When we talk about the “Revolution of Freedom and Dignity”, it’s important to identify what kind of sociopolitical events are and also the ways that artists interact with them.
1. Censorship
In North African dictatorial regime, governments established censorship through collaboration with artists affiliated with the regime. They monopolized financial funds that were used in exchange for self-censorship. Censorship authorities also created opaque access policies, locking the access to the public funds allowed for local art production. Politics and socially critical topics in artwork were repressed in North African dictatorships for 15 to 30 years, which heavily impacted on the evolution of art.
Artists who broke such authorities rules were usually jailed or at worst tortured. Artists were treated as potential criminals from government authorities, and were placed under high control and extreme vigilance. We can talk about the experiences of Mohamed Ali Belkadhi to illustrate this situation. At the end of 1998, he presented an art piece that had caused him a lot of problems with the previous regime. It was a series of 60 cans that bore the inscription, “A drink to make the Revolution”, with the effigy of Che Guevara printed on each can, along with the text, “Potable and stimulating solution for any person seeking revolution”. Presented in the windows of a Gallery Bookstore, the cans were quickly spotted and seven police officers turned up at the artist’s house the same night, and took him to the police station where he was interrogated for several hours. This is a clear example of how efficient repression systems were able to inhibit artistic expression, and silence political views, obtaining moralist frames where the freedom of choice of the artists’ topics was seriously limited.
Such political repression of artists in dictatorship regimes muffled the possible future projections for politics and political views. Artworks were locked up, subduing artists to focus simply on aesthetics and decorative artworks made in the traditionalist legacy of past artistic values. With such prohibition of social projections toward the future that could be created by collective dynamics in political activities, artists were jailed, for such representations of society. An obsessive nostalgia for past times pushed artists to work on decorating ceramics, realist paintings, vintage photographs, and postcards. Dissident artists that did not follow the restrictive ways set out for them had no other option but exile. We can see the particular action of European countries to receive these intellectuals and artists. A special exchange was made between northern coast governments and southern Mediterranean dictatorships to receive these dissidents and reduce political critics. It’s important to understand that south European governments, particularly France and Italy, helped these dictatorships for their own economic interests.
From a post-colonialist perspective, southern dictatorships offered a stable business relationship with European companies {{1}} and corrupted their local politics for supplies exploitation of North African areas of European companies. We must also remember the close connection between presidents {{2}} such as Sarkosy-Ben Ali and Berlusconi-Gadafi. This also happened in Algeria during the kabylian uprising at the beginning of the XXI century with the censure on writers and artists of Tunisia.
We can talk about post-colonialism because the “brain-drain” of artists and intellectuals to European societies had a double interest: to reduce social pressure, and also to use dissenting artwork production to reinforce in northern societies the idea that North Africa was a place of violent and censored human communities.
The result was a good socio-centric feeling that European populations are the only true producers of modern democracy, and that they were the true guardians of human rights values. Southern artists in exile were exploited in European societies with the goal of producing negative representations of southern societies – as it was done in the colonialist era. This generated discourses about the legitimization of domination of meridional populations, due to a hypothetical social and ideological risk to northern modern societies. This need for negative representation is still present in revolutionary events in the area. These representations make European societies feel proud and satisfied as being a model of democracy and human rights that justify post-colonialism thinking, rejecting diversity in Europe. This trend corresponds to stereotypes that have found a new skin following post-colonial representations of the Islamic veil, of Arab woman being depicted as oppressed, and the Islamic terrorism. We can look to the increase of exhibitions displayed that are only dedicated to these topics, and the increase of open calls for art residents in France for North African artists during this period. We must also highlight how French alliances and organizations spread and selected Tunisian artworks to create a particular post-colonial representation of North African societies, such as they did for the Festival World Nomads Tunisia. We can see how European governments contribute to reinforcing the notion of violent societies existing in North Africa, and to the distortion of new contemporary forms of social representation displayed in the Occident. The dimension of oppression or state repression is never spotlighted or it is shown only to confirm the concept of North African societies as dangerous for Europeans societies.
Highly prejudiced thinking about the revolution of dignity is still active today because it was described as a violent movement. In 2013, there were a lot of exhibitions displayed in Europe about North African uprising that focused only on the violence of protesters, fundamentalism or gender issues. The artworks produced and displayed in the Occident focused primarily on gender struggle or stereotypes of violent African or Arabic societies. These exhibitions and these art events reinforce the idea of oppressed southern women living in a machist world. We can observe the impossibility of northern neighborhood societies to think of the “Arab spring” outside the negative representations system, in spite of the fact it is the biggest movement of democratization of the XXI century. Western societies reducing all social struggles of the “Arab spring” only to the stereotype of submission of southern women.
