art of resistance, Kuwait

Illustrations By Owaikeo (Ahmed Al-Refaie).

owa/all art © Owaikeo/

Ahmed Al-Refaie, going by the artistic name of Owaikeo, is an illustrator from Kuwait. His illustrations are colorful, clever and playful – definitely worth your attention.

About the inspiration behind his work, Al-Refaie says“I’m sparked with everything around me, spinning old cultures with a modern twist to bridge the gap between what’s modern and what’s traditional.”

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Follow Owaikeo on Instagram, plus – click here if you’re interested in checking out his merchandise.

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art of resistance, Lebanon

(Interview) Yazan Halwani: Uniting The City.

action_shot_yazan_halwani/Photos: Yazan Halwani (private album)/

Although he’s only in his twenties, Yazan Halwani is a name you will hear a lot in Beirut. For the last couple of years his work is among the most notable ones when it comes to Arab street art. Halwani has adorned walls of Beirut (and cities all over the world) with portraits of the writer Khalil Gibran and legendary singers Fairuz and Sabah, as well as everyday local heroes like Ali Abdullah, a homeless man who died one winter’s night in 2013 and Fares, a 12-year-old flower seller from Hamra street.

I meet Halwani in a quiet cafe in Gemmayzeh, a vibrant area of cafes and small shops in downtown Beirut. He’s relaxed and easygoing, with a big smile on his face, and remains of paint on his fingers. We move from topic to topic, he speeks with ease and eloquence. We talk about the different layers of (street) art, use of graffiti to tell a story, sectarianism and Lebanese identity, and importance of doing things your way.

In your work, you put emphasis on the unified aspects of Lebanese identity. In a society that knows separation, society that is deeply fragmented, you try to focus on the commonalities. In Beirut, different neighbourhoods have different tags on the walls, different posters and flags – the visualization of division is quite present in this city. How do you work around that?

What I am doing is not necessarily trying to tell people that they shouldn’t be religious, that they shouldn’t have a certain identity, not at all. What I am trying to do is creating a unified cultural identity. If you try to answer the question – what does it mean to be Lebanese – you cannot answer it, and that is mainly because of how Lebanon was created. It was a mix of cultures and different religions that were put together in a very random and incosiderable way.

In the beginning it maybe made sense because the identity was formed in relation to the occupier, but that changed over the decades. Although there are some commonalities, the emphasis in Lebanon was always on the religious and sectarian identity.

Why is that so?

The reason for that is that the political parties benefit much more from such divide than from enforcing a citizen or political identity. If you have a political identity you tend to shift, and the political party you support needs to be consistent, it needs to deserve your loyalty. It’s much easier to talk about religion, to continue the sectarian speech, than to address real issues, like corruption.

This sectarian identity is emphasized in the urban landscape. In Geitawi and Achrafieh, you see the crosses, the tags of Lebanese Forces, and in Hamra, a street supposedly run by Syrian Social Nationalist Party, you see couple of guys sitting on plastic chairs, guarding “their” territory. And Hamra is a diverse area where you have a population of tens of thousands of people, and this party is relatively small and insignificant in comparison to that, but they still try to show that they own the area.

They create that impression, and that is what happens in a lot of areas in Beirut. It used to annoy me a lot – that there are certain areas of Beirut marked by sectarianism, instead of more representative images of reality. That is why I focused on painting the figures of people that connect us, instead of all these signs of separation. I painted Fairuz, Sabah, Ali Abudllah. I wanted to show that these streets belong to all of us.

sabah/Sabah/

Talking about identity, you often said how in the beginning your work was very much copy paste of Western style graffiti, which is what you recognized as the right way of doing street art. How did you end up finding your way, your style of doing it?

There are two layers to my work. One is a political, social, a position on certain issues. On the other hand, there is a more artistic one, the cultural layer – which is more about the actual art in Lebanon and in the Arab world. Initially, I thought graffiti was about colors and tagging, things like that. Slowly, I started reading, thinking and understanding more.

When I started developing my own style I didn’t want to copy paste the art of the West, but I also didn’t want to reproduce the old Arab cultural identity, like the calligraphy of the 12th century. I tried to find a balance, something that is true to the reality we live today. We live in a modern world, and although we have a past that should be preserved, it should not come with the cost of denying what we are and how we are today. So I took some aspects of Arabic calligraphy but I also broke away from some other apects of it and adjusted it to the modern times.

How did you do that – what is different in your work in comparison to classical Arabic calligraphy?

