Art of the Arab Uprisings

May 21, 2014 | by Brian Short

Istiklal Avenue is a pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare in Istanbul’s historic Beyoglu district, a tourist hub home to numerous boutiques, cafes, and cinemas. Quaint trams clang past art deco buildings dating from the 1920s, and the thoroughfare is often crowded with people out for a stroll or looking for some strong coffee.

Last summer, Christiane Gruber, an associate professor in LSA’s History of Art Department, stepped onto Istiklal to buy bread. Accustomed to seeing people from the neighborhood, Gruber was shocked to see police barreling down the street. 

“I looked up,” Gruber says, “and pummeling down the main tourist drag came police armed with tear gas and plastic bullets and water cannons. 

“The next thing I knew, I was caught in a gas attack. I had never felt anything like it. It really feels like a heart attack.”

Gruber found herself at the center of a police crackdown on protesters who had gathered at the nearby Taksim Gezi Park. It began with a group of environmentalists protesting plans to demolish Istanbul’s large Taksim Gezi Park in order to build a new shopping center. What started as a local environmentalist demonstration grew into the Occupy Gezi movement, and included hundreds of thousands of Turks and dozens of demonstrations around Turkey (see sidebar below for a more complete timeline of the Arab Spring uprisings). Through the protests, frustrated Turks aired grievances, not just about environmental issues, but also about censorship, police abuse, discrimination against the LGBT community, an unpopular ban on alcohol sales and consumption, and what many protesters saw as the creeping de-secularization of Turkish society under the conservative Justice and Development Party. 

After being caught up in the police action against the protesters, Gruber, a specialist in Islamic visual culture, decided not to return to Michigan or watch the uprisings on TV, but instead waded into the heart of the protests to study them. She spent her days at Gezi Park, observing the protesters, especially their banners and art. She took over 3,000 photos of the protesters’ graffiti, which included peace signs, gas masks, and sarcastic mottoes such as “This gas is awesome, dude!” and “Another serving of gas, please!” 

There was humor in these slogans but also a powerful reimagining of the effects of violence. One moving example was a series of pepper-spray canisters that had been sawed in half and turned into planters. The saplings that sprouted were a potent symbol of the protesters’ desire for Gezi Park and its trees to survive. 

“You give us gas canisters,” Gruber says, describing the protester- artists’ mindsets, “and we’re going to make a pot out of it. We’ll plant a sapling, which is what you destroyed. 

A protester holding a gas cannister that has been transformed into a planter during the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul. Photo courtesy of Christiane Gruber.

“It’s about taking certain instruments of death and destruction, co-opting them, reclaiming them, and giving them a new life. Construction over destruction.” 

Occupy Gezi came at the end of a two-year period of unrest across the Middle East known as the Arab Spring. The movement began in Tunisia and spread quickly, sending protesters across the region into the streets and starting a chain reaction that toppled autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. The protests also gave voice to thousands of artists who used posters, murals, puppet shows, and plays to express their frustrations and their hopes for the future. 

Before the Gezi Park protests, Gruber became fascinated by the Arab Spring, which started in 2010. She studied the chronologies and major players of the movement, as well as the new ways that art forms were being used to express political and personal angers, fears, and desires. In the end, she brought the energy of the protests back to U-M to study how visual culture helped protesters in the Middle East find the courage to take a stand.

Tweets for Change

“To mobilize bodies, you need weapons of communication,” Gruber says, explaining that social media was the first medium to disseminate powerful images and videos, which helped the protests go viral. 

Before the Internet, state-controlled media channels controlled the flow of information in many countries in North Africa and the Middle East. But advances in digital communications gave citizens armed with cameras and smartphones the power to make their own news. 

Activist bloggers such as Lina Ben Mhenni in Tunisia and journalists such as Wael Abbas in Egypt posted photos and videos of protests that state media refused to cover. Some bloggers posted videos showing the abuse and torture of citizens by national secret police organizations. Often, the content was passed to the bloggers by people within the regime to whom the violence was abhorrent but who were afraid to speak out themselves. 

Fires burning at the Pearl Roundabout after Bahraini forces enter the square on March 26, 2011. Photo courtesy of Mohamed CJ/Wikimedia Commons.

“You see the visual, across the board,” Gruber says, “especially the photograph being used as a counterargument to state-sponsored media. It’s an alternative medium for claiming truth and reality. 

