On the front cover of this issue of the Cairo Review is an image depicting Forever Bicycles, an installation by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, featured in the Ai Weiwei Absent exhibition in 2011 at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. On the back cover is a photograph of Tank Versus Bread Biker, a wall mural also created in 2011 by the Egyptian artist Ganzeer. Ai and Ganzeer are artists of our globalized age, who transcend borders, cultures, and indeed our conventional ideas about art.
The bicycles neatly reflect the theme of our Summer 2014 edition: Mobility of Art. For The Cairo Review Interview, journalist Dorinda Elliott traveled to the Beijing suburb of Caochangdi and spoke with Ai about the prospects for liberty in China and the global impact of his art. Closer to home in Cairo, Ganzeer authored a piece for us on what he calls Concept Pop, a play on Concept Art and Pop Art, which he defines as art that deploys popular aesthetics to deliver meaningful messages to the masses.
In his essay “The Art Effect,” David Joselit examines the roles of power and culture in the development of a global civil society. Art not only reflects globalization, he writes; it is one of its “stealthy agents.” In “Collapsing Certainties,” Partha Mitter argues the Western modernist canon undermines local voices and practices and thereby undermines the plurality of expressions. Joobin Bekhrad reports on a surprising frenzy in contemporary art sales in “Tehran Bazaar.” In “Revolution to Revolution,” Nadia Radwan describes the arc of Egyptian public art from the time of independence leader Saad Zaghloul to the Tahrir Square uprising.
Senior Editor Rozina Ali marvels at the “rise of the rest” when it comes to the globalization of art—seen, for example, in the booming art market in China, or in the construction of major new art museums in Qatar and Abu Dhabi. In directing our editorial effort for this issue, she connected with gallery owners in the Middle East, curators in Europe, scholars in America, and artists in Asia. “The real story of global art isn’t its production,” Ali reports, “but the mobility of the ideas it expresses.” She came away with questions for further study: “Is the international art market really creating meaningful global connections through diverse thought and taste? Or is it just reaffirming ‘Western’ standards with new players?”
Raised in the Nile Delta, he traveled to Paris and Montreal to earn advanced degrees, and made a mark with a career in diplomacy. After stints at Egypt’s embassy in Israel and working in the Egyptian foreign minister’s cabinet, he became a United Nations advisor on sensitive files like the Darfur crisis in Sudan and the aftermath of the assassination of a former prime minister in Lebanon. When a revolution suddenly ousted the regime in his own country, he was called into service as head of the Supreme Council for Culture in an interim government, only to label the body dysfunctional and resign four months later. Amid the drama and suspense was an impulse, an impulse to push the limits, to discover more, to open up spaces…
Ezzedine Choukri Fishere could be the protagonist in one of his own stories. In his case, the impulse led the scholar-diplomat into a third chapter of his life, as a rising Arab novelist. Since he began publishing fiction in 1995, he has come out with six novels exploring themes from freedom and destiny to identity; critics have viewed his work as indictments against repression, injustice and suffering in Egypt.
Fishere, 47, an associate professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, is well known to Egyptians as an op-ed writer for newspapers such as Al-Masry Al-Youm, but much prefers literature to political commentary. “You open up spaces, you go beyond the limitations of the now, that time and space that you have,” he explains. “When you write political commentary, you’re more bound by today’s reality. You look at possible alternatives, realistic ones, and you’re trying to explain them, and no one’s paying attention because there are a million voices out there saying similar or different things.”
Intensive Care Unit (Ghorfet Al-Enaya Al-Murakazza), published in 2008, three years before the Tahrir Square uprising, explores the decay of Egyptian state and society; in the rubble of the Egyptian consulate in Khartoum in the aftermath of a suicide bombing, various Egyptians are left to reflect on their lives—an Islamist leader, a Coptic human rights campaigner, a liberal journalist and an Egyptian intelligence officer operating out of the consulate. The novel was long-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, which is managed by the Booker Prize Foundation. Fishere’s 2011 novel, Embrace at Brooklyn Bridge (E’nak E’nda Jesr Brooklyn), was short-listed for the award; it explores the lives and alienation of members of an Egyptian family scattered across the United States and, as some critics saw it, the religious tension between East and West in the post-9/11 world.
Fishere undertook a risky mixture of broadsheet commentary and fiction writing in the publication of The Exit (Bab Al-Khorouj) in 2012. He dashed off the novel in a mere seventy-five days and published installments of the work-in-progress Dickens-style in Tahrir, a Cairo daily. To keep himself on track, he plastered the manuscript across walls of his apartment: a section for what was published, a section for what was ready to be published, and another for the drafts of where the story was headed. Written as Islamist leader Mohammed Morsi was campaigning to take power, and a year before he was overthrown by the military amid a popular uprising, the novel seeks to imagine Egypt’s outlook in the event that any faction tries to impose its will without compromise. It is an attempt to explore the moral and personal dilemmas of politics.
During a chat in his campus office, Fishere refers to Egypt’s revolution in the present tense, as an ongoing process; he sees the ouster of the Hosni Mubarak regime as a marker of significant social rather than political change. “It’s a society that has transformed,” he explains. “But the political system was incapable of matching the social change.” For better or worse, Egypt is sure to supply material for its novelists for some time to come.
Oriental Hall, etc.
The United Nations said in June that 10.8 million Syrians—nearly half the population—were in need of humanitarian aid. For participants in Hyper Paralysis: Global Governance and the Syrian Question, a recent panel discussion in AUC’s Tahrir Dialogues series, the problem of aid distribution cannot be solved without a political solution. “By humanizing the Syrian question, often we do something else: we take the humanity out of the Syrians themselves,” said Hani Sayed, chair of AUC’s Law Department. “We turn them into victims. Helpless victims.” Abeer Etefa, senior regional public information officer at the World Food Programme, noted that some donor countries complain about directing aid to one side or another, but an untenable weighing of “good” and “bad” citizens would result without a policy of neutrality. Georges Michel Abi-Saab, professor of international law at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, lamented the bleak prospects for a political solution. “What we are seeing,” he said, “is a new level of barbarism.”
Does translation offer a means for rapprochement between cultures in conflict? The conventional answer is yes. English translations of Arabic literature have increased; this year, Arabic is the fourth most translated language into English in the United States. But the Iraqi translator Sinan Antoon, an associate professor of Arab literature at New York University, argues that the English translations served not only as a reference for better understanding but as “a form of cultural interrogation” of Middle Eastern society. Many Americans, Antoon explained in a lecture titled “Translation as Mourning” hosted by AUC’s Center for Translation Studies, sought evidence that would justify blaming Muslims for their trauma and loss. Iraqis, he reminded his listeners, have their own need for explanations of American “wars of terror that are labeled as wars on terror.” A noble purpose of translation, Antoon argued, is offering a means to understand loss. He recited verses by Sargon Boulus, an Assyrian Iraqi poet, whose work mourns Iraqi losses using ghosts as a motif—victims of invasions and sanctions who demand no revenge or retribution, seeking only to be recognized as part of humanity.
Theory Y and Egypt’s Bureaucracy
As an undergraduate student of business administration, I remember how our management textbooks talked about McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y. Theory X denoted the coercive style of management, where leaders perceived their subordinates to be lazy, needing constant close supervision. Theory Y, on the other hand, was a participatory leadership style, a belief in the value and ability of employees who simply needed encouragement and positive reinforcement. If employees are treated with respect, fairness and equity, they will become committed to the organization, and they will do what it takes to excel at work. In the real world, it turned out not to be that simple, especially in our Egyptian public service organizations.
What would it take for our overstaffed bureaucracy of approximately seven million employees to operate under Theory Y? Would Theory Y solve all our problems?
Several prerequisites come to mind that may be inter-linked. I believe that if the bundle of these changes were implemented, employees would start feeling differently about their work, and the quality of government services may improve.
Minimum Wage: Right after the January 25 revolution and its call for social justice, a stronger demand was raised for a revised minimum wage in government. A monthly starting salary of 1,200 Egyptian pounds would barely cover the basic food needs for a family of five. Yet the minimum wage has still not been fully implemented, and it is not applicable to the state-owned enterprise sector.
Fair Compensation: Average salaries are way below the market rate. Demand is still high for government jobs because of perceived security, tenure and social status. Because of the shorter work day, government employees can take on private sector jobs on the side. In Singapore, government compensation is compatible with the private sector and exceeds that found in the U.S. civil service. No surprise, the best and most qualified calibers are retained in government.
Fighting Corruption: Corruption is rampant in the Egyptian bureaucracy. According to the 2013 report by Transparency International, Egypt ranked 114th out of 177 countries in the Corruption Perceptions Index.
Transparency: Following the model of other developed nations in posting government job vacancies and even employees’ salaries online, increased transparency in recruitment and in compensation will help curtail corruption and nepotism.
No to Nepotism: Egyptian public service is witnessing the institutionalization of nepotism. Government officials have always managed to appoint relatives and friends, but since the 2011 revolution they are demanding this as a right.
Reducing Power Distance: According to Geert Hofstede, the Dutch social psychologist who compared work cultures around the world, Egypt is a country high in organizational power distance. Egyptians accept that managers higher up in the hierarchy should be treated differently, addressed formally and given more power. I remember visiting the Ministry of Planning during Hosni Mubarak’s era and being astounded to see junior employees making it a point to place a larger chair at the head of the table for the minister, and even smoking the corridors with incense so the minister would enjoy a sweet smell as he passed.
Rightsizing: Over and over again multiple ministers of state for administrative development and heads of the Central Agency for Organization and Administration have stated that we can do without half the existing number of employees in our public administration system. Yet, the government succumbs to populist pressures and keeps on appointing additional staff to government. In the year following the 2011 revolution, more than 300,000 employees on contractual appointments were given tenure. Employees do not have a real job, or space and desks, and become demotivated.
Decentralization: Egypt as an agricultural nation has always been exceedingly centralized. Attempts at implementing a greater degree of decentralization have been debated and piloted in limited areas and sectors, but never taken seriously. Accordingly, government employees do not have much discretion in performing their jobs and have to go back to their superiors, who in turn have to check with headquarters.
Adopting a Public Service Notion: A culture of public service is needed. The term khedma ammais not even commonly used in the Arabic language. A government employee considers himself a master not a servant of citizens.
We need government employees who are willing to work. It is not at all simple, but if we do not work on attaining some necessary prerequisites, we will be very far from a true implementation of Theory Y. Committed employees are what we need to move on.
Laila El Baradei is the acting dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.
A Street Called Mohammed Mahmoud
Some have proposed renaming it Eyes of Freedom Street. Many of the uprising’s most violent clashes have occurred on this avenue, giving it a powerful symbolic charge recognized by protesters and regime forces alike. The walls of Mohammed Mahmoud Street, with their vibrant murals portraying the unflinching gaze of blinded protesters, or the serene smiles of winged martyrs, are witness to the wounds of Egypt’s ongoing revolution.
Beyond an impressively high level of technique, the symbolic and emotional qualities of the murals embody collective grievance. The life-like images invite contemplation and mourning—rendering all those fallen Egyptians as familiar as family. Images of the young dead rendered as angels appear next to portraits of grieving mothers who clutch picture frames. The picture frames seem to not merely suggest participation—but demand it. Friends, family, and passersby routinely leave letters, goodbye notes, and meta-commentary proclaiming that the sacrifices of the martyrs would not go in vain.
More than as a barometer of public sentiment, the proliferation of street art since the January 25, 2011 uprising is best understood as a constituent part of the country’s evolving civil society—an active component of participatory democracy. The contemporary genre of street art known as graffiti is rooted in urban American resistance culture, and particularly owes to socially and economically marginalized community youth of 1970s New York. Egypt’s revolutionary public art owes as much to a strong local tradition as to any foreign precedent. The themes of graffiti emerging in 2011 expressed grievances shared across borders in the Middle East but with local inflections—and the case of Egypt stands out.
At a superficial level, Egyptian political graffiti evokes easy reference to the acerbic wit aimed at public figures, from the satirical papyri mocking the pharaohs of ancient Egypt to jokes circulating in the last years of Hosni Mubarak’s reign. An important inspiration is the Egyptian folk art of hajj murals: the creation of commemorative paintings featuring boats and planes on the facades of homes to celebrate a pilgrim’s safe return and advertise the returnee’s new status. It is not only the decoration of public spaces that links the art of pilgrimage to that of political rebellion, but the emphasis placed by such religious commemorations on communal experience and interactivity.
Decorating a wall thus means to advertise adherence to normative morality, bear witness to pride, and make a statement in the public space—intended, inherently, to be shared. Hajj murals sanctify domestic spaces, and by extension, the wider community. Contemporary street art operates in a similar manner albeit inverted—the sentiment evoked is not one of communal blessing, but shared anger. Like the monumental size of hajj paintings, revolutionary murals engulf the viewer. The populist political art of graffiti offers a meditation on shared losses and unifying grievances; such murals necessitate not a simple viewing, but a spatial experience.
With its location in the heart of downtown Cairo, Mohammed Mahmoud provides an ideal forum for everyday people to express grievances. This broad pathway connecting the traffic hub of Tahrir Square to the hated Interior Ministry has been so frequently visited by multiple battles that it seems as if the strip has become a perpetual scar: fresh graffiti covers the scabs of each progressive wound.
Ten months after the revolution’s early skirmishes, security forces stormed a Tahrir sit-in; protestors streamed back to the square—and the Battle of Mohammed Mahmoud had begun. Some forty demonstrators lost their lives, and snipers blinded more than sixty others in the crowd. Somber images of sightless protestors emerged on the walls to keep watch over the revolution. Ammar Abu Bakr, an art teacher from Luxor, depicted the state’s violence and protestors’ resilience in monumental portraits of eighteen of the blinded protestors drawn in patriotic colors.
Just before the first anniversary of January 25, regime forces blinded Egypt again—and erased the faces of Mohammed Mahmoud. On February 2, 2012, clouds of tear gas once more choked the street and new martyrs flowed from Abu Bakr’s brush as another battle raged on. The evening before, a rampage at a football match in Port Said killed seventy-four fans in an act widely perceived as having been actively facilitated by state security forces.
In September 2012, the news that someone once again had painted over the murals on Mohammed Mahmoud Street aroused attention on Twitter and Facebook. Trained and amateur artists, flanked by onlookers, returned immediately with spray cans, paint, and fury. Some pointed fingers of blame at the government—then dominated by Islamists—interpreting the destruction as a crackdown on art, expression, and even figuration. Others viewed the whitewashing as an attack on Egypt’s pluralistic history embodied in the mix of Pharaonic, Christian, and Muslim imagery.
The latest erasure was rightfully understood as an attack on the public space, and by extension, the voices expressed on the open walls. Whitewashing graffiti is one thing (the art is, after all, inherently ephemeral), but whitewashing memory proves impossible—something confirmed by the content of the graffiti’s swift return.
New portraits depicted not fallen martyrs, but defiance. The image of a young man with unkempt long hair sticks out his tongue; scrawled beneath, a caption mockingly refers to the state’s secretive plan and dead-of-night timing: “Erase it again, regime of cowards.” A new mural proclaimed Egypt as the Muslim Brotherhood’s future graveyard—foretelling the new uprising, in the summer of 2013, that forced Islamist president Mohammed Morsi out of office. As targets of public opprobrium shift, so too will their artistic meta-texts—evolving as the structures of oppression become increasingly clearer to a population unhappy with the unfulfilled promises of revolution.
The revitalization of civil society in the aftermath of revolution will emerge from the organic permutations of cultural idioms and local precedents. The Hosni Mubarak-era barrier of fear has been broken, and ink spills outside the frame all over the open spaces of contemporary Egypt.
Amanda E. Rogers is the A.W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Art History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Through a Hole in the Wall
Though confined to China, Ai Weiwei manages to traverse the globe like no other artist. In a satirical protest against authority in June, he Instagrammed a picture of himself holding up a leg to resemble a gun; social media around the planet exploded in a torrent of leg-gun selfies snapped in solidarity.
Ai’s work spans everything from sculpture and photography to installations and architecture; he was the artistic consultant on the design for the “Bird’s Nest” Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympic Games. His art is relentlessly political, whether critiquing China’s democracy and human rights deficits or questioning the human condition. In the 2007 installation Fairytale, Ai brought 1,001 ordinary Chinese to documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany, and had them sit on stools. For a show at London’s Tate Modern, Ai created 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds and poured them into the exhibition space.
Ai documented the names of some five thousand children who died in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 as the result of shoddy school construction; in 2011, he was arrested on tax evasion charges in a case seen as a move to silence the critic. Though released after months in prison, authorities fined him $2.4 million and barred him from foreign travel. Ai is unknown in China outside elite circles; mention of his name is banned from media and websites. But his global stature only continues to rise, with another two major international exhibitions this year: Ai Weiwei: According to What? at the Brooklyn Museum, and Evidence at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau. ArtReview magazine hailed him as the most powerful artist in the world. Condé Nast Traveler Contributing Editor Dorinda Elliott interviewed Ai at his home-studio in Caochangdi on the outskirts of Beijing on June 13, 2014.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: I’ve just seen your shows in both Brooklyn and Berlin. They’re fascinating.
AI WEIWEI: I haven’t been able to see my international shows for several years. I have no passport.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: What are you working on these days?
AI WEIWEI: I’m working on new works, and I am designing a new show at Alcatraz in California in September, as well as several other shows.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Will those be new works?
AI WEIWEI: New works. Only new works make me engaged or excited. I always like to work with materials I haven’t had a chance to work with before, or same materials I have used but haven’t fully explored its possibility. All materials require a certain kind of knowledge and skill, and have their own expression.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: When did your work become so political?
AI WEIWEI: I don’t think you can become political. I did not become radical, I was born radical. I’m in a society where everything is political. Two days ago, our team started to do a kind of selfie on Instagram, a leg-gun. It’s all over everywhere. It’s fun because it’s such a ridiculous posture, but everyone can do it. Because you have the material and everyone can do it. Everyone can very easily be attracted to these silly jokes. Of course, there is some hidden meaning there. Nowadays, everywhere you see armed policemen in China. The excuse is terrorism. But in my lifetime I would never see a terrorist but I would always see an armed policeman. Is that psychologically a police state or terror? Trying to intimidate whom? I mean, so if there are terrorists they cannot stop it. So you see how they can abuse power, how creative they can be, when they have a new concept how much they abuse. Talk about [National Security Agency whistleblower Edward] Snowden, power always has the right to go too far, always abuse it when there’s no restriction. So we’re doing that leg-gun suddenly, everybody is doing it. Actually, it’s like flipping the bird. But flipping the bird seems so rude. But this, everybody loves it. It shows everybody is critical. It shows not just people’s attitude, but shows their sense toward [the] current condition, and individual identity, working space. That’s their body, their body is art. It’s a weapon. It’s so beautiful.
