art of resistance, Iraq

Sargon Boulus | A Refugee Talking.

Part of an installation is pictured at 'Dismaland', a theme park-styled art installation by British artist Banksy, at Weston-Super-Mare in southwest England/photo: Banksy’s Dismaland/

Sargon Boulus is an Iraqi poet and short story writer. He started publishing poems and short stories as a teenager in various Iraqi journals and magazines, and also translated American and British poetry into Arabic. Boulus died in 2007. The following is his poem A refugee talking, translated by Kees Nijland (first published on PIW, Rotterdam, 2007).

A refugee talking

A refugee absorbed in talking
Did not feel the cigarette burn his fingers

Surprised to be here
After being there – stations, harbours,
Visitations, forged papers

Depending on a chain of details
His future was fibre-like
Laid out in small circles
        An oppressive country
        Afflicted by nightmares

Smugglers, emigration bandits, if you asked me
Commonplace people maybe, hungry sea-gulls
Over a wrecked ship in the middle of nowhere

If you asked me, I would say:
Endless waiting in immigration bureaus
Faces that do not return smiles whatever you do
Who said: the most precious gift

If you asked me, I would say: Human beings are everywhere.
You would say: Everywhere
Stones

He talks, talks, talks
He had arrived but did not enjoy the taste of arrival
And did not feel the cigarette burn his fingers

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art of resistance

Arjun Appadurai | Aspirational Maps.

patrick_wilocq_refugee_photos_child_labour_119130_save_the_children/photo © Patrick Willocq, Save The Children/

This article, written by Arjun Appadurai, and published last year in Eurozine, is a must-read when it comes to migrant narratives and (future)citizenship. I go back to it all the time.

Aspirational Maps

Forced exits can be created by traumas of environment, economy or national civil war. They produce refugees who are invariably traumatized. Their claims on the hospitality of the nations in which they land are always in a grey zone between hospitality, sanctuary and incarceration, because they are usually in a categorical grey zone that combines features of the stranger, the victim, the criminal and the undocumented visitor.

The trauma of the forced refugee provokes the deepest anxieties of the modern nation-state, which relies on boundaries, censuses, taxes and documentation. The heart of the new traumas that the forced refugee experiences in the new country is that he or she has a plot (a narrative, a story) but no character, identity or name. The challenge of evolving a new form of legal and ethical hospitality is to create a name to fit the plot, an identity to fit the narrative.

The challenge of the modern nation-state is that, whereas its key narratives of identity rely on fixed starting points (blood, language, religion, territory), the forced exit is usually produced precisely by originary traumas of blood, language, religion or location. This raises the question of how to build a new relationship between plot and character in modern nation-states and a world of forced exits, where there is as yet no ethical foundation for seeing traumatic movement as the pivot of a serious identity for some citizens.

Migration and the crisis of the nation-state

After the famous treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the principle of territorial sovereignty becomes the foundational principle of the nation-state, though many other ideas affect its cultural self-imaging and self-narrativizing: these include ideas about language, common origin, blood, soil and various other conceptions of ethnos. Still, the fundamental political and juridical rationale and basis of the system of nation-states is territorial sovereignty, however complexly understood and delicately managed in particular post-imperial settings.

Throughout the world, immigrants, cultural rights and state protection of refugees are growing problems, especially since very few states have careful ways of defining the relationship of citizenship, birth, ethnic affiliation and national identity. The crisis is nowhere clearer than in Europe today, where the struggle to control and manage the intensified wave of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa is threatening to unravel the very foundations of European ideas of full citizenship, asylum and refuge, and expose the exclusionary foundation of European thinking about cultural markers of national belonging.

But in many countries, problems with immigrants, race, birth and residence are becoming problems of one or another kind. Think, for example, of Mexicans in the United States, Rohingya Muslims leaving Bangladesh and Myanmar for other countries in South East Asia, and migrants from the rest of Africa in South Africa.

One source of this problem is that modern conceptions of citizenship, tied up with various forms of democratic universalism, tend to demand a homogeneous people with standardized packages of rights. Yet the realities of ethno-territorial thinking in the cultural ideologies of the nation-state demand discrimination between different categories of citizens even when they all occupy the same territory. Resolving these conflicting principles is inevitably a violent and uncivil process.

