A snowy polar bear skin splayed across a floor of Sheikh Hassan bin Mohamed bin Ali al-Thani’s guest house in Doha diverted a small crowd of visiting artists and art professionals on their way to a sumptuous dinner. Channeling a spirit of decadence equal to the decor, two prominent Egyptian artists struck poses on the white pelt, the glassy-eyed, open-mouthed head of the unfortunate animal in the foreground, as a Lebanese arts doyenne merrily snapped a photo. The incident may have stood out for its eccentricity, but it was one of several notable encounters with outward displays of the vast financial resources behind the Qatari state (and its royal family) during the inaugural festivities of Doha’s Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in December 2010. The artists gathered at Sheikh Hassan’s table were high-profile beneficiaries of Qatar’s cultural policy, which includes lavish subsidies for film, the arts, and media.
Yet in Egypt today, Qatar and its oil-fueled munificence are most often linked to an entirely different constituency. In the country’s first elections following the events of January 25, 2011, Islamist political parties — Freedom and Justice, associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Salafi al-Nour party — have won, more or less fairly, a clear majority of seats, amid accusations of financial support from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. Qatar’s investment in the region’s largely secular intellectual class and its alleged facilitation of an Islamist majority in parliament would seem to work toward contradictory ends, underwriting both the minority represented by the local arts scene, long bracketed inside an intellectual tradition with claims to modernity, and those who claim to speak on behalf of those large swathes of the population who have suffered the most from economic policies pursued in the name of “modernization.”
A similar disconnect might be observed in the foreign policy of the US, which has sponsored the Egyptian regime and its military for decades, up to and including the present era of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Meanwhile, the US State Department’s smARTpower initiative supports art with a focus “on direct community engagement that encourages dialogue, experimentation and creativity.” Arturo Linsday is an American artist who has come to Cairo under the aegis of smARTpower to partner with the young Egyptian art collective Medrar. According to the website of the Bronx Museum, which administers the initiative, Lindsay “will collect stories of ordinary people bearing witness to extraordinary times and transform those stories by way of new technology into contemporary works of art.” Perhaps Lindsay will find someone to bear witness to the use of American-manufactured tear gas in the clashes at Mohamed Mahmoud Street?
His project is likely to cut a modest profile, at least in its Egyptian context. While many European nations have established a long-term presence in Egypt through cultural centers that support a diverse range of arts projects, publications, and exhibitions, American funding of contemporary art is mostly funneled to Americans — supporting, say, American participation in the Cairo Biennale or an American artist’s residency in Egypt. Tellingly, Lindsay’s project supports arts activities in Egypt within the framework of a conversation with Americans. “It is my hope,” he writes, “that this project will open lines of communication between the artists of Cairo and Atlanta, resulting in long-lasting relationships of friendship and collaborative art projects.” It’s hard not to be skeptical of the quality of the communications that will traverse those lines, given the general irrelevance of Egyptians’ input in shaping American foreign policy. Egyptian “democracy activists” have channeled a great deal of effort into communicating urgent demands to the US government, which mostly seems not to be listening.
It is easy enough to observe America’s infamous hypocrisies when it comes to doling out democracy in the Middle East. But the cultural policies pursued by the US — and by Qatar, for that matter — seem not merely inconsistent with their larger investments in the Egyptian political arena, but actively counter to their political agendas. Of course, it is possible to argue that neither nation is invested in art per se, but rather in deploying culture to offset less palatable interventions in Egyptian domestic affairs. Yet the modes of art practice implied by the projects of Qatari collectors and American curators aren’t entirely reducible to coincident political machinations. For they are subtended by distinct definitions of art — an object, a heritage, and a set of institutions, on the one hand; an engagement with underserved or otherwise marginalized communities, on the other — that have definite aesthetic consequences.
At first glance, the creation of a museum in Doha based on the collection of some six thousand works belonging to Sheikh Hassan seems beholden to the idea of the artist as a producer of art objects. This approach might be widened to describe the effect of collecting practices by wealthy patrons from the Gulf States who have consistently focused on Egypt as central to the imagining of a modern Arab arts heritage. By contrast, American support for the arts in Egypt frames the artist as an intercultural mediator, with cooperation and even that ever-elusive “understanding” — both signatures of Egypt’s traditional role as regional power broker — itself functioning as the work of the artist. It seems important to ask what the implications might be, on the one hand, of an object-oriented approach to art in this context and, on the other, an approach to art that fundamentally challenges the role of the art institution — how each makes art visible and knowable as such. And it is important to ask, too, how distant these two models really are.
The object-oriented model implied by collection-building doesn’t necessarily entail an interest in the exchange of thoughts or ideas. Yet neither is it wholly devoted to the object at the expense of other considerations. The purchase of Egyptian painting, sculpture, video, or installation by a collector in Qatar might best be understood as transforming individual art works into the work of bolstering an art market and building collections, institutions, and historical narratives. This intervention often unfolds under the sign of a pan-Arab heritage, with both “pan-Arab” and “heritage” standing in as objects of a nostalgia for a local modernity and/or as signs of nostalgia itself. The advantages of this model for self-representation seem clear for states with minority indigenous populations and overwhelmingly large constituencies of foreign workers.
There are other models as well. Those who participated in the events of January 25 through February 11, 2011, in Egypt demonstrated an acute, almost intuitive sense of how to translate the diverse, milling crowds of Tahrir Square into a moving target. They focused on building an alternative model of community and society from inside the barricaded entrances to the square and proved themselves capable of countering the regime’s constant and insidious attempts at codifying the gathering in one-dimensional terms and adept at shifting readings of events even as they transpired. Tahrir Square, and subsequently Great Ape-Snake War, have since become key references in art world discussions, and especially those regarding the relationship of civic and political life to art, seeming to resolve an old avant-garde dream: that art — the object of art, indeed the frame that allows it to be perceived as such — had dematerialized. Perhaps this was the ecstasy of revolution in which art and its frame might dissolve like grains of sugar, sweetening the occasional banality of showing up to be counted, the anxiety of publicly demanding the fall of a regime?
Immediately following the falsely happy ending signaled by Mubarak’s resignation, the same people who were protesting in Tahrir or cheering at a distance returned to their places of work and focused a great deal of energy on the work of challenging and rebuilding the institutions that shaped their daily lives. Perhaps inevitably, this strategy of engaging the institution on its own terms has proved to be relatively ineffective, even as Tahrir’s potential to embody the transformative potential of the social waxes and wanes. What we seem to have learned is that the revolution is possible; it might be experienced in one’s lifetime. And in that moment art — what is and what might be — is transfigured. Perhaps one of the primary virtues of this rare and seemingly ephemeral occurrence is that it allows us to reevaluate what we thought we already knew about a lot of things, including art, even if it is never fully possible to escape the frame.
Last night, on the verge of the revolution’s first-year anniversary, the second Cairo Documenta exhibition opened downtown in the derelict Viennoise Hotel. Many artists chose to avoid explicit references to the revolution. What seemed striking, however, was the new clarity of a number of trends, which existed before but only tenuously, more suggestion than phenomenon, as well as a new confidence that may — or may not — reflect the swell in debate around arts, politics, human rights, and the artist’s relationship to all these. Artists in Egypt have never been naive regarding the political and/or ideological charge of competing models of artistic practice. But the fall of the old order (even if mostly symbolic) and the promise — or threat — of change may begin to yield more critically engaged approaches to the institutions and discourses that frame art-making, as well as a more inclusive definition of what qualifies as such.