Xinhua, People’s Daily, all posted this thing on their front page. Young people recognize me, but [media] can’t use my name. So they used a picture of me, and talked about a new trend. Then it was posted on the most hardcore Communist paper’s website! But then they figured it out, and they deleted everything. It’s everybody, everybody’s doing it! So easy, everybody can do it! It started here, in my office. That’s why it’s interesting. That’s what I’m doing, all kinds of things. By doing that, I lost three thousand followers in one day. Some people thought it is too much. But those are followers I don’t need. They think repeatedly doing something, that’s not beautiful. But for me, it’s very beautiful. A simple study of our leg and our body gesture. Some point to the places they hate or places they like. It’s so funny! [Ai scrolls through Instagram.] That’s me! Chinese net, Sohu, front page. There’s Lei Feng with a leg. There’s military. They are all holding leg. Nobody knows what it’s about but everybody is doing it. I think it’s very successful.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: You use humor all the time as part of your art.
AI WEIWEI: It’s not that I use humor. The humor is there. It’s our life. It’s full of ridiculous things. I’m just trying to find a form, so everybody can understand it. And you know, it’s a simple thing to do. This Internet can be quite powerful. This is all inspired by an image from the Red Women’s Army. So funny!
DORINDA ELLIOTT: What do you think about the rapid economic development in China, how does it affect your art?
AI WEIWEI: Talking about political conditions, what I’m saying is things like this, they will be deleted. You won’t see it on Chinese Internet. If I think about my condition, my father was a poet, jailed, exiled. I grew up in that condition, and I have so many friends, artists, poets, my lawyer, they all have been in jail. How can I avoid looking at those cases and making some comments? I’ve made very little comment. I feel ashamed of myself. How can a healthy person, who knows all those things, not talk about them? My argument is always very rational, very restrained. What I’m talking about is most elementary, there’s nothing profound in there. When you ask when my art became political, I say I was born like that. I was born in the year of the Anti-Rightist movement, 1957. Chairman Mao had a crackdown on intellectuals, from high school teachers to people like my father. Half a million people—the voice of the nation—had to be silenced, and sent to hard labor.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: What happened to your father?
AI WEIWEI: He was one of the rightists. Sent to Xinjiang, I grew up there. Spent sixteen years there, in hard labor. We all measured how far you feel the heart. The heart is Beijing. But all the way to Xinjiang, so far away, there was almost no energy there.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: What are you trying to achieve with expressions like this Instagram flashmob?
AI WEIWEI: I don’t want to achieve anything. I achieve my own happiness, other people’s happiness. The whole world is about happiness. You know this censorship, by censoring information they are shortening people’s lives, cheating young people. They are limiting young people’s ability to obtain adventures in life. No way to find passion, courage, imagination. Life has been shortened, cheated. This is much worse than air pollution. Yeah, this is really a mind being twisted. It’s not “lacking,” it’s really twisting. It’s not you don’t have enough, but they do not give you enough to change your perspective as a human being.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Do you think that eventually China’s culture will catch up with all the rapid economic development?
AI WEIWEI: Eventually, yes. China is changing, and it’s inevitable. Seems like nothing can stop it now. But the change is not happening consciously or willingly, especially on the political side. So change is more toward material life. Dealing with necessary problems. Pollution and corruption: the government will fight them for unexpected reasons. They have to do something about it, because these things affect their stability and control, their ability to stay in power. So they have to do something. It’s all about keeping control and fully grabbing power.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Despite the age of globalization, you can’t see your own shows; most Chinese people can’t see your art. Isn’t that so strange?
AI WEIWEI: It’s normal. You have a big castle like China. It used to be totally sealed from the outside world, nobody knows what’s going on. But now some windows are open, and people can peek in and see how Chinese people live. Outsiders try to understand what structure, what happens inside the castle. It’s a pity that the window shows a very limited area. There is such limited information. Maybe just a hole in the wall. And maybe what they see through me doesn’t necessarily reflect the structure of the castle, but they don’t have other holes. It’s not by my choice that I wanted or refused it, it just happened that way.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Journalists are always lectured in China about the role of the media, that they should be positive and promote stability. China has the same idea about art. Is that concept changing at all?
AI WEIWEI: No, China has only one idea. The whole Communist performance is based on one idea, one act. Unified ideas, unified voice, unified acts. Which is why we need the party, that’s what the party is about. If you have eighty meetings and one party and eighty meetings of the Communist Youth League, and lots of other meetings, the army, all those organizations, what do you want? Why do you need such control?
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Some scholars compare Communist leaders to Red emperors. Do you see it that way?
AI WEIWEI: I don’t really know. I try not to comment on individuals, because there is very little information. I comment on what’s happening in the country, because I am so sure about it. But how can one know what’s happening in a leader’s mind?
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Will the Communist Party eventually lose control?
AI WEIWEI: The party’s policy is first to maintain stability, then trying to have a so-called socialism with Chinese characteristics, which in the more sensible words is “crossing the river by touching the stone.” But it’s nothing more than that. So that means you can do anything necessary to cross the river. That’s the message of the past thirty years, and it’s still the only message. First, they think the other side of the river is the Chinese dream. But I don’t think they have a clear historical or intellectual understanding of human development, about society, or profound thinking about society at all. So the result is that they have to maintain stability, which becomes a real test of fast development. It’s like you drive an old vehicle in a fast track. Or you have a ship and need to sail for one thousand kilometers but have to plug the holes while you are sailing.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: How long can that go on?
AI WEIWEI: How long can human society go on? You have so many problems all around the world. Unbelievable. It happens not only this side of the planet but almost everywhere.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Like climate change? In the United States, people don’t understand just how serious the problems are.
AI WEIWEI: People will realize more and more the effects of globalization. After that we will be really much tied together. The glory will be shared and the guilt. The sins also will be shared. I think we need a long study of how, with the Internet, humanity is so connected. Problems have never been so unified. There are almost no local problems anymore.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Yes, if the American economy sinks, then the Chinese economy is affected, and vice versa.
AI WEIWEI: Everybody is nervous and so everybody becomes an opportunist.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: In the short term, what do you think are the most important things that will affect the Chinese people, for better or worse?
AI WEIWEI: The government always thinks it’s the economy. I have a very different idea. I think it’s self identity. As an individual or as a society, as a nation, China still does not clearly understand or make an effort to make a society that people can trust, that has some credibility, that has legitimate rights for power or for the ones to control or be controlled. Even those controlled, you still need to feel what are your rights, and what are the rights you give to those in power. Only by doing that can a society be healthy, because everybody can bear the responsibility and the consequences. Life can be better or worse. But to really bear responsibility, to make a society responsible and help itself, and of course, maybe you help others along the way. I think that’s a big struggle.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Do you see anything that will push that change?
AI WEIWEI: No, nothing, if China refuses to accept so-called common values: democracy, freedom of press, freedom of judicial, society maintained by law. China has openly opposed those things. They have said that this is not the Chinese way. But of course they couldn’t tell you what is the Chinese way. They have been trying to figure that out for the past thousand years.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Are they saying you are not Chinese? Or that your lawyer, who is in jail, is not Chinese?
AI WEIWEI: The first time I was arrested, they thought I must have some connections, all my acts must be, you know, they said, “you’re a pawn of the West.” It’s easiest to set up a condition and a defense, in which the condition is not real. So many things like this happen in our society. They try to set up an enemy which is not there.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Did jail change you?
AI WEIWEI: Jail must have changed me somehow, I have no idea. It’s not a normal acceptable condition, so…
DORINDA ELLIOTT: How do you feel about your current position? Could you be jailed any moment?
AI WEIWEI: I’m always very naïve. I think that period is passed. I think the people who jailed me are smarter, they are more informed, they understand better who I am, they don’t feel I am that much of a danger to them. I think they are smart people as individuals. But as a system, a society, they are very uncomprehending. You’ve got to understand Chinese society. If there’s an old guy there, the whole family sits around and listens. That’s our culture. You don’t argue with your parents. You don’t even argue with your brothers and sisters. You may totally disagree but you keep a big smile on your face. In one way it’s good. You protect people in their freedom. Don’t need to argue to make absolute truth. Our society has survived that way.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Will China’s inability to deal with history hold the country back?
AI WEIWEI: It’s very difficult to make progress and improve if society can’t learn from the past, for society to not be conscious. They should understand that to announce those mistakes, it’s not a loss of face. You don’t have to bear that responsibility, as long as you consciously understand that was a mistake. Everybody can fall. But it’s very strange if after you fall, you try to glorify that gesture and just sit there, and not move.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Does that inability to look at the past and admit mistakes make the system brittle?
AI WEIWEI: I think [the government] is lacking a profound understanding of how to make a nation move forward. They are sacrificing the human conscience or intelligence for the small mistakes somebody made along the way. They really underestimate the whole society’s ability to adjust themselves and to learn from mistakes. It’s against the intellect.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: What do you think about the art market?
AI WEIWEI: The art market has been crazy ever since I have seen it. Since the 1980s.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Is it crazier now?
AI WEIWEI: I don’t really know. I’m not a person who is so involved in those matters. Of course I think there’s so much hype in terms of the prices in the market. It’s another game. Not one that artists control, but rather speculators. Society makes it that way.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Do you see a lot of good art around you in China?
AI WEIWEI: What is good art? I see all those photos when I turn on my phone, and I think that’s brilliant art. But this art may not end up on museum walls. I think making art is a human need. It’s not a museum need or a collector’s need. But others often define what is good or bad. Some kind of perspective that doesn’t really reflect individual acts.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Do you follow any of the “public artists” who are expressing their views through art in the Middle East, like Tunisia’s eL Seed and his “calligraffiti”?
AI WEIWEI: I haven’t followed. I even have a difficulty catching my voice. [A train roars past.] You see, trains rushing by! I would love to follow that, but these days there are so many things going on in different places. So many talented people, so much energy and it’s very different.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Are there some people you feel you learn from, who have changed your art?
AI WEIWEI: I am mostly learning, not from art history, not from artists, but by self practice. I don’t know if what I’m doing is even art. I don’t think it matters if it’s art or not, but it matters if it’s successful communication. If I have to have some kind of measurement, I would say to what level, to whom, and how people would view it. Those questions remain in every work.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: How do you view your audience? Are they foreigners, Chinese?
AI WEIWEI: I don’t think there’s a fixed audience for my work. I think the audience has to discover my work, and my work needs to discover the audience. Before people see my work, there is no audience, but if an audience develops, then the work is there.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: You’ve become such a famous artist. How does that affect you?
AI WEIWEI: Hah! Famous artist! For three years, my name can’t even appear in any media here. Yesterday, with the Instagram pictures, was one exception that we celebrated. Yesterday they saw some image and people loved it. I broke through once!
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Can fame become a burden for an artist?
AI WEIWEI: For many artists, burden of fame, or to live in somebody else’s measurement or standard, but for me, I’m very lucky. I don’t have to be that way because I was trained in this society, which was so strongly enforcing ideology in every waking second. I was trained to be anti-market.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Lots of Chinese artists are very market-oriented.
AI WEIWEI: It’s like, if you see a gambling table. Some people are so happy to grab what they got. But if I have glory, I would lose everything. At the end, I don’t really care that much. I keep playing. It’s a moment, not really gambling. It’s a game. It’s so unpredictable, and not even controllable. You would have a sense of survival, and also there’s the idea that your act maybe gives some courage to other people. So I’m satisfied.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: That seems very Maoist. He called for art to serve the people, and your art has very powerful social messages.
AI WEIWEI: Maoist! I don’t see it that way. Why we should do this? We could easily find a nice place, grow organic vegetables, raise some animals very quietly, and live a very peaceful beautiful life. But if you are already in some kind of public domain, artists or politicians or musicians or whatever, then of course you bear a little more responsibility with that. Because we don’t grow food. I always tell people I know, we don’t grow food, our daily supplement. We don’t weave fabric. Where do all those things come from? Somebody has to make it. Do we hear their voice? Their voice is something we wear or eat. So as an artist, we have a responsibility. Don’t tell me you’re such an elite, or so superior, that you bear no responsibility. Come on, that’s obviously a lie.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: You’re always giving a voice to the local people through your art. Like yourSunflower Seeds installation, which represents something regular people love.
AI WEIWEI: That piece surprised me. I was worried. I thought maybe this is too local an experience. But I suddenly realized globally people can accept it. Very surprising. And when I brought 1,001 Chinese to Germany, very local farmers, minority people, all kinds of people, I faced their problems. They couldn’t really travel, they have no knowledge about art. They’re completely cut off from contemporary life. It was dangerous. Very risky. For them and for me! What if they all escaped? How could this guy come back to China? Nor could I stay in Germany any more. I would have had to find someplace else, Puerto Rico or something!
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Maybe that’s what poetry is. It’s about the human condition.
AI WEIWEI: Yeah, poetry is talking about the human condition. But it’s always focusing on very common sensitivity to show uniqueness or an unpredictable moment.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: So true globalization is about defining commonness and human universality?
AI WEIWEI: I think true globalization is finally people in any place and any condition, any circumstance—economic, political, religious—can examine or challenge what has been there in a more common language, to confront things. It doesn’t mean disappearing or gaining from either side, but this is a moment, which may lead to new thinking, new order, or new understanding of human behavior.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Do we need these moments because the world is changing so fast?
AI WEIWEI: Because people, we humans, need another idea. Another view of other people, another perspective of what life is. Humanity is always about sharing or thinking about other people’s position or condition. Then we can talk about humanity. It’s just that simple. To accept differences. To accept differences, you first have to recognize differences. And first you need to express what is there.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Many Chinese artists are critical of you and your work. Why is that?
AI WEIWEI: Many people have different perspectives, and that’s fine. But the problem is that to criticize they should first build a platform for all the ideas to reveal themselves. You cannot criticize somebody who doesn’t even have the right to have his name mentioned in a show. That’s the first thing you have to establish. You should respect the person, you think his idea may be worth criticizing, then please put up a platform. I have close artist friends who have not called me once after I was jailed. I don’t need them to protect me. If I get jail or killed, that’s my problem. But to not protect the idea of fighting for freedom of expression, I don’t understand. But it’s like your enemy disappears, that’s the most dangerous. You have to recognize the position of your enemy. That’s China, not only among artists but also the political system is also the same. The (party) doesn’t recognize the opposition. So after sixty years of playing games, they’re still amateur. They never would let you move three moves that would throw the table. To beat you, they change the game rules. They reinterpret the game again. If you do that, then how can you become a master? I mean this is so simple. I even told my interrogators, “Just tell me how you will become a master if you don’t let me, a stupid artist, make an argument. You cannot say the real reason I am here but instead tell people I have tax problems. You have made the game too easy. You would not enjoy your glory! Then you put my lawyer in jail and say he has some kind of unheard-of problem. Of course if you don’t have one person out of 1.3 billion people who are different, you have lost so much. You don’t have a healthy mental condition. You don’t have dignity or integrity to behave right. I mean, a government has to uphold this kind of moral standard. That’s one purpose of power, to set up rules and uphold moral standards. If you lose them, then you are not legally there. You have no legitimacy.” My guards, they said, “You talk too much.” I know, I know, I talk too much.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: What artists inspire you?
AI WEIWEI: Me. I think my weakness is my impossible, my lacking of courage, my lack of intelligence. That’s the human, how desperate. How that pushes me! It makes me understand humanity. Then I have to compare my act to all those masters, and I feel I’m not so good. I’m keeping my self-criticism!
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Everything that drives China today seems to be the desire for fuqiang wealth and power. Where is that going?
AI WEIWEI: I think China still hasn’t put much profound thinking into how fuqiang, wealthy and strong a human can be, what’s our relation to nature, to the planet, to our neighbors, and what comes after you get so rich and powerful. What’s that power for? So I think they are too immature in those things.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Your art seems to play a very important role in helping people see that.
AI WEIWEI: No, no, not really. A good museum show, maybe twenty thousand people will see it. And it occupies them for one afternoon.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: But it changes people.
AI WEIWEI: It’s evidence of time or some kind of effort or thinking that’s not so profound. But you know, we need material traces. We need marks. History. Look at the Bronze Age, the Stone Age, what tools people were making to fight, the images they made, the craftsmanship. What kind of price does a society pay for this kind of act?
DORINDA ELLIOTT: You mean there’s a limit to art’s impact?
AI WEIWEI: I think there’s no limitation for art as long as humans care about our feelings and our thoughts. But of course my art is so limited. It’s just one individual. I take art as a human activity. But for myself, I have gotten old very fast. I may change my ideas tomorrow! Everything is so conditional.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: What makes you really happy?
AI WEIWEI: Simple things. If I see my son when he’s small. So content. Or if you look at an insect, a bug. Or if you pay enough attention to the details of life. It serves no clear purpose but it’s there. It’s there not because of your attention, but because of a meaning or reason you don’t know. That wonder, that feeling that there’s life parallel, reasons beyond logic. That’s a lot you can appreciate.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: That’s religion, isn’t it?
AI WEIWEI: I can’t touch that word! I don’t know.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Spirituality?
AI WEIWEI: Maybe. It’s a sense that we are part of it. A tiny part of it. It’s amazing, eh?
DORINDA ELLIOTT: What depresses you?
AI WEIWEI: Nothing really depresses me. Of course if you can say death, such things, but that’s part of life.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: You sound like an optimist.
AI WEIWEI: Yeah, more and more, when you are more conscious of the human condition or nature. If you have to choose between optimistic or pessimistic, I think optimism is a better position.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Are you optimistic about China?
AI WEIWEI: I think China is so lucky in the past thirty years. It has made huge progress. But I think China seems not quite ready for contemporary modern life. It’s kind of maybe a result of longtime segregation from the world. So there’s no clear trust. Trust is so needed in individual private life and in the public sector.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: There are more Chinese tourists traveling the world than any other country. They are seeing the world in a way that their parents never did. What will that mean?
AI WEIWEI: I think that’s the most profound and under evaluated single moment. People using their own eyes to see the world, to wonder. In the past, maybe half our knowledge or more was looking at the world through somebody else’s eye. I think that’s how we understand the world. Only that act can do more than anything else. They will recognize what is interesting in their own society. Once you have a sense of the differences, then you can compare and make a judgment.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Taiwan opened up for travel back in the 1980s, and it became a huge impetus for democracy.
AI WEIWEI: Yes, since the 1980s I realized that the U.S. policy to accept students made Chinese lawmakers and many different sectors the first generation who learned in the U.S. Good or bad. For the lawyers there are many problems, of course, because it’s too complicated. But it has built some kind of foundation. China is lacking in so many areas. People come back from the U.S. and are in important positions to make important decisions, and their reference is the United States.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: How do you see the future of art?