Territory can thus be seen as the crucial problem in the contemporary crisis of the nation-state or, more precisely, of the crisis of the relationship between nation and state. Insofar as nation-state ideologies rest on some sort of implicit idea of ethnic coherence as the basis of state sovereignty, they are bound to minoritize, degrade, penalize or expel those seen to be ethnically minor.

Insofar as these minorities (either as guestworkers, refugees or illegal aliens) enter into new polities, they require reterritorialization within a new civic order, whose ideology of ethnic coherence and citizenship rights they are bound to disturb, since all modern ideologies of rights depend, ultimately, on the closed group of appropriate recipients of state protection and patronage. Thus second-classness and third-classness are conditions of citizenship which are inevitable entailments, however plural the ethnic ideology of the state and however flexible its accommodation of refugees and other weakly documented visitors.

Now none of this would be a problem except that the conditions of global economic, labour and technological organization create both dramatic new pushes and pulls in favour of uprooting individuals and groups and moving them into new national settings. Since these individuals and groups have to be cognized within some sort of vocabulary of rights and entitlements, however limited and harsh, they pose a threat to the ethnic and moral coherence of all host nation-states that is at bottom predicated on both a singular and an immobile ethnos.

In these conditions, the state as a push factor in ethnic diasporas is constantly obliged to push out the sources of ethnic noise which threaten or violate its integrity as an ethnically singular territory. But, in its other guise, virtually every modern nation-state is either forced or persuaded to accept into its territory a whole variety of non-nationals, who demand and create a wide variety of territorially ambiguous claims on civic and national rights and resources.

Here we are at the heart of the crisis of the nation-state. It looks at first glance as if the crisis of the nation-state is the fact of ethnic plurality that is the inevitable result of the flow of populations in the contemporary world. But on closer inspection, the problem is not ethnic or cultural pluralism as such, but the tension between diasporic pluralism and territorial stability in the project of the modern nation-state.

What ethnic plurality does (especially when it is the product of sudden population movements) is to violate the sense of isomorphism between territory and national identity on which the modern nation-state relies. More exactly, what these diasporic pluralisms expose and intensify is the gap between the powers of the state to regulate borders, monitor dissent and distribute entitlements within a finite territory and the fiction of ethnic singularity on which all nations ultimately rely. In other words, it becomes increasingly difficult to view the territorial integrity that justifies states and the ethnic singularity that validates nations as seamless aspects of one another.

Migration, memory and media

In my book, Modernity at Large (1996), I suggested that in the era of globalization, the circulation of media images and the movement of migrants created new disjunctures between location, imagination and identity. More specifically, I suggested that in many social locations throughout the world, especially those characterized by media saturation and migrant populations, “moving images meet mobile audiences”, thus disturbing the stability of many sender-receiver models of mass communication. This has many implications for what I then called “the work of the imagination”, and I particularly stressed the new potentials that this situation created for the proliferation of imagined worlds and imagined selves.

Migrants, especially the poorer migrants of this world, are not thriving in a world of free markets, consumer paradise or social liberation. They are struggling to make the best of the possibilities that are opened to them in the new relationships between migration and mass mediation. There is no doubt that migrants today, as migrants throughout human history, move either to escape horrible lives, to seek better ones, or both.

The only new fact in the world of electronic mediation is that the archive of possible lives is now richer and more available to ordinary people than ever before. Thus, there is a greater stock of material from which ordinary people can craft the scripts of possible worlds and imagined selves. This does not mean that the social projects that emerge from these scripts are always liberating or even pleasant. But it is an exercise in what I have called “the capacity to aspire” (Appadurai, 2004).

Muslim migrants from North Africa, Syria, Turkey and Iraq sometimes drown in the Mediterranean as they seek to swim to the shores of Italy, Greece or Spain from illegal boats, as do their Haitian counterparts in the Florida waters; others perish in the containers that cross the English Channel.

It is also true that young women from the ex-socialist republics often end up brutalized as sex-workers in the border-zones between the old and the new Europe, as do Philippine domestic workers in Milan and Kuwait, and South Asian labourers (both male and female) in Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Such examples of the brutalizing of migrants can be multiplied: poorer migrants today frequently end up as undocumented citizens, objects of racist laws and sentiments, and sometimes as targets of ethnocidal violence in locations from Rwanda to Indonesia.

