A Foundation for Libyan Art

September 17, 2014 | by Brian Short

This week, English Professor Khaled Mattawa won a prestigious MacArthur “Genius Grant” for his poetry, translations, and arts activism. LSA looks at Mattawa’s work with the Arete Foundation in post-revolution Libya.

When the regime of Muammar Qaddafi fell in Libya in 2011, Khaled Mattawa knew he wanted to be a part of whatever happened next. A native Libyan, Mattawa is also an associate professor in the Department of English in LSA, where he teaches poetry, literature, and translation classes.

The Qaddafi regime had stifled and starved Libya’s arts, and Libya’s educational system reflected the lack of investment. So in 2012, Mattawa and his wife, Reem Gibriel, started the Arete Foundation, a non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to promoting the creative arts in the new Libya. They named the foundation after the Greek-Libyan philosopher Arete of Cyrene, symbolizing the foundation’s interest in beauty, curiosity, and knowledge.

They set up gallery exhibits, a reading series, and organized an annual video art show—the first of its kind in the country. They staged a production of playwright Henrick Ibsen’s Enemy of the People. But even with bold ideas and good intentions, Arete struggled to get funding and attention in a country where the arts have been ruthlessly neglected.

“Here in America, kids will go into art and design because they want to be in art and design,” Mattawa says. “In Libya, the top 10 percent go to medicine. The next 10 percent go to engineering. Then maybe into the sciences, economics. If you cannot get into any other college, you end up in education or fine arts.

“Now, a lot of people who benefited from the old system don’t want the system to change,” he continues, ”but we’re determined to do something interesting, something new.”

Rebels with Causes

One big success for the foundation has been its cinema club. Arete began showing films when there were almost no cinemas in the country. Now there are a few, and the cinema club has proven to be one of the most popular.

Mattawa's many accomplishments include translating the work of "contemporary poets highly respected in the Arab world," according to the MacArthur Foundation, including Jordanian Amjad Nasser, Iraqi Saadi Youssef, and Syrian poet Adonis. The last is regularly considered a favorite for the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

One huge hit from the 2012-2013 season was Rebel Without a Cause, the 1950s classic starring James Dean as the angst-ridden teenager Jim Stark. Although both Mattawa and Gibriel were thrilled to have so many in the audience, it was a surprise that a mid-century American movie was such a big hit.

“The young people who are seeing Rebel Without a Cause maybe identify more with James Dean in that movie than with anybody in any of the Arab movies,” Mattawa said. “Maybe they like seeing themselves through that lens.”

Help Finding the Way

Arete’s other programs include an ongoing reading series and a professionalism workshop for young artists. They have hosted artists from Syria and from the Palestinian territories. Mattawa and Gibriel also organized the Tripoli International Poetry Festival, which included poets from around the Arab-speaking world, North Africa, North America, and Europe.

One surprising outcome of the foundation’s success is the emergence of “Arete kids,” Mattawa and Gibriel’s nickname for the teenagers and young adults who attend Arete’s workshops and support the foundation’s programming as patrons and volunteers. The Arete kids are the first generation of post-revolution artists in Libya, and, for many of them, Arete has given them their first meaningful art experiences. In return the Arete kids give Mattawa and Gibriel hope that the arts’ decades-long neglect will give way to new art and new artists.

Like the Arete kids, Mattawa and Gibriel also look to the future, hoping that Arete can transform the way people think about personal expression and expand their horizons.

“I feel like we will have succeeded if we have made the field exciting enough that others will engage in it,” Gibriel says.

“If we can help an artist find his way to a school, then we’ll be happy. The same is true if we can help a regional artist find funding, or help a town start a cinema club, or a drama group. We want to make the arts part of people’s lives in the way that they choose. Not what the government says or what the schools allow them, but on their own terms.”

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