AI WEIWEI: If you trust humanity, then you don’t have to worry about those things.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: What’s your view of the Western perception of China?
AI WEIWEI: I think there’s been a lot of change in sophistication. Today the questions are much more sophisticated. There’s more knowledge and common ground. Lots of American and European students here. They love it, in some ways they feel certain freedoms they don’t have at home. I think freedom is the search for what you don’t have. It’s not what you already have.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Do American visitors to China gain something?
AI WEIWEI: I think Americans start to appreciate what they have. And they start to realize what they don’t have. I think Chinese people’s relationships are warm, caring. And at the same time very loose. Almost anything goes, anything is possible. If you talk about food, in the West you have hamburgers, club sandwich, whatever. Here you don’t even care whoever orders, just pick up this and that. The more you sense the combination of each dish, we all have different dishes, you create a thousand dishes from one table. It’s completely unanalyzable. In the U.S., I went to a Polish breakfast shop. I see a person who opens a menu. Eggs. Scrambled, fried, or sunny side up. He is studying it for so long, trying to decide. I say, come on! Everyday just these three fucking dishes, but you thinking so profound, they even have pictures! Mashed potato or French fries! I just want to laugh, seeing those people there.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Do you worry about Westerners coming and not really understanding what’s really going on here?
AI WEIWEI: It’s still better than not coming and not knowing anything. At least there is personal contact, and they are not so scared.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: How do you get that passport?
AI WEIWEI: I don’t really know. That’s also very Chinese. To me the authorities are like an old Chinese medicine master. He can look at me, feel my pulse, and he would mysteriously pick up little bit here little bit there. I’m being taken care of.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: But one day they will show up with your passport.
AI WEIWEI: Oh yeah, that’s for sure. I don’t think they like my passport that much! They just somehow feel that it’s not proper right moment, according to my understanding of my health. Especially when they realize my health is related to the nation’s health, then it has to be carefully dealt with. I never blamed them with that. Sometimes I just think: did they set up a schedule? If life is not that long, how long do you need before you decide a guy can move like that?
DORINDA ELLIOTT: What will happen to your lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang?
AI WEIWEI: Not good. Two possibilities. Police could not make a trial. Or, they cook the dish, but don’t know if the master is going to eat it or not. So I think one possibility is to have him stay there longer, as a punishment. Once you arrest that person, you don’t easily let him go. You have to make clear he understands the power can be easily damaged. You don’t want to have somebody just come out and celebrate.
DORINDA ELLIOTT: Are they using him to send a message?
AI WEIWEI: Yeah, yeah, to other lawyers, not to me. When I have a deep illness, jasmine tea will not help me that much. They will not send a message to me that way. It’s a message to the lawyers and to general society. He won’t necessarily be heavily punished. They still have to follow the law, to have dignity and respect that idea that the law is above. Otherwise, that would be a total mess for them, create great damage. This is all about damage and control. There’s not much ideology.
Dorinda Elliott is an adjunct professor of news literacy at Stony Brook University and contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler. She was Asia editor and a correspondent at Newsweek from 1985 to 2000, serving as bureau chief in Beijing, Moscow, and Hong Kong. She was editor-in-chief of Asiaweekfrom 2000 to 2001, and an editor-at-large and assistant managing editor at TIME from 2003 to 2006. She was the recipient of an Overseas Press Club award in 1996 and 1997 for her reporting on China. On Twitter: @dindaelliott.
The Art Effect
Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad Al-Thani of Qatar ranked first on the “Power 100” for 2013, a widely noticed list of influential art world personalities assembled by the British journalArtReview. Such compilations tend to provoke more eye rolling than hand-wringing from insiders, but unlike conventional art criticism, the “Power 100” articulates an implicit theory of art’s effects as an agent of globalization. In the case of Sheikha Al-Mayassa, two kinds of power are at issue. The first is purely financial: in 2013 the New York Times reported that, both on behalf of her family and in her capacity as the chairwoman of Qatar Museums, the sheikha controlled an annual art acquisition budget estimated at $1 billion. When compared with the official budget for buying art at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which was reported to be $32 million for fiscal year 2012—though this number is significantly expanded through private gifts organized in conjunction with museum curators—the magnitude of the sheikha’s pure financial power in the art market is stunning.
In the same New York Times article, Sheikha Al-Mayassa made a statement indicating a second modality of power that, while more difficult to quantify, ultimately surpasses brute financial force in its significance: “My father often says, in order to have peace, we need first to respect each other’s cultures… And people in the West don’t understand the Middle East. They come with Bin Laden in their heads.” Currently, Qatar Museums encompasses major institutions devoted to conveying a more complex image of Middle Eastern culture well beyond Western assumptions regarding Islam: they include the Museum of Islamic Art, the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art, and the Orientalist Museum. With plans for an eventual total of some twenty institutions, it is no wonder that the website of Qatar Museums proclaims Doha a “Capital of Culture.” This extensive cultural program should be understood as one element of a multi-pronged Qatari strategy aimed at expanding its global influence through, first, innovative and proactive forms of direct regional diplomacy—working as a mediator of Middle East conflicts, capable, for instance, of balancing such fractious rivals as Iran and the United States—and second, by wielding soft power, of which the development and globalization of the Al Jazeera network is the most prominent example.
What kind of soft power does art possess? In the disciplines of art history and criticism there is a strong tendency to see individual artworks as the privileged vehicles of art’s power. In other words it is a discrete work’s form, content, and socio-historical context that is responsible for generating its meanings as well as its political effects. In my opinion, the source of art’s soft power—how it might, for instance, become instrumental in causing an average Westerner to think of Qatar as an enlightened center of art tourism as opposed to associating it, as the sheikha would deplore, with Muslim terrorism—must reach beyond any individual artwork to consider the ideological effects of art in general, specifically art’s strong association with creativity, freedom, and open debate. Regardless of its particular properties, then, any individual work of art shares in such general ideological precepts and, consequently, may participate in the formation of civil society, in the literal and aesthetic sense of putting into form new spaces of public interaction.
The photography theorist and curator Ariella Azoulay has forcefully argued that there is a “citizenry of photography.” What this means to her is that by entering into the social transaction of photography—by taking a picture or allowing one’s picture to be taken, for example—a set of rights and responsibilities are presumed among all who participate, whether willingly or not. As an Israeli activist in support of Palestinian rights, Azoulay sees progressive political potential in this virtual or imagined mode of citizenry, whereby, for instance, Palestinian subjects who do not enjoy the rights of citizenship in their homeland under Israeli occupation, may in fact make claims to a global public through their belonging in the “citizenry of photography.” This is because, unlike many if not most art historians or critics, Azoulay does not believe that a singular and stable meaning is dictated by any particular image. Instead, she advocates a mode of looking, in which assignment of significance to a photograph is a negotiation that must be richly informed by social and historical research, interpretation, and political debate.
For instance, Azoulay has compiled and analyzed an archive of photographs painstakingly assembled from various sources that represent the destruction of Palestinian houses, from the birth of the State of Israel to the present day. Her analysis of these photographs is meant to construct a fugitive and habitually repressed history of Israeli policy. In short, Azoulay argues that photography calls for (and requires) a civil imagination in which images are understood as commemorating a particular social encounter, not just capturing an aesthetically gripping “decisive moment.” And indeed we could call Sheikha Al-Mayassa’s policies for the collection and exhibition of art in Qatar an act of civil imagination meant to recode Arab identity.
What I describe as art’s expansion of civil society may seem very close if not identical to what a media network like Al Jazeera aims to accomplish. I think we must include art as one component among many within global projects of national and regional self-assertion. These include most prominently networks such as China’s CCTV and Russia Today, which broadcast news from a national perspective in multiple languages around the world, as well as popular culture powerhouses such as the Bollywood film industry in India, or South Korea’s booming music industry.
As an assertion of civil society, however, art has three related qualities that neither news media nor popular culture possess in the same configuration. First, art carries with it a strong sense of history, both in terms of the distinct traditions of its own aesthetic strategies and devices (such as the history of painting), and its intimate relation to deep cultural and national traditions (as in the history of Indian sculpture). To make art today is thus to participate in a project as old as human life, which is nonetheless directed toward the conditions of the present. While from a certain perspective this dimension of art is so obvious as to be banal, its significance is enormous, and, I think, often overlooked.
A second distinctive quality lies in art’s association with accumulation. What we now call art from other eras and cultures around the world where our modern Western concept of the artwork may not have existed indigenously is perhaps better understood as mobile signs of wealth or prestige of various sorts—which is asserted through accumulation or through association with another “spirit” world (of ancestors or gods). Today the equivalent of such prestigious display takes the form of private collections and public (or civic) museums. Finally, third, art communicates through assuming some form of objectivity—even if, as Conceptual Art of the late 1960s and 1970s claimed, this form of objectivity complicates the nature of our common-sense idea of coherent objects by de– or re-materializing artworks as text, or photographic documentation, or ephemeral performance. This last capacity—to communicate through objects—consists in one of art’s greatest contemporary political capacities, which is to self-consciously or recursively perform as a commodity. In a world of rampant and continuous reification, art is a type of commodity that, since the emergence of modernity, has been dedicated to displaying rather than hiding the conditions of its objectification.
Because of its ancient historical identity as a mark of prestige subject to—or even requiring—accumulation, control over art has always been energetically pursued by elites, even as prevailing assumptions consider art unworldly. In a globalizing world this is equally true in the developed nations of Europe or North America as it is elsewhere, though the particular shape that art’s gambits will take vary from place to place. It is nonetheless perfectly plausible to define the contemporary globalization of art as the effort of a global super-elite—the transnational one percent—to extend an inter-connected network of museums, biennials, and art fairs into their own national economies as a mark of “civilization,” not so different from the competition in seventeenth-century European courts to reproduce the splendors of Versailles. And indeed, it seems evident that this is a major motivation for the extensive cultural program in Qatar, as well as in neighboring Abu Dhabi.
It is under such conditions of elite control, however, that the civic pretensions of art can become insidious—the promise of a civil society in formation can collapse into little more than an alibi veiling an autocratic state (or, as in the United States, an economically exploitative financial elite). Indeed, the question of the globalization of art might be posed as a constant oscillation between two opposing positions: the consolidation of power among transnational financial and governmental elites assisted by their association with art’s presumed public good, and the activation of art’s capacity to produce a genuine civil society through the expression of “civil imagination” as specified by Azoulay.
“We have Transitioned”
Another of Sheikha Al-Mayassa’s statements to the press—one that might have been uttered by any cultural patron from around the world—exemplifies the potential of a specifically global civil society. In an international conference on art and ideas in Doha in 2010 she stated: “Qatar wants to be a modern nation, but at the same time we are reconnecting and reasserting our Arab heritage.” Because of art’s close association with cultural heritage (an association that neither media networks nor popular culture can assert with the same authority), it possesses a powerful effect of localization within a global world. It can, in other words, help to constitute an Arabmodernity—or for that matter a Chinese modernity, a Brazilian modernity, or an American modernity. This emphasis on artistic heritage is certainly one of the reasons there has been such an extraordinary boom of museum-building during the era of globalization. The Economist, for instance, reported in 2013 that, “according to the current-five year plan, China was to have 3,500 museums by 2015, a target it achieved three years early.” While there has been widespread bemusement at the fact that many of these Chinese museums remain without a program, their construction demonstrates a commitment to culture as a form of economic and diplomatic development.
Similarly, in the spring of 2014 the Art Newspaper reported that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will spend $1.7 billion to build 230 new museums. It is particularly striking that these museums will focus on developing archaeological sites throughout the country, while also devoting attention to contemporary art. As Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, stated: “We have entered a new age. We have transitioned. Antiquities are the seat of a continuum to bring the life and history of Saudi Arabia closer to the hearts and minds of the people of the Kingdom—particularly the young.” It is precisely such a historical continuum—from antiquities to youth culture—which art can organize.
Such vast museum construction programs, particularly in Abu Dhabi, have inspired some artists to publicize the discrepancies between lavish museums and the conditions suffered by migrant workers who typically build them. Gulf Labor is an international coalition of artists who, as their website states, “are working to ensure that migrant worker rights are protected during the construction and maintenance of museums on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi.” They have accomplished this precisely through using the visibility of art as a civil forum to successfully publicize how cultural development is often accomplished by profound economic exploitation. Their focus is on projects being designed by ‘starchitects’ for the Saadiyat Island cultural center, the Louvre Abu Dhabi designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, and the Performing Arts Centre designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid.
Gulf Labor has used at least three strategies in their activism: 1) they have deployed art by commissioning one artist per week over a year-long project to create a work on the topic of Gulf labor conditions that is widely disseminated through an email list and archived online; 2) they have organized live actions at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in collaboration with other activist groups in which guerilla artworks were placed on walls, manifestoes and brochures were distributed, chants related to the conditions of migrant workers erupted; and 3) they have conducted independent research on the conditions of migrant laborers working on Saadiyat Island, issuing a report in 2014 that among other things called attention to how they typically risk losing family land used as collateral when taking out loans to pay recruitment fees charged in their home countries.
In this essay I have pointedly avoided taking individual art objects as the vehicles of art’s globalization, emphasizing instead a texture of institutions and stakeholders who produce the specific contours of a global art world—of an ideological realm of “art effects” in general. But it is important at this juncture to emphasize that the activist procedures of Gulf Labor—networking (the weekly artists contributions released sequentially and then archived online), performing (through, for instance, their guerilla actions at the Guggenheim in New York), and researching (in their fact-finding mission to Saadiyat Island)—are absolutely consistent with the form and content of global contemporary art.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of artists in the United States, Latin America, and Europe pointedly challenged the status of the artwork as a self-contained object and rendered it as an effect of discourse (encompassing, as in Michel Foucault’s definition of the term, not only language, but configurations of images as well as institutional behaviors). Such work, labeled Conceptual and continuing in various transformations and under various labels and designations to this day, pioneered all three of the strategies I associate with Gulf Labor: first, collaborative forms of networking including collective publications or projects such as those of the Art and Language Group in London; second, a broad emergence of performance-based art which the French critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud has influentially designated as “relational aesthetics,” in which the artwork consists of a set of social interactions rather than a physical object; and third, the widespread introduction of research into art practices as in the work of pioneering conceptual artist Hans Haacke who famously traced the tangled and obscure ownership of a network of tenement apartment buildings in lower Manhattan as a kind of “social sculpture” in a piece entitled Shapolsky et al., Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971. The expansion of the artist’s role demonstrated in Gulf Labor’s activism thus belongs to a properly art-historical genealogy in which art objects themselves have been expanded.
The globalization of art takes place, like many other global dynamics, as a negotiation and conflict over the control of civil society—largely between patron elites and the capacity for art (and with this general term I mean to encompass not only artworks but also artists, institutions, critics, historians, and publics) to imagine new forms of commonality. What distinguishes this struggle in the realm of art is its deep association with heritage. Indeed, it is worth recalling in this regard the statement made by Prince Sultan about transition. This dizzying and seemingly paradoxical continuum—between ancient history and contemporary youth—is precisely art’s global terrain, not only in Saudi Arabia but around the world. Art has the capacity to localize international forms of modernity or modernization by introducing, for instance, the ancient into the contemporary, and this localization has an enormous value in “branding” nations, giving them important currency and soft power in a competitive global economy.
It is the challenge of art’s globalization that the very same artifacts may be used to bolster opposing effects: as public relations for elites on the one hand, and as the ground for political claims from the disenfranchised populations on the other. As a material practice, art has always given form to beings or concepts that resist representation—from gods like the ancient Greek Athena to concepts like liberty. In so doing, art in general is charged with forming or re-forming (literally reforming) our “civil imagination.” In this capacity, art does not simply reflect or represent globalization, it is one of its most stealthy and paradoxical agents.
David Joselit is a distinguished professor in art history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He taught in the Department of Art History at Yale University from 2003 to 2013, serving as chair from 2006 to 2009. His most recent book is After Art. His other books include Infinite Regress: Marcel Duchamp 1910–1941, American Art Since 1945, and Feedback: Television Against Democracy. He is an editor of the journal OCTOBER and a contributor to Artforum.
A recent work, Contemporary Art and Its Commercial Markets: A Report on Current Conditions and Future Scenarios, edited by Maria Lind and Olav Velthuis, discusses the complex relationship between contemporary art and the commercial market, as represented by auction houses, biennales, art fairs, and similar global institutions. Art has become an asset to be exploited by hedge-funders. Equally it serves as a status symbol for super-rich transnational celebrities. Sotheby’s and Christie’s are bending over backwards to penetrate the burgeoning art market in the Middle East; and a venerable museum, the Louvre, is not far behind by commissioning a museum in Abu Dhabi. The rapidly changing scenario is encapsulated in a blunt question posed at the Art Dubai fair, itself a subsidiary of the Dubai International Financial Center: how will the Middle East affect contemporary art in the next ten years?
This question arises only because Dubai, part of a region that until recently hardly featured in the world of art, now wields considerable power: certain developments have taken place in the last decades as art increasingly acquires a global persona and becomes an asset in postcolonial geopolitics. Not just Dubai but neighboring Qatar and also the BRICS nations (Brazil, India, Russia, China, South Africa) have ushered in a new world order. The changing balance of power is having an obvious impact on the art market. The heroes of Thomas L. Friedman’s book The World is Flat are the “zippies,” offspring of Indian and Chinese capitalism, who are now big players in global art transactions. These changes reflect the growing dominance of the super-rich from the periphery—Roman Abramovich and Dasha Zhukova, Anil and Tina Ambani, Carlos Slim, Jack Ma, and the Gulf emirs, among others.
Comparable in some ways to the spread of multinational conglomerates, the world market in art has reached enormous proportions. Biennales, art fairs, and other global institutions shape our taste and tell us what good art is. Among significant changes, the global presence of international curators and artists from outside Europe and America has had a radical effect. The art critic and curator of Nigerian origin, Okwui Enwezor, had a very successful global art show for the documenta in Germany where he sought to redress past exclusions. In 2011 he was appointed director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, and has been named artistic director of the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. Equally, ambitious European curators like Hans Ulrich Obrist, who direct international mega projects, cast their nets far and wide. Their intervention has made leading art museums such as the Tate Modern in London, or the Museum of Modern Art in New York, sit up and take note of hitherto unknown artists from the margins. One of the memorable events in the art world of 2013 was an ambitious retrospective of the visionary Sudanese painter Ibrahim El-Salahi at the Tate Modern.
