Leading Saudi soldier-artist sets up peacemaking art foundation

Anna Somers Cocks, The Art Newspaper, 7/1/13
Abdulnasser Gharem, 40, is a gentle, thoughtful colonel in the Saudi army -- not a pen-pusher, though; he has seen action twice -- who came to the West's attention during the Venice Biennale of 2009, where the artists' collective Edge of Arabia, of which he is co-founder, showed his hauntingly beautiful video, Al Siraat. Since then he has gone on to become known as one of the leading exponents of Middle Eastern conceptualism and the highest selling Arab contemporary artist, when his Message/Messenger sold for $842,500 at Christie's Dubai in 2011. Straight away, Gharem showed that he was not interested in becoming part of the market hooplah by donating the money to Edge of Arabia to help art education in Saudi Arabia, and he has gone further with his contribution to this year's Venice Biennale, which is the plan to set up an artist-run foundation in Riyadh, the deeply conservative capital, to which he has given the ecumenical name "Amen" ("So be it"). [In an interview, Abdulnasser Gharem explains:] "I'm treating the Amen Foundation as if I were producing a work of art. Why should a work of art only be a painting or an installation? It can be an organisation where people come and learn and produce art... The good thing about the word "amen" is that you find it in Islam, in Judaism, in Christianity. Lately, the king [Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia] has been trying to encourage that kind of dialogue between religions, so I thought, if the king wants this dialogue, I will try to handle the cultural or artistic side of this mission of my country.... There have been a lot of wars in the region over the last ten years, and with wars, people get changed. In the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia...what's happening now in the region with the Arab Spring...will change everything and it will affect... the people, and lead them to start to accept and search for a new platform for new ideas. They will see the artist as negotiating their issues. They will be involved, they will not just come to watch."


Syrian poet takes her country's revolution from social media to the world

Leigh Cuen, Salon.com, 6/30/13

"The official media is so ignorant about what happens in Syria," says poet Maram Al-Masri. "Civilians are in a very bad situation." Her goal for her most recent collection, published in May, is to bring what Syrians are saying on social media to the world, even as the nation plunges deeper into chaos. Syria's population is around 22 million people [and] nearly 30% of Syrians have been displaced by the current violence. "I'm working in my poetry to tell the truth about my people" says Al-Masri. "The outsiders are stealing the revolution from Syrians. Hezbollah and foreign extremists are getting involved. I want the international community to give my people medicine and milk, help them survive. What can poetry do in front of all this murder? If the poet doesn't speak, who will do it? Poetry is about freedom; it has always been about freedom."  Al-Masri calls her new book, titled "Elle va nue la liberté" ("Freedom, she comes naked"), a "strange literature production," because it grapples with the connections and gaps between people in the age of social media. Each poem was inspired by a YouTube video, a Facebook post or a photo shared by people on the ground. "The Internet is the only way that I have to connect to my people and my family now," says al-Masri, who was born in Syria and now lives in Paris. "I try to do my revolution here, as if I was with them. I write poems that describe this social media content, what I feel and what I see. I write as a person in love with them yet separated from them....My poems aren't about politics; they are about humans," she says. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated in May that as many as 120,000 people have been killed so far in the ongoing civil war. Al-Masri says extremists contacted her after a recent TV interview and threatened to kill her. "They said I support Israel. They said they will crush my head," she says. "If I die, this would be a reason to die. When you are a mother and your child becomes ill, you give yourself to save her. Syria is sick and I give myself for her. But I don't want to die." Al-Masri referred to the ongoing revolution in Syria as a miracle. She believes that life in her homeland will never return to the culture of fear she remembers. "Today, the more Assad oppresses the people, the more they rebel," Al-Masri says. "People woke up and decided to be free."