When we discuss about censorship in revolutions of dignity, it is useful to think of how the downfall of censorship rules impacted the entire range of art communities of Northern Africa. Before it broke suddenly in January 2011, artists were under a continuous vigilance by police and regime administration. These restrictions on artistic practices that existed during the Ben Ali regime and the Mubarak Era disappeared in less than one month in each Country in which the revolutions took place in, leaving ecstatic freedom of creative self-expression for artists throughout the area. When we look at the social impacts of the pictures produced by artists from the south Mediterranean coast in that time, we can see we are addressing a real revolution of arts and design in this area of the world. These movements were broadcast through mass media internationally, and were in the spotlight of the public eye of the world for over two years.
In less that six months, three dictatorships that had been in place for decades fell in less than three months, leaving a wonderful space for activity for artists that had been repressed in their art practices and topic choices for such a long time. When we observe Mediterranean art during revolutionary movements, we can start to discern that what was being built by it is a tribute to social hopes and emotions of the population as it began to gain a new outlook on their own lives and futures. They were a tribute to the discussions about revolution and freedom, with all the complex emotional mix they entail – ecstasy, sadness and determination. There was a real break from old, heavy, oppressive censorship that had been built and kept active for decades, and ultimately imposed upon the entire local practice of art.
Artists tried to break the boundaries of censorship, and the fear of punishment for freedom that was produced and injected into their own societies over decades. Now these boundaries have exploded. One of the major changes that the revolution brought was “the breaking of being afraid”, in other words, the fear of speaking up and expressing by their own mind and the fear of being punished. The creativity of the slogans, the humor and the activity that were witnessed in Tahrir and on Burguiba avenue was only the beginning of the unleashing of an immense and long-oppressed creative energy, and it turned a page in history. It brought artistic freedom, but not only that: also the freedom to think and to practice new ways of creating, and to run art spaces in a place and time with which one must struggle (they are now practicing in a here and now that it is imperative to transcend).
In the post-revolution time we can observe a double dynamic between artistic activities and old-rule practices of censorship that are still present in southern Mediterranean governments. Artists today in North Africa are still considered potential criminals and are directly targeted as the most reactionary fringe of society by the police and judicial system. Various examples illustrate this situation as follows:
On June 12, the international press reported severe unrest in Tunisia, and it was said that protests against an art exhibition were the cause. This exposition was called “Springtime of the Arts”, held in Marsa, a quarter of Tunis. It resulted in aggression against the participating artists, including public calls for their murder. A radical destruction of artwork and direct intimidation of artists was carried out at the scene. The conflict did not begin until the last day of the 10-day art fair (June 1-10), when some visitors voiced indignation about what they considered to be blasphemous character in the works of art, and they threatened the organizers with legal consequences. The media reported differing versions and interpretations of the causes of the rapid rise in tension. On the following night a large group of Salafists stormed the Abdellia Palace, destroying many works of art, and they ravaged the site of the exhibition. These events triggered anger and bloody fights with the police in and beyond Tunis.
In the following days, fundamentalists fanned the flames of anger that was held toward the artists; as evidence of the alleged blasphemy, in particular via the Internet. They used Facebook to spread pastiches of works of art that were never actually featured at the exhibition at all. Also on Facebook and on several other social networks, they published the names and photos of the participating artists and called for their killing. Several of these artists were threatened personally. On the 16th of June 2012, Chairman of Zitouna Mosque was banned from preaching following incitement carried out to murder artists.
Another example of the continued aggression was the various incidents of police chasing street artists or photographers away, or in worse cases simply arresting them. In Egypt they and their works still risk being targeted, especially by the powerful army and its supporters. Ganzeer, possibly Egypt’s most famous street artist, was briefly arrested in May 2011, months after the revolution, over a poster criticizing the military’s repression of freedom. The recent documentary ART WAR from Marco Wilms is an apt and passionate summary of the predicament of street artists in Egypt.
Then there is also the well-documented case of Amina Femen, who was sent to board in a psychiatric hospital after publishing a bluntly nude picture on her facebook page. She was be put in the hospital on request by her own father after the publication. An international feminist coalition created a support website to support her and place pressure on Tunisian consulates and government to grant her freedom. The artwork of Amina Femen revolutionizes the feminist’s struggles all around the world. In May 2012 we can see on social networks international feminist pictures painting message in all languages to claim women rights. By way of photography and activist performances, the Amina Femen movement created an efficient artivism that was enough to break gender stereotypes. One of the last spectacular examples of this was carried out in Cologne Cathedral during a Christmas celebration. A shirtless Femen militant with the words painted on her chest “I am God” attempted to end the ceremony by jumping atop the altar and saying “your god is a rapist, our god is a woman!”. A more efficient performance against the conservative community is difficult to imagine.