Biennales and similar mega-institutions aim to reach all the way from the extreme east to the westernmost corner of the globe. One cannot but commend the inclusion of artists from regions that were previously considered to be peripheries. However, the utter newness of the situation has given rise to unease, creating a growing sense of crisis and uncertainty. The discipline of art history, the armature that sustains and forms our taste in art, seems to be in a turmoil faced with multiple modernities with their multiple and clashing time frames. The contradictions between the narrow focus of mainstream art histories, and the enormous diversity of art forms and practices have become acute. This has caused serious soul searching among art historians about the future of a discipline faced with the collapse of earlier certainties—strikingly expressed in the 1982 work by the German scholar Hans Belting, The End of the History of Art?, who regrets the death of art history as a grand Hegelian narrative. He is led to the conclusion that contemporary global art encourages the repudiation of art history. Societies that had no previous share in modernism insist on creating art narratives that define visual production as a form of cultural practice.
While agreeing with this sense of crisis, I see the problem somewhat differently. The disquieting aspect of globalization in art is that it is predicated on the streamlining of taste. The presence of artists from the Middle East, East and South Asia, Latin America, and Africa may appear to celebrate an all-embracing inclusiveness while in reality it underscores the continued hold of the Western modernist canon, which tends to undermine local voices and practices, thereby undermining the plurality of expressions. The Social Darwinian survival of the fittest within the art canon contains its own inherent predicament. While artists from the margins have been allowed access to Western institutions with a global reach, there has not been much change in the narrow focus of the discourse of modernism, which continues to present the Western canon as a universal one. Thus any artist who happens to fall outside the unilinear progress of modernism or does not subscribe to it is quietly left by the wayside.
There were significant developments in Middle Eastern, African, Asian, and Latin American art in the twentieth century, with many of its artists engaged in creating vital modernist expressions of cultural resistance to colonialism that did not fit the objectives of mainstream avant-garde art. (I use the concept avant-garde interchangeably with modernist art in this essay.) Hence it is useful to remind ourselves of the definition of avant-garde, which is an aspect of wider modernism. The word refers to works that are experimental or innovative. In this context it is important to remember that the artists outside Euro-America sought to evolve radical art forms that were meaningful to their own societies and cultural contexts even though their timeframe may not coincide with that of the narrative of Western modernism. Surprisingly, even today leading artists from outside the charmed circle of Euro-America rarely feature in standard art history textbooks. Put in another way, the avant-garde aesthetic canon continues to be a closed discourse that has tended to erase non-Western art from art history. Such marginalization is explained in terms of the “derivativeness” of non-Western art, a delayed development from the metropolitan centers of invention. This judgment still dominates representations of the art of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Australia. Also least known is the fact that the non-canonical art of northern, central, and eastern Europe has suffered a similar fate. The omission of artists from regions outside the metropolis, however, is simply a reflection of a wider problem: the common practice of equating Western norms with global values has the unintended consequence of excluding the art of the periphery from art history. The concept of “art” is often regarded as neutral and disinterested, but this systematically ignores the implications of race, gender, sexual orientation, and class in art history. Such misguided faith in universal values is not unique to art history but pervades all aspects of knowledge although art history creates its own specific inclusions and exclusions.
The embedded hierarchy implicit in the modernist canon and its impact on contemporary art in regions regarded as the periphery can only be explained in historical terms. The rise of art history as a discipline in the eighteenth century coincided with European expansion overseas. In the following century, the colonial powers sought to inculcate “good taste” in the subject nations through the introduction of academic naturalism and classical standards of taste. At the end of the century, the avant-garde revolution in the West challenged academic art, as Cubists, Expressionists, and Surrealists declared war on the colonial/capitalist system and bourgeois artistic values. Modernism’s experimental attitude constantly sought to push the intellectual frontiers. Its ideology of emancipatory innovation, and its agonistic relationship to tradition and authority, spread to the colonial world, shaping global perceptions of contemporary art and literature. The revolutionary technology of avant-garde art, notably the formal language and syntax of Cubism, allowed artists in the periphery to devise new ways to represent the visible world. The modernist revolt against academic naturalism was openly welcomed by the subject nations who were preoccupied with formulating their own resistance to the colonial order.
Colonizer and Colonized
The worldwide impact of the Western avant-garde cannot be exaggerated. Also from the 1970s, Marxist, postmodern, and postcolonial critics helped temper the triumphalism of avant-garde art, the fractures and contradictions of modernity, and its complex relationship with tradition. Nonetheless, the discipline of art history is yet to question in any substantive manner the implicit acceptance of non-Western modernism as derivative, a product of delayed growth and imitation. Put simply, certain ingrained ideas persist.
Let me take two cases that highlight the glaring contrast in art-historical assessments of cultural borrowing between the metropolitan center and the peripheries. The exhibition “Primitivism” in 20th-Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, held in New York in 1984, aimed at highlighting the “accidental affinities” between the “primitive” motifs in the works of Picasso and other iconic modernists and “tribal” art, affinities that were supposed to transcend time and space. Any hint of the influence of African art on Picasso was studiously avoided. In sum, Picasso’s borrowings from ethnographic objects, produced by a simple society, did in no way compromise his cultural integrity as an artist. In a similar vein, John Golding, a noted art historian, writing a decade later on Vladimir Tatlin’s discovery of a tribal mask in Picasso’s studio, could thus exclaim: it is one of the wonders of our age that such a simple tribal artifact, which could justifiably be called primitive, should have given birth indirectly to Russian Constructivism, one of the most technically visionary of all twentieth-century art movements.
The same process of cultural borrowing is treated very differently in the case of colonial artists. The Indian artist Gaganendranath Tagore, a pioneering Indian modernist, was one of the first Indian painters to adapt the revolutionary syntax of Cubism to produce a series of exquisite miniature paintings between the years 1921-28. Writing on him, the English art historian William George Archer posed a pertinent question: can modern art be appropriated by Indians and then in what manner? In answer to this, he claimed that such appropriation must be ‘absorbed into the blood stream’ of that society to be a genuine item. Following his own logic, Archer drew the conclusion that Gagenendranath had failed miserably. Archer simply could not appreciate the Indian artist’s achievement in deploying the flexible syntax of Cubism in order to create water colors of poetic intensity that were meaningful in the colonial-nationalist milieu of India. Gagenendranath belonged to the world of the colonized, which immediately locked him into a dependent relationship, the colonized mimicking the superior art of the colonizer.
The idea rests on a reductive criterion, which I call the “Picasso manqué” syndrome: successful imitation was a form of aping, but imperfect imitation represented a failure of learning. I have ascribed this phenomenon to the complex discourse of power, authority, and hierarchy involved in evaluations of the non-Western avant-garde. The debate itself seems to hinge on the politics of stylistic influence, which has been a formidable tool of art history. Yet as a category, influence ignores more significant aspects of cultural encounters, the enriching value of the cross-fertilization of cultures that has nourished societies since time immemorial. These exchanges of ideas and forms need not necessarily be interpreted through ideas of domination and dependence. We have the example of the migration of symbols across ancient cultures, which is a fascinating story of how the West received and transformed images and motifs from the Orient.
The modernist canon embraces a great deal more than influence; its powerful teleology constructs a whole world of inclusions and exclusions, the epicenter and outlying regions. What is involved in the relationship between the global and the local is the asymmetrical valuations of the center and the periphery, the roots of which are to be found as far back as Renaissance art history. The idea of a linear art history, with its ideology of constant and inevitable progress, originated with the Italian artist Giorgio Vasari (1511–74), who created the master narrative for Renaissance art centering on the conquest of visual representation. Vasari defined Florence, Rome, and Venice as centers of innovation, categorizing other regions in Italy as sites of delayed growth and imitation. Thus periphery became a matter of geography, not of art history. In the next century, the German antiquarian Johann Joachim Winckelmann enshrined these prejudices in his history of ancient art by formulating climatic, national and racial differences in art as objective facts. Following in his wake, other historians applied Darwinian principles in the mapping of world art from its “primitive” base to its triumphal climax in Victorian history painting. In the process they assigned an inferior position to non-Western art within the hierarchy.
So the question facing us in the postcolonial period is this: what theoretical framework can we deploy to make sense of the transmission of ideas and technology across cultures that are not predicated on the notions of power and authority or on the center/periphery imbalance? If we discard stylistic influence as a meaningful category, in what other ways can we study the origin and development of an art form? Recently, postcolonial art histories and studies in visual culture have offered a rich array of strategies of empowerment through new readings of the avant-garde in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Visual culture, for instance, aims at destabilizing the modernist canon by challenging aesthetic hierarchy and the narrow, empirical, connoisseurship-focused discipline of art history that focuses on analysis and documentation of style and iconography. Its aim has been to erase the distinction between high art and material objects that had been excluded from the canon, thereby destroying the exclusivity of the concept of high art that tends to reinforce global inequality in power relations. Others plead for a more open discourse of avant-garde art that would embrace plurality and uneven edges, and allow within art history critical voices from the periphery. The most exciting aspect of modernisms across the globe has been their plurality, heterogeneity, and difference. The Argentine anthropologist Néstor García Canclini proposes multi-temporal heterogeneities, while the Cuban curator Gerardo Mosquera opts for the notion of a decentralized international culture. He feels confident that the peripheries are emerging as multiple centers of international culture, even as they strengthen local developments in a constant process of cultural hybridization.
These are laudable efforts. But my conviction is that before we can proceed with the task of creating a less hierarchical art history that is tied to the Western aesthetic canon, we need to de-center the canon itself. There is the necessity of destabilizing Vasarian concepts of artistic center and periphery, which were given unique authority in the German philosopher Hegel’s theory of artistic progress as the inevitable unfolding of the world spirit. To put it in a nutshell, the whole concept of art history since Vasari, including the history of Western modernism, is predicated on the notion of continuous technological progress from the Italian painter Giotto in the thirteenth century to the present. This doctrine is considered to have a universal value and is applied to art traditions outside the West, inevitably resulting in distortions simply because these other traditions have different objectives and priorities. Hence, there is the urgent need to historicize the development of Western art and not view it as possessing a timeframe that is universally applicable. Although it is tempting to view Western modernism as transcending time and space, the greatest achievements of the Western avant-garde have in fact been historically situated within its own set of conventions, even though its experience has enriched other traditions. Without privileging any art in particular, and not even Western avant-garde, we may investigate art practices in their social and cultural settings, taking into account the peculiar contextual needs and expressions of regional artistic productions and consumptions, and the local assertions of global concerns. To my mind, it is the multiple local possibilities that illuminate the global processes of modernity more effectively than a grand globalizing narrative, which is more likely than not to perpetuate a relationship of power. Thus an inflected narrative of global modernity offers us a possible way of restoring the artist’s agency in the context of colonial empires, by analyzing art practices and their reception as a cultural document that is historically situated. One serious criticism of “influence” as an analytical tool is that it views artists as passive agents of transmission rather than active agents with the ability to exercise choice.
Virtual Global Community
I want to take a case study in order to clarify what I propose as a contextual analysis of avant-garde art in the period of globalization. It is possible to formulate concepts that will address not only the particular interactions between global modernity, artistic production, and the construction of national identity in the colonized regions, but also seek to restore the artist’s agency in these regions. I have chosen the rise of the Indian avant-garde art in the 1920s—an area of my specialization—where I have tried to show that its history can be meaningfully mapped within the context of nationalist resistance to the British Empire. One of the powerful aspects of modern nationalism has been the interplay of the global and the local in the urban space of colonial culture. “Hybrid” cosmopolitan port cities, such as Shanghai or Kolkata (Calcutta), gave rise to a Western-educated intelligentsia that created flourishing centers of cultural exchange. Recently, scholars have applied the concept of cosmopolitanism to redress current asymmetrical global relations. Cosmopolitanism is seen as an inevitable consequence of global technology transfers, and communication and transport revolutions. Cosmopolitanism appears to challenge the pessimism regarding the possibility of fruitful cultural exchanges and offers a corrective to the politics of identity and difference. Nonetheless, the problem of power and authority that confer visibility and inclusion, in the historically uneven relationship between center and periphery, cannot be ignored.
Wherever we may stand on the particular interpretation of cosmopolitanism, I would point out that asymmetrical power relations do not prevent the free flow or cross-fertilization of ideas on the level of virtuality. More privileged cosmopolitans from the periphery could of course afford international travel because of the development of faster transports such as the train and the steamship in the nineteenth century, which enabled them to overcome a narrow parochial view of the world. However, the apparently less fortunate ones that remained at home represented a different kind of cosmopolitanism. I have proposed the notion of the virtual cosmopolis to explain the colonial elite’s critical engagement with modernity—a hybrid city of the imagination that engenders elective affinities between elites of the center and the periphery. The shared global outlook was possible through English, French, and Spanish, the major hegemonic languages, disseminated by means of the printed media, such as books and journals. The Indian colonized elite—the typical virtual cosmopolitan, for instance—had the opportunity to share the global storehouse of ideas on modernity through print culture without having to travel to distant places. They also had the freedom to appropriate these circulating ideas and engender new discourses that were not beholden to their Western sources. Virtual cosmopolitanism is a community created among strangers through the print medium because of a sense of common project, the project of modernity.
I will illustrate an example of virtual cosmopolitanism in colonial India in the realm of art. One of the most creative ideas developed by the Indian avant-garde in the 1920s was the use of the empowering concept of primitivism, which can be defined as a form of resistance to urban industrial capitalism and the ideology of progress; the cornerstones of colonial empires. Primitivism was a critical form of modernity that united likeminded critics of industrial capitalism in the East and West even though they were not necessarily in contact with one another and sometimes did not even know of one another’s existence. They were simply reacting to global issues such as urban alienation and the loss of the community spawned by industrial capitalism. Importantly, their responses related to their own historic contexts. The Western primitivists consisted of an important group of German thinkers, notably the theorists Carl Einstein and Wilhelm Hausenstein, and the artist Oskar Schlemmer. Critics of industrial capitalism and urban alienation, they sought to restore collective art and the sense of community that had been lost in the industrial age.
In many ways parallel to their ideas, the innovative formalism of the Indian painter Jamini Roy (1887-1972) was based upon a primitivist re-imagining of the folk art of India that powerfully mediated between the global and the local. His aim was to restore through art the pre-colonial community that had been severed from national life during British rule, alienating the elite from its cultural roots. The intimate connection between the vitality of an artistic tradition and its mythological richness became the central plank in his theory of collective art. Roy created his own nationalist ideology of art by repudiating urban colonial society and seeking to return to the village community. The Indian painter deliberately eschewed artistic individualism and the notion of artistic progress, the two flagships of colonial art. Roy’s search for the formal equivalent to his primitivist doctrine eventually led him to the village scroll painting of Bengal, the pat, which offered him an ideal synthesis of formalist robustness and political theory. Through intense concentration and a ruthless ability to eliminate inessential details, Roy created an avant-garde art of monumental simplicity and radical social commitment. Primitivists East and West did not deny the importance of technology in contemporary life; they simply refused to accept the unquestioning faith in modern progress. I call these similarities of ideas “structural affinities in a virtual global community,” since neither the Germans nor the Bengali artist knew of the existence of the other.
Future art history will be enriched through such grounded studies of non-Western modernism that engage with the socially constructed meaning of artistic production. This will help challenge the commonplace that peripheral modernisms are merely attempts to catch up with the originary avant-garde discourse of the metropolitan center.
Partha Mitter is a historian of art and culture. He is the author of Much Maligned Monsters; Art and Nationalism in Colonial India 1850–1922: Occidental Orientation (part of the Oxford Art History); and The Triumph of Modernism: India’s Artists and the Avant-garde 1922–1947. He is emeritus professor in art history at the University of Sussex, a member of Wolfson College, Oxford, and an honorary fellow at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
In discourses revolving around Iran’s tumultuous history, particularly that of the last thousand years, a comparison has often been made between Iranian culture and the mythical phoenix. Following the decay and decline of the Sassanian Empire—heir to the legacy of the Achaemenids and Parthians, whose influence not only reached the far-flung corners of the then-known world politically, but culturally as well—Iran was plunged into a dark era that would radically alter the course of its culture, history, and identity for centuries to come. The arrival of the Umayyads and Abbasids saw not only the eradication of Zoroastrianism, the indigenous Iranian religion dominant at the time, but also the widespread suppression of the Persian language and Iranian culture, which culminated in what is now referred to as the dreaded “two centuries of silence.” And, just when the newly humbled Iranians—who had only a short while back given the Romans a run for their money—thought they had seen the worst, the Mongols, following the course of their Seljuk brethren who had recently swept through Iran and laid the foundations for modern-day Turkey, razed the land of the noble to the ground, laying once-proud Persia to waste.
Of many of the countless peoples and places Herodotus documented in his colossal Histories, only names and vestiges remain. Despite having been in the epicenter of a region continuously subject to invasion, bloodshed, intercultural tensions, and religious strife (to name a few malaises), Iranian culture has always managed, somehow or other, not only to survive, but to proudly flourish, despite various changes in its outward appearance and form. From the ashes of the remnants of the House of Sassan, and from the depths of the two centuries of silence emerged the voices of Rudaki, the first major poet to write in modern-day Persian (i.e., the Dari variant), and Ferdowsi, who, in a labor of love composed the triumphant Shahnameh, Iran’s national epic celebrating pre-Islamic Iranian mythology and lore. Later, though Iran found itself yet again under foreign occupation—this time by Turco-Mongol dynasties from the East—Iranian art and architecture flourished and adapted itself to its new surroundings. Iran later enjoyed a lavish renaissance at the hands of the first indigenous rulers of Iran since the Sassanians, the Safavids. Despite their religious zealotry and fervent promotion of Shi’ism (by sometimes questionable means), they ushered in a golden age of Iranian art and culture still looked upon with reverence and longing today by Iranians and non-Iranians alike.
Fast-forward some three hundred years, beyond the lost glory of Esfahan and the languid glances, dark tresses, and swarthy, curved eyebrows of the belles of the Qajar epoch, and on the eve of yet another cultural revolution, Iran’s art and culture was again being molded anew by its proud sons and daughters. Alongside the introduction of modern architecture and radical developments in literature (particularly the Sher-e No movement of modern poetry), the foundations of what would later be defined as contemporary Iranian art were being laid by the artists of the Saqqakhaneh(Waterhouse) school. Drawing inspiration from popular Iranian Shi’a visuals and iconography, artists such as Parviz Tanavoli, Faramarz Pilaram, and Hossein Zenderoudi, among others—encouraged by the culturally in-tune Empress Farah Diba—explored new vistas and boundaries in Iranian art, and were at the forefront of a new generation of artists and intellectuals finding a place for themselves and their ideas in an era of cultural reform and modernization. After a brief period of blossoming in the 1960s and 1970s, Iran was shaken to its core, first by the revolution and the formation of the Islamic Republic in 1979, and shortly afterwards by a devastating war (1980–88) with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and his then-allies in the West.