But is this suffering the whole story? Does it tell us everything we need to know about how these projects for movement were formed, about what efforts it took to summon the resources to move, of what was made possible by meagre remittances, of how the relationship of men and women is often recalibrated under the conditions of migration, of the doors that are opened for migrant children, and, finally, of the value of negotiating for new opportunities, even in harsh circumstances?

The work of the imagination, especially for poorer migrants, is critical for exercising the capacity to aspire. Without developing this capacity, which may also lead to rape, exploitation and death (for migration is a world of risk), poor migrants will always remain captive to the wishes of the vanguard, to the prison of their own domestic tyrannies and to the self-fulfilling prophecies of those business-class revolutionaries who always know, in advance, how best poor people should exercise their agency and which level of risk is most appropriate to them.

So I insist that the work of the imagination is not a privilege of elites, intellectuals and cosmopolitans but is also being performed by poor people, notably in the worldwide pursuit of their possibilities to migrate, whether to near or far locations. Denuding these proletarian projects of the dimension of fantasy, imagination and aspiration, reducing them to mere reflexes of the labour market or of some other institutional logic, does nothing for the poor other than to deny them the privilege of risk-taking. This is the opposite of what Charles Taylor calls “the politics of recognition”.

The living archive

In this perspective, what can we say about the place of archives, narratives and memory in the building of migrant identity? Here the idea of the living archive becomes especially useful. Migrants have a complex relationship to the practices of memory and, thus, to the making of archives, for several reasons.

First, because memory becomes hyper-valued for many migrants, the practices through which collective memory is constructed are especially subject to cultural contestation and to simplification. Memory, for migrants, is almost always a memory of loss. But since most migrants have been pushed out of the sites of official/national memory in their original homes, there is some anxiety surrounding the status of what is lost, since the memory of the journey to a new place, the memory of one’s own life and family world in the old place, and official memory about the nation one has left have to be recombined in a new location.

Migration tends to be accompanied by a confusion about what exactly has been lost, and thus of what needs to be recovered or remembered. This confusion leads to an often deliberate effort to construct a variety of archives, ranging from the most intimate and personal (such as the memory of one’s earlier bodily self) to the most public and collective, which usually take the form of shared narratives and practices.

Media plays a critical role in the construction of the migrant archive since circulation, instability and the disjunctures of movement always cast doubt on the “accidental” trace through which archives are sometimes assumed to emerge. In the effort to seek resources for the building of archives, migrants thus often turn to the media for images, narratives, models and scripts of their own story, partly because the diasporic story is always understood to be one of breaks and gaps.

Nor is this only a consumer relationship, for in the age of the Internet, literate migrants have begun to explore social media, chat rooms and other interactive spaces in which to find, debate and consolidate their own memory traces and stories into a more widely plausible narrative.

This task, never free of contest and debate, sometimes does take the form of what Benedict Anderson disparagingly called “long-distance nationalism”. But long-distance nationalism is a complex matter, which usually produces many sorts of politics and many sorts of interest. In the age in which electronic mediation has begun to supplement and sometimes even supplant print mediation and older forms of communication, imagined communities are sometimes much more deeply real to migrants than natural ones.

Interactive media thus play a special role in the construction of what we may call the diasporic public sphere (an idea I proposed in Modernity at Large to extend the insights of Habermas, Anderson and others about national public spheres), for they allow new forms of agency in the building of imagined communities.

The act of reading together (which Anderson brilliantly identified in regard to newspapers and novels in the new nationalisms of the colonial world) are now enriched by the technologies of the web, Facebook, Twitter and Google, creating a world in which the simultaneity of reading is complemented by the interactivity of messaging, searching and posting. Thus, what we may call the diasporic archive, or the migrant archive, is increasingly characterized by the presence of voice, agency and debate, rather than of mere reading, reception and interpellation.

But the migrant archive operates under another constraint, for it has to relate to the presence of one or more narratives of public memory in the new home of the migrant, where the migrant is frequently seen as a person with only one story to tell — the story of abject loss and need. In his or her new society, the migrant has to contend with the minority of the migrant archive, of the embarrassment of its remote references and of the poverty of its claims on the official “places of memory” in the new site.

Thus, the electronic archive becomes a doubly valuable space for migrants, for, in this space, some of the indignity of being minor or contemptible in the new society can be compensated, and the vulnerability of the migrant narrative can be protected in the relative safety of cyberspace.