Protests in Brazil have surprised some, but warning signs were sent by artists Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times, 6/28/13

A novelist writes of a Brazilian mega-city where the rich soar in helicopters above the traffic and squalor. A movie depicts rogue Rio de Janeiro cops who kill and extort money from terrified slum-dwellers. A hip-hopper in the peripheral neighborhoods of Sao Paulo raps about daily life in the periferia set to the funky rhythms of samba and U.S. soul. Although the popular outrage that has spilled across Brazil this month has taken some by surprise, the cultural warning signals have been visible for a while. For at least a decade, a small but telling cross section of movies, books, musical acts and other forms of artistic expression have suggested that the major stress lines in Brazilian society -- economic inequality, pervasive corruption, sub-par public services, lack of accountability among the country's elites -- were pointing toward a crackup. In retrospect, those artworks now look like road maps to a nation's psyche, alternately jittery and defiant. Some commentators have expressed surprise the protests have even targeted the country's most sacrosanct cultural institution, futbol. Many Brazilians are furious the country is spending billions building new sports facilities (many already far over budget) for the 2014 soccer World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Brazilians have seen this movie before, when their nation hosted the 1950 World Cup. The nation was far poorer than it is today, yet it spent a small fortune hosting the tournament. It was a time "when we believed that Brazil was the spring of a new civilization for the whole world, absolutely," the film director Carlos Diegues told me in Rio several years ago. Instead, starting in 1964 and lasting for 21 years, Brazilians woke up in a military dictatorship that sent many people, including many artists, into prison and/or exile, including pop provocateurs such as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. But eventually most of those artists came back, bringing with them not only their experiences of more open societies, but also newfangled artistic ideas and influences. Then they began converting those into cultural forms that were distinctly Brazilian. That spirit of reinvention and self-reliant confidence, of DIY assertiveness, bubbles through much of today's Brazilian culture.


New York City's protest art, spawned by Occupy movement, is now marginalized

Kirsten O'Regan, Guernica Magazine, 6/12/13

In Athens, Madrid, Cairo, Rome, Tehran, public spaces have become a vehicle for personal and political expression. Across the Middle East and Europe, a wave of protest art [has] burst through the cracks. Crude, volume-driven graffiti and sophisticated, colorful murals splatter the walls of myriad downtowns. The youth -- disenfranchised, jobless, and opinionated -- have turned to the streets to enact their claim to citizenship; their eclectic, impassioned offerings a collective expression of socio-political aspirations and frustrations. Amongst the pictorial outpouring in recession-blighted Europe, one image has recurred: a small girl with her belongings in a handcart. The graphic originated as an illustration by U.S. artist Molly Crabapple -- one of the many figures referred to in an April 2012 BBC article, "Does Occupy signal the death of contemporary art?" The author's thesis: that the plethora of politically engaged, publically available artwork associated with the global Occupation represented a "cultural zeitgeist" rejecting commercialism and focusing on collective, public art with a social purpose.  But more than one year since the start of Occupy, New York's urban surfaces remain relatively sterile. The euphoric momentum of Occupy has dwindled, and while its iconic imagery may metastasize across marble in Monastiriki, here at home it has been efficiently cleared off the streets and into the dustbin of history.  Occupy, the Arab Spring, the Euro crisis have been collectively termed "the movement of the squares," says [NYU professor Mark Read]. But "in New York City the commons is increasingly privatized and increasingly policed. It's not really an accessible space. The square has been kind of eroded." On top of this, Read diagnoses the U.S. with a sense of despair that makes protest art seem pointless. "You know, we're faced with these crises," he says. "Certainly gun violence is a crisis, but also the economic crisis, the environmental crisis... and the political system is so sclerotic it can't respond." In New York, added to this despondency is the siren song of the high-brow art world. Noah Fischer, Brooklyn-based artist and one of the key figures behind Occupy Museums (dedicated to exposing the economic injustice of cultural institutions) agrees. "You go to New York to 'make it,'" he says. [But with] rents prohibitive and policing vigorous, "the space of resistance easily gets pushed out to the margins....There are worlds of resistance across the city," Fischer insists, "they just find it a little hard to flourish."

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