The case of musicians of the Mediterranean area also interesting after revolution. They also expressed socials pains and hopes. Their powerful lyrics created political controversies so strong that artists were arrested in less than 48 hours. Musician are at direct risk of being jailed for their words and their opinions. Artists such as Doble Canon & Kafon Tunisia, and Pavlos Fyssas in Greece were directly targeted by conservative movements. In the case of Pavlos Fyssas, the artist was killed by a far-right politics group directly connected with the far-right government. After seeing the burden of censorship in northern Africa over 15-30 years, we can feel the deep wish of the artists to make an uprising in desire of freedom, and to break old rules and alienated machinery that represented dictatorial regimes.
2. Status of artists in societies in transition
Artists became agents of emancipation, and the dynamics of transition were an antidote to censorship, authoritarianism and to any sort of fundamentalism. This post-revolution situation put artists in active dynamics as individuals who must perpetually construct freedom. They are daily creators of alternative narratives of political events. They represent actual social struggles, political and economic changes with humanistic views at the fore. As human beings with emotional intelligence, artists recognize the fragility of the human condition. We could say the participation of artists is an expression of solidarity, with civil societies imposing an activist dimension in their artworks. Artists were not at the forefront of this revolution, although they clearly took part in it. Creators played a new role of being catalysts of the social requests of the protesters. They were working for self-empowerment, hope, and inspiration for the struggles of everyday life.
The personal experience of creative freedom for whole communities of North Africa in the revolution period moved artistic practice and led to new creations. Artists were not rethinking their practices because of the events, rather we must read their artworks as a dynamic collective construction. There are individual artists who are active in their local cultural scene and who have made meaningful contributions to social and political change in their countries through artistic practice. Artists demonstrate significant activity as participants in local institutions and/or as activists using creative strategies. They became locals agents for change during revolutions of dignity. The artworks produced by them have a real social dimension exhibited in an urban environment.
They create personal projects that explore sociopolitical dynamics, occupation, and subcultures of their cities. Artists, when best performing their role as citizens, pose imperative questions about societies and their environments. Through the practice of mixing diverse art media, they try to express personal or social experiences. Artistic work interweaves deep personal experiences with a questioning of the social conditions and circumstances in the world around them. Artists draw artworks from the same personal experiences as protesters and share them in very popular ways.
The prohibition on projecting alternative future politics that I discussed earlier disappeared during uprisings, leaving space for the creation of political alternatives allowed by the imagination skills that define artists. The pressing need of civil societies to imagine alternative political systems empowered artists in their role of creators of symbolic representations utilizing the means of art. Collective desires, hopes and aspirations facing an often disenchanting and brutal reality produced new forms of visual language during revolutions of dignity. These pressing needs for symbolic representations pushed the boundaries of art mediums and the interconnections between disciplines.
Artists mix an eclectic panel of components in their artworks: their personal stories, slogans, embroidery, patchwork, painting and illustration on the exterior and internal panels, inspirational proverbs and quotes, interviews, listen to sound installations in the street, watch dance performances by young students, or write a wish on a ribbon. This mosaic of components in North African processes expressed the intimate feelings of the whole of North African, whether young or old or rich and poor, street urchins and intellectuals. Artists made multi-faceted art actions that included also teaching art, art criticism, organization of exhibitions, etc.
The artists came to tell stories of personal and collective experiences, stories of contemporary political & social struggles questionings such as alienation, violence, technology of information, relationships of the present and the past. The communicational activity of the work of art, such as structures and behaviors in the urban environment, was to refer to economic crisis, globalization, as well as similarities and differences, convergences, unifying lines and deviations; the “old” and the “new” in the wider geographical area of Mediterranean.
3. Public space
Art exhibition in the public space redefines politics in creation, as well as art in its relation to the city. Public art in the Mediterranean region was historically linked to the urban context because public space has been an antic place for the exchange of ideas for centuries. Artworks that are promptly exhibited in public spaces can still have significant and symbolic locations. It’s the natural site for public meetings, debate. The new social movements, economics and political circumstances as well as the rapid advancement of technology created a new urban artistic context.
