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The street, a public space / a political space in the Arab world

Claudine Dussollier - December 2011

"The street, a public space/ a political space in the Arab world

When the street produces common sense, the public space becomes political; when a work of art meets a crucial moment of the collective awareness, it becomes its messenger, and the image becomes a symbol. It is important to note that the street is at this moment playing a leveraging role in the changes occurring in the societies of the Arab world.

Poster “we are all Egyptians” down town in Cairo-15 January 2011©dussollier
Beyond the emotion and the current events, there are three aspects which characterize the relationships between art and politics in the public space and which allow to analyze the situations of different countries. I think of the specific relationship in each society between the public space and the private space; the dynamic of the relationships between what is real and what is virtual, between the internet and social networks and the street; and finally, the place of the artist and the art in the political and social life.

Between tradition and modernity

How is art present and living in the public space of the Arab world countries? One of the common characteristics of this region is being under the cultural lasting influence of the Ottoman Empire. Traditionally, for centuries, entertainers, musicians, storytellers, puppeteers, dancers or singers,… have enriched the life of the courts and harems, as well as that of streets and cafés. However, festive, religious and popular events in the public space such as the “Mouled” in Egypt hide the inexorable disappearance for centuries of most of the traditional artists, so much so that the question that raises currently from Istanbul to Casablanca, from Cairo to Tunis concerns much more the preservation of the world heritage and museography than the reality of the living show.

Many operational initiatives show however that, in the Arab countries as elsewhere, contemporary artists wish to retie with the traditions to revive the practices and transform the forms. “Awaln’Art 1” festival in Marrakech has invited Moroccan, African and European circassians for several years to meet with contemporary dance companies which perform in the public space in order to lay the foundations of an artistic revival visible by all. El Warsha Company in Cairo, 20 years ago, has brought together comedians, musicians, sticks dancers, singers, storytellers… and has set out a nomad theatre inspired from the Hilali Gesture.

A social and political space experiencing a re@volution

For the last decade, many independent cultural structures have emerged in the Arab world. They were at the initiative of artists and are in favour of the transformation of wastelands, such as Santral Istanbul or Casablanca Slaughterhouses. Contemporary art places are established and events such as « Meeting point » reveal them to the public. But it is still difficult to talk about real knowledge or an acknowledgement by the population. Time and more effective cultural policies are required to make these initiatives less confidential. It is one of the reasons that make the public space a real issue to reach people and to echo the conditions of their society. However, in order to do so, it should be admitted as a real space for expression. Once again, the contexts are different and the level of initiative is more or less bound by the existing political regimes or in connection with the specific political situations.

Artists, who are playing with and playing against censorship and self-censorship, take an active part in raising a collective awareness of the society which itself is changing. It is this society which takes up the images and works of art it will adopt according to its discoveries as well as its regressions, fears and hope. The games are open all over the Arab world, with nice perspectives and a lot of work."

Claudine Dussollier/ December 2011