Though Iran, a foundling republic barely given enough time to stand on its feet, emerged the unlikely champion in the bloody conflict with Iraq, it was a Pyrrhic victory at best. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s efforts to usher in an era of modernization and Western ideals were brought to a halt, and in their stead came the ideals of Shi’a Islam, the values of an Islamic Republic, and the guiding vision of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In addition, the celebration of pre-Islamic Iran and indigenous Iranian culture was almost reversed, as the fervent revolutionaries promoted an identity that was not only Islamic, but that primarily revolved around certain personalities and episodes in the history of Shi’a Islam. While Imam Ali took the crown from Cyrus the Great, Imam Hossein, the ‘King of Martyrs,’ proudly sat on Darius’ throne, surrounded by the tulips sprouted from the pure blood of Iran’s newly fallen heroes.
For much of the 1980s and early 1990s, Iran remained a country more or less isolated from the rest of the world, with an economy in shambles, a history trying to rewrite itself, and a culture trying to redefine itself; it was difficult to buy bananas, let alone art. For years, those artists who chose not to leave the country found themselves either subdued or silenced, and the contemporary art scene accordingly all but withered away. Withered is perhaps the key word, here, though; for, just as the Persian language was revived, and Iranian art and culture at times lay dormant only to rise and flourish against the odds, the seeds planted by the pioneers of the country’s contemporary art scene once again bore fruit. During the President Mohammed Khatami era (1997–2005), social and cultural reforms were implemented, much to the benefit of artists as well as the country’s sizeable youth population, the offspring of war and revolution. Greater freedoms were granted to the press, restrictions were eased with respect to licenses for musical and cultural output, and increased social liberties were afforded to Iranian youth. During this period, still regarded as one of brief respite, the grounds were made fertile for a new generation of artists and intellectuals to—against tired narratives of sacrifice, outside aggression, and the “enemy”—find hope, and make their voices heard.
Bokhor and Bekhar
Iran’s domestic contemporary art market has begun to flourish again. Many observers posit that it has been in the past ten years that the market has truly become active. The reasons for this, as I discovered through a series of discussions with local artists, gallery owners, and dealers on a trip I made to Tehran in May, are varied. For one, the end of the Iran-Iraq War saw a gradual improvement in Iran’s economy, and, together with the cultural reforms brought about by President Khatami, substantial improvements in social conditions and daily life. Furthermore, though Iran as a country may still remain relatively isolated, the new generation of artists is not. With access to the Internet, social media, and satellite television (though these are accessed by circumventing various filters and bans), such artists are up-to-date with and abreast of developments in the outside world, and with increasing numbers of solo and group exhibitions being held outside the country, are regularly traveling and establishing connections with foreign institutions and artists. In addition, though it may seem obvious, constantly being in world news headlines and the subject of negative press and controversy has, according to many here, helped fuel interest in all things Iranian, art included. And, although sanctions have had disastrous consequences for the local economy and Iranians’ purchasing power, some have noted that they have, in a way, provided a boost to the domestic art market. With international art being less affordable, and traditional assets such as foreign currency, gold, oil, and real estate generating lower returns these days, many are looking towards the local art market not only to satisfy their cultural cravings, but also as a source of investment.
Despite the attention contemporary Iranian art has been receiving on an international level, and the growing number of institutions promoting contemporary Iranian art outside the country (for example, Magic of Persia in London, and the Salsali Private Museum in Dubai), it is a mistake to dismiss the domestic market as a backwater or as being less active than those of the Gulf region or Europe. In addition to having its own auction—the Tehran Art Auction, which recently sold in the realm of millions of U.S. dollars in its third edition last May—and a contemporary art museum, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, Tehran alone now boasts over two hundred contemporary art galleries. Some claim that a new art space is opening in the capital every two months. Of course, the number of more serious and successful galleries is much fewer (one artist cited only ten as being worthy); nonetheless, the sheer amount and growth rate of contemporary galleries are cause for wonderment.
With modern, luxurious spaces both in the heart of Tehran as well as in its suburbs, leading galleries such as Aaran, Assar, Aun, Shirin, Etemad, and Khak (the latter three having opened branches in New York and Dubai, respectively) regularly display works by local artists of all calibers—emerging, established, and master artists—in packed openings of group and solo exhibitions that usually take place on Fridays, the weekly day of rest. “It’s amazing,” commented a friend from the United States who happened to be in town at the time. “I feel like I’m in New York!” Aside from the preponderance of loosely tied headscarves and the absence of chardonnay, one certainly does get the feeling of being in a hyperactive art capital admiring world-class art alongside members of a chic, cultured elite. However—as is often the case—the number of socialites and gallery-hoppers often outnumber the serious collectors. “There are two types of people who come to our exhibitions,” remarked Shirin Partovi of Shirin Gallery, as she puffed away on a cigarette overlooking the Alborz mountains from the terrace of her gallery, “bokhor and bekhar [eaters and buyers]!”
Comments such as these, quite naturally, lead one to wonder about the makeup of the domestic market. Who are these bekhars, and what are they buying? According to Shirin Jelveh, a local art dealer who has been active for the past ten years, there are three major categories of buyers in the domestic market: art lovers, professional collectors, and dealers. While those in the first group primarily buy art for art’s sake (and within lower budgets), those in the other two look at things somewhat differently. The more serious collectors, many of whom are friends and acquaintances of gallery owners, tend to be more concerned about the monetary appreciation of the pieces in their collection and the acquisition of works by better-known artists, or at least those they think will become established names in the near future. However, according to Amirhossein Zanjani, a local artist whose works were recently exhibited at the Salsali Private Museum in Dubai, there are only around ten collectors in this group who are actually interested in the works they are buying, and who are knowledgeable about contemporary art; the rest, he argued, only look at works as investments. The dealers, it can be said, are driven by purely financial concerns (although their interest in art may have spurred their decision to deal in it), and typically hold on to pieces for six months before selling them in the hopes of deriving returns. All this being said, though, as Jelveh was quick to note, when it comes to the buyers of such pieces, one is talking about a niche in society—particularly, a wealthy (not necessarily intellectual) elite, based primarily in Tehran—meaning that art may have quite a way to go before it truly rivals other sources of investment.
As glitzy and bustling as the scene may appear at first, though, like any other market, the domestic art market in Tehran is not without its problems. Although its contemporary art scene has seen a substantial surge in activity and interest in the past ten years as well as the establishment of a new market, it is important to note that it is being supported first and foremost by private individuals and institutions; in other words, many confidently state, it is receiving zero support from the government, both in a cultural and economic sense. Although President Hassan Rowhani has softened the official tone somewhat, and has made remarks regarding his wish to devote more attention to arts and culture, tangible results remain to be seen. “Don’t look at us and generalize,” one art dealer told me. “It’s as if we’re living in a bubble. We’re a minority here.”
Despite an almost total lack of support from the public sector, however, in addition to an influx of galleries and collectors, artist-run initiatives have also sprouted in response to a greater need for support and exposure. The Sazmanab Center for Contemporary Art—which takes its name from the nearby Department of Water—is perhaps a prime example. Initiated and managed by Sohrab Kashani, a local artist and curator in his mid-20s, Sazmanab is a nonprofit space in Tehran that has been supporting artists working in a variety of mediums—both Iranian and international—through holding exhibitions, providing residencies, producing publications, collaborating with international institutions, and holding talks and workshops since 2009. Similarly, Parkingallery, founded and run by Amirali Ghasemi, another young local artist and curator, has been providing an outlet for younger artists in Tehran, as well as organizing exhibitions since 1998, and is also known for its extensive archives of video art, a medium less frequently seen and appreciated in Tehran. “They [Sohrab and Amirali] are driven by their passions, not any selfish or purely monetary interests,” remarked Nazila Noebashari, director of Tehran’s Aaran Gallery, as we enjoyed Armenian-style sandwiches in the gallery’s leafy backyard after I was awed by the works of Siamak Filizadeh that were on display.
Censorship and Creativity
When discussing any form of art produced in Iran in the past thirty-five years, the issue of censorship almost always arises. Despite having to obtain licenses to release films, and being under heavy scrutiny by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Iranian filmmakers, for instance, have still been able to produce critically acclaimed and award-winning films for decades, and the case is hardly different when it comes to visual art. As with film, Iranian artists have effectively been finding new and innovative ways to express themselves, often producing art that is much more complex and subversive in the process. “Censorship has helped fuel creativity,” noted Jelveh, further pointing out that when many Iranian artists—be they filmmakers, photographers, or writers—leave, they lose much of their impetus and inspiration. Indeed, one may wonder if what is commonly viewed by locals and outsiders alike as a major obstacle has actually helped build today’s generation of Iranian artists. One exhibition I attended, for example, featured historical figures from Iran’s past, though the messages were starkly contemporary, while an artist I visited in his studio showed me a selection of works that brilliantly tackled domestic issues using foreign subjects and themes.
However much they have found ways around the issue (and become much bolder), censorship still is a prominent issue for artists, gallerists, and dealers. One artist I spoke with complained of not being able to exhibit or even take outside the country certain works due to their sensitive subject matter. A prominent graphic artist also noted that, because of the impossibility of particular artworks being shown in public, numerous private exhibitions are being held in residential spaces for select audiences. Also, though officials are not cracking down on exhibitions as much as they used to—one dealer having remarked that five years ago, every single work in an exhibition had to be scrutinized beforehand—there is still the fear of exhibitions being closed and cancelled, as well as of artists and gallery owners being subject to questioning. “I’ve been to the Ministry of Information so many times, you don’t want to go there,” one artist told me, mentioning that after her first visit she was afraid to even make calls on her mobile phone out of fear of being monitored. It is not just within Iran that one needs to be cautious, though; while traveling abroad, artists and gallerists need to be wary about their words and actions, lest they attract attention back home and run the risk of having to explain themselves.
Though the issue of censorship still looms over Iranian artists abroad, it is becoming more and more difficult for artists to even travel or exhibit their works outside Iran in the first place. Rising inflation has meant that it is much more costly to travel. Majid Abbasi Farahani, a young local artist, expressed regret at not being able to take advantage of an artist residency he was granted in China because of its lengthy duration. As well, one must consider the difficulty Iranians face in obtaining visas, particularly for countries in Europe and North America. Despite having been granted an invitation to attend a group exhibition in London, a local artist recently traveled to Ankara to apply for a visa at the British embassy, only to have his application rejected after staying in the Turkish capital for three weeks. In another instance, due to economic sanctions, a number of works by Amirhossein Radaie, a young sculptor, were barred from being allowed into Canada, and it was only after extreme tribulations and efforts that Canada’s minister of foreign affairs personally granted permission due to the cultural and non-commercial nature of the event they were intended for. These, of course, are only a few examples of the many trials Iranian artists are facing these days in obtaining international exposure.
Many local artists express concern about works being produced by their contemporaries nowadays. Perhaps in an attempt to emulate the success of international household names such as Shirin Neshat and her now-iconic Women of Allah series, a number of artists have been producing what has popularly been termed “chador art”: that is, works—of a somewhat Orientalist nature, some have argued—featuring women in chadors, veils, hijabs, and the like, with “exotic” supplements such as calligraphy, much favored by Arab as well as international collectors. Zanjani, as well as Amirhossein Bayani, another local artist, likened these works to souvenirs, and noted that they are largely being produced for foreign tastes and buyers, and as such, are inauthentic. According to Bayani, chador art is but one manifestation of a wave of younger artists looking to make a quicktoman at any cost. Others have expressed distaste at the number of younger artists copying one another and producing works devoid of any real artistic merit, and at the tendencies of some older, more respected artists, who have recently been producing more commercial works in greater numbers, to the point that their pieces have been likened to mass-produced products. Additionally, others have noted with regret how some artists have sold themselves to foreign dealers and gallerists, who regularly travel to Tehran to take advantage of the favorable exchange rate and younger artists’ financial situations.
What this has meant for other artists is that venues for and collectors of alternative forms of art, as well as those in other mediums—especially video and installation art—are harder to come by. That is not to say that all artists have been selling out, though; on the contrary, Tehran boasts a large number of artists highly respected by both collectors and their peers, and, as Bayani noted, in the past two years, many have begun to rebel against norms, clichés, and expectations to produce more serious art. Indeed, the number of artists I met whose financial situations were tight, yet who continued producing art they believed in—and who expressed a bold commitment in continuing to do so—were not few and far between.
If censorship is an issue that surfaced in nearly every conversation I had, more or less, the Tehran Art Auction and what some have termed gangsterism are two others. Despite the reported financial successes of the past three auctions, many have expressed skepticism with respect to the validity and credibility of the sales. According to one dealer, the primary goal of the auction is to set exorbitant prices, and to act as an investment vehicle for a select group of individuals that many are quick to refer to as a gang or mafia. As the same dealer noted, this can also work against artists, as after such inflated and unreasonable prices have been set publicly, the only way forward for artists is downhill. Others are less critical; one individual blamed artists for dealing with ignoramuses in the first place, while another cited false expectations as a major problem altogether. “There are no gangs,” the artist told me. “Artists expect too much. They think elsewhere people become rich and famous easily. The successful ones have earned it. The ones who complain about gangs, their work isn’t that good.” Others, while remaining skeptical about the auction and those involved, admit that there have been positive outcomes of such activities, citing the investment in younger artists, increased exposure on a domestic and international level for the local art scene, and the growing interest in and enthusiasm for contemporary Iranian art—whatever the reasons for these may be.
A Phoenix Ascendant?
For all that is unfortunate, questionable, and regrettable about the present condition of the contemporary art market in Iran, an unmistakable atmosphere of hope is present. Though, one and all, they complained about their myriad difficulties, not a single individual I spoke with expressed a sense of hopelessness or pessimism about the future. Perhaps it has something to do with growing up in the wake of a cultural revolution in an era of war and aggression, and living in the pandemonium of the capital of a country perhaps only second to North Korea in terms of its isolation from the outside world; in other words, things can only get better. “I want to be optimistic,” Bayani told me. “We need hope to stay alive. Things will get better.” Many are looking to President Rowhani for signs of change and progress, and are more optimistic than they were during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, although only time will tell whether the new government can bring about meaningful change for Iranian artists. Some, like Jelveh, are optimistic to the point that they see international auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s opening branches in Tehran in the near future to capitalize on the wealth of local Iranian art and its growing demand there. Others, like Zanjani, however, while expressing hope in the future, at the same time admit the need for certain developments to take place in order for the art market to further thrive. “We need better curators, better critics,” he told me a day before flying to Dubai, another hotspot for Iranian art. “It’s getting better, but we’re still not there.”
Iranian art is on the rise, as a result of the passion and efforts of a new generation of artists, who despite everything have retained a sense of hope and optimism for the future. One can sense the gradual establishment of a vibrant, sustainable, and thriving market whose artists will continue to turn heads for decades to come. Having emerged from the ashes of war and revolution, Iranian art is yet again that phoenix ascendant.
Joobin Bekhrad is the founder and editor of Reorient, an online magazine of contemporary Middle Eastern arts and culture. The author of The Quatrains of Omar Khayyam, a translation of Omar Khayyam’s poems from the Persian, he is also a co-founder of artclvb, an online platform for contemporary Middle Eastern artists. On Twitter: @reorientmag.
Revolution to Revolution
Artistic creation and political discourse have been linked in the history of Egypt since the reign of Muhammad Ali. From the nineteenth century, through the 1920s and 1930s, and through the eras of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak until the present moment, public space has been the theater of political and cultural debates that find their reflection in visual representations. Many landmarks mirroring this dynamic between art and politics remain. Public monuments convey the major values of the official discourse over time as they successively construct or deconstruct the image of the nation.
Most interesting, perhaps, are the roles played by the claimants of public space. One after another, political and cultural actors have been the decision-makers of the ideas that should be conveyed through visual landmarks in collective spaces. With the January 25, 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square, new actors have emerged, claiming their rights to public spaces that have historically constituted arenas for the construction of identities. Egyptian citizens aim to recover the notion of public space, which simply does not exist as a social space provided by the state and conceived for the citizen. The use of public space for artistic expression in Egypt today—the flourishing of murals and graffiti painted and painted again by young Egyptian revolutionaries—represents a new milestone in the interaction between arts and politics in Egyptian history.
The failure of the state in relating to the citizen through public space significantly reveals itself in social media. That is to say that the new virtual sub-space provided by social media underlines the need to fill the gap of an inexistent space by renewing the ancient concept of the public forum. Thus, the multilayered visual representations in public space, whether in rupture or in continuity with the past, constitute a palimpsest, whose decryption indicates major socio-political and cultural change.
During the nineteenth century, the formation of the new Egyptian urban landscape was dominated by the work of European artists and architects. In the context of the modernization and extension of the cities of Cairo and Alexandria, Khedive Ismail called upon French Orientalist sculptors, such as Charles Cordier and Alfred Jacquemart, to create equestrian monuments to commemorate the khedivial lineage. These monuments correspond to a conventional image of the “oriental sovereign” established by Muhammad Ali. The ruler is generally mounted on a horse decorated by the crescent emblem, wearing a tarbush or a turban, his arm stretched out in a commanding gesture.
This Orientalist typology of self-representation dominated the official artistic direction until the beginning of the twentieth century. This trend was prevailing to the point that the first monument dedicated to one of the most renowned Egyptian nationalist leaders, Mustafa Kamel, was commissioned, after his death in 1908, to a French Orientalist sculptor named Léopold Savine. The monument, which still stands in downtown Cairo, represents Mustafa Kamel in oration, wearing the tarbush and pointing his finger to the ground in sign of domination. His right hand leans on the bust of a sphinx, recalling the prints of the Description de l’Égypte and enhancing the charisma of the leader. The official inauguration of the monument in a Cairo square was postponed by the British for forty years and was finally unveiled by King Farouk on Suares Square, renamed at the inauguration in honor of Mustafa Kamel.
Egypt had to wait until the aftermath of the 1919 Revolution led by Saad Zaghloul to see a monument in a public space created by an Egyptian artist: the sculptor Mahmoud Moukhtar, who graduated from the School of Fine Arts in Cairo and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. This famous and highly symbolic monumental sculpture entitled Egypt’s Awakening (Nahdat Misr) was inaugurated on May 20, 1928, on Bab El-Hadid Square in front of the Cairo railway station. It was later moved by Gamal Abdel Nasser to the front of Cairo University.
Financed by a national subscription initiated by a committee formed by members of the Wafd Party, Egypt’s Awakening contributed to the creation of a new visual image of the nation, breaking away from the previous Orientalist representations. The official inauguration ceremony took place with great pomp under the auspices of King Fuad in the presence of ministers, dignitaries of Al-Azhar, representatives of the Coptic Church, as well as consuls, officers, and members of the parliament and senate. Speaking at the ceremony, Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Nahas proclaimed the monument to be a symbol of Egypt’s “national awakening” (nahda qawmiyya).
