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August 08 2012

Clashes in the Syrian city of Aleppo – in pictures

Award-winning photographer Goran Tomasevic has been covering clashes in the Syrian city of Aleppo, where fighting between rival factions appears to have reached a stalemate



June 28 2012

Arabic arts festival comes to Liverpool

The distorting lens of news, focussed on the dramatic and unusual, can give the impression that the Arab world is synonymous with turmoil and war. A week in Liverpool will show otherwise.

Liverpool has long had connections with the Arab world, particularly with Yemen. In common with other port cities such as Cardiff and South Shields, Yemeni sailors formed the origins of a substantial community over a century ago.

For all the colder temperatures and Atlantic rain, they enjoyed the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the great port, which was then the principal gateway in the UK, and for much of Europe, to the burgeoning United States.

Most Liverpudlians of Arabic origin today trace their ancestry to the Yemen; few remain in shipping but they have flourished as newsagents, with members of the community owning some 400 corner shops. The Liverpool Arabic Centre, founded in 1997, has run a marvellous project called Moving Here, publishing online memories contributed by its members and their friends and neighbours.

Here's Marie, for instance, on her childhood in the 1960s:

I had a happy time growing up in Liverpool. My father was a lorry driver in here and my mother was British. I was growing up, trying to be a Muslim in England but it was in the 60s/70s and there weren't really any Mosques around or anything like that. Not like today. There was a 'Zawia' and we used to go there to learn the Quran and Arabic as children. We'd have our own parties at the David Lewis Hotel. It was great really, I was really happy.


And here's another, which I hope you'll agree is worth quoting at length:

Hello, my name in Mohamed Rajeh. I moved to Liverpool from Yemen in 1943.

I was a farmer in the 1930s. I was cultivating the land and we were very happy. At that time, there was nothing in Yemen except agriculture. People though started to protest against Great Britain while the Second World War needed people (to enlist). We moved to Aden. English welcome more people, we had passports, they gave us 200 French Ryals each and put us in boats and took us to Britain. I lived in England since then.

In Yemen, I suppose, I was looking for a job in the sea. It was a war time and all boats arrived to Yemen ports empty. There was no-one there who could help me go out and work at sea. Anyhow if you had British passport or 'chash book' you were given the opportunity to go. So I joined up and they put us in boats with others. Some people they were jumping off the boat, they were afraid of war and of facing the danger of sinking in the sea! Others took the risk. I was one of those people who took the risk. We moved from one country to another until finally we arrived here.

The trip wasn't difficult. In Aden we were happy, we had food and drinks, the soldier came and checked our papers. Nobody could have a job in the sea unless the soldier agreed. It was war time. However, on the boats we didn't know what to do, we knew nothing. The soldier patiently started to teach us what to do. It was not like nowadays, if you don't know how to do a job they tell you to 'go away!'. Though then, they were in need of human resources.

At the beginning we arrived at Middlesbrough. I had a British passport but they said, 'you don't have the right to enter Britain just yet, unless you do another trip on the boat'. I went back to the boat where we went to Africa for two months and when I came back they said, 'ok, you are allowed to enter Britain'. Afterwards I don't remember where I moved to … I think to Liverpool in 1943.

I knew nothing of the language at that time, I was living in Parr St. in the China Town. Anything I needed was easy to get hold of and when I got lost and couldn't find my house, the policeman would take your hand right to the doorstep. It was a different time where policemen were good and Arabs were good. When you can't find your address all you have to do is to give your address to the policeman and he would take you to there.

An Arabic Arts Festival in Liverpool now hopes to illuminate more of that context to life's dramatic, 'newsy' events, as Mr Rajeh himself does so richly. From July 6-15, the city will host a wide range of events covering most genres of art, craft and music.

Venues include the Bluecoat, FACT, the Kasbah, the Philharmonic, Unity Theatre, Walker Art Gallery, St George's Hall, Sahara Restaurant, Liverpool Arabic Centre, as well as outdoor events at Sefton Park (which will see a family day) and Liverpool One.

Films, literary readings, drama, dance workshops, ballet, readings, art exhibitions and concerts will feature, along with discussions on recent events in the Arab world. They will highlight diverse Arab cultures from Morocco to Iraq. Some events are free, while there is a charge for others.

Razanne Carmey, the festival's executive director, says:

In Liverpool, a city that can say much about its art and culture coming through change and turmoil, we look beyond reports of riots, war and politics to celebrate the arts, culture and life behind the news.