Arabic calligraphy is focused on the text, but I don’t use it that way. I use it to paint, to create images. I also use a lot of figurations, which is not that common in the traditional art of this area. You can’t and shouldn’t stay puritan that way, you need to find a way to incorporate and communicate the art in the times we are living in.

I want to create a more universal approach to art in general, so I use calligraphy to paint faces. That way everyone can understand it. I don’t want my art to speak only to people who can read Arabic, but I do want it to show and incorporate a part of Arab culture.

fairuz/Fairuz/

Do you think there’s more (re)thinking like that happenig in the Arab art world?

Yes. More and more Arab artists are comfortable with questioning their identity, expressing the modern Arab world. Identity is not static and uniformed, especially in our country that is so unstable and people have so many different experiences. The truth is that we face many problems in preserving our culture.

Arab public shools are not strong enough, so most of the people who can afford it tend to go to private schools, and private schools are all in French or in English. I went to a French school and I was annoyed by having to speak in French, so I read a lot in Arabic and tried to rebel against it. There is another big problem in Lebanon – we don’t have a good infrastructure to preserve culture. We don’t have good consistent publishing, archiving of books and newspapers, theatres, museums, etc. It creates a kind of volatile culture.

Can you compare the situation to Gulf countries, since you’re currently living between Dubai and Beirut?

Gulf countries are now very conscious about the need to archive their identity, and there’s a lot of efforts there in preserving Arab culture. The contribution of some Arab art collectors in Gulf is much bigger than the Lebanese, but that is also connected to different issues these countries face or don’t face.

A lot of your work is socially responsible, and connected to different social issues. Sometimes, in the art world, that can be considered a lower form of  art. What are your thoughts on that?

If we want to accept this argument, and the reasons for it, we first need to discuss the fact that the art that was at the forefront of the art world in recent times is conceptual art. Concept or the idea is the most important. The reason why they say socially or politically driven work is less of an artwork is that it sometimes doesn’t offer a new concept. The emphasis is usually on the topic, on the content.

In the work I do, there’s always two layers. One is the theme, and the other layer is an artistic one – which is using Arabic calligraphy to change the traditional form of expression. I use the language of calligraphy for reasons other than text. My work is very much socially and politically driven, but it also offers a new concept.

Also, it’s important to say that in today’s world conceptual art is failing more and more. First, because of its inability to create art that is always relevant, to offer new concepts that are evolutionary, and second because the art world itself is becoming more vague so conceptual art is not that important anymore. There’s no longer one defintion of what is the most important form of art.

yazan1/Ali Abdullah/

Unlike many street artists, you try to do things legally. Why is that important to you?

In all art disciplines, there are certain things that are still done but there’s no longer justification for doing them. In your camera on the phone, there’s a clicking sound, but there’s no need for it anymore. A lot of disciplines have a thing like that, and street art is one of them.

Initially, doing things ilegally made sense, there was a lot of value in that. But take Lebanon today – people in power do things ilegally all the time, so many people are doing vandalism, and it doesn’t make sense to me to be doing things that way. Civil war was an extreme form of vandalism, political parties terrorising this city are a much stronger form of vandalism than any street art could ever be.

So there’s no value in doing street art ilegally in Lebanon.

Exactly. There’s no value in bringing the street art where I live and being a vandal. It’s much more dangerous to try to create a unified sense of identity and do it legally. When I started doing graffiti, I did things ilegally and the police didn’t care. But when I started painting big buildings, talking to people about history and culture, getting the permits, officials started asking much more questions, they wanted to make my work much harder.

It’s beacuse doing things that way had much more impact on the city and the people. In my approach to street art, I like to reconsider every aspect of it, I don’t want to do something just because it was done a certain way before. I realized there’s no value in doing street art ilegally in Lebanon and that is why I don’t do it ilegally.

A lot of your work is in Lebanon, but you also painted murals in different countries all over the world. One of them is a mural in Germany, of a young boy Fares, who was a flower seller on Hamra street in Beirut. How do you decide which stories cross borders?

Whenever I go to the some other country, it’s an opportunity, a platform to express something. In the instance of Fares, I was invited to Germany at a time when the talk about refugees was that they are an unwanted addition to the country, how they offer no contribution to the society. This was obviously not true. One of the examples was Fares, Syrian refugee whose cultural contribution to the Hamra street, where he used to live, was much greater than the most of the other people living there.

