When the new book by Sabrina DeTurk plonked through the letter box and I saw the title I admit I wasn’t too enthused. Firstly street art ain’t particularly my cup-of-tea and secondly the topic of Street Art in the Middle East isn’t exactly uncovered ground since the Arab Spring. I hold some vague theory that the street art that accompanied the uprisings was seized on by Western spectators as an easy visualisation of events in an otherwise politically alien landscape. It was perhaps proof this ‘backward’ region was yearning for Western values and culture. The attention on street art was another simplification of events that fed into, what David Wearing calls, “a deeply ingrained set of basically racist assumptions that frame many people’s understanding of our relationship with this part of the world.”
After mulling it over I decided it was a tad unfair of me to jump to conclusions about the book before even opening it. So in the end I gave it a go; undoubtedly ‘street art’ means something different in the Middle East to what it does to me. DeTurk suggests as much in her introduction when she highlights the “great cultural divide between the Western viewers and critics of such work and their Middle Eastern creators.” Through the example of the This Is Just a Phrase in Arabic piece, painted by eL Seed, she questions to what extent Arabic graffiti has been fetishised to fit a particular Western view of the region. Street Art in the Middle East is an attempt to better contextualise and highlight the graffiti found across countries from Egypt and Iran, to Oman and the UAE. Although the title of the book is ‘street art’ DeTurk makes it clear that she’s using this as an umbrella term, which includes graffiti, as distinctions that may appear clear in a Western setting are not the same in the Middle East.
The book sets out discussing the region in chapters by country with a final one covering what’s left. Some of these are fairly obvious such as Cairo in Egypt and the Israeli separation wall, while Lebanon, Bahrain and Iraq are less so. Quite quickly it becomes clear that in all these places the politics, and aesthetics, of street art are quite different from their Western equivalents. Broadly the examples discussed in the book could be pigeon-holed as either state sanctioned public art, extending to hyper-sanitised commercial street art, in contrast to anti-government graffiti and street art. One example of the former type is the public art DeTurk finds in the city of Nizwa in Oman. Here some fairly unremarkable wall paintings were presented as works of street art as part of events when the city was designated the capital of Islamic culture in 2015. Other than al fresco art this stuff struggles to fit with the notion of street art. DeTurk argues the works function as a form of soft power to counter westernisation of Omani culture. In contrast the Tunisian town of Erriadh hosts the Djerbahood street art exhibition designed to attract tourists. This is more recognisable as the sort of obtrusive and unsightly project that results when street art is fostered on unsuspecting communities. On a more ambitious scale another example of street art used, as a form of cultural capital and display of art-prestige, to appeal to Western viewers is found in the UAE.
These are pretty generic examples of culture parachuted in that could be replicated anywhere really. Where a more genuine Middle Eastern conception of street art comes out is, inevitably, when it’s not curated from the top-down. DeTurk notes that in comparison to what has generally been termed street art in Egypt similar work in Bahrain is merely labelled ‘graffiti’. Unrest, in Shia areas outside Bahrain’s major cities, in 2011 saw a wave of religiously themed calligraphy which became more overtly politicised the following year as calls grew to boycott the Formula I race scheduled to take place there. Meanwhile in Lebanon and urban areas of Tunisia the protestors street art led to wider public discussion about its significance. The activist Ahl al-Khaf, from Tunis, declares that “politics for us is not based on democracy and parliament, but it is the politics of the bios, of life. We consider art as a form of resistance against forms of power and domination… so to make art is to make politics. To make street art is to choose to work in the streets and not in the galleries. This in itself is a political choice.” DeTurk discusses an example from Beirut, a city marked by past conflict, of some street art created by Jad El Khoury. The artist painted over some bullet holes on a derelict hotel situated in what was once a frontline during the civil war. What’s interesting is not so much the artwork itself but the reaction to it. The Lebanese art historian Gregory Buchakjian was particularly scathing of Khoury. What he found galling was “that this building is completely inaccessible. It’s very difficult to enter, and this guy has the permission, and he gives himself the privilege of painting it from top to bottom. Street art is not an art of the privileged”!
DeTurk points towards a Middle Eastern form that is aesthetically similar to Western street art but more ideologically aligned to its graffiti counterpart. However it is not just how street art is viewed but how it is used too. She argues that the graffiti in Tunis was a vital mode of communicating the protestors aims. In Cairo street art was utilised as a rallying call and form of psychological visual dissonance along a strategically important street from Tahrir Square. A photo of the ‘Martyrs of Port Said’ mural on this particular street also goes to show how the context results in specific images and use of Arabic lettering. In the intro DeTurk states that “it is the responsibility of the art historian to set aside, to the extent possible, the subjective and personal lens, or framework, through which the work of art is initially viewed”. However despite an emphasis on context she does make aesthetic and value judgements through the lens of an art critic.