What is more, both new electronic media as well as traditional print media among migrant communities allow complex new debates to occur between the memory of the old home and the demands of public narrative in the new setting. Migrant newspapers in many communities become explicit sites for debate between micro-communities, between generations and between different forms of nationalism. In this sense, the migrant archive is highly active and interactive, as it is the main site of negotiation between collective memory and desire.

As the principal resource in which migrants can define the terms of their own identities and identity-building, outside the strictures of their new homes, the diasporic archive is an intensified form of what characterizes all popular archives: it is a place to sort out the meaning of memory in relationship to the demands of cultural reproduction. Operating outside the official spheres of both the home society and the new society, the migrant archive cannot afford the illusion that traces are accidents, that documents arrive on their own and that archives are repositories of the luck of material survival.

Rather, the migrant archive is a continuous and conscious work of the imagination, seeking in collective memory an ethical basis for the sustainable reproduction of cultural identities in the new society. For migrants, more than for others, the archive is a map. It is a guide to the uncertainties of identity-building under adverse conditions. The archive is a search for the memories that count and not a home for memories with a pre-ordained significance. This living, aspirational archive could become a vital source for the challenge of narratability and identity in contemporary times.

Narratives without identities

Citizenship in modern nation-states, such as Germany, is built on a tight fit between plot and character (or story and actor, or narrative and identity). The legal and bureaucratic origins of the modern nation-state seek to provide a territorial ground for stabilizing and connecting plot and character in verifying legitimate citizens. The story of birth to parents who are citizens is the strongest example of this convergence, for it implies territorial, personal and sanguinary stability.

Legal naturalization procedures, on the basis of marriage, work or investment, produce this stability and convergence between plot and character. These procedures allow changes in the status of an immigrant from refugee or illegal to full citizenship or quasi-citizenship, by “naturalizing” their ties to the national territory.

For refugees, asylum-seekers and almost all other undocumented migrants, the problem is that their stories (however painful and dramatic) come with names (personal names) but no characters, that is, no identities which fit the legal narrative requirements of legitimate migration. This is not simply because they arrive suddenly, traumatically and violently within the new national space, or to a transitional national space on their way to their preferred final destination. It is because, in the eyes of their new hosts, they are truly “nobodies” that is they have no identities that fit their new circumstances.

Here the main problem is that the modern nation-state has no room for narratives based not in the past (blood, birth, parenthood, language, etc.) or in the present (work, marriage, student status, etc.) but primarily on the future: on the aspiration for a better home, a safer life, a more secure horizon. There are no aspirational narratives for refugees, in the way that there are aspirational narratives for work or skill-based applicants for immigration.

The fact is that refugees are today supplicants who wish to become applicants for citizenship in countries like Germany. Their stories of suffering, oppression and violence in their home countries or in the camps which they have elected to leave on their tortuous journeys to their aspirational destinations, are stories of abjection and supplication and these stories are not easy to convert into the narratives of application and aspiration.

Here then is the narrative challenge that goes beyond the policing, administrative and legal challenges that face migrants in today’s Europe as well as their hosts. How do we create stories based on imagined future citizenship in a context where the past (birth, parenthood and blood) is still the currency of most citizenship laws? How can longing be turned into belonging? How can hospitality to the stranger be made a legitimate basis for the narrative of citizenship?

To provide deep and sustainable answers to these questions we can consider two approaches. The first is to help the strengthening and deepening of migrant archives, seeing them not only as storehouses of memory but also as aspirational maps. This might allow us to see the common ground between their aspirations and our own and thus to find a richer cultural road to the legal and bureaucratic solutions currently being debated.

The other approach is to find ways to make migrant narratives and identities a basis for secure citizenship, which will require re-thinking the very architecture of sovereignty in the contemporary world. That daunting task cannot be addressed here today but I hope I have described the conditions that make it an unavoidable challenge.

• • •

First published in Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 1/2016 (German version); Eurozine (English version).

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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.

• • •

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

 

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art of resistance, Lebanon

Nizar Qabbani | Beirut, The Mistress Of The World.

nizar

*Been in Beirut for a month now. This poem’s on my mind most of the time. One of the first days here I got lost searching for the sea (it’s hard to see, smell or hear the sea due to all of the building/s/ everywhere) and I finally found my way – stumbling upon a little street that took me straight to the coast.

It was the street of Nizar Qabbani. In this city of refuge that needs a refuge, Qabbani shows the way to the sea. I call it hope.

