The summer issue of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs mingles various aspects of the political ferment in the so-called Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region with the world of art and aesthetics. Though the quarterly journal, published by the American University in Cairo, typically tackles more policy-oriented fare, the issue is compelling, and features a balanced selection of contributions ranging from a sedate and comprehensive essay by David Joselit on art’s role in (civil) society to a manifesto from the outspoken Egyptian artist Ganzeer. (Rounding things out is a forgettable interview with Ai Weiwei. Sample question: When did your work become so political?) That aside, here’s a rundown of some highlights:
Joselit’s essay endeavors “to consider the ideological effects of art in general” (emphasis his), in particular its role in the formation of civil societies and other political realities in the Arab Gulf. In a similar vein, Partha Mitter considers what the expansion of the art world’s periphery — which for him means superstar curators who “cast their nets far and wide,” resulting in shows like the Ibrahim El Salahi retrospective at the Tate Modern last year — means, and what to make of this “unease.”
Nadia Radwan delivers an aesthetic history of Egypt from the nineteenth century, where European art and architecture prevailed (down to public sculpture commissioned from French Orientalists) through the seminal modernist Mahmoud Moukhtar up through the “blue bra girl” immortalized in that iconic image of state brutality from Tahrir Square. Ganzeer takes things up where Radwan leaves off, chronologically, advocating for and identifying the “rise of Concept Pop,” which he claims to be a new strain of politically engaged work dealing with mass images.
Though Ganzeer is right to single out Huda Lutfi’s excellent December 2013 solo show at Townhouse Gallery in Cairo, which I had a chance to see right before it closed, he would have done well to acknowledge the extensive lineage of conceptually-oriented, Pop-inflected work, ranging from Nam June Paik and Thomas Bayrle to efforts like the Sinister Pop exhibition at the Whitney in 2012. An admonishment against a vague straw-man conception of Duchampian art-for-art’s sake having “no place in Egypt’s revolutionary climate” is also rather troubling.
Finally, Joobin Bekhrad takes stock of the contemporary art scene in Tehran and Iran at large, finding that “an unmistakable atmosphere of hope is present” despite the grim political reality.
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