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Silencing Arab artists will quash political expression

The powers that be have some form of resentment towards international forms of self-expression

Yara al-Wazir

Published: Updated:

The saying goes that art is subjective – some people like it, some people don’t. Yet in the Arab world, it seems that art is not just subjective, it is silenced. The region that was once upon a time the home of the great poets like Mahmoud Darwish and Nizar Qabani has been diminished to a region erupting with supressed artists.

Last week, Tunisian cartoonist Jabeur Mejri was finally freed after two years in prison. The artist had also been detained for insulting a public official in the past.

Cartoonist Ali Farzat’s hands were both broken in 2011 by pro-Syrian regime militia. Mashrou’ Leila band members were asked to change the lyrics to one of their songs while performing in Saida, Lebanon. It seems that regardless of how much the public loves and appreciates art, the powers that be have some form of resentment towards international forms of self-expression.

The truth is that art has no limits, no guidelines, and no barriers. What is scary is that art is multilingual – they say a picture paints a thousand words, as does a cartoon or a piece of graffiti.

Art is fine, if it’s apolitical

That’s not to say that all artists are supressed or silenced in the Middle East. The contemporary art scene has definitely erupted over the past few years. Museums have been popping around the Gulf, from the Louvre Abu Dhabi, to The Islamic Art Museum in Doha, making the region one of the largest importers of art around the world. Yet when it comes to our own talent, it becomes more difficult to nurture, especially considering that the art that does seem to get attention is of political nature.

It seems that regardless of how much the public loves and appreciates art, the powers that be have some form of resentment towards international forms of self-expression

Yara al-Wazir

El-Seed, however, is bending those rules. The French-Tunisian street artist is one of the few artists who have managed to explore his passion without being subjected to scrutiny from any side. The fact of the matter is that as beautiful and unique as his art is, it’s apolitical. He quotes verses from the Quran in his installations, including the one on Jara Mosque in Gabes, Tunisia. He utilises calligraffiti, a modern form of incorporating Arabic calligraphy in graffiti to create his art

An artistic turning point

Politically charged art faces difficulties in growing a government-backed fanbase all over the world, not just the Middle East. Banksy’s pieces have been painted over In the past, as have French artist J.R.’s pieces. Yet the cases of breaking hands and spending years in prison are limited to the Middle East.

Art is controversial; it wouldn’t gain popularity if it wasn’t. But in a region that is at the threshold of an internal revolution, scrutinising self-expression is one of the most dangerous weapons governments and public officials can use. The current generation of young people who lead the Arab Spring are on the banks of losing hope once again. Without a meaningful form of self-expression, all hope will be lost – again. We risk spiralling back into the same suffrage that was experienced by our parents’ generation.

The region is rich: in creativity, in artists, in gallery space, and in buyers. This is the time where it can create a public space for discussion, a way to increase voter turnout, a way to make voices heard. What’s the point of apolitical Generation-X turning up to vote in elections when they are not the ones who make up the majority of the population?

Politicians must understand that criticism is necessary

What the regions politicians need to understand is that they are human, just like the people who voted them in. Political art has always existed, and will always exist: it is ultimately a form of criticism, and the absence of criticism is the greatest threat to freedom.

Humans are not perfect, we are all ultimately flawed. If we cannot accept that not everyone will be our biggest fan, or that not everyone will support us blindly, then we do not deserve to be in office.

This is something that the public officials who accused Jabeur Mejri of insulting them need to learn. It is something that needs to be taken into consideration in Turkey too, where a protester was slapped for booing the president. Accept criticism or accept that you do not deserve to be in office. Although the pinnacles of democracy and the base of supporters will never fit a politician perfectly, that’s just the status quo.

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Yara al Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.