Beirut, The Mistress Of The World

Beirut, the Mistress of the World
We confess before the One God
That we were envious of you
That your beauty hurt us

We confess now
That we’ve maltreated and misunderstood you
And we had no mercy and didn’t excuse you
And we offered you a dagger in place of flowers!
We confess before the fair God
That we injured you, alas; we tired you
That we vexed you and made you cry
And we burdened you with our insurrections

Oh Beirut
The world without you won’t suffice us
We now realize your roots are deep inside us,
We now realize what offence we’ve perpetrated

Rise from under the rubble
Like a flower of Almond in April
Get over your sorrow
Since revolution grows in the wounds of grief
Rise in honor of the forests,
Rise in honor of the rivers
Rise in honor of humankind
Rise, Oh Beirut!

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Algeria, art of resistance

Kader Attia: Square Rocks | Rochers Carrés.

photo3

Kader Attia is a French artist of Algerian descent. He grew where most migrants grow up in Paris – in banlieues, the suburbs of the city. Attia uses his experience of living as a part of two cultures as a starting point to develop a dynamic practice that reflects on aesthetics and ethics of different cultures.

His series Square Rocks (Rochers Carrés)  includes Algerians sitting on huge, jumbled concrete blocks at a beach in Algiers that locals call “rochers carrés” (square rocks). It’s a beach of Bab El Oued, a poor neighborhood in Algiers, where the government had erected these huge concrete blocks to prevent young men and women from taking boats across the Mediterranean sea to Europe.

photo1

Photo installation by Attia presents an actual architectural structure that sets a boundary, a no-trespassing zone. In each photograph, you see one or two young men or teenagers gazing pensively at the Mediterranean and beyond, presumably toward Europe and its questionable promise of a better life.

photo2

As Gregory Volk writes: “One man, viewed from behind, sits on a block’s sharp edge watching as two freighters pass by on the distant horizon. Two shirtless boys standing in slightly awkward teenage postures look half ready to do the impossible: dive into the sea and swim to Paris, spurred by fantasies of money, opportunities and glamour.”

photo6

It’s been seven years since Attia took these photos. Yes, they’re still relevant. It’s hard to imagine they will stop being relevant anytime soon. There are millions of people sitting and waiting, still being allowed to do only that. And there are many Square Rocks, all over the world.

There are so many people still looking out to the horizon, seeing it as space limited, a wall, a boomerang. And yet, those walls, limitations, boomerangs, remain invisible to people looking from the other shore. They do not know, or don’t care enough to know, that the horizon has its ending. Behind the blue line, a square rock and people waiting.

photo4

//all photos © Kader Attia//

For more on Kader Attia and his work, see his official website.

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art of resistance, Syria

Remembering Louay Kayali: Life Is On The Streets.

the match seller/The Match Seller by Louay Kayali/

Louay Kayali was a Syrian modern artist, a brilliant painter born in Aleppo in 1934. He began painting at the age of eleven and held his first solo exhibition when he was eighteen.

Kayali died in 1978, from burns incurred from his bed catching fire, reportedly from a cigarette (he suffered from depression, leaving many to think it was suicide).

Kayali studied art at the Accademia di Belle Arti, and met Syrian artist Wahbi Al-Hariri there – they would remain friends for the rest of Kayali’s life (Al-Hariri became his mentor). Later on, Fateh Moudarress (also mentored by Al-Hariri) and Kayali represented Syrian modern art at the Venice Biennial Fair.

laundrette/The Laundrette/

Kayali graduated in Rome in 1961 and returned to Syria where he started his career as a fine arts professor at Damascus University, where Fateh Moudarres also taught.

Kayali’s artwork changed during his life, he was inspired by various things and made beautiful paintings of still nature and village landscapes, but what moves me deeply when it comes to his work are his painting of “ordinary” people, the way he captured life on the streets.

woman-selling-figs/Woman Selling Figs/

When Kayali made his atrwork about the people around him, people we pass by every day, people that are not often thought of as important, as the ones that deserve attention – that is when his art became so powerful, it became a statement of resistance, a portrait of struggle that cannot and should not be unseen.

His ways of capturing the psychological condition of the people, the harshness of life in the way they hold their bodies, the way they look at you – it is a true skill, it is a way of seeing and understanding people, not just trying to paint them.

