56th venice Biennale 2015 Official Collateral Event

In the Eye of the Thunderstorm: Effervescent Practices from the Arab World

When a hurricane1 occurs, the so-called "eye" remains an extraordinary calm zone, independent and undamaged by the giddy and violent movement of the cyclone winds around. An image that properly describes what are –in some cases what it should be– aesthetics' and art's positions and privilege towards political chronicle and history as well: they are totally "inside", embedded in the core, and nevertheless they remain "outside". Art and artists are at the very center of turbulent, violent --and even catastrophic-- occurrences that haul them off and involve them to the extreme. In other words, they live in a dimension obsessed –and sometimes dictated– by history, but at the same time are still individual, independent, on their own as sole facts. They act as observers in order to keep a proper distance enough to develop a critical regard and a critical afterthought, a space for creativity and for debate, processing both chronicle and history, scrutinizing the present as well as the past. Considerations such these are especially current and proper when they refer to the contemporary artistic/creative practices happening within the Arab world –or we can confident to say the Arabic-speaking countries, as each state and each regions has its cultural specificities–, which in recent years look more vital, vibrant and blossoming than ever before as regards the political, military and cultural fronts; in fact a turmoil, that has taken this area of the world by force and by surprise like a thunderstorm. Today in critical terms we hear and read expressions like glocal 2, areas of the center and areas of the periphery, and similar expressions developed and propagated by art publications and artsy broadcast channels, that would indicate either an elitist attitude from a strata of Western critical media, or , as described by cultural anthropologist Jessica Winegar3 as neo-colonial practices. Indeed there are facts and some grey areas: an area that witnesses the coexistence of some of the new capitals of art and culture, some of the centers of the world's power, and the theatres of the most dramatic and bloody conflicts of the new millennium. There are Places where civilizations' models future and past intertwine with each other, without conciliating with each other on the background of territories which face hard times in looking for their present 4. And most important there are the artists who observe, are ironic about, inhabit, perseverate, resist, elaborate, sublimate, act, taking tenaciously care of a space for creativity, an area of reflection and a dimension for efficiency. Their practices must not to be regarded as a commodity, a privilege, or as an isolation from a tough entourage of the real world, but must be regarded as total consciousness of their own "languages" ,at the crossroad among history, traditions, hopes, expectations and – certainly– claims. The artists selected for this exhibition reflect and represent, sui generis the complexity and the variety of the researches that take place now in totally different contexts which, on the other hand, have in common the fact of being facets of the same crystal called "Arab world" 5: from Bahrein to Egypt, from Kuwait to Iraq. They (Mahmoud Obaidi, Khaled Hafez, Shurooq Amin, among others), using in many cases a language filled with a faked optimism generated by Pop imaginary, do not hesitate to tackle burning and complex topics, such as war, powerful people’s raise and fall, women issues. They move nimbly among different media, from painting to video and installation, from language to image, so that to include narratives, dramas and even unique epics, that feed diversified projects, always in dialogue with western gazes and expressive means.6

These artists have been selected mostly in the generation of the forty-fifty- year-olds, a mid-carrier generation which is reaching the top of its artistic maturity and its life experience, and which is –for this very reason– the privileged witness of a time and a space where changes and instability move in excessive speed, sometimes jeopardizing the erasure of local memory and cultural heritage, traditions and landscape.

In the Eye of the Thunderstorm: Effervescent Practices from the Arab World is commissioned by Contemporary Practices Journal, a publication –or rather a textual project space– that has for ten years positioned itself as tireless and open-minded watchdog on the reality of the artists who are acting in this area of the world. Not forcibly accommodating towards aesthetical and commercial trends, this journal has confirmed itself as a rich and demanding scenario for polycentric observations and debates, open both to the theoretical and critical analysis, more academic than journalistic, and to the researches on actual personalities, their practices and their evolution during time.

Martina Corgnati, PhD




1 A word that probably originates from the mid 16th century, rooted in the Spanish word huracán, probably from Taino hurakán ‘god of the storm’. The term today indicates a storm with a violent wind, in particular a tropical cyclone in the Caribbean or the Middle East, with wind of force 12 on the Beaufort scale, equal to or exceeding 64 knots or 118 kph.
2 Fusion between the words global and local
3 Winegar, Jessica, “Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt”. Stanford University Press, 2006.
4 An excellent reading on this reflection is Andrew Hammond’s brilliant book “Popular Culture in the Arab World: Arts, Politics, and the Media”. The American University in Cairo Press, 2007.
5 Or as better described earlier we prefer to use --what we think is a more precise term-- Arabic-speaking , to respect the cultural specificity of each country.
6 All of the artists invited for this exhibition happen to have witnessed the first cable satellite broadcast with the Iraq-Kuwait invasion, known in Western Media as Operation Desert Storm, a fact we think shaped their perception and was reflected on their studio practices n the following two decades. We here recommend Naomi Sakr’s analytical book “Satellite Realms: Transnational Television, Globalization and the Middle East”. New York, I.B. Tauris, 2001.