Good to end, perhaps, with Rajeh's conclusion, especially if you cross-refer it to some of the comments on the threads to the Northerner's recent posts on Sheffield's campaign against the deportation of Lemlem Hussein Abdu. See here and here. And here's Rajeh:

The British never hurt anybody, they are the best people, and they never use bad words with you. They respect you in offices. They are honest with you. They care for you if you are ill as if your own Mum and Dad would do. They will bring you anything you need. In Yemen only your own people would take care of you. Even some of my family they might ignore an old man like me. They would say I'm a drunk or naughty!

As for where I consider my home, I can't deny Yemen. You can't deny the country where you have been born. I have to go back to Yemen one day but I don't want to leave my daughter here. However, Britain is a very good country, I do love it, I do love it.


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Egyptian cartoonist George Bahgoury: 'My vision is contaminated in Egypt' - video

Regarded as the father of Egyptian caricature, George Bahgoury discusses his life and work, and the problems of being an artist in post-revolutionary Egypt





June 27 2012

Arab Spring photographs added to British Museum and V&A collection

Art Fund says it is giving £150,000 to establish joint collection that has been in development over the last three years

Photographs created in reaction to the Arab Spring of 2011 will form an important part of a major collection of Middle Eastern photography being established jointly by the British Museum and the V&A.

The Art Fund said it was giving £150,000 to establish a collection that has been in development by the two institutions over the last three years.

The fund's director, Stephen Deuchar, said it would help remedy an under-representation. "It is a response to the surge in interest in visual arts in that part of the world, a surge that has not been matched by its representation in museums generally."

Both institutions have hugely important photographic collections for slightly different reasons. Roughly speaking the British Museum collects to tell the stories of societies while the V&A explores the possibilities of particular mediums.

"Putting the two together allows so many different narratives and no narrative, I think, is more important at the moment than that of the contemporary Middle East," said the British Museum's director, Neil MacGregor. "That is a world that we need to understand and photography is a particularly powerful way of allowing us to do so."

More than 80 works by 22 artists form the collection to date including more recent photographs taken as a response to the Arab Spring. Most of the works will be on show at an exhibition called Light from the Middle East: New Photography at the V&A that will run from 13 November until 7 April 2013.

That show's curator, Marta Weiss, said contemporary Middle East photography was some of the "most exciting, innovative and varied art anywhere in the world."

The artists include Youssef Nabil who took portraits of the last surviving Yemeni seamen who settled in South Shields to the UK's oldest Muslim and Arab community; and the Iranian photographer Shadi Ghadirian who took portraits of women dressed in traditional late 19th century clothing but with modern anomalies added – such as sun glasses or a Pepsi can.

The donation came as the Art Fund gave an annual update on its activities and revealed a 20% rise in membership in 2011/12. That increase was down to the launch in April 2011 of its National Art Pass which gives free or discounted entry to museums and galleries across the UK.

The Fund gave a total of £6m to arts organisations to help them purchase works of art including its biggest ever grant of £2m which it gave to the National Gallery and National Galleries of Scotland for Titian's Diana and Callisto.


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June 21 2012

Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat: 'They broke my hands to stop me drawing Assad' - video

Drawing the revolution: In August 2011, Ali Farzat was attacked by Bashar al-Assad's militia who broke his hands. The incident prompted international condemnation



June 12 2012

Muammar Gaddafi's photo archive gives an insight into the 'Jamahiriya'

Libyan dictator always had an eye for the camera, whether it was posing with world leaders or harking back to his Bedouin roots

Muammar Gaddafi ruled Libya for 42 years before he was overthrown last summer and killed by rebels in October. So it will take some time before his countrymen are able to escape his giant shadow. Even as a young man – he was 27 in 1969 when he and his fellow officers overthrew the western-backed King Idris – Gaddafi had an eye for the camera and for posterity.

Archives seized after the revolution contain a rich photographic record of his poses, achievements and friends, though his hugs of welcome for fellow Arab leaders from Yasser Arafat to Egypt's President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, his hero and inspiration, often masked stormy private relationships.

Gaddafi's penchant for elaborate military uniforms and powerful allies is combined in a shot of him standing hand-in-hand with the ageing Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1981, at the start of a decade which saw Libyan backing for the IRA and other terrorists, retaliatory US air attacks on Libya as well as the notorious Lockerbie bombing. Years of sanctions followed until Gaddafi finally came in from the cold and shed his pariah status for a brief honeymoon before the Arab spring erupted.

Images found by Human Rights Watch in state intelligence buildings and Gaddafi family residences make up a unique archive of the years when the Jamahiriya or "state of the masses" was run according to the precepts of the "Brother Leader's'' Green Book, and was effectively closed to the west.