In that sense, his portraits of people in the streets of Syria, the relationships he made, can be compared to those of Vincent Van Gogh and the miners he lived with and painted.

fisherman in arwad/Fisherman in Arwad/

Kayali is also famous for capturing the agony and the decampment of Palestinians in his paintings, particularly during the 1967 war.

His painting Then What shows Palestinian refugees, barefoot and disoriented, and it remained one of his most powerful works. You can see the misery, you can feel the despair.

kayai so what/Then What/

In his work, Kayali did not adhere to the idyllic image of national heroes, and his shift towards “everyday” people did not go without criticism. After all of the turmoils and attacks, in 1977 he decided to leave for Italy, he sold his house and left Syria, dreaming that he would work on his art in Rome, in a more peaceful atmosphere.

But he couldn’t do that and he returned to Aleppo, to live in solitude. He died in solitude, but in his work all of the connections he made remain visible.

He cared about people deeply. He was a keen observer of life, a mad person, a genious, a humanist not well understood in a world that is very often so far from humanistic values.

the bread maker/The Bread Maker/

He made sure we remember and notice the bread makers, fishermen, ice cream sellers, corn sellers, match sellers, bead sellers, fig sellers, socks sellers, flower boys, flute players, shoe-shine boys, oud players, cleaning ladies, beggars, refugees, single mothers….

That is why we should remember Louay Kayali.

//all paintings by Louay Kayali//

• • •

Previous Remembering… sessions:

Remembering Ronit Elkabetz: A Thing Of Soul And Beauty

Remembering Leila Alaoui: The Moroccans

Remembering Mahdi ‘Amel: The Importance of Resistance

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art of resistance

In Defence Of M.I.A.

mia borders video/photo: ytb-prtsc, Borders video/

There has always been a lot of controversy about M.I.A. and her music, and most of the time for the wrong reasons. I wouldn’t usually take time to write about it, but I feel it’s important to write something because it just doesn’t stop – by it I mean the shitstorm M.I.A. is facing.

Like it was nicely explained on Backwithpowerpower, it really doesn’t stop – from the dislikes she gets for posting photos of refugees and conditions they live in on Instagram, to debates about her headlining Afropunk. Sure, some of the criticism she has faced over the years is justified and it opened up space for conversations  that were much needed (I think Afropunk is in that category), but it’s also important to note that there was a lot of criticism over the years that wasn’t aimed to be constructive, but rather destructive (in relation to M.I.A.).

It wasn’t really about engaging with her, it wasn’t about having a discussion, it was about silencing her, discrediting her – in one fast move, usually. Of course, M.I.A. is a not a one-trick pony and cannot be discarded just like that. Her message resonates with many people, although they might not be the ones having the power in their hands and setting the course of mainstream conversations.

The first thing that comes to mind and is necessary to go back to again, is the famous article published in The New York Times six years ago, written by Lynn Hirschberg, titled M.I.A.’s Agitprop PopIt was the article that made M.I.A. say “fuck the New York Times” and that sentiment was not without a reason.

After it was published, M.I.A. posted two audio recordings from her interview, that she secretly taped. Hirschberg suerly didn’t expect that. In the published piece, M.I.A. is described as “eating a truffle-flavored French fry” as she mused about what type of artist she is. To be precise, here is the quote:

“‘I kind of want to be an outsider’, she said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry. ‘I don’t want to make the same music, sing about the same stuff, talk about the same things. If that makes me a terrorist, then I’m a terrorist.'”

Now, if you are an observant reader, truffle-flavoured French fry is not just a small detail, it might tell you a lot about M.I.A.’s personality, it might tell you how she is, well, one of the fancy rich folks, pretending while talking about being an outsider and all.

The thing is, according to the tape M.I.A. posted after the interview was published, it was Hirschberg who introduced the concept of fry-ordering, and proposed the idea of a fancy treat. M.I.A. also tweeted Hirschberg’s phone number in response to the piece. Hirschberg said that was an unethical thing to do, but didn’t think it was surprising. “She’s a provocateur, and provocateurs want to be provocative”, she said about M.I.A.

