As the Arab Spring took hold, there were many who welcomed the increased exposure it afforded Arab artists. European galleries programmed group shows of work eagerly harvested from around the region. Arab Spring films were shown in Cannes and Venice. Ahdaf Soueif's chronicle of events in Tahrir Square, written just months after the seismic events in Egypt, was reviewed by international newspapers hungry for insight - a state of affairs repeated this summer after the Syrian novelist Samar Yazbek published her non-fiction account of life under Bashar Al Assad, A Woman in the Crossfire.
Ostensibly, the desire to record and broadcast such events via art is laudable, but the Egyptian writer Youssef Rahka had a point when he cautioned that the interest in his peers' work might be thanks to its provenance rather than its quality. Such speedy responses to the Arab Spring fulfil an important role of reflecting the time, but may not have lasting artistic merit.
But does that even matter? One artist who should know is Nermine Hammam. When the crowds began to gather in Tahrir Square the Egyptian artist was in Paris, but she returned home, taking the camera that provides the basis for much of her work on the uprising. "The thing is, everyone was taking photographs," she smiles. "Perhaps that's why there are no iconic images from that time - because everybody had their phones and was recording and uploading every single second."
But Hammam didn't just store her record of the time on her laptop. Instead, she began to manipulate the images, placing soldiers from the Egyptian army against verdant landscapes and quiet lakes. And the resulting series, titled Upekkha, takes pride of place at the exhibition Cairo Year One at the Mosaic Rooms in London this month. It's striking stuff, not least because the soldiers look so disarmingly young.
"I have thousands of images from the square, but what really caught my eye was the complete bewilderment of these teenage boys in uniform, who didn't know whether they were there to protect the revolution or not. They genuinely look like they're dressing up, playing at being soldiers. It's fascinating and appalling at the same time."
Does Hamman agree with those who would contest that allowing for a greater period of reflection may have made for even better work?
"I understand those arguments, but they miss the point of my work," she argues. "Especially with Upekkha, the point is that I removed the message from being specifically Egyptian by changing the backdrops. It's about how we see the world and the young people we ask to fight our conflicts for us."
Hammam is also convinced that a selection of untreated images from Tahrir Square would not have made it into exhibition spaces.
"If I'd just tried to exhibit straight photographs then I wonder whether they'd have got much of a reaction at all," she says. "We've seen them all so many times. It's why the other series at Mosaic Rooms, Unfolding, has brutal images from the time layered with beautiful, Japanese-style artwork. Everywhere you go there is television - in cafes and bars, in taxis, in airports - everywhere. And the images of violence just flick by while people continue eating and chatting. We've become desensitised, we're not horrified anymore. So my work is all about what I can do to make you really look, make you question and make you think."
Nermine Hammam's Cairo Year One is at The Mosaic Rooms, London, until Friday. Visit www.mosaicrooms.org/
Five of the best artistic responses to the Arab Spring
• Cairokee, Ya El Medan
Featured in The National’s Music of the Arab World seriesthis week, the Egyptian rock band Cairokee collaborated with Aida El Ayouby to try to make sense of Tahrir Square, but did so in fine, meditative style. Watch the video with English subtitles on YouTube, keywords “Cairokee Ya El Medan”.
• Macbeth: Leila and Ben
An Arab Spring Macbeth might sound like the efforts of a director trying to shoehorn contemporary relevance into a centuries-old tale, but this Tunisian production from Artistes Producteurs Associés, which cast the mass murderer and his wife as Arab dictators, was a huge success when it premiered in London earlier this year.
• Ahdaf Souief, Cairo:
My City, Our Revolution
Yes, it was written quickly. No, it can’t possibly hope to fully analyse the Arab Spring – that book is years off. But if anyone should write it, it’s Souief: as The National said in March, she brilliantly captures the “spirit of the moment”. Visit www.ahdafsoueif.com for more information.
• The Reluctant
The Yemeni uprisings didn’t receive as much attention as events elsewhere, which is possibly why the British director Sean McAllister’s documentary, tracking a tour guide’s conversion into a sceptical anti-establishment figure, hit home so hard. Visit www.seanmcallister.com.
• Ashraf Foda
Hammam aside, Khaled Hafez’s wonderful paintings, full of contradictions between the military and the civilian, predate but also predict the Arab Spring. But for pure, reactive art, Ashraf Foda’s Stones from Tahrir Square installation is quietly and majestically thought-provoking. Visit www.micagallery.com/ashraf-foda.html
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