At the time the monument was conceived, Moukhtar pioneered the visual trend of reinvention by using the ancient material of granite and constructing the image of the nation through a double allegory: ancient Egypt and contemporary ruralism, incarnated as a sphinx and a peasant. These two themes would go on to constitute the leitmotivs of political discourse throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Egypt’s Awakening was echoed a few years after its inauguration in Tawfiq Al-Hakim’s novel, Return of the Spirit (Awdat al-Ruh). The novel places the peasant in the center of the narration as the guardian of an “Egyptian spirit” that will “return” thanks to the solidarity of the 1919 Revolution initiated by the charisma of one single individual: Saad Zaghloul. After his death, this figure himself became a pharaoh of modern Egypt. The two monuments dedicated to him in Cairo and Alexandria, created by Moukhtar, as well as his mausoleum designed by architect Mustafa Fahmi, represent the climax of the neo-Pharaonic style in Egyptian modern sculpture and architecture.
In the context of the 1919 Revolution, Alexandrian painter and diplomat Mohamed Nagui was the first Egyptian artist to execute a decorative painting dedicated to a public institution, the Egyptian parliament, in 1922. Titled Renaissance of Egypt or the Cortege of Isis, the work celebrated the inauguration of the parliament and the proclamation of a new constitution; it remains on display in the Egyptian senate. The painting represents the triumphal cortege of the goddess Isis riding on a chariot led by two buffaloes and escorted by a crowd of ancient and contemporary figures. Isis, representing Egypt, is depicted as the announcer of a cultural rebirth.
Through this work, Nagui created the genre of modern epic or historicist monumental painting, aiming to rewrite a “national history” that had been dominated by Orientalist European scholars. However, while set in a pharaonic landscape, Nagui’s painting refers mainly to mythological paintings of the European Renaissance, such as certain representations of the Triumphal Cortege of Diana.
At the beginning of the 1950s, under Gamal Abdel Nasser, Pharaonic heritage gradually made way for other references inspired by Egypt’s Islamic heritage. For instance, unlike the mausoleum of Saad Zaghloul, the tomb of Mustafa Kamel, inaugurated by Nasser in 1953, was designed in a neo-Mamluk style. Besides being considered as the highest degree of refinement of Egyptian Islamic art and architecture, the Mamluks also embodied military power. Moreover, contrary to the theme of ancient Egypt that was geographically limited, the neo-Islamic trend complied with a new image of cultural identity that reflected the pan-Arab orientation of Nasser’s regime.
Blue Bra Girl
Sixty years of military-backed rule in Egypt inexorably led to the events of January 25, and a burst of related artistic creation. Several artists revisited the historicist genre that Nagui initiated in the 1920s. Khaled Hafez, for example, who addresses the questions of cultural memory in his work, produced several monumental paintings in his series, Tomb Sonata in Three Military Movements (2012). Hafez plays with references to ancient Egypt and icons of American popular culture, thus bringing to the fore the complexity of the notions of authenticity and identity. Also, in her impressive murals artist Alaa Awad illustrated contemporary events interpreted in a neo-Pharaonic style. As much as Nagui referred very clearly to the heritage of ancient Egypt as the basis of national identity in Egypt’s Renaissance, the contemporary creations of Hafez and Awad question the ambiguity of the construction of identities. The triangulation of mass media, Western culture and Egyptian heritage thus appears implicitly in public spaces or galleries.
Another echo of the 1919 events is the role played by women in the public space. For instance, the gesture of the peasant unveiling in Egypt’s Awakening is significant. At the time the sculpture was executed, this feminine figure paid tribute to the emancipation of Egyptian intellectual women who, besides being activists and supporting the national cause, played an important role as patrons of the arts. Moukhtar thus recalled a contemporary event through this gesture: the unveiling of two prominent figures of Egyptian feminism, Huda Shaarawi and Ceza Nabarawi, in a public act on a platform of the Cairo railway station in 1922. The uprisings three years earlier were marked by the presence of women in the public space, a space that was previously difficult for them to access. The press had significantly instrumentalized the images of women’s demonstrations in order to reinforce the mainstream discourse of national unity. However, despite their commitment to the struggle for independence, after the victory of the Wafd Party, women remained completely deprived of their rights within the political sphere.
Similarly, the media largely broadcast and exploited the presence of women in public space during the 2011 uprisings in Egypt. The image of the “blue bra girl,” a demonstrator who was brutally beaten by security forces in Tahrir Square on December 17, 2011, became iconic. The image was reinterpreted by the Moroccan artist Zakaria Ramhani in a work entitled You Were My Only Love in 2012. It depicts the violence of “military gorillas” brutalizing the protestor under the disapproving gaze of Van Gogh. Furthermore, the “blue bra” appeared as stenciled graffiti on the walls of downtown Cairo as a symbol of resistance.
The astonishing rapidity with which iconic images circulated from the media to the streets and to the global art market underlines the emergence of a new dialogue between these spaces. More feminine images progressively emerged in the urban landscape, such as the effigy of Samira Ibrahim, who was forced by security forces to undergo a “virginity test” in March 2011.
It is interesting to note that Moukhtar’s Egypt’s Awakening, the symbol of the struggle for independence, occupied the center stage in the violent clashes between Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators and security forces in July 2013. Protesters climbed up the monument and covered it with anti-military slogans, a collective act by these new claimants of the political sphere.
Bye Bye Hosni
At the beginning of September 2012, one of Alaa Awad’s murals was whitewashed by the authorities. The wall chosen by the artist for this mural was not anodyne: it was the wall that follows the Mohammed Mahmoud Street opening onto Tahrir Square which had witnessed successive clashes between demonstrators and security forces since January 2011. This wall became famous, and its successive transformations have been carefully recorded and archived by bloggers and on social media. For three years, its surface has been constantly whitewashed and painted over.
The whitewashing of Awad’s work did not last longer than a few hours and was painted over with the face of a man sticking his tongue out and defying the authorities with the slogan: “Erase it again, regime of cowards.” A few hours later, the wall was entirely covered by graffiti, slogans and effigies of martyrs. But the following day, other claimants of the wall had repainted over these same images. This ongoing process intrigued passersby; the walls of Mohammed Mahmoud Street became a space of debate, a sort of Speaker’s Corner. Thus the dynamic of whitewashing reflects the tensions between the various claimants of public space and a fortiori, the claimants of a space within the political sphere.
The walls were also the material space for putting an end to the cult of personalities. Many images ridiculed the previously glorified effigies of political rulers that used to be displayed all over the urban landscape. Since the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the cult of the charisma of Egyptian leaders dominated public space. However, after 2011, a rupture occurred that was reflected on the walls of the city, as well as in art galleries.
In March 2011, the artist Ali Ali presented a collection of his works entitled Thirty Hosnis at the Articulate Baboon Gallery in Cairo, which showed a series of serigraphies of the portrait of the former President Hosni Mubarak repeatedly reproduced in the tradition of American pop art. Ramhani also addressed the end of the propaganda of the Mubarak era in his work entitled Bye Bye Hosni. The painting depicts someone tearing down a giant poster of Hosni Mubarak’s portrait. On the back of this individual, one can see the Facebook “Like” symbol.
The cult of the personality of political leaders was replaced by the glorification of the portraits of Egyptian citizens: the martyrs. Bringing the young activists who died for their beliefs out of anonymity appears as a shift in the idea of public space itself. Powerful murals, such as those of artists Ammar Abu Bakr or Ganzeer, paid tribute to the martyrs and consequently created a new space dedicated to every Egyptian citizen. This is a story of the use of public space, which reflects a close relationship between art and politics. In this sense, contemporary interventions in public space represent much more than street art creations, as they identify a space that should be conceived for the collective and cannot function as the sole property of the state.
Nadia Radwan is an assistant professor of art history at the American University in Dubai. From 2007 to 2013, she served as a research assistant to the Institute of Environmental Sciences as part of the Globalization, Urban Planning, and Governance team at the University of Geneva. In 2011, she conducted research at the Egyptian National Archives with the support of a Swiss National Science Foundation scholarship. She has contributed to Docomomo Journal and Quaderns de la Mediterrània.
Correction August 13, 2014: An earlier version of this article incorrectly used a feminine pronoun in a reference to artist Alaa Awad.
We are all the protagonists of our own lives. Everything we do is in the first person. But how many of us are active participants in these lives of ours? I think it’s fair to say that most of us don’t really do much other than look out the window. We let the world around us write our scripts for us rather than the other way around.
A relatively established artist friend of mine once advised me to stop making work about the Egyptian revolution, stating that it is way too early for that kind of work, that we need to wait forty years before being able to do this sort of work. This to me signifies the mindset of your typical window gazer; someone who spends their life watching and commenting rather than participating. In terms of art, it signifies art that delivers commentary from a safe distance, as opposed to the kind of art that is very participatory. Not in the sense of the audience participating in the creation of the art, but rather art that participates in dealing with the immediate struggles and concerns of the audience.
The minute I walked into Hany Rashed’s exhibition Toys at Mashrabia Gallery, the words “concept pop” zapped themselves into my brain. The gallery on Champollion Street in downtown Cairo—which is mainly associated with showing art of a relatively traditional nature—was filled with what look like plastic depictions of things from our real world: two guys sitting on a public bench; a kid popping a wheelie on a motorcycle; a potato chip company’s delivery truck. These objects have very little in common with the meaningless yet very well-made action figures of the artist known as Sucklord. Unlike Sucklord’s figures, you can’t really play with Hany Rashed’s toys, which are mainly illustrations on plastic attached to cardboard after being subjected to heat, stretched out, and distorted. Also unlike Sucklord’s work, Hany Rashed’s objects come with meaning.
The minute you walk into this exhibition space littered with these toy-like objects, you get the message right away. The entire space is some kind of representation of the world we live in, except everything is made of plastic. Some come in packages, while others stand freely. What they all have in common though is that they are plastic and they are distorted. There’s something about seeing an accurate depiction of a public bus, except with the proportions all distorted and weird. Without needing walls of text to spoon-feed me the artist’s concept, without the curators giving me a special tour of the work, I get it. I understand that the artist is telling me that the world we live in is fake and unreal. While Sucklord focuses only on taking characters from pop culture, mainly Star Wars, and reducing them into action figures for no other reason than some kind of fanboy fixation, Hany Rashed creates toy-like objects of real life things, and in doing so, delivers his audience a message concerning their real world lives. Sucklord’s work is meaningless Pop Art. Hany Rashed’s work on the other hand uses Pop Art aesthetics in service of a very particular concept. He creates Concept Pop.
Fame and Perversity
Whoa, whoa, whoa! Did he just call Pop Art meaningless? asks a disgruntled reader. Yes, yes I did, Mr. Reader. Although Pop Art is sometimes cited as an art movement that has managed to bring art to the masses, that could not be further from the truth. In reality, what it has really done is take the commodities and aesthetics of the masses, repackage them, and sell them as fine art to elites existing in a small art-buying bubble. At the 1960s peak of celebrity fixation, heightened consumerism, and comic book sales in the millions, it might have made sense for artists in gallery circles to ride the wave with Pop Art. In today’s world however, where there is a backlash against the dominance of corporations, and more young people are eager to find their brand-less goods and organic products, where social media networks have made more relevant celebrities out of our friends and friends of friends, Pop Art—as we’ve known it—has no place.
Neither does so-called Conceptual Art, an art form that tends to be described as one in which the ideas take precedence over the aesthetics, but in reality tends to suffer from a lack of ideas as well. The end result being something that doesn’t necessarily look interesting, and nor is it really about anything. Marcel Duchamp’s commentary on his ridiculously famous Fountain urinal affirms that more than ever: “My idea was to choose an object that wouldn’t attract me, either by its beauty or by its ugliness. To find a point of indifference in my looking at it, you see.”
It is entirely perverse for the guy who took a urinal and uselessly hung it upside down in an art gallery to be far more famous than the guy who actually invented the urinal for its very functional purpose, one that is in fact useful to billions of people the world over. It is equally perverse for most major art institutions around the world today to treat this so-called art form as something avant-garde and cutting edge when it is in fact something that was officially introduced to this world back in 1917. What is most perverse of all is that there are a bunch of thirty-something artists in Egypt today who think of themselves as cutting edge for adopting a 1917 art form that most Egyptians do not relate to—they adopt it anyway out of an urge to appeal to art institutions centered in Europe and the USA.
Such an art form has no place in Egypt’s revolutionary climate. Although many Westerners may want to believe that Egyptians revolted against our regime out of a desire to adopt more “Western” values—or Western products, as was suggested by French author Guy Sorman in a public debate with me in 2011—in fact Egyptians were revolting against a bad regime that had taken much of its legitimacy from other world powers while simultaneously revolting against the conformist traditions of older generations. What the Egyptian people sought was independence in its truest form. Although Egyptians have obviously failed badly at achieving that (for now), it does not mean that the effects of the revolution should not find their way into art and culture. Conceptual Art in Egypt, with its compass oriented to point north-west, proves itself to be a rather anti-revolutionary art form. Which could very well explain the rise of Concept Pop.
Huda Lutfi’s Cut and Paste exhibition in 2013 at the Townhouse Gallery is worth discussing in this regard. The show was massive, occupying the gallery’s entire Factory space and included everything from installations to video to traditional collages; you name it, it was all there. And there was a lot of it. Two of Lutfi’s pieces, however, stood out as powerful works of Concept Pop: Discarded and Fool’s Journal. Discarded, an installation of hundreds of eyes staring back at you from the insides of soda-pop caps fixed on a red wall in circular formations, very poignantly comments on the nonchalant eye-snipering of protestors during the clashes on Mohammed Mahmoud Street. Clashes that have been taking place in a cyclical fashion since they first broke out on November 19, 2011.
With Fool’s Journal, Lutfi managed to create something that relates to the aesthetics of international contemporary art practices while having very particular cultural connotations in the Egyptian context: a number of cone-shaped hats made out of a collage of Egyptian newspapers. Cone-shaped hats in Egypt are known to be hats for fools. In wanting to say that Egyptian media is making fools out of people, Lutfi managed to pull it off smoothly without any kind of mucking around. The installation had the clean minimalism associated with contemporary art shows today, while delivering something that your average Egyptian can instantly “get” and relate to.
Lutfi has been making art for over twenty years. A lot of her work has been in the vicinity of your average collage work or your usual contemporary-art-styled installation that is difficult to decipher without additional wall text. For this artist to make the move to Concept Pop tells us something about this unique moment we’re living in and why a change in art practice today is absolutely vital.
Rock ‘n’ Roll
Ever since the revolution began in 2011, mainstream media has focused on the rise of street art in its very superficial sense: art on the street protesting the regime. At the same time, it has overlooked the qualities that are very specific to Egyptian street art: void of the artist’s ego and tackling concerns of your average Egyptian. It is these qualities that are finding their way into the works of conceptual artists and resulting in this new thing called Concept Pop.
Naturally, most people creating Concept Pop don’t even know they’re creating Concept Pop. Like early Punk Rock musicians who thought they were making rock ‘n’ roll. Ramones drummer Tommy Ramone is quoted as saying, “In its initial form, a lot of [1960s] stuff was innovative and exciting. Unfortunately, what happens is that people who could not hold a candle to the likes of Hendrix started noodling away. Soon you had endless solos that went nowhere. By 1973, I knew that what was needed was some pure, stripped down, no bullshit rock ‘n’ roll.” Little did he know that he was one of the people laying the groundwork for an entirely new genre of music altogether.
In 2013, Ahmed Hefnawy built one of the most immersive art installations in modern Egyptian history. On a December night at the abandoned Viennoise Hotel in downtown Cairo owned by Ismailia Real Estate Company, a trail of tear gas, suspended in the air, made its way across one of the rooms, bouncing off the walls multiple times until it hit the floor and spiraled in place. At the end of the trail was one of Hefnawy’s “tear gas canisters” made from juice cans. This was a recreation of a real-life scene many Egyptians have become all too familiar with. In real life though, when a tear gas canister is sent flying in the air, you can’t help but panic and run for your life. Or perhaps the hero inside comes to life and you rush toward the canister just to hurl it back at the security forces.
In Hefnawy’s installation, however, you had the opportunity to examine and contemplate the moment. You could get as close to his sculpture as you wanted. You could touch it or feel it. Another one of Hefnawy’s pieces froze the moment of a canister ejecting from a shotgun inside a museum-style glass box. I was there in Tahrir Square when the first tear gas canister was shot into the air. Everyone present paused for a split second in an attempt to understand what that thing was. It wasn’t long before crowds were running all over the place without being given the opportunity to understand the situation. Hefnawy gave his audience the opportunity to examine that moment in one’s own time, an opportunity to be saddened and hurt by it, exemplified by the tears in the eyes of many viewers at the art show. An art show that gathered hundreds of viewers on its opening night, many of whom confessed they had never been to an art show before.
The following days would witness crowds of young folk waiting outside the doors of the space before opening hours, eager to see what all the fuss was about. This was, by the way, during the last week of December, a period seen as box office poison by the gallery circles, as most regular art enthusiasts are typically off on vacation. Hany Rashed, who is used to holding exhibitions at Mashrabia Gallery just down the street from the abandoned Viennoise Hotel, was most surprised. “I’ve never seen this much enthusiasm or attendance for my art openings at Mashrabia Gallery, even during what are considered peak seasons, even though Mashrabia and the Viennoise are in pretty much the same location.” He told me this while drinking real juice out of one of the canisters, which Hefnawy had made available in a glass-door fridge, like the ones commercially used by soda companies. Many visitors of the exhibition were downing their tear-gas juice while examining the work, a symbolic challenge to assault by the state.
Outside the Bubble
It’s not like it’s necessary for a work of Concept Pop to be revolution-themed. One powerful work of Concept Pop was created by Alexandrian artist Mahmoud Khaled back in 2007, four years prior to the #Jan25 revolution. In MKMAEL Stories—an Image Passionate, Khaled published a little storybook aesthetically akin to cheap romance novellas sold on the sidewalks of Egyptian cities. In it, Khaled printed an online chat archive between himself and another man. Throughout the chat, a strong tension could be felt, a tension between wanting to get closer to someone and needing to remain unattainable. The result is a contemporary take on romance stories for the digital age, one that brings about emotions that are as piercing as any classic romance story. It is a work that Khaled exhibits in his white cube gallery openings, but it is one that utilizes a visual language common to the average Egyptian—the romance novella and the online chat format—in favor of a very particular concept. Although it is a personal story, it has the power of communicating to an average person, one who is not used to visiting art galleries, the similarities between homosexual and heterosexual romance. The work is about something concerning more than just those operating within the limited gallery bubble, while incorporating techniques that would be considered Conceptual as well as Pop. It is undeniably a great work of Concept Pop.