Under the Mubarak, Ben Ali or Al Assad regime, the prevalent sense of fear had a paralyzing effect on people’s self-expression in the public area. But once they realized there was no longer seemingly anything to fear, they started to explore ways of expressing themselves on public spaces that had been prohibited during the past regime. Art had really been a way to enable a social Catharsis of their political communities, their dysfunctions and the lack of freedom and ideological impositions that were issued from the public sphere. People and artists found themselves freely drawing on walls, singing themselves in streets, and going back to the public space.
No longer confined to exhibiting their works in galleries, more and more artists found themselves turning humble streets into open-air studios and outdoor museums. Because art was no longer only in museums and galleries, and exhibiting it in such venues created distances, which can demoralize artgoers. In a gallery space, people, who were usually part of the “very select” public, excluded the usually popular social expression. Artists and new generations of creators rejected by museums and gallery systems made a real statement with their art displays. Their canvas of choice is a bare, dusty wall on which they spray cheeky graffiti and paint colorful murals. The public space offered a break from the museums and galleries framework. Streets are for everyone, and therefore the street offers itself for art. Just as it is for political activity, the street is for walking, for sitting down, and also it is a place for demonstrating.
By way of contemporary art, artists help to re-appropriate public space, and also help to repair and reconstruct socials relationships and the politics of self-expression in an extended sense. The interventions of artists transforms the spaces of daily life into poetic visuals, experiments, and into places for developing collective political representations. The spaces of everyday life and of social creativity offer to all persons an important source of visual inspiration and intellectual material, which is to be shared and gained from by everybody.
Artworks displayed during this period of time often contained popular and subjective language, used to transcend our personal experience. The artworks are emotionally charged, expressing social anger, political frustrations, or paying tribute to fallen protesters. Artworks during the revolution were a way of chronicling a narrative. At this moment, artists transposed a record of collective moments of life’s continuity. Art activity gained a new and powerful significance in the public sphere. It was a period of great emotional difficulty that all experienced and needed to share. Public art exhibitions became a shrine of collective memory that could be shared by all. They mixed those feelings with the ecstatic sense of freedom that was upon them, hope for tomorrow and desperation with government responses to police repression and brutality. It’s like a hymn of hope in the midst of misery.
4. Networking technology
The Revolutions of Dignity were the biggest movements of democratization in the first part of the XXI century, but they were also the first cyber-revolutions ever carried out on a global scale. The technology networking became a key in the revolutionary uprisings. The use of social media by citizens changed traditional usefulness of the mass media, create new forms of citizen political expression and changed the artists status in society.
In the case of the revolution of Dignity, it’s easily observable that it has been a famed and popular uprising, and worldwide knowledge of it has been facilitated by new social media and mobile telephones, and channeled through existing structures and traditions of resistance and protest. Technology has broken the previous limits of capacity of national mass media. At that time national television had strictly ignored protests, and seemed oblivious to the fact that thousands of people were calling for the overthrow of the government on social media networks. When national mass-media did ultimately discuss the issue, their narrative held that it involved only hundreds of protesters, and in that narrative Tunisian people saw a profusion of videos and graphic images of police cracking down on the protesters in different regions of the country. People could now contrast the events being diffused through word of mouth and the internet with the media reports, and soon realized that journalists were very busy concealing the news, rather than transmitting it. A daily asymmetry was being experienced, a disturbing dichotomy between the TV news portrayed about North African events, and the information being given directly from local communities about the events that were actually transpiring.
The evolutionary step of the increase in photography devices in society, along with a democratized desire and capacity to report and capture the reality created a deep revolution in the meaning of photography. People share a desire for truth and honest description of the events they live through, whether they are an artist interested in eloquent social expression, or a passerby engaging with their surroundings. Before the revolution, photographers had had their practices associated with those of photojournalists, and also with certain sectors such as advertising or fashion industry. Photography was also used in private spaces for social events such as weddings, births, or traditional celebrations. The production of political discourses by the way of photography was be the activity for decades by mass medias and highly supervised by political censorship and police control. Photojournalism, photo-reporting, advertising photography, and fashion photography were allowed in various spaces and had their own commercial and economic logic. Commercial imperatives generated propagandist drifting or instrumentalisation of the art medium of photography. In 2011, cell phones contributed in a new way to creating an exceptional evolution in the landscape of photography that has taken place over the last ten years: a considerable, dramatic quantitative shift in the number of photographers, and photographic devices that were being used on a daily basis. This democratized the use of photography as a medium of expression, information, and sharing between people in the Mediterranean area.