Gaddafi often harked back to his Bedouin roots – receiving visitors in a tent pitched inside his Bab al-Aziziyah compound in Tripoli before the Nato-backed revolution ended his control of the capital.

In one undated picture he lies sprawled happily and barefoot on the sand, foreshadowing the unmarked desert grave he was buried in last October after being killed by rebel fighters on the outskirts of his home town Sirte.His rotting corpse was left on display in a meat store for three days in a grotesque parody of a conventional lying-in-state for a mourned national leader.

Hatred and vengeance were the products of decades of the repression that was an important part of Gaddafi's Libya. One grim shot in this exhibition shows bodies dangling from makeshift gallows in a Benghazi sports stadium – the result of one of his periodic "revolutionary" show trials of the dissidents he hunted down without mercy at home and abroad.

The Gaddafi Archives: Libya Before the Arab Spring London Festival of Photography


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April 13 2012

British Muslims have given David Cameron an object lesson in democracy | Parveen Akhtar

In Indonesia, Cameron called for Islam to embrace democracy; the young Muslim voters of Bradford West would agree

In his speech in Jakarta on Thursday, David Cameron told Muslims in the east that "democracy and Islam can flourish together", the implication being that they often don't. Especially with a focus on Britain, these comments are not without irony. Exactly two weeks previously, Muslims in a northern city of Britain had exercised their democratic right to vote, helping to elect George Galloway as MP for Bradford West. In so doing, they highlighted that although the issues of Islam, Muslims abroad, the east and the Middle East matter to them, of equal importance is local life.

Galloway's "Bradford spring" saw politicians and journalists bandying about terms such as "biraderi", "clan" and "kinship politics". Biraderi, which literally translates as "patrilineage" is commonly used by Pakistanis to refer to networks of individuals who share a common ancestry. Kinship networks are indeed an important form of social organisation amongst British Pakistanis, a type of internal welfare system for family and blood relations. However, the biraderi politics referred to in comment pieces discussing Bradford West is a very British phenomenon. Biraderi politics in the UK refers to the practices of British politicians of using community leaders in British constituencies with significant Pakistani voters to attain bloc votes. Roy Hattersley, who held the Sparkbrook constituency in Birmingham with a large Pakistani population, once remarked that whenever he saw a Pakistani name on a ballot paper he knew the vote was his.

In Bradford West, Galloway's supporters are largely young, British-born Bradfordians of Pakistani Muslim descent. They are the children and grandchildren of postwar economic migrants: manual labourers in the textile mills and manufacturing industries of the north. Biraderi-based politics had a successful run for nearly 40 years in these areas, but the children of the pioneer generation, born and bought up in the UK, do not identify with this kind of politics. They believe that community leaders do not engage with the issues that concern them.

The whole point of patronage-based politics is that politicians don't have to work for their votes. Alienated by this system, these young people were drawn to George Galloway. Galloway's oratorical skills and abilities in public debate have led some to suggest that Bradford West was a one-off result engineered by a truly individual politician who is a "standard bearer" for British Muslims in a constituency with a large Muslim population.

Galloway is certainly regarded as a hero among British Pakistanis, because he is seen as the only politician to challenge the status quo with regards to Iraq and other issues of Muslim concern. This may have won him the election in 2005 in Bethnal Green and Bow, but it would be misleading to think that he won in Bradford West because young British Muslims are preoccupied with the war. They may have an interest in Muslim issues abroad, but international politics plays only one part in their attitudes. What really matters is the unglamorous world of local politics: street lighting, children's schools, rubbish collection, the problems of vermin and drugs, the lack of opportunities: the bread-and-butter issues of life in the UK.

In electing George Galloway, some Pakistanis made a cognitive leap and reasoned that if Galloway is speaking positively about Muslims abroad, he will also care about them here, and help fight a fight which they believe the older generation of Pakistani community leaders has abandoned, by accepting patronage roles from mainstream politicians who want to stay propped up in their constituencies.

Trying to explain the defeat in Bradford West, John Mann, Labour MP for Bassetlaw, blamed the party for having no strategy in the area. On the contrary: the party did have a strategy. The problem was that it was an old strategy, based on the belief that community leaders could guarantee the local Labour candidate a win.

What the Bradford West byelection highlighted so dramatically was that Labour, and indeed all the mainstream political parties, can ill-afford to rely on the patronage-based relationships they enjoyed with the older generation of Pakistanis. Young British Pakistani Muslims are actively participating in British democracy. Religious identity and local concerns flourish side by side. Politicians have to earn and not expect their votes. That is democracy, in east and west.