But M.I.A. was just angry, because she felt that she was cheated on, that her story was distorted. Hirschberg’s own opinions and desire for a strong angle got in the way of her piece’s veracity. All the way through the nine page piece, it feels like she wants to discredit M.I.A., in a subtle way, writing things like:

“But many of her fans didn’t listen too closely to her lyrics, concentrating instead on the beat, the newness of the sound and her own multiculti, many-layered appeal. She was an instant indie darling (although Arular sold only 190,000 copies in the United States). Her songs were creative and abrasive in an intoxicating way, and it didn’t hurt that Maya was absolutely great looking. She quickly became a style icon: like that of all great pop stars, her anger and spirit of revolution was mitigated by sex.”

Now, that is what I am talking about. Hirschberg, whose main issues with M.I.A. are precisely her political lyrics, tries to downplay the importance of that part of M.I.A.’s work – saying how her fans don’t even listen closely to the lyrics. She also says how it’s basically all about her great looks. Sure, M.I.A. is beautiful, she has a unique style and there’s a cool vibe about it, but, her anger wasn’t and isn’t mitigated by sex (that is exactly why many people have issues with her).  In a song 20 dollar, from her second album Kala, M.I.A. raps:

People judge me so hard

’cause I don’t floss my titty set

I was born out of dirt like I’m porn in a skirt

I was a little girl who made good with all that I blurt

I put people on the map that never seen a map

I show ’em something they ain’t never seen

And hope they make it back

Saying M.I.A.’s politics don’t matter means being dismissive about the absolute core of her work, from day one. It’s also totally dishonest, as it is obvious in the part of the article where Hirschberg writes about the Born Free video:

“Seemingly designed to be banned on YouTube, which it was instantly, the video is set in Los Angeles where a vague but apparently American militia forcibly search out red-headed men and one particularly beautiful red-headed child. The gingers, as Maya called them, using British slang, are taken to the desert, where they are beaten and killed. The first to die is the child, who is shot in the head. While ‘Born Free’ is heard in the background throughout, the song is lost in the carnage. As a meditation on prejudice and senseless persecution, the video is, at best, politically naïve.”

So, first we will say that M.I.A.’s political message is not important at all, and then we will discard her on the basis of that political message. Hirschberg was not the only one to do that. In an article on Flavorwire, titled Is It Time To Give Up On M.I.A.? Judy Berman writes:

“The (ultraviolent, NSFW) music video (if you can call it that) for ‘Born Free’ brought M.I.A.’s political posturing to a new low. In case you’ve somehow managed to miss the flap over the seemingly endless clip, it features military types rounding up and shooting redheads, including some particularly adorable children. While some were impressed with M.I.A. and director Romain-Gavras’ messaging, all we got out of the extreme visuals was this: ‘Genocide happens! And it’s bad! What if it happened to you?’ Next time, try telling us something we didn’t know… or at least leaving shocked viewers with some opportunity to get involved in efforts to stop mass murder around the world.”

So, many of the critics got on the bandwagon, saying M.I.A. is just superficial and provocative, and her work is pure political posturing – she’s not really informed, she doesn’t really care, she just wants attention. Now, this definition “she’s not really informed, she doesn’t really care, she just wants attention” can be applied to a great majority of pop stars today (although they will never be nailed to a cross, or even questioned for it), but it cannot be applied to M.I.A.

You don’t see a lot of pop stars doing what she’s doing to “get attention”, do you? You don’t see a lot of mainstream musicians making bold statements and taking a stand on various issues, through their music and their public appearance, do you? Sure, little moments happen from time to time, but they seem very calculated and thought out in order not to shake things up too much. So, why aren’t their PR experts telling them to do what M.I.A. does, if that has been working out so well for her?

Simply because – it’s risky, it will get you in trouble, it upsets the status quo (and status quo is good for business, and business is all that matters). But M.I.A. won’t stick to the rules of business. In Born Free, she raps:

Yeah I don’t wanna live for tomorrow

I push my life today

I throw this in your face when I see ya

I got something to say

I throw this shit in your face when I see ya

Cause I got something to say

We really ought to ask ourselves what we want from our public figures. Should we really aim all the criticism towards the ones who are trying to open up the debate, who are giving space to new voices, who offer us new and different perspectives, who make us think, or make us feel uncomfortable? Are we really going to analyze them in detail, tear them apart, make them disposable? Do we really want to magnify their flaws, present them as the main thing about their work?

And at the same time, we will not say anything about all of those who create music that supports the system, that questions nothing, music that is just a nice sound and nothing else, music that is one long lullaby to our brain. They are ok, the damage that they are doing we do not see and do not question. But from M.I.A. we will demand consistency, adherence to principles all the time, in everything she does. And if she makes one mistake, we will call her a fake and say it’s time to give up on her?

