By Olivia Snaije

Alef Magazine
Autumn 2007 p.p. 164 - 169

A new generation of young Middle Eastern Artists are increasingly turning to video as their medium of choice. The reasons, explain specialist curator Predrag Pajdic, are clear: video is accessible, cheap and immediate, and it is offering the talented a tantalisingly effective platform from which they can address the world. By Olivia Snaije.

The contemporary art scene in the Middle East is unbelievable, says Predrag Pajdic, the Belgrade-born London-based curator. In 2003 he visited an exhibition in Berlin organised by East Jerusalem-based Jack Persekian, curator and artistic director of the Sharjah Biennials 7 and 8. Pajdic, an artist himself, was unequivocally smitten with works by Hungarian-Syrian artist Roza El Hassan, Lebanese artists Lamia Joreige and Akram Zaatari, among others. Since then, he has travelled extensively in the Middle East and has spent a considerable amount of time introducing contemporary Middle Eastern art to London. The majority of this work involves the use of new media or video installations.

Video art plays such a significant role in the contemporary art scene in the Middle East because ‘it’s the easiest way to get a message across,’ says Pajdic. It’s also the least expensive. ‘The technology in recent years has made it possible for many artists to edit a video at home or in a studio. And it’s much easier to send a DVD than transport a large canvas or sculpture. Most importantly moving image allows one to communicate directly or to send a message much faster than through other media. There is an almost hypnotic quality to it.”

While video art has been around since the 1960’s - when Korean artist Nam June Paik introduced televisions into a museum space with a work entitled ‘The moon is the oldest TV’ - video as a medium has rapidly evolved over the past ten years, with high definition video technology becoming much less expensive and more accessible. Many artists in China, Thailand or India are turning to video as a means of expression in a world where time and events whiz ahead at a dizzying speed. As Chinese contemporary artist Du Zhenjun puts it, since he lives in the modern world, he would rather use today’s language and tools to express himself. Another Chinese artist, Cui Xiuwen writes: ‘Every minute, every second, people are in different spaces doing the same thing, or different things. Some of the things they do excite my interest, because within a certain relative period of time they can alter the function of the space.’

But nowhere has video art developed with more intensity than in the Middle East. A key reason is the region’s ‘strong relationship between art and politics,’ says Wael Shawky, an Egyptian artist who has been working with video for the past six years. Shawky’s video installation, ‘Al Aqsa Park’, was projected at ‘Recognise’, Pajdic’s recent the Middle East focused exhibition at the new Contemporary Art Platform in north London. The black-and-white image of the Al Aqsa mosque’s Dome of the Rock, transforms from a structure heavy with symbolism and almost always associated with conflict, into a weightless carousel in a fairground, spinning on an axis, lit up from underneath. It is at once, serious, poetic, zany and truly modern. This is the strength of many Egyptian artists, comments Pajdic. ‘They talk about serious issues in a playful way. Shawky isn’t criticising anyone, but it’s all about the dogma that tears us apart.’

Al Aqsa Park

2006, Video/Animation Still

Artists from the region invariably use geo-political or socio-cultural issues as a backbone for their work, albeit with varying degrees of nuance or ambiguity. Taking clips from televised news or filming events gives the work a sense of urgency and timeliness, or in the case of Palestinian artists, the images convey the fact that life can be stranger than fiction. This is one of the reasons why Pajdic feels that artwork centred on the Middle East is so strong. Art that is not political is escapist, he says, ‘if it’s disconnected from reality then it’s not “contemporary”.’

Ali Cherri’s short film, “Untitled”, also part of the ‘Recognise’ exhibition, was filmed during the 2006 war in Lebanon - indeed, hundreds of art videos were made in reaction to the 33-day war. ‘I wanted to record from my own private space how this war was altering things around me,’ says Cherri. ‘From my window, I was watching warships evacuating the foreigners and the [dual] nationality Lebanese who wanted to flee the country. In the meantime, the State of Israel was intercepting the broadcast of a radio station, Voice of the People, to broadcast an audio message threatening the Lebanese. With a digital camera and a mobile phone, I wanted to capture this moment of slippage.’

Lebanon was at the forefront of the contemporary arts movement that began shortly after the end of the civil war in the 1990’s, when a generation of artists including Akram Zaatari, Walid Raad, Rabih Mroue, Mahmoud Hojeij and Mohamad Soueid began working with video tackling subjects relating directly and indirectly to the violence that gripped their country for 15 years. Documenting, examining and interpreting history, memory and the blurred lines between fact and fiction became the essence of their quasi-obsessional work. Many Lebanese artists from this ‘first’ generation have gained international recognition, their work appearing in venues such as the Venice Biennale, Art Basel in Switzerland or at Documenta in Germany, and in galleries spanning the globe.