Me painting Fares was a reference to the fact that refugees are not fleeing an imaginary conflict – Fares died in a bombing when he went to visit his family in Syria. It was also a reference to the contribution of refugees to our societies – when Fares died, his passing away generated so many stories, his personal and cultural contibution to Hamra and Beirut was enormous. To all of those who are saying refugees are a burden, in Germany or in Lebanon, I wanted to show Fares.

fares_mural/Fares/

In conclusion – what guides you in your work, how do you choose the next project?

I always have a lot of ideas, and when one is actually mature enough, I take it out and try to make it happen. I am a big fan of artists who created decisive moments in the art history, because they have been able to question the art in the time they were living in and break away from the tradition. But with good reasons, not just for the sake of doing it. I was not educated in art, I came to the art world as an outsider and that helps me in the approach to some of the art doctrines – it makes me question traditionalism.

When I painted Fairuz, people started noticing my work. That wall became a kind of landmark, although it’s a small piece. People recognized themselves in the work, and that was the first time it happened to me. It happened because I started doing work that makes sense to me, and I think it made sense to others too. I am painting with brush and ink, I have tons of spray cans that are unused for years. I don’t let anyone tell me there’s one way of doing street art. Every painting, every mural is a learning experience.

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This interview was also published in Croatian, on H-Alter.

 

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art of resistance, Iraq

Jamal Penjweny | Remembering Iraq’s Jews.

islamic-jewish-a1/art © Jamal Penjweny/

Iraqi-Kurdish photo artist Jamal Penjweny’s newest project envisions a new chapter in the history of Iraq’s Jews, written about on Mashallah News. It’s another great project by Penjweny.

In less than four years, from 1947 to 1951, most of Iraq’s Jews left their homes and moved to Israel. Their presence in Iraqi society has since been forgotten, intentionally or unintentionally, by many. But one man in Qal’at Saleh, a small town in south-eastern Iraq, keeps the memory alive.

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That man is the school manager, Ahmad – he kept the names, school records and photos of Jewish students. Penjweny writes about Ahmad’s mission:

“The memory of the community may be fading away, but some Iraqi Jewish names have not been erased. They are still here, recorded in the school books in Qal’at Saleh, along with their grades and their black and white photos. Portraits of children, once five feet high and 10 years old, who are today in their mid-60s, possibly living somewhere in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Haifa. Most of them probably do not know that in this small town in south-eastern Iraq, Ahmad is still keeping track of their names.”

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Read the full story and see all the photos on Mashallah News.

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art of resistance, Morocco

Remembering Leila Alaoui: The Moroccans.

moroccans/The Moroccans, © Leila Alaoui/

It seems way too early to pay respect to Leila Alaoui, talented French-Moroccan photographer, in MER’s Remembering sessions. After all, she entered 2016 full of power, only in her thirties.

Unfortunately, Alaoui succumbed to her injuries sustained in the Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) terrorist attacks, only couple of days ago. She was among those (at least) 56  wounded and now joined those more than 30 killed.

Alaoui was born in Paris in 1982 and studied photography at City University of New York (CUNY) before spending time in Morocco and Lebanon.

Her work had been exhibited internationally in recent years, including at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, and was featured in newspapers and magazines including The New York Times and Vogue. Last couple of years she lived between Marrakech and Beirut.

One of her most beautiful projects was The Moroccans. About it, she wrote: “Morocco has a specific position in this backstory of photographers using the culture – particularly elements from native costume and architecture – to construct their own fantasies of an exotic ‘other’ world.

Souk of Boumia, Middle Atlas, 2011

Souk of Boumia, Middle Atlas, 2011

Foreign photographers often depict Westerners in Morocco when they want convey glamour or elegance, while framing local people rustic or folkloric, reiterating the patronizing gaze of the Orientalist.

My intention was to counter this in these portraits by adopting similar studio techniques to photographers such as Richard Avedon in his series ‘In the American West’, who portrays his subjects as empowered and glamorous, drawing out the innate pride and entitlement of each individual person.”

Alaoui embarked on a road trip through rural Morocco to photograph women, men and children from diverse ethnic and tribal groups including Berbers and Arabs. This on-going project served as a visual archive of the Moroccan traditions and aesthetics now disappearing with globalization.

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In one interview, Alaoui discussed the relationship many photographers have with Morocco: “A lot of negative experiences have given Morocco a very specific relationship to photographers, or people taking photos.

The Moroccans have the feeling their culture is being used – particularly when it comes to native clothing and architecture – and the photographers are trying to turn them into their own fantasy of an exotic ‘other’ world.

That’s one reason. But superstition and witchcraft also play a role here. For example, the collective consciousness still contains the idea that cameras rob people of their souls.”