“If, for example, the state media is saying that foreign agents and thugs are destroying public property and you respond with an image showing police officers attacking peaceful sit-ins, then you’ve got a battling over truth and reality, and the photo stakes a claim in the middle of that.” 

Photographic evidence of government abuses got the ball rolling for the Arab Spring protests, but for any revolution to take place, people had to get off of their laptops. 

“We can’t call these digital revolutions,” Gruber says, “because, in the end, a revolution happens in the streets with real bodies demonstrating.”

A Protest with a Laugh Track

Once the protests were under way, a different kind of image started popping up: visual jokes. 

In Syria, one protester held up a handmade drawing of Russian President Vladimir Putin standing on the front of the Titanic, holding Bashar al-Assad as if al-Assad were Rose and Putin were Jack in the famous scene from the 1997 movie. In Libya, a mural imagined Muammar Qaddafi as a rat with his tail in a trap. In Egypt, a demonstrator held up a picture of Hosni Mubarak drawn in reds and blues to resemble President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign poster, with the words “No You Can’t” written in bold underneath. 

Laughter, Gruber says, allows people to vent their frustrations. 

“Even in situations of extraordinary violence and trauma,” Gruber says, “humans across the board use comedy and humor as a form of tension release and as a way to build group cohesion through laughter.” 

While many artworks from the protests are meant to embarrass or insult people in power, some also articulate stickier, more difficult truths. One of Gruber’s favorite humor pieces points out one of the problems that has kept many people’s hopes for the Arab Spring from being realized: protesters’ inability to cooperate with each other once the revolution is over. 

“It’s a cartoon by the Tunisian cartoonist and artist Nadia Khiari that she started right at the very beginning of the Tunisian uprisings. It’s called Willis from Tunis,” Gruber says. “Willis is a cat from Tunis, and he’s got a really wry sense of humor. He’s basically a young, left-wing secularist cat who comments on politics in Tunisia. 

“Khiari has one cartoon with all kinds of cats. She’s got cats with pigtails, which are the feminists, and she’s got cats with beards, that’s the [conservative Islamist] Salafis. In this one cartoon, she shows all of these cats, some with pigtails, some with Salafi beards, some who just look clean cut, the secularists, and they’re all pointing at each other and they’re all screaming, ‘Counterrevolutionary!’ And the title of the piece is ‘Tunisian Political Debate.’” 

The one-panel comic "Tunisian Political Debate" by Nadia Khiari. Image courtesy of Nadia Khiari. 

Many of the pieces that Gruber researches and writes about have a laugh-so-you-don’t-cry quality — born, it seems, out of a desire to bring attention to difficult political truths and also to demand that all voices be heard in this new, post-revolutionary world. That includes voices that question the revolution and its aftermath — people who dissent from the dissent.

Eyewitness Accounts

Last fall, Gruber brought many of these themes, ideas, and works of art to U-M. Along with Juan Cole, the director of LSA’s Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, Gruber co-organized a symposium called “Arts of the Arab World Uprisings,” which included presenters from the fields of academia, journalism, street art, and pro-democracy activism. The audience heard about anti-Qaddafi murals from Libya, feminist graffiti from Egypt, and monument destruction in Bahrain. Amr Nazeer, a street artist from Cairo, gave a lecture via video chat. 

One of the most powerful moments from the symposium was the presentation by Wael Abbas, an influential blogger and journalist from Egypt. After years of posting controversial videos, Abbas began to receive footage of prisoner abuse that had been recorded inside police interrogation rooms. Once the videos were posted to the Internet, they immediately went viral. 

Abbas played snippets from these videos at the symposium. Even the brief glimpses that he showed were enough to cause audience members to gasp and sit upright in their seats. 

“It’s easy to hear about the uprisings through news analysis,” Gruber says. “But I think we get more of a feel for them once we start looking at all of the materials that are so central to mobilizing people and helping them communicate who they are, that are helping them communicate with other people. 

“That’s why it’s important to show these visual materials, I think, in an exhibition setting, because it brings back that feeling. It’s hard to describe the experience to those who did not participate in the uprisings. Adrenaline, hope, fear, and violence all entangled into one. It’s electric. 

“It’s this very strange line that you’re always walking, where you’re being an active and inspired producer of hope and ideology, but at any moment, that elation and togetherness could get dispersed and crushed in one second, with one attack.”

 

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