Lack of funding has always been a problem for artists, but in those Middle Eastern countries where conoscenti generally agree that the visual arts scene is particularly vibrant—Egypt, Palestine and Lebanon—financial resources, exposure and official support for contemporary art is virtually non-existent. In Lebanon, with an ailing government, there is no public infrastructure for the arts, as in Palestine where the problems are obvious. In Egypt, the growing and dynamic contemporary arts scene does not benefit from the well-endowed Ministry of Culture, which is, in the words of Cairo-based artist Hala El Koussy ‘riddled with nepotism and cronyism.’ Most artists stay away from it.

Luckily, alternative organisations have created a support network for artists and this is a growing trend. Some of the first of these, such as Christine Tohme’s Ashkal Alwan in Beirut, or William Wells’ Townhouse Gallery in Cairo, have been essential in providing a location for exhibitions and finding grants for the artists. At the same time the various art communities have developed regional connections. Now, says Pajdic, there are more funds available, from groups such as the Ford Foundation in Cairo, Pro-Helvetia, or the Euro-Med, a European Union organisation.

Western interest in the Middle East in general has grown steadily since September 11, 2001 and the Iraq war to the point that one might call contemporary art from the region the darling of the global underground art world. But relegating ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ artists to one side or another is always dangerousso, Pajdic included works from a wide variety of artists at ‘Recognise’. ‘Exhibitions like this can only be done if they’re independent. Then you can integrate Israeli artists and so on. It’s important to show many points of view. I showed Western artists saying things about the Middle East, so it’s really the Middle East as a concept, not just artists from the Middle East.’ That said, Pajdic adds that ‘the artists [from the region] who are successful are the ones who have figured out Western thinking. They do short films with a twist of humour and sarcasm. Western audiences can identify with playful imagery.’

Doa Aly, an Egyptian painter and video artist who often explores social and physical constraints in her work, turns pre-conceived notions on their head with her short film called ‘Chinese Pretty, Chinese Sweet’. In it, she documents Chinese immigrants in the heaving city of Cairo, searching for a better life. ‘Bethlehem Bandolero’ is a good example of the black humour used by Palestinian-Danish artist Larissa Sansour. In the six-minute video, Sansour, in the style of a spaghetti Western, swaggers down the streets of Bethlehem wearing a sombrero, silver toy pistols at her hip. She has come to save the Palestinians from the wall. ‘In my work, I try to insist on my non-exotic Palestinian voice,’ Says Sansour. ‘Rather than exaggerate the ethnicity of my background to accentuate differences, I try to present a dialogue that has already been taking place for decades. I want to have the right to analyse rather than be analysed. In order to do so, I think we have to challenge certain clichés in the language and making of art.’

On the subject of the Israeli wall, one of the most powerful short films presented in ‘Recognise’ was Israeli artist Dana Levy’s work called ‘The House by the Wall’. In it, the camera slowly pans a deserted stone complex in a pastoral setting. Only an abandoned flock of sheep remain; besides their plaintive bleating, the silence is absolute. The image moves slowly until it reaches, just beyond the house, the overwhelming concrete wall.

This new visual culture from a Middle East in motion is testimony to the sweeping range of issues brought to the fore by artists, whether it is conflict in Lebanon, occupation in Palestine, or the reality of life in Egypt. For Ali Cherri, it is essential to his work not to become reactionary in violent situations such as the 2006 war. ‘I try to collect traces, document, and stay informed without analysing or making sense,’ he says. ‘I find the events are too fast and too close to be able to understand them.’

In Larissa Sansour and Emily Jacir’s work, loss, exile and absurdity are recurring themes pertaining to the Palestinian plight. Wael Shawky translates to visual language the social changes he observes in Egypt. He calls the society ‘hybrid’, where new lifestyles, often encompassing Western popular culture, clash with tradition. Finally, Egyptian artist Ayman Ramadan’s ‘Iftar’ touches on religion, social class and tradition, highlighting similarities, and not differences with Christianity. ‘Iftar’ shows in a striking visual convergence of symbols, working-class Egyptians standing along a table and eating with admirable intensity. ‘During Ramadan, in almost every street in the country, people stop working and break their fast together at tables like the one in the video,’ the artist explains. Explains Ramadan. ‘Most of them are charity tables and, like the one in “Iftar”, provide not just a meal but also a sense of belonging. When I saw a copy of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”, I thought it was a Muslim Iftar>/i>, and when the Christian significance was explained to me, I was sure the meaning was the same.”