The American art critic Jerry Saltz recently caused a minor scandal when he tweeted that “99% of All Graffiti is Generic Crap”. There was an immediate riposte painted at Naturkundemuseum station in Berlin and shared on the internet. Saltz later qualified his tweet saying he isn’t against graffiti per se “but it’s not often good.” The problem with this is that if a graffiti writer puts up thousands, hundreds-of-thousands, or even a million tags then it’s clear that genericness may not be a merit on which graffiti is to be judged. And so ‘it’s not even good’ is neither here-nor-there. Besides, from where is ‘good’ derived? How is something painted illegally in the street with emulsion and a roller extension best understood? Probably the aesthetic yardstick is not from the same gallery setting Saltz and DeTurk come at it from. The latter makes minor casual remarks such as in the case of Bahrain where the unauthorised murals, made during brutal repression in which a virtual “total suppression of the visual, public manifestation of the unrest” was pursued, are just “not highly finished”. Elsewhere she takes issue with a tourist ‘tagging’ “the politically charged space” of West Bank barrier as “disrespectful and even arrogant”. This is in contrast to the international street artists painting the same wall who create ambiguous works which “do not appear to carry an overt political message” or have “an enigmatic quality, open to multiple interpretations.” In another instance the humour within Khoury’s work is compared to works by a list of conventional gallery artists, rather than being viewed within the clichéd tradition of all-too-knowing irony that the street art scene holds dear. The introduction of Street Art in the Middle East unintentionally reveals a bias where writing is viewed from a uniquely Western perspective. So “where the image under discussion is clearly a tag rather than an artistic expression” it doesn’t fall under the authors catch-all use of the term street art. This definition is immediately followed by a discussion of the importance of calligraphy in Islamic visual culture.
The distinctions between what is and isn’t street art leads to some odd conclusions. The street art of the Egyptian revolution is reputed to have begun when the artist Ganzeer sprayed ‘Down with Mubarak’ during a protest. DeTurk finds it “difficult to see in its visual style the roots of the street art that came to dominate… Ganzeer himself describes his writing as a ‘bomb’, a term associated with the graffiti tradition of tagging public spaces, a reliance more on text than on image for the action’s effectiveness.” Putting aside that a tag can function as an image, isn’t this the exact evolutionary trajectory of wildstyle and pichação, or how the likes of John Fekner influenced street art? I think it’d be fair to say that the art in ‘street art’ leads to the inclusion of work that fits into the mould at the expense of stuff that doesn’t. In several places DeTurk tantalisingly skips over examples that appear to be peculiar to the Middle East. Discussing the West Bank barrier for instance she breifly notes that, before the international street artists arrived, graffiti was an integral facet of the Palestinian struggle. Aside from “spray painted slogans and martyrs’ portraits” there also appears to be a native street art culture whereby “Palestinian homeowners would commission or create murals to celebrate events like weddings or the return of pilgrims from the hajj.” A similar situation is remarked upon in Lebanon where graffiti was used extensively by various factions during the civil war but no link to the current graffiti is explored. Elsewhere the tradition of “cheaply printed poster” art to commemorate Hezbollah fighters could have done with further exploration. The chapter on Iran explains that murals have roots in pre-revolutionary protest posters, and the influence of socialist realism loomed large during 1979, but then this intriguing thread is dropped.
DeTurk’s use of street art as a catch-all is slightly jarring as it’s a fairly loaded term. It almost seems she ends up only considering what is recognisably street art to the ‘Western eye’ as significant. This probably also explains the inclusion of a B****y trigger warning in the intro too. To be fair the book is highly critical of the imported street art package and DeTurk doesn’t hold back. The Djerbahood project in Tunisia is largely dismissed. It’s quite enjoyable reading her suggest everyone from Ron English, B****y, eL Seed, Swoon, to SK One and Meen One, and even Eine are a bunch of sell-outs. Surprisingly Lushsux doesn’t feature in the book but I’m sure DeTurk would have a field day laying into him! Her criticism rightly extends to how street art and graff are incorporated into the gallery setting too. For instance a work that evokes “1970’s New York graffiti” in a Parisian exhibition was “revolutionary in that place and time, perhaps, but not a style or subject that lends a sense of gravitas or reflection to a critical moment” in the Middle East. Going back to the ‘vague theory’ that I began with, after reading Street Art in the Middle East, the analysis seems more concrete. When talking about Tunisia DeTurk suggests that the graffiti of the Arab Spring was pitched by Western commentators “as a marker of progress which, through the public nature of street art, is necessarily constructed as democratic progress.”