Saudi Arabia’s escalating feud with Qatar, which heated up this week with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal demanding that Doha modify its regional policy, is one of the newest and most prominent bilateral rifts in a region that has seen massive political transformations over the past year. The uncharacteristically public showdown between the two Gulf states — and the fractures that are emerging in the usually close knit Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — are some of the many effects of the seismic changes that have taken place in the Arab World since 2011.
Alongside the clear political fractures that have newly emerged between and within governments in the region are also less obvious cultural shifts that have quietly begun to transform and redefine the relationship between individuals, state authority, as well as their broader cultural and religious contexts. Nationalism, Pan-Arabism, and Islamism have all been called into question as their respective proponents have vied for influence in the wake of the upheaval that has beset the region since the Arab Spring. The Arab world remains a region in rapid transition.
An artistic exploration of some of these transformations can be seen in Fotofest’s 2014 Biennial at which a groundbreaking exhibition dedicated to contemporary Arab photography and art is currently taking place. “View from Inside” showcases the work of 49 Arab artists from 13 countries in the Middle East and North Africa and, while some pieces focus on self-consciously engaging preconceived notions about the Arab world, many also turn their lenses inward to personal explorations of identity in the midst of this rapidly changing context.
Photographs that show individual alienation from the mechanisms of the changing state around them are notable examples here, including Ahmed Mater’s “Later Be Past” which shows two children gazing at Mecca — prominently surrounded by the shadows of the many cranes involved in the holy city’s commercial redevelopment — from behind a fence. This theme of development and desolation can also be seen in Palestinian-Kuwaiti artist Tarek Al-Ghoussein’s work which similarly shows nondescript figures facing down their changing environments from a distance.
Gazes towards the future are, however, outnumbered by perspectives on the past. The surrealist approach to geometric design employed in Steve Sabella’s Metamorphosis series, with its allusion to (and distortion of) classical Islamic art, makes a powerful statement about warped views of past conventions. Acclaimed Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem’s sampling of traditional Islamic artwork takes this a step further with its placement of silhouettes of soldiers in the foreground of his provocative “Men at Work.” The use of these evocative designs raises questions about history, its role in shaping present-day viewpoints, and its utility in driving an agenda. And the inextricable links between history and the present is a point of painful salience throughout the exhibit. Hazem Taha Hussein’s collage of historical imagery — with a Facebook logo prominently featured in the center of faded Egyptian colonial-era pictures — comments on the importance of the social media giant’s place in the scope of Egypt’s modern history.
The exploration of these currents on its own achieves the exhibit’s goals of bringing nuance to the portrait that outsiders may have of the Arab world. But, perhaps more importantly, it offers a window onto the dynamic cultural and social transformations taking place in a region where the old order, for better and worse, has been shaken to its roots by the events of the past few years. The successes and failures of the Arab Spring have been much debated in its aftermath but, if one thing is clear, it is that the reverberations of the uprisings have disturbed the cultural life of the region as deeply as they have its political life. And this is, in the end, a good and necessary thing.