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March 23 2012

Syria's refugees remind us of the price of revolution | Jonathan Jones

A lamplit portrait of a refugee family underlines the suffering that recurs when real lives are invaded by big history

Here is the truth about revolution, war, dictatorship and resistance. It is a simple truth and it is crushing: people suffer. In this powerful picture by Greek photojournalist Giorgos Moutafis a refugee family in Janoudia in north-western Syria wait for rebels to help them across the border into Turkey. In the bold rhetoric of our time, this might be described as a picture of defeat, an indictment of Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on opposition to his rule, a call to arms for western democracies that are so much less eager to help in Syria now than they were in Libya a year ago. Perhaps it is all those things, and anything else politics wants it to be. But first, it is a human document.

Five children sit in a pool of light amid the dark, their faces patient and resilient, their confusion and fear obvious. Each has a different expression but none are smiling. One child gazes downward while the youngest-looking boy stares at the camera. The adults in the picture, knowing more, look back at the photographer as they gather close to the children. Everyone's eyes seem to be searching, puzzling. The glow that warms their faces reveals a moment of contemplation before the next arduous stage of a journey.

Painters have known for centuries how to use nocturnal light to intensify our recognition of vulnerability. In his painting The Nativity at Night, which dates from about 1490, Geertgen tot Sint Jans shows the Madonna and child by candlelight against the dark. In this photograph, the shiny wall of the tent or canopy behind them creates a starless black night. Against this eeriness, Moutafis is able to give this family a profound dignity as the human instinct for light in the shadowed hours heightens their meditative companionship.

It seems a timeless moment. After all the hopes, anger, and bloodshed, here we are again. Refugees wait to cross a border. Lives are turned upside down. When the Arab spring began last year it was hailed around the world as if it were a new fashion. It trended. The Occupy movement was equated with it as if there were no difference between protesting in democracies and rebelling against dictatorships. The demand for democracy that has swept the Arab world is profound, but how could anyone have expected this historic convulsion to be bloodless?

This family bear witness that history is rarely gentle. Velvet revolutions are rare. If this powerful photograph looks as if it could have been taken decades ago, or painted by an Old Master, that is because the brutal violence of Syria's regime has unleashed realities of suffering that recur whenever the humble routines of real life are invaded by big history. Look at this picture and thank the stars you live in a boring place.

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December 25 2011

2011 showed us new ways of seeing

The sense of new images hitting our eyes from everywhere is one of the most remarkable aspects of 2011

Reasons to be cheerful in 2011? Let's see.

It was a year when eyes opened a bit wider, when images from Earth and space and the enigmatic microverse of quantum physics expanded our field of vision – and the spread of new means of communication made those images more accessible and shareable than ever before.

David Attenborough showed us what life is like under the surface of the Arctic's frozen sea. In a different way, images from Egypt and Libya showed us the previously hidden and denied passions of entire peoples. Meanwhile from Cern came visualisations of the elusive and mighty Higgs boson.

The silly slurs on Frozen Planet for filming polar bear cubs in a zoo drew attention to how extreme our visual information now is. This detail simply could not have been filmed in the wild, but so many marvels were captured that people were actually surprised by the so-called "faking". That's what the BBC gets for raising expectations. Its polar documentary was full of images such as wolves hunting, seen from above, that were never possible in the past. Similarly, pictures from the frontier of science, showing such wonders as Earth-like planets, go beyond previous astronomy and make outer space seem close.

This sense of new images hitting our eyes from everywhere is one of the most remarkable aspects of 2011. I know it has nothing to do with art as such. Yet art created one or two remarkable images of its own. In particular, Urs Fischer's melting candle sculptures moved me deeply and are themselves images of science – instances of entropy.

Uh-oh, entropy – the universe running down. The news in 2011 was sometimes exhilarating but mostly terrifying. In the media that circulate such news faster than ever before, the content was often disturbing. But the images that showed us the ever-changing world, and the ways they reached us, were eye-popping. So a reason to be cheerful is that new ways of seeing are being born in our time.


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December 22 2011

Napoleon Bonaparte and Egypt's lost scrolls

The recent destruction of an historic document in Cairo offers a stark warning that Egypt's art and history is under threat

Napoleon Bonaparte was an extraordinary and contradictory man: a warlord who saw himself as a champion of civilisation. One of his most ambitious attempts to prove himself a cultural as well as military titan was to commission a team of scholars to produce the legendary Description de l'Egypte. This was the first thorough attempt to study the antiquities and geography of