Pioneering Arab artist portrays ‘graves’ of the Arab Spring in exhibit

Using art to air his political critiques is not new for Faisal Samra, a pioneer of conceptual art in the Middle East

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Known for his pioneering conceptual and experimental art in the Gulf region, Faisal Samra exhibited a diverse show of selected works from his 39-year career in Dubai this week. Among the pieces, one particular installation stood out due to its stinging criticism of the so-called Arab Spring.


The installation, which was shown in Jeddah last year, is comprised of 22 balloons, in reference to the number of Arabic-speaking countries, resting on piles of sand in order to create a metaphor Samra wants his audience to understand.

The balloons bearing the Arabic inscription “Arab Spring” represent “the inflated ideas of the media,” Samra told Al Arabiya News.

“There is nothing in the balloon,” the Bahrain-based artist added.

The sand in the installation, which was also shown in South Korea, initially representated typical Arabian dunes.

However, the artist chose to evolve the piece and the sand now bears the depiction of graves and, more ominously, burial tombs of small children, in an implicit critique of the Arab Spring and its effect on society.

“Initially, it was a pile of sand like small dunes that was the installation in South Korea. But after what happened with the death of children in the Arab Spring, I wanted to take it to the next level, I added graves; small graves for children.”

Samra spoke in reference to one of the deadliest conflicts to erupt from the Arab Spring uprisings – Syria. The United Nations has estimated that more than 191,000 have been killed in the war-torn country, with reports of children being tortured.

Using art to air his political critiques is not new for Samra.

The artist, who previously expressed his political grievances in his "Distorted Reality" series project that he worked on from 2005 to 2011, sought to alert people to the made up perceptions of reality disseminated by the media.

Distorted Reality
Distorted Reality

He also earned himself the title of the "Father of Conceptualism" in his home country of Saudi Arabia, especially after he exhibited paintings of faceless Saudi men and women in altered traditional dress in the 1980s.

“I always react to what is around me, the social, the political. And I react according to my discipline which is art,” he said, voicing his skepticism of the term “Arab Spring” at a time when other Arab artists have hailed the moment.

Describing the “Arab Spring” as a term coined by Western media, he said: “I am the first one who started talking about it; even in 2012 I criticized this term. I [created] this work to prove my ideas about it.”

He added: “Many people were like ‘Hallelujah’ with it when it first started.”

“What happened is a big project that has been conspired for a long time, since the Sykes-Picot agreement,” he noted. “What happened [the Arab Spring] - I am not against it – it is just that somebody used it and twisted it.”

The Sykes-Picot Agreement was a pact between Britian and France, defining their proposed spheres of influence and control in the Middle East after defeating the Ottoman Empire during World War I.

The experimental artist, who has shifted from drawings, paintings, sculpting to accumulative installations, digital photographs and performance videos, is still in his metamorphic phase.

“I am working now on a project on drawing,” he said. However, he explained: “I can’t talk about my new projects because they take a long time and when I work, if I am not convinced, I cancel it.”

Despite the secrecy, he did reveal that the project would not "come before 2016.”

To see more of Faisal Samra’s art work, please click here.