We can see the transformation in the use of photo-reporting from the professional photographer employed by censored mass media, to every citizen effectively becoming a reporter, and catalyzing the effect of the pictures by diffusing them directly to as many people as possible via social media networks. Camera-phones and online accounts equalized social access to the use of photography. The online network sites became a powerful new medium of sharing and communicating political’s abuse and completely bypassing traditional censored sources of information. These were used as a means to re-appropriate and re-empower people with the social narration of socio-political movements. By contrast, mass media organizations under the pressure of the regime at the time created a distorted narrative version of the events. On the other hand, the realities shared through online social media between familiar and interconnected people, only familiarized and interconnected more people – which made more sense to people than being drip-fed a skewed version of events designed to retain the regime in a position of power, at the cost of the truth, and regardless of its merits or faults. This separation between official information and that social media reports generated a massive. This high cognitive dissonance between social medias contents and mass medias news happened at first in Tunisia in 2011, and followed successively in each country in the surrounding Mediterranean area, and was also seen on a global scale.
With the uprising of social networking, and within the virtual sphere of the internet, physical barriers of geography and communication held less power. Technology allowed the easy use and democratization of publication tools; smart phones, computers and small electronic devices such as cameras and other recording technology. Video and pictures became easy to edit and publish. Technological networking allowed an extremely fast medium for uploading, publication, and distribution. The World Wide Web has provided a safe haven for any citizen can create, upload, distribute and share their creations, reflections, opinions, and experiences with the rest of the world.
These posts could be thought of as a trans-national art, because the personal publications on social networks shared in a creative way with the aim to produce sense. This collective narrative construction produced revolutionary symbols. Mediterranean communities events were drawn to messages through publications, videos and photography. A global public space where experience could be shared and people could inspire each other was a clear result. These pictures slowly develop a particular iconographic representation of the social movements. Catalysts for this growth such as the medium of photography and also the work of street artists bred this language of iconography. A global exhibition of signs and symbols was being shared by way of instant posts being published daily and massively by citizen, protesters and artists. The cellphone was becoming an extension of the eye, events were captured in film or in pictures. A simple cellphone became a tool through which a fusion could take place between the point of view of a local protester with a global watcher. These pictures captured individuals in action, and connected viewers as affiliate members of the demonstration. By being approached through photography, images of intense moments of conflict and violence could now open thousands of eyes and create subjective and personal views of an event or a situation. Revolutions progressed, and access to other societies expanded via the Internet. They could be re-interpreted by Mediterranean neighborhood communities in the context of their specific histories and to match their own sociopolitical situation.
What happened in photojournalism also happened with artistic photography, and also led to new forms of art. In the art sphere, technology again broke the border between artists and viewers. Technological tools are not only widely available, but are becoming a new standard for the average person in society. Everybody can create art, anyone can produce pictures and edit video. We can talk about the explosion of street photography and the democratization of photographic artworks that results from this, and we can see that the production of photos with photographers being held up in status to the public eye like superstars with elitist displays in museums and art galleries is now becoming decadent. Art is represented more widely today at art markets, museums and galleries, as art practices of the people. Art activities are not solely defined by art institutions or individuals when they are realized in such spaces.
With the democratization of photography by technology we have had no need to wait for artists to express the communities emotions, and produce significant representations of what happens daily for the people. Perhaps we forget the fact that people make art for to make sense. Citizens with a smartphone can now do that by themselves, directly. People no longer professional artists to give them a sense and expression of sociopolitical movements anymore – they are able to publish and create directly with the democratized technology at hand. It’s so easy for people today to edit pictures, videos and sounds, upload, publish and share them, and it is interesting to see art with open-minded views flow into view online. Technology allows a democratization of creativity, as it permits a new diversity in the range of producers and their creations.
Creating signs is possibly the easiest thing that can be done with technology, and with the view of gaining knowledge to improve personal art skills, it’s now an easy material that everyone can access easily on the internet. Making art makes sense; everybody can do it with the help of technology – it is not limited to artists as proprietors of special gear. Art tools are no longer exclusive: they have become democratized. Reducing art and design to commercial art has to be forgiven in the name of all others kinds of art activity that occurs in the name of social expression. If you wish to understand arts of the Mediterranean area better, it’s important to study them outside the boundaries of art markets. Artists and people in the time of the Egyptian revolution edited tutorials about the strategy of video-shooting, for artivists to use and increase their capacities with. Artists also used their visual production skills for editing diverse video instructions that had been created to support protesters, and to help them protect themselves against tear-gas and other repression tactics used by the police to stifle protests. Artists didn’t only create work for art markets- they also created a knowledge base for people to help them, and as a measure of protection against political repression. These activities satisfy a need for information that was not fed by traditional mass media, nor by the western concepts of art production.
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