Mahmoud Khaled, Ahmed Hefnawy, and Huda Lutfi probably don’t even know that they’ve created Concept Pop. The same way the Velvet Underground, the Ramones, and the Kinks thought they were making some form of rock ‘n’ roll, many Concept Pop artists will think they’re making either a work of Conceptual Art, Pop Art, or Street Art. There will be plenty of nay-sayers out there; traditionalists who will refer to works of Concept Pop as too direct or not real art. But before they know it, Concept Pop will be the thing, and much like Punk, it will change everything.
Ganzeer is the pseudonym of an Egyptian artist. He is not an author, comic artist, installation artist, painter, speaker, street artist, or videographer, though he has assumed these roles in a number of places around the world. His art has been shown in Bahrain, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Finland, Germany, Jordan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, and the United States, as well as in myriad Cairo galleries. Art in America has referred to Ganzeer’s work as “New Realism,” and the Huffington Post ranked him among the “25 Street Artists from Around the World who are Shaking Up Public Art,” but Ganzeer rejects both labels. He regards Bidoun magazine’s description of him as a “contingency artist” as probably the most accurate. More information about his work is available at ganzeer.com. On Twitter: @Ganzeer.
After the Iran Nuclear Deal
Overcoming a decade of failed nuclear negotiations, Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) signed an interim nuclear deal, the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), in Geneva on November 24, 2013. The agreement put into motion talks to reach a mutually agreed long-term comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran’s nuclear program would be exclusively peaceful. In a broader sense, the outcome of the nuclear negotiations with Iran will have a profound impact on nuclear non-proliferation. It could be a significant step toward a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone and a Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone in the Middle East.
According to the interim agreement, Tehran “reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons.” The comprehensive solution will build on interim steps and aims to resolve the decades-long nuclear dispute between Iran and world powers. It also paves the way for Iran “to fully enjoy its right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes under the relevant articles of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in conformity with its obligations therein.” To ensure the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program, the comprehensive agreement seeks to define a mutually agreed enrichment program with stringent transparency and verification mechanisms in place. The implementation of the agreement will be based on a mutually reciprocal, step-by-step process, to result ultimately in the comprehensive lifting of all unilateral, multilateral and UN Security Council sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program.
A Dangerous Dispute
The hopeful efforts contrast with the series of failed negotiations between world powers and Iran. While the United States laid the foundation of a nuclear Iran in the 1960s as part of President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program, the 1979 Islamic Revolution brought that cooperation to an end. During the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the United States encouraged Iran in the 1970s to build twenty-three nuclear power plants over twenty years. In 1967, the United States constructed the first Iranian nuclear facility, the Tehran Research Reactor. During this period, Europeans were fiercely competing with the Americans to win lucrative projects to nuclearize Iran. Following the 1979 revolution, however, Iran decided to forego the ambitious nuclear and military projects of the United States and the shah. In its response to Iran’s revolution, the West withdrew from agreements and contracts—costing Iran billions of dollars—in violation of the NPT. Unfortunately, this helped plant the seeds of the Iranian nuclear crisis. The United States and European countries opposed Iran having even civilian nuclear energy and pressed Germany to abrogate its contractual agreement to complete the only Iranian civilian nuclear plant, at Bushehr. Moreover, Western powers prevented Iran from having access to the international market for nuclear fuel, at a time when Iran had no plans to conduct uranium-enrichment activities on its own soil.
The West’s denial of Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear program provided the greatest impetus for Iran to press for self-sufficiency in the nuclear field by completing unfinished projects and ensuring future supply of reactor fuel. By 2002, Iran mastered enrichment and the West once again began challenging the legal and legitimate rights of Iran under the NPT. In September 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) adopted a resolution that called on Iran to accelerate cooperation with the IAEA and provide the full transparency needed for the agency to complete its verification job. The following month, the government of President Mohammed Khatami entered into nuclear talks with France, Germany and the United Kingdom, the so-called EU3. During these negotiations from 2003 to August 2005, Tehran made far-reaching overtures on transparency and confidence-building measures, to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program would not be diverted toward producing nuclear weapons. Tehran implemented the NPT Safeguards Agreement Subsidiary Arrangement Code 3.1, signed the Safeguards Agreement Additional Protocol, voluntarily suspended enrichment for almost two years, limited enrichment at 5 percent, and maintained a meager stockpile of enriched uranium. Such moves failed to resolve the crisis because the United States continued to deny Iran’s right to uranium enrichment under the NPT.
During the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), the nuclear negotiations continued with the P5+1 countries, but throughout this period, the talks failed due to the absence of a realistic package of agreements. Once again, the main reason for the failure was the West’s reluctance to recognize the legitimate right of Iran to enrichment under Article IV of the NPT despite Iran’s willingness to commit to maximum transparency and confidence-building measures under the NPT.
Instead of a mutually defined agreement with Iran, the Western powers led by the United States relied overwhelmingly on a coercive policy of pressuring Iran to abandon its nuclear program. They applied far-reaching and comprehensive sanctions on Iran. There is no doubt that the unilateral, multilateral and UN Security Council sanctions had a negative impact on the Iranian economy. During Ahmadinejad’s presidency, due to sanctions as well as mismanagement, Iran’s currency lost more than half its value, with inflation reaching more than 40 percent in 2013.
Yet, instead of rolling back Iran’s nuclear program, the sanctions made Tehran more determined than ever to expand its nuclear efforts. The IAEA reported that prior to the intensified pressure, Iran had one uranium enrichment site consisting of a pilot plant of 164 centrifuges enriching uranium at a level of 3.5 percent, one generation of centrifuges and an approximately 100 kilogram stockpile of enriched uranium. Today, despite the draconian unilateral and multilateral sanctions, Iran maintains two enrichment sites with roughly 19,000 centrifuges, possesses a stockpile of uranium enriched up to 20 percent, operates a new generation of centrifuges, produces fuel rods for Tehran Research Reactor and holds a stockpile of more than 11,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium. Such an outcome helped convince world powers to negotiate a comprehensive deal after the election of President Hassan Rowhani in 2013.
Negotiations in Vienna
As part of the first phase of the JPA, both sides would commit to a series of voluntary measures for a duration of six months, commencing on January 20, 2014. Following three rounds of technical talks, Iran and the P5+1 detailed the specific steps to be implemented, with an option to extend the timeframe by mutual agreement.
A second round of talks concluded in Vienna on February 20. The world powers and Iran agreed on a framework, a plan of action and a timetable to conduct negotiations on a comprehensive agreement for the next four months. Both sides negotiated seriously and in good faith, overcoming substantial problems while achieving important progress. The third round of talks on April 8 ended on a high note as talks shifted into the next phase with the drafting of a final accord starting at the following meeting in mid-May. “We have now held substantive and detailed discussions covering all the issues which will need to be part of a Comprehensive Agreement,” said European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton following the talks. “A lot of intensive work will be required to overcome the differences which naturally still exist at this stage in the process.”
The first three rounds of talks progressed relatively smoothly as they focused primarily on setting the agenda and airing individual positions and concerns. The high-level talks on May 16, however, proved far more difficult as the parties began drafting the comprehensive nuclear deal. Afterwards, all sides expressed their frustration at the lack of progress but remained hopeful to continue their discussions toward a fruitful end. There was no tangible progress in writing the draft text due to the unreasonable and excessive demands of the West. The day after the talks, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s lead negotiator, tweeted: “Back from Vienna after tough discussions. Agreement is possible. But illusions need to go. Opportunity shouldn’t be missed again like in 2005 [a reference to the nuclear talks between Iran and the EU3 from 2003-2005, which failed primarily due to U.S. opposition].”
President Barack Obama, addressing graduating West Point cadets on May 28, referred to the Iran nuclear talks. “The odds of success are still long… but for the first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement—one that is more effective and durable than what we could have achieved through the use of force,” he said.
Since the signing of the interim agreement in November, both sides have taken serious steps to uphold their end of the bargain. Under the JPA, Iran has:
- Suspended enrichment above 5 percent everywhere in Iran for the six-month period.
- Halted production of 20 percent enriched uranium.
- Halted installation of new centrifuges.
- Reduced significantly the stockpile of enriched uranium.
- Halted construction of additional enrichment facilities.
- Provided managed access at centrifuge assembly, rotor production and storage facilities.
- Provided access to uranium mines and mills.
- Suspended further advances in the development of the heavy water reactor at Arak.
- Committed to no reprocessing or construction of a facility capable of reprocessing.
- Allowed enhanced monitoring and verification measures that go beyond the previous level of cooperation with the IAEA.
The Iranian enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordo are now subject to daily IAEA inspector access, both scheduled and unannounced. The Arak reactor and associated facilities are also open to monthly inspections by the IAEA instead of approximately once every three months. The latest IAEA report released on May 23 reaffirms Iran’s serious commitments undertaken since the JPA. It noted that “Iran has implemented the seven practical measures that it agreed with the agency in February 2014 in relation to the Framework for Cooperation,” namely that Iran has not enriched uranium above 5 percent “at any of its declared facilities”; Iran’s stock of uranium enriched up to 20 percent “has decreased from 209.1 kilograms to 38.4 kilograms”; and “all of the enrichment related activities at Iran’s declared facilities are under agency safeguards, and all of the nuclear material, installed cascades, and feed and withdrawal stations at those facilities are subject to Agency containment and surveillance.”
Under the terms of the JPA, the P5+1 countries are committed to providing temporary and targeted sanctions relief to Iran, including permitting Iran to gain access to $4.2 billion in restricted funds (representing a small fraction of the $100 billion in Iranian foreign exchange reserves currently blocked) on a set schedule at regular intervals throughout the six-month interim period. The relief package is, however, limited and structured in a way to ensure the overwhelming majority of the comprehensive sanctions remain intact—primarily sanctions placed on oil, banking and financial sectors. The P5+1 commitments include:
- Pausing efforts to further reduce purchase of crude oil from Iran.
- Suspending further nuclear-related UN Security Council sanctions.
- Suspending further EU-U.S. nuclear-related sanctions.
- Suspending sanctions on the import, purchase or transport of Iranian petrochemical products and on the provision of all associated services such as financing, financial assistance, insurance and reinsurance, including for third states.
- Suspending sanctions on Iran’s import and export of gold and other precious metals, including associated services.
- Permitting the supply of spare parts and services, including inspection services, for Iran’s civil aviation sector.
- Suspending implementation of sanctions on Iran’s automotive manufacturing sector and associated services.
- Facilitating financial transfers for non-sanctioned trade, including payments for UN obligations, tuition payments for students studying abroad and for humanitarian purposes such as food and medicine.
- Permitting the provision of insurance and transport in relation to Iranian crude oil.
Reciprocating Iran’s concrete steps as confirmed by an IAEA report on January 20, the P5+1 countries began to follow through on their commitments and provided modest sanctions relief to Iran. The first installment from the $4.2 billion of Iranian revenue held abroad was released as scheduled on February 1, with further installments scheduled for the duration of the interim deal. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi confirmed that “the first tranche of $500 million was deposited in a Swiss bank account, and everything was done in accordance with the agreement.” In terms of sanctions relief, on January 20 the White House announced the suspension of U.S. sanctions on Iran’s petrochemical, precious metals and automotive sectors. On April 4, Boeing, the world’s largest manufacturer of airplanes, and General Electric, an engine manufacturer, confirmed that they had received licenses from the Treasury Department for exporting spare parts and services for Iranian civil aviation and associated services. In concert, the European Union announced on January 20 that it would also suspend sanctions, including lifting the prohibition on the provision of insurance and transport in relation to Iranian crude oil sales to its current customers. These actions represented the first time in nearly a decade that Iran and the world powers had adhered to their reciprocal commitments.
A final comprehensive agreement is meant to be concluded within a year of the interim deal. For its part, Iran would accept limitations on its enrichment program and submit to intrusive inspections. In return, world powers would remove sanctions, respect the country’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear technology (including enrichment) and normalize Iran’s nuclear file. The components would include a specified and mutually agreed long-term duration for the interim confidence-building measures, which reflect the rights and obligations of parties under the NPT and Safeguards Agreement. They would also include the comprehensive lifting of “UN Security Council, multilateral and national nuclear-related sanctions, including steps on access in areas of trade, technology, finance, and energy, on a schedule to be agreed upon.”
The final agreement would define, for a period to be agreed upon, parameters consistent with practical needs, limits on scope, level of enrichment activities and stockpile. Iran would also fully resolve concerns related to the heavy water reactor at Arak, including commitments to refrain from constructing a facility capable of reprocessing. To ensure the peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program, Tehran would commit to fully implement the agreed transparency measures and enhanced monitoring, including ratifying and implementing the Additional Protocol. The agreement will also make provisions for Iran to receive international civil nuclear cooperation. This cooperation will include among others, “acquiring modern light water power and research reactors and associated equipment, and the supply of modern nuclear fuel as well as agreed R&D practices.” Finally, upon the implementation of the final step of the comprehensive agreement, the Iranian nuclear program will be treated in accordance to any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT.
War and Peace
If diplomacy fails and the interim deal reached in November 2013 does not produce a permanent solution, it will ultimately lead to heightened tensions, a possible all-out war, and force Iran to withdraw from the NPT. Now that against all odds, the United States and European Union have made a deal with Iran, skeptics and opponents have started mobilizing again—in both Tehran as well as in many other capitals, including Washington. In Iran, internal opposition to the deal is driven by concerns related to the hostile policies followed during Obama’s first term and by Israel’s continued challenge of Iran’s right to enrich its nuclear stockpile for energy use. In the United States, internal opposition to the deal and concern about Iranian behavior have been reinforced by two of its closest allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia. The deep uneasiness in those countries is tangible and immediate, for both see Iran as a mortal enemy, bent on Israel’s destruction and regional hegemony.
WikiLeaks provided a great deal of insight into the secret discussions on a possible military strike against Iran. The king of Saudi Arabia was cited urging the United States to “cut off the head of the snake”—that is, encouraging Washington to attack Iran and put an end to its nuclear program. The message was clear and well understood—the Saudis and their allies want to fight the Iranians to the last American standing. Threatening Iran has proved counterproductive to date and will continue to be the case as long as Tehran refuses to compromise under threat. There is a need now to convince Arab states of this, so that they do not continue to lobby against a deal over Iran’s nuclear program or engage in nuclear proliferation steps themselves.
Finalizing a deal will require compromise by all parties. One of the key challenges will be the likely American insistence that Tehran make concessions far beyond the NPT requirements. Such demands to curb Iran’s nuclear program include dismantling a significant portion of existing centrifuges and low-enriched uranium stockpiles; closure of Fordo, Iran’s second enrichment site near the city of Qom; dismantling of the Arak heavy water research reactor; and intrusive inspections and monitoring that go beyond the NPT and the Additional Protocol. As an NPT member state, Iran would not accept targeted discrimination.
A realistic solution should distinguish between demands within the framework of the NPT and those that go beyond it. Demands based on the NPT can be agreed upon permanently. Based on the NPT and international regulations, a member state would demonstrate the maximum level of transparency by implementing the Nuclear Safeguards Agreement, Additional Protocol and Subsidiary Arrangement Code 3.1. These three arrangements are the maximum transparency measures the world powers can expect. On demands beyond NPT and to guarantee no breakout toward weaponization, the P5+1 and Iranian negotiators could agree on a realistic limitation but for a specified period as a confidence-building measure. Such realistic limits could include Iran’s agreement not to carry out weapons grade enrichment at the Natanz facility, or to reduce plutonium production at the Arak heavy water reactor.
The road to a comprehensive solution is strewn with specific obstacles. First, there is the challenge of the Heavy Water Reactor at Arak. The key concern of the world powers is that once the Arak reactor becomes operational, it could produce enough weapons-grade plutonium (five to ten kilograms) per year for one nuclear weapon. The P5+1, therefore, would like to see Iran abandon the unfinished Arak reactor, a notion Tehran adamantly opposes. The Arak reactor was originally scheduled to start operating in the first quarter of 2014, but according to the head of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, Iran still has “quite a lot to do” to complete the project and it is unclear when it will come into operation. Iranian officials, however, insisted that there are no intentions to build a reprocessing facility to extract plutonium from spent fuel for a weaponized program.
As a compromise, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, declared Tehran’s willingness to make some design changes “to produce less plutonium in this reactor and in this way allay the worries and mitigate the concerns.” A possible modification to reduce the Arak reactor’s output of plutonium could include replacing natural uranium fuel with 3.5 percent or 19.75 percent low-enriched uranium, which decreases the design power from 40 MWt to 20 or 10 MWt. Even with the reduced power output, the reactor has the capacity to produce neutrons for medical isotopes and scientific research as the current 40 MWt design fueled by natural uranium. To ensure the spent fuel does not become a source of plutonium for nuclear weapons, it can be verifiably removed to a third country. Russia could be the most viable destination as it is already responsible for removing spent fuel from the Bushehr reactor.
Second, there is the question of the capacity and level of Iran’s enrichment program. Under the terms of the interim nuclear deal, Iran’s enrichment capacity should be consistent with its civilian practical needs. This includes fuel supply for its research reactor and nuclear power plants, with plans to expand the program to include four research reactors and sixteen new nuclear power plants. The negotiations will have to address practical limits on the scope of the enrichment program and additional safeguards on ongoing Iranian enrichment activities. Ultimately, a practical resolution would involve limiting Iran’s enrichment activities to below 5 percent (addressing concerns of weapons-grade uranium) and tailoring enrichment capacity to the needs of Iran’s civilian nuclear activity. These measures, in combination with intrusive inspections and monitoring, will ensure that Iran can verifiably maintain a peaceful nuclear program with a prolonged timeframe without a breakout capability for a nuclear weapon.
Third, the Fordo enrichment site poses a major challenge. For the Iranians, shutting down Fordo is out of the question. The construction of this enrichment site beneath the mountains was Iran’s response to the U.S.-Israeli “all options on the table” bombing threat to stop Iran’s nuclear program. In order to move forward, the parties could agree that Fordo will be under full IAEA surveillance and serve as the main center for research and development for all nuclear-related civilian peaceful technologies including enrichment and different generations of centrifuges that Iran is working on.
Fourth, transparency measures required by the IAEA are essential to a final deal. The maximum level of transparency required under the NPT includes the Safeguards Agreement and its Subsidiary Arrangement Code 3.1 plus the Additional Protocol—measures that Iran should sign, ratify and implement. For the first time, on February 8, 2014, Iran and the IAEA signed an agreement to address the nuclear agency’s suspicions that Iran may have worked on designing a nuclear weapon. To resolve the IAEA’s concerns about a possible military dimension to Iran’s nuclear program, Iran could agree to a specified timeframe to give the IAEA managed access beyond the Additional Protocol.