Alaoui did her best to portray Moroccan people in a different way, allowing them a choice and taking her time to get to know them and their approach towards life and world.

Chefchaoun, Rif Mountains, 2010

Chefchaoun, Rif Mountains, 2010

It’s extremely sad that the world has lost Alaoui. I didn’t know her, but I knew her work. And through her work, it’s easy to see how she was one of those souls who always tried to bring people together, to raise awareness – make us look at each other and understand each other.

She participated in exhibitions aimed at raising money for those suffering in Syrian war, she was involved in the work of activists, journalists and human rights organisations working to improve the situation of migrants and refugees in Morocco (and other countries).

featured_Portrait-Leila-Alaoui-2/Leila Alaoui, photo via Tamyras/

Alaoui was interested in dignity, in humanity. She gave herself to that struggle. I hope she will remembered for that – it’s the greatest legacy one can leave.

//all images © Leila Alaoui//

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Previous Remembering… sessions:

Remembering Mahdi ‘Amel: The Importance of Resistance

Remembering Samir Kassir: Life as Courage, Death as Silence

Remembering Hassan Fathy: To Build With The People

Remembering Assia Djebar: I Write Against Erasure

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art of resistance

Playlist: Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud.

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Here’s a true gem. It is the traditional music (isswat) of the Adrar D’Ifoghas in Northern Mali (and broader Sahara region), and the soul of it is brought to us in the voice of the lovely Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud. This is her debut recording, a local production from 2008.

Isswat is the music of the night – it’s when the young people sneak off, meet up and make sweet music. The music of is characterized by the sigadah, the low humming of the men, which provides a bass, and the woman who will sing the melody.

It’s also an opportunity for the youth to meet and flirt, and in the periphery of the performance, it often happens that the young boys and girls whisper to one another. Playing and singing takes them to another level – the rhythms and hand claps punctuate the meditative hypnosis.

Enjoy the music of isswat through the music of Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud.

Previous Playlist:

Khebez Dawle

Checkpoint 303 – The Iqrit Files

Mashrou’ Leila – Straight from Beirut

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art of resistance, travel, Yemen

Yemen: In Beauty And Sorrow.

jon/Yemen, photo © Jonathon Collins/

Baga (Nigeria), Fotokol (Cameroon), Sana’a (Yemen), Kuwait City (Kuwait), Khan Bani Saad (Iraq), Kabul (Afghanistan), Baghdad (Iraq), Maiduguri (Nigeria), Ankara (Turkey), Beirut (Lebanon), Paris (France). Just some of the places that saw horrible terrorist attacks this year. Fairuz keeps on playing for two days in my room – Habaytak bisayf.

I loved you in the summer, I loved you in the winter,

I waited for you in the summer, I waited for you in the winter

The circle of love and sadness, life spinning. I feel like Fairuz can fill the space with her voice, as far as the sky goes. Somehow, her voice always brings comfort. I hope there is a way to find comfort for those who lost their loved ones in Nigeria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Lebanon, France… And all the other places that didn’t make it to this list – that were left out, their tragedies still unrecognized.

One of the places of (silent) constant sorrow this year is Yemen. I wrote so much about the beauty of Yemen, about the importance of it, but I still feel the need to talk about it and I still feel the need to share everything I can.

I recently discovered a beautiful photo essay by Jonathon (Jon) Collins – the way he captured Yemen and its people is mesmerizing. Collins is a freelance photographer and writer based in Sydney and his work aims to show that every corner of the world has a story to tell, and for every landscape there is a memory.

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About his experience of Yemeni culture, he says:

“Another key aspect of Yemeni culture is that life is not insular, and the typical nuclear family structure we are used to in Western societies does not apply; in fact, a much wider network is considered to be family.

It is the most memorable part of travelling in the country to me: sitting down to a meal and sharing it with a group of people all from a single plate; stopping the car to give a lift to families on the side of road; getting handed the best qat leaves from a new friend; or sharing chai with another from a used tin can.

In every restaurant or in the home, you will see an arm waving to welcome you to sit and share with another. It is an undeniably generous quality that says a lot about Yemeni culture.”

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Collins also talks about the way people cope with harshness every day brings upon them:

“In light of everything the Yemeni population face, they carry on with such an incredibly humble and humorous demeanor in everyday life. In conversations about corruption in politics, the growing presence of Al Qaeda, the ongoing problem of water scarcity, or whatever other major issues the nation is experiencing right now, you will still hear a joke, then laughter, and most will say, ‘it will get better in time, Inshallah’. Life must go on in the meantime.”

