“Our Art is Global”: Sultan Al-Qassemi on Art and Protest in the Middle East

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On February 15th, the Yale Arab Students Association hosted Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, Emirati columnist, researcher and the Founder of Barjeel Art Foundation, to give a talk to their organization. The talk, entitled “Arab Cultural Figures Through Art,” focused around the central theme of how Arab artists depict one another. Dotted with fascinating examples, he wove a story of intimate artistic depictions, such as that demonstrated by Kahlil Gibran’s personal portrait of Lebanese author Amin Rihani, or Jewad Selim’s portrait of Iraqi poet Lamea Abbas Amara. However, he noted that starting in the 1950s, art in the Arab world took a turn as more artists began to depict the political figures on the rise as nationalism swept the region. Focusing on this intersection of politics and art, YIRA had a conversation with Al-Qassemi about his thoughts on protest art, the unique development of Arab art, and how art is evolving in the region today. 

Al-Qassemi described the nascence of what has evolved into modern Arab political art as beginning at the turn of the century. At the time, much of the Arab world was controlled by the Ottoman empire. “As the Ottoman Empire continued to deny Arabs the right to use their language, the Arabic language, and ask them to choose to use Turkish as an official language, they started agitating for more autonomy,” Al-Qassemi said. “Some people wanted autonomy, when others wanted to complete independence from the Ottoman Empire. Then you had a number of intellectuals coming to the fore, who started demanding the use of the Arabic language because they felt the Turkish language was imposed on them.” According to Al-Qassemi, with this growing dissent came the depiction of the political figures involved. “The artists saw these political figures as representative of their ideals and their desires,” Al-Qassemi said. 

In the early decades of the twentieth century, nationalist movements began to emerge in the region, “culminating in the ending of foreign presence in the Arab world- beginning in 1952, with the Egyptian revolution. Egypt was the first to overthrow any sort of foreign presence— even though it was run by a king, the king was seen as a puppet of Britain.” Al-Qassemi described this era as an era of “celebration” as artists depicted the end of the kingdom. “The same thing happened with Iraq, with Yemen, with Tunisia, with Libya, with Syria,” Al-Qassemi said. A parallel of the throwing out of foreign powers in the region was the formation of what Al-Qassemi calls a “native art aesthetic”- a rejection of the teachings Arab artists were taught by Western artists. “They took the techniques,” Al-Qassemi said, “but they said, ‘this is not the content we want to produce. We want to produce local content. We want to draw our own icons. We want to draw inspiration from our own cultural heritage.’” This evolution happened from the 1920s onwards into the 1960s, with inspiration dating as far back as Pharaonic Egypt. “Our art is global,” Al-Qassemi declared. 

In Al-Qassemi’s opinion, art and politics have been intertwined for hundreds if not thousands of years. He described the Great Pyramids of Egypt as being giant architectural structures that were built to honor political figures, in that case, the leaders of the country. In a more modern context, artists still express their admiration for other artists through their art, evolving to include political figures too. “Some musicians would sing in praise of an artist, obviously, or a political figure,” Al-Qassemi said, and that “these leaders are affected by these intellectuals, so intellectuals and artists, sculptors, painters, can either depict figures that they admire.” 

Not only is there a deep relationship between art and politics in the Middle East, but Al-Qassemi also believes that art can in fact be used as a tool to better understand a nation at a given moment in time. “I think art offers us an avenue to understand the region and dynamic,” Al-Qassemi said. “You can look at articles and essays and scholarly texts as well as newspaper articles, you can look at speeches, you can look at TV coverage, radio documentaries, all these are ways for you to understand the region, but I think art has for many years been overlooked.” Al-Qassemi offered the example of Israeli self-depiction in the 1940s and 50s as a way to understand how art represents what image a nation wants to be portrayed. “So they’re like, we want to depict soldiers, heroism, the kibbutz everyday life,” Al-Qassemi said of Israel. You can perform a similar exercise about Iran and Iraq, he thinks, saying that “When the Iran-Iraq war occurred, you see the Iranian state directing artists who create images showing martyrdom, showing sacrifice, showing parents weeping for their kids who have died in honor and service and sacrifice for their country.” In Iraq, on the other hand, the government was “directing the TV channels to make fun of Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution, and then you can understand the country’s psychology.” 

Al-Qassemi points out, importantly, the different stylistic evolution of Middle Eastern art—a tradition separate from that of the West. “A lot of people come to me and say ‘oh did you have Cubism in West Africa, North West Asia, North Africa, did you have… all these weird Western words?’”Al-Qassemi is wary of conflating the art movements of the West with those of the Middle East, pointing out that “we have our own movements of art, many of which were founded by women, which is something incredible because this isn’t the case in the West. Most of the art movements in the West were founded by men, whereas in the Middle East it was the other way around.”  

According to Al-Qassemi, women have played a uniquely prominent role in Middle Eastern and North African art. “You have crystalism, which was founded by a Sudanese woman. You have naturalism. And Arabic lettrism,” Al-Qassemi said, mentioning art schools across the region founded and influenced by women, allowing a flourishing of a unique artistic heritage. “It makes no sense for someone to say do you have this, do you have this movement,” Al-Qassemi said. “The Middle East has its own movement, its own schools, and so there are elements that are unique to every region.”

With its own tradition came a unique leveraging of art in situations of political unrest or protest. Al-Qassemi sees protest art as being as old as art and language itself. “People assume that protest art is a recent development with the Arab Spring,” Al-Qassemi said. “In fact, poetry was a protest art, and this goes back thousands of years. So, the Arabic language is 2000 years old. You’d denounce a corrupt leader through poetry.” The role of art in protest has not diminished over the milenia. Even in the 20th century, Al-Qassemi said, “art was used with the use of banners in the 1920s again, denouncing corrupt Arabic leaders, denouncing foreign occupation protests.” Al-Qassemi points out that this catharsis of art and poetry was particularly strong “during the times of war, during the times of occupation, and especially the Arab Spring.”

With a tradition thousands of years old, the role of political art in the Middle East is ever evolving. Al-Qassemi mentioned that political art has recently become far more digital, with people using downloadable templates as a tool to disseminate protest materials. “Protests are very much alive in the region,” Al-Qassemi said. “Even now with that, with the rise of authoritarianism once again in the region, protests are had, still people continued to upload anonymously, people that unfortunately have gone into exile, are still uploading and creating work.” In short, then, the art has no borders, no named artist, and is increasingly easy to pass on. While the world’s eyes are ever turned to the region, a look at the Middle East’s art might help us get a better look.