All these obstacles will be overcome only if the world powers agree, in return for Iran’s offer of interim limitations and extra transparency, to respect Iran’s legitimate right to peaceful nuclear technology including enrichment, lift all sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program, withdraw Iran’s nuclear file from the UN Security Council and normalize its relationship with the IAEA.
A Region without WMDs
A comprehensive agreement with Iran will give impetus toward creating a Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free-Zone in the Middle East. The seeds for this were already planted on December 9, 1974, when the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 3263 sponsored by Iran and Egypt calling for a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone. The zone would remain in force indefinitely and commit regional countries not to manufacture, acquire, test or possess nuclear weapons.
It was only at the 2010 NPT Review Conference that practical steps were agreed to progress toward establishing the zone. Specifically, it was agreed that, in consultation with regional countries, the UN secretary-general would convene a conference in 2012 to be attended by all states in the Middle East on “the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction.” Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajava was named as facilitator.
In November 2012, however, the United States called off the conference “because of present conditions in the Middle East and the fact that states in the region have not reached agreement on acceptable conditions for a conference.” The primary reason was the reluctance of Israel to participate, while all other regional countries, including Iran, had confirmed their intention to attend. The conference has not yet been rescheduled nor a new timeline set.
To actualize a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in the Middle East, the world powers should seek an agreement with Iran on the limits acceptable to other regional powers, and use the final deal with Iran as a model for the entire region. The measures proposed by the International Panel for Fissile Material, a team of independent nuclear experts from fifteen countries, would be:
- Ban on the separation and/or use of plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) as a reactor fuel.
- Switching heavy water reactors from natural uranium fuel to low-enriched uranium fuel.
- Limitation on uranium enrichment to less than 6 percent.
- Limit power of research reactors to 20MWt.
- Ship out the spent fuel with its contained plutonium.
- Limit enrichment capacity to levels that do not provoke fear of a breakout (below 5 percent).
- Regional verification system in addition to the IAEA safeguards.
- Robust inspections with the adoption of the Additional Protocol and Subsidiary Arrangement Code 3.1.
- An agreement with countries that do not stockpile enriched uranium but rather adopt a “just-in-time” system of production would be the most feasible course of action.
Taking uranium enrichment as well as plutonium separation (reprocessing) facilities out of national control and placing them instead under the management of an independent international organization dates back to a 1946 study called Report on the International Control of Atomic Energy prepared for the U.S. State Department. The report recognized that both uranium enrichment and reprocessing of irradiated uranium to recover plutonium are inherently “dangerous activities” in that they provide easy routes to nuclear weapons.
In 2003, international and regional concern about Iran’s decision to build a national uranium enrichment program led Mohamed ElBaradei, then director general of the IAEA, to revive a proposal for multinational control of all enrichment facilities, including in the nuclear-weapon states. Iran has voiced its support for an international consortium for enrichment; President Ahmadinejad, addressing the United Nations General Assembly in 2005, stated that Iran was “prepared to engage in serious partnership with private and public sectors of other countries in the implementation of a uranium enrichment program in Iran.”
With fourteen countries now operating or building enrichment plants, boosting interest in nuclear energy among Middle East countries, a successful resolution of the Iranian nuclear crisis could provide a model for dealing with other countries with breakout capability and contribute positively to non-proliferation. It is clear that a final deal with Iran would ensure the maximum level of transparency and all necessary confidence-building measures assuring that the Iranian nuclear program would remain peaceful forever. This could be an example for all other Middle East countries to follow as the first big step toward realization of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction.
As the only country in the region with a civilian enrichment program, Iran could play a pioneering role by embracing concepts like a regional or international consortium, multinational partnerships for control of enrichment, and multilateral fuel arrangements in the Middle East.
Cooperation in the nuclear field as prescribed in Article IV of the NPT can serve as confidence-building measures among regional states. Such cooperation can include joint ventures to build nuclear power plants, regional electricity infrastructure to transport electricity generated, regionalization of current nuclear structures with incentives to host nations both in economic terms and transfer of advanced technologies in the field of nuclear energy. There can also be expansion and strengthening of joint research initiatives that foster scholarly cooperation. The Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, hosted by Jordan, is a prime example. The program is under the auspices of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and to date has hosted scientists and scholars from throughout region.
The countries of a Middle East Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone could establish a Regional Nuclear Fuel Cycle Organization to monitor the operations of any regional fuel-cycle facility and also the mining and purification and import of uranium. Its purpose would be to ensure all nuclear materials used in the regional multinational enrichment facility would be subject to regional monitoring, transparency and improved safeguards.
Given the mutual distrust growing out of the region’s history of wars and proliferation, there will be a need for establishing a robust regional verification structure. Such a measure will be in addition to all regional countries ratifying the IAEA’s Additional Protocol and Subsidiary Arrangement Code 3.1. The regional verification structure can be based on past initiatives such as the Euratom Treaty, which covers peaceful nuclear activities in Europe and shares safeguards responsibilities with the IAEA.
Brazil and Argentina have created an important precedent. After they ended their nuclear weapon programs in 1990, the first step they took on verification was to establish in July 1991 a bilateral inspection system, the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC), which undertook its first inspections in July 1992. Only in 1994 did Argentina and Brazil agree to place all of their nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards in the Quadripartite Agreement involving Argentina, Brazil, ABACC and the IAEA. ABACC was modeled on organizational arrangements established in the Euratom Treaty.
A comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran could be a model for future talks with regional countries and others who are on the verge of entering the nuclear arena. The international community has the moral responsibility to settle the differences with Tehran in an amicable and sustainable manner. It must then force Israel to join the NPT and dismantle its nuclear arsenal. The future of non-proliferation in the region and beyond is at stake.
Seyed Hossein Mousavian is a research scholar at the Program on Science and Global Security in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. He previously served as Iranian ambassador to Germany (1990−97) and spokesman for Iran’s team in nuclear negotiations with the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency (2003–05). From 2005 to 2007, he served as foreign policy advisor to Ali Larijani, then secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator. Mousavian was head of the Foreign Relations Committee of Iran’s National Security Council from 1997 to 2005. He is the author of Iran-Europe Relations: Challenges and Opportunities and The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: A Memoir. His latest book is Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace.
By All Means Necessary
By All Means Necessary: How China’s Resource Quest Is Changing the World. By Elizabeth Economy and Michael Levi. Oxford University Press USA, New York, 2014. 296 pp.
Council on Foreign Relations senior fellows Elizabeth Economy and Michael Levi open their book on how the People’s Republic of China secures the natural resources that fuel its economy with an interesting trip down memory lane. Picture an East Asian nation whose economy was growing at an impressive rate after a period of domestic strife. This nation had been upended by war, but its leaders were learning lessons from the West about the advantages of building an export economy. Serving as a cheap manufacturing base, it quickly became a consumer of large quantities of natural resources. Eventually, analysts in the developed world, especially the United States, Australia, and Western Europe, worried that this upstart nation’s impact on the market was somehow pernicious, especially as that country’s companies seemed to work hand-in-glove with government entities. News media began to warn darkly that this nation’s competitive advantages would inexorably lead to the large-scale purchase of equity stakes in marquee firms in the West.
That picture of an East Asian nation, of course, was not describing the titular People’s Republic of China, but rather Japan from the 1960s until around the early 1990s. The comparison is instructive, since Economy and Levi devote much of their excellent study to debunking the myths surrounding the economic impact of China’s export-led economic growth model.
The background for By All Means Necessary is one of the most profound economic transformations of the twentieth century. Chinese economic growth since the reforms of Deng Xiaoping have been extraordinary in historical terms. In 1980, gross domestic product (in current prices) was $202 billion; by 2011 it was close to $7 trillion—that is a thirty-five-fold increase. Feeding China’s industrial base has led to a rapid increase in its importation of natural resources. So, as the book’s subtitle asks, how is this massive resource quest changing the world? China is not, as some conventional wisdom may have it, pursuing resources with “reckless abandon,” but rather with means calculated to minimize risk, all the while fulfilling the country’s economic needs with an eye toward maximizing self-reliance.
By All Means Necessary leaves us with three main points to consider when discussing China’s resource policies. First, Chinese overseas resource policies are grounded in history and closely reflect China’s domestic considerations. Regime survival is contingent on domestic harmony, which in turn depends on aggressive economic growth and secure borders. Those priorities guide long-term Chinese strategic thinking, which Economy and Levi sum up as “the livelihood of the Chinese people cannot end up in the hands of others.”
As Economy and Levi make clear, the decisive factor to be considered is not the pursuit of resources per se, but the methods used in that pursuit, especially with the wide-ranging support given by the Chinese government. State-owned enterprises, many of whose officers are party members, are back-stopped in many of their overseas efforts by official government agencies—the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Commerce, the Export-Import and Chinese Development Bank. As Economy and Levi write, this allows Chinese companies to take risks in circumstances their international competitors would avoid. Critically, this is not a top-down phenomenon either; often Chinese companies lead the way, and the Chinese government comes in later with financing or diplomatic and political support. Even that assistance, however, will not always be advantageous for Chinese companies, as deals struck with the insiders of one regime may not be valid when the next regime takes power.
The second major point is that, while Chinese demand for natural resources is, in the aggregate, large, it is sector-specific; the Chinese impact on the market for raw materials is varied, dependent on government policy and external supply and demand conditions. When Chinese demand intersects with tight supplies, we see rising prices. In some liquid markets, such as oil, the impact of this phenomenon is high; for others, such as food, where self-sufficiency is a Chinese national priority, and where there are a variety of other factors independent of Chinese action tightening supply, the impact of Chinese firms is more muted. The data cited in By All Means Necessary show that the Chinese economy was responsible for a fifth of the growth in demand for oil between 2001 and 2007, but only 10 percent for agricultural commodities over the same period.
Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and private firms are affected by market forces and on-the-ground realities in individual countries as much as they affect them through demand-side pressure. Those who represent China abroad are sometimes willing to learn from experience and can modulate their activities to reflect particular investment climates. In 2005, for example, the China Development Bank mandated that firms applying for loans needed to produce environmental impact assessments and successful loans would require environmental standards. In that mindset, they are not unlike their American and European competitors, who often operated abroad with recklessness regarding environmental, social, and governance considerations, but have, in some case, learned valuable lessons about the business advantages of being a friendly foreign firm. The issue is that the Chinese government, focused on its own legitimacy at home, has not yet developed the institutional framework to effectively police their representatives (SOEs and private firms) abroad.
There is also little evidence to suggest the Chinese have embarked on a wide-scale effort to “lock up” resources, prioritizing their use solely in mainland China. Rather, it willingly sells oil on the world market, and, in cases such as the iron ore market, it can inadvertently make markets more open. Whereas iron ore used to be traded through contracts negotiated by huge multinationals, the growth of small Chinese firms has led to more short-term pricing, an outcome totally at odds with the express wishes of the Chinese government, who simply wanted its multinationals to have more negotiating power. Chinese purchases of stakes in overseas firms are tailored to take into account lessons learned. Where firms have encountered political pushback to blockbuster acquisition, such as the unsuccessful attempt by the Chinese National Offshore Oil Company to acquire Unocal, they will reassess the visibility of subsequent deals, preferring smaller purchases. Whether this trend will continue is an open question. What the evidence suggests is that, in the developed world at least, the Chinese have become very sensitive to how they are perceived.
The third point is that, from a security perspective, the Chinese resource quest does not pose a significant threat to international peace and security, outside of perhaps two domains starting with its claims vis-a-vis other sovereign nations over territories in the East and South China Seas, an arena which, in recent months, has seen tense confrontations over Chinese deployment of oil rigs and drilling machinery near Taiwan’s territorial waters and Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone. The other domain is its management of shared water resources—which is not fungible in the way other resources such as oil and iron ore are, and has an impact on relations with states in Central, South, and Southeast Asia.
The fact that China is not a near-term competitor to the constabulary and expeditionary capacities of the United States Navy will have bearing on resource markets. The People’s Liberation Army and Navy’s focus on internal security, including border protection, and its historical fixation on Taiwan’s status, Economy and Levi argue, will still dominate China’s security planning for the immediate future. Whether this will hold true for the next generation of Chinese leadership is a different question. Progress on relaxing of tensions along these lines is bedeviled by two factors. One is the lack of transparency on the Chinese side regarding many of their activities. The second is the lack of cooperative frameworks that would assist in diplomatic solutions to many of these questions. The China profiled in By All Means Necessary turns out to be, at heart, a pragmatic one, though one wary of the designs of its neighbors and the role the United States plays in the region. The Chinese, rightly or wrongly, fear that the U.S. “rebalancing” to East Asia, for example, is an effort to construct an anti-Chinese alliance to challenge its rightful rise as a country of great geopolitical consequence.
By All Means Necessary would have benefited from a discussion of another area in which Chinese action will have a tremendous impact on resource markets in the rest of the world: climate change. Economy and Levi purposely omitted much of China’s domestic actions in this arena, such as its prodigious burning of coal for power generation. And while it is brought up in specific regional contexts—water usage in Central Asia and in the Mekong Delta—there is no comprehensive treatment of how China sees future adaptation and mitigation efforts in a global context. Its negotiating position at the Copenhagen climate talks was widely criticized in 2009 for scuppering a potential deal; whether that attitude will prevail in Paris in 2015 remains to be seen. While it is true that China trails the United States in per capita emissions of carbon dioxide, in absolute terms it is the number one polluter—and if the Chinese continue to bring more of its population into the middle class, that per capita number will rise. Its appetite for resources has direct climate consequences, in addition to immediate environmental impacts, both abroad and at home.
This is a quibble. Economy and Levi have produced an extraordinarily useful volume, and, for policymakers, analysts, and students, this will likely serve as a foundational reference for those interested in Chinese economic policy for years to come. This will become only more true as Chinese interests increasingly intersect with those of other members of the international community as China continues on its path to become, eventually, the world’s largest economy.
Neil Bhatiya is a policy associate at the Century Foundation in New York, focusing on U.S. foreign policy in South Asia. He was previously a research fellow at the Streit Council for a Union of Democracies. On Twitter: @NeilBhatiya.
The Struggle for Iraq’s Future
The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence, and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy. By Zaid Al-Ali. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2014. 304 pp.
In February 2011, when Iraqis joined the Arab Spring with countrywide protests demanding reform and better services, the government responded quickly. Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki announced plans to create jobs, end power cuts, and implement a food subsidies program. When these moves failed to quell the protests, however, he authorized drastic measures. Though Iraqi demonstrators numbered only in the thousands, compared to the huge protests elsewhere in the Middle East, security forces quickly unleashed violence and killed nearly thirty people and imprisoned more than three hundred. The government then created a law requiring advance permission for demonstrations. The Iraqi protests and crackdown received scant media attention and seemingly little notice by the Obama administration. It was as if Iraq had a tragic fate that democracy protests could never change: Saddam Hussein’s thuggery, a botched American invasion, sectarian conflict, official corruption, terrorism.
Is Iraq’s descent into chaos inevitable? One narrative, popular in media and the collective psyche, is that sectarianism has hindered Iraqis from building a thriving nation-state. In The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence, and Sectarianism have Undermined Democracy, Zaid Al-Ali, a former legal advisor with the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq and currently senior advisor on constitution building at IDEAS International, challenges such assumptions. He argues that despite conventional wisdom, sectarianism in Iraq is not a natural or inevitable condition. He makes the case that a badly flawed political system imposed after the U.S. invasion fueled sectarian conflict. Aggressive de-Baathification, intended to crush Saddam’s ruling party apparatus, marginalized the country’s Sunni Muslim population. Sectarian-based policies, in turn, contributed to poor governance. A government structure based on ethnic quotas only reinforced corruption and unaccountability. Giving parties veto power over major decisions furthered political stalemate. Politicians resorted to corruption for financial and political gain, while ignoring economic woes including rural poverty. “Sectarianism had thus become the only line of defense in the face of state failure and the only objective worth pursuing: the achievement that excused all the failures of the past,” Al-Ali writes.
Al-Ali criticizes Al-Maliki’s government for exacerbating violence through corruption and incompetence. He recounts how the Iraqi government purchased bomb-detection devices, the ADE 651, from a British company for $85 million. After bombings continued to plague Iraq, a British investigation in 2010 found that the technology was faulty. The Iraqi government was still using it in 2013, with Al-Maliki insisting that only some devices were flawed. Al-Ali cites the government’s failure to tackle problems such as debilitating air pollution and power cuts, which undermine the economy. He is just as critical of the external players who helped shaped Iraq after the fall of Saddam. Besides citing the George W. Bush administration’s botched intervention, he faults United Nations development efforts for being misguided. Al-Ali recalls attending a UN interagency planning meeting where particular attention was given to the UN program for combatting HIV/AIDS, a relatively minor problem in Iraq.
Al-Ali makes reasonable recommendations for a new constitution that would promote better governance and accountability. A new constitution should define: chain of command and role of armed forces; regulation of new political parties; independent anti-corruption regulation; independent commission in charge of natural resources; and decentralization. He further recommends restricting rhetoric on sectarianism, in part enforced by an anti-hate speech regulatory commission.
Certainly good governance is part of a long-term solution for Iraq. Al-Ali’s frustrated tone throughout the book affirms this point. But in focusing on the failures of the state, The Struggle for Iraq’s Future largely neglects a critical question: if the Iraqi state has failed, how are non-state actors responding to state failure? Terrorism is an obvious force, but the shifting political allegiances of Sunni tribes are just as alarming. However, the rise of Al-Qaeda, and the influence of other non-state actors, such as the Sunni tribes who helped the United States military fight Al-Qaeda in 2008 in Anbar province, hardly feature in Al-Ali’s account. The 2014 military offensive by an Al-Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), shows how extremism remains a threat to Iraq’s future. The campaign also exhibited how such militant groups are an alternative to the state apparatus for some: Iraqi Sunni tribes pledged support for ISIS and joined them in challenging the government’s authority.
The recent events in Iraq do not change the long-term solutions: Sunni tribes support ISIS in part due to a decade of sectarian policies and the prospect that Al-Maliki would be re-elected this year. But the short-term security challenges cannot be resolved through governance and constitution building. And here is the crux of the major challenge in Iraq: short-term security problems that require strong Iraqi military force and perhaps international intervention are in tension with long-term goals of democracy and sound governance.
But, as Al-Ali argues, Iraq is not destined to fail. The book serves as a timely reminder that sectarianism did not lead to the current situation in Iraq. But thanks in part to Al-Maliki’s misrule, the government and extremist insurgents are locked in a struggle that puts Iraqis in the middle.
Rozina Ali is senior editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs. From 2010 to 2013, she served as deputy editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit in New York. She has contributed to Al Jazeera America,
New York Times, and
Salon. On Twitter: @rozina_ali.