Sure, that doesn’t mean we shloudn’t talk about the issues that exist. I don’t like the fact that M.I.A. decided to be fronting a recycling campaign for H&M, a company that relies on sweatshops and cheap third world labour. Even if you want to say they are making an effort (recycling and all) there’s an issue there too – those who recycle their clothes at H&M, which allows you to turn in garments at its stores year round, get a voucher for a discount on their next purchase, giving them incentive to buy more clothes. So yeah, it’s an issue.

Also, criticism of M.I.A.’s headlining of Afropunk have some truth to them – it is an event conceived by Black people, for Black people. But is it really just her fault, or was it also the organizers, who invited her in the first place? Aren’t they also complicit in erasing Black talent in this case? Those questions also need to be asked and we need to think about them, the same way we need to think about the importance of Black-Brown solidarity.

Now, back to that interview published in The New York Times. In it, it was also emphasized how M.I.A. said that instead of giving peace a chance we should maybe give war a chance, a stance then connected to her “militaristic and rebelious character”. I think this could be discussed on so many levels. For example, watching the Democratic National Convention (!) last week, you could hear much more horrifying things than what M.I.A. has (ever?) said.

General John Allen went out to say (yell might be a better word for it), among other things: “To our enemies, we will pursue you as only America can. You will fear us, we will defeat you”. I didn’t see much uproar about his and many other similar views expressed that night. If Hassan Rouhani yelled out something like that, it would be welcomed with terror. Because, you see, from the position of world dominance fueled with the (out of reality) idea of the “greatest nation in the world” it’s hard to recognize your own violent rethoric, your own exclusivity and aggression. That’s why it’s troubling to many when they hear lyrics like the ones in Bucky Done Gone from M.I.A.’s first album Arular:

Can I get control

Do you like me vulnerable

I’m armed and I’m equal

More fun for the people

Recently, M.I.A. has been criticised for her comments about Beyoncé and the Black Lives Matter movement, expressed in the interview in the Evening Standard. “It’s interesting that in America the problem you’re allowed to talk about is Black Lives Matter. It’s not a new thing to me – it’s what Lauryn Hill was saying in the 1990s, or Public Enemy in the 1980s”, she said.

She later added: “Is Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar going to say Muslim Lives Matter? Or Syrian Lives Matter? Or this kid in Pakistan matters? That’s a more interesting question. And you cannot ask it on a song that’s on Apple, you cannot ask it on an American TV programme, you cannot create that tag on Twitter, Michelle Obama is not going to hump you back.” Since the piece was published M.I.A. has clarified her position, saying she wasn’t criticising Beyoncé directly, or BLM, and that her point was that only certain issues are allowed to be discussed on “American platforms”.

What she is really questioning is American exception and hegemony, the larger American imperialist structure. Now, this is where we need to talk about unity, about the way the oppressed people can recognize each other’s struggles and the way their struggles are connected. It’s a chance to talk about the multiple layers of oppression that make up the complex realities we live in. Because it’s not only about racism, it’s not only about imperialism, it’s not only about capitalism, it’s not only about patriarchy. It’s about all of it combined. That is the struggle. Neither one of those alone can serve as a lens to understand all forms of power and all the issues we face – it is just not that simple. We need to recognize that in order to develop true solidarity.

As Akiba Solomon writes in Yes! Magazine, “My lips, so accustomed to spitting out ‘White supremacy’ and ‘racism,’ never once considered ‘patriarchy’ as a way to explain why things were so fucked up for people who were not White, heterosexual, able-bodied, traditionally masculine, cisgender males with money. This was true even as I saw the women closest to me doing feminist work.”

And finally, when it comes to M.I.A., I think one of the most important things about her is (one) that she is holding a mirror and (two) she is trying to own her story. And she won’t be silenced, she won’t play the game politely, she won’t be a puppet. Yeah, she’s flawed, and who isn’t? Unlike many, I think she’s actually willing to talk about it. You may not like what she has to say, and so what? That’s Karmageddon, baby.

Things do change and change can have range

System shouldn’t operate by sticking me in a cage

Ain’t Dalai Lama

Ain’t Sai Baba

My words are my armour and you’re about to meet your karma

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