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He continues to say:

“It may have developed as a mechanism to cope with disruptions to everyday life, or perhaps it is simply another historic trait of the Yemeni people; but one thing that surprised me was just how incredibly funny the people in Yemen were. I cannot count the amount of times I was in stitches laughing at a joke made, someone’s dry humor, sarcastic comment or watching a scene unfold that felt more like a comedy stint than real life.

Whether it was a group of women pretending to slap a man for short-changing them at a market stall, the owner of the sweet shop getting teased about how many desserts he ate, someone trying to speak English without knowing more than three words, or joking over the size of the qat bulging in someone’s mouth; the laughter was contagious. Yemenis are easily the most hilarious locals I’ve experienced in all the countries I’ve been, and it made each day I spent there so much more enjoyable.”

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/all photos © Jonathon Collins/

For the full interview with Collins and his photo essay from Yemen, visit Passion Passport, and to find out more about his work visit his website.

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art of resistance, India

Jhumpa Lahiri: Hell-Heaven (Unaccustomed Earth).

Jhumpa Lahiri has a great talent of writing genuinely, writing about everyday, writing about common, but still making it deeply revealing, interesting, and – finding wonders in it. The following is an excerpt from her short story Hell-Heaven (the story can be found in Lahiri’s collection of short stories Unaccustomed Earth). Here, once again, Lahiri deals with the experience of Indian immigrants in the USA, cutting through the delicate tissue of place and time, memory and identity.

ja/Jhumpa Lahiri, photo via media.npr.org/

He was from a wealthy family in Calcutta and had never had to do so much as pour himself a glass of water before moving to America, to study engineering at MIT. Life as a graduate student in Boston was a cruel shock, and in his first month he lost nearly twenty pounds. He had arrived in January, in the middle of a snowstorm, and at the end of the week he had packed his bags and gone to Logan, prepared to abandon the opportunity he’d worked toward all his life, only to change his mind at the last minute. He was living on Trowbridge Street in the home of a divorced woman with two young children who were always screaming and crying. He rented a room in the attic and was permitted to use the kitchen only at specified times of the day and instructed  always to wipe down the stove with Windex and a sponge. My parents agreed that it was a terrible situation, and if they’d had a bedroom to spare they would have offered it to him. Instead, they welcomed him to our meals and opened up our apartment to him at any time, and soon it was there he went between classes and on his days off, always leaving some vestige of himself: a nearly finished pack of cigarettes, a newspaper, a piece of mail he had not bothered to open, a sweater he had taken off and forgotten in the course of his stay.

I remember vividly the sound of his exuberant laughter and the sight of his lanky body slouched or sprawled on the dull, mismatched furniture that had come with our apartment. He had a striking face, with a high forehead and a thick mustache, and overgrown, untamed hair that my mother said made him look like American hippies who were everywhere in those days. His long legs jiggled rapidly up and down wherever he sat, and his elegant hands trembled when he held a cigarette between his fingers, tapping the ashes into a teacup that my mother began to set aside for this exclusive purpose. Though he was a scientist by training, there was nothing rigid or predictable or orderly about him. He always seemed to be starving, walking through the door and announcing that he hadn’t had lunch, and then he would eat ravenously, reaching behind my mother  to steal cutlets as she was frying them . before she had a chance to set them properly on a plate with red onion salad.

In private, my parents remarked that he was a brilliant student, a star at Jadavpur who had come to MIT with an impressive assistanship, but Pranab Kaku was cavallier about his classes, skipping them with frequency. ‘These Americans are learning equations I knew at Usha’s age’, he would complain. He was stunned that my second-grade teacher didn’t assign any homework and that at the age of seven I hadn’t yet been taught square roots or the concept of pi.

He appeared without warning, never phoning beforehand but simply knocking on the door the way people did in Calcutta and calling out ‘Boudi!’ as he waited for my mother to let him in. Before we met him, I would return from school and find my mother with her purse in her lap and her trench coat on, desperate to escape the apartment where she had spent the day alone. But now I would find her in the kitchen, rolling out dough for lunchis, which she normally made only on Sundays for my father and me, or putting up new curtains she’d bought at Woolworth’s. I didn’t know, back then, that Pranab Kaku’s visits were what my mother looked forward to all day, that she changed into a new sari and combed her hair in anticipation of his arrival, and that she planned, days in advance, the snacks she would serve him with such nonchalance. That she lived for the moment she heard him call out ‘Boudi!’ from the porch and that she was in a foul humor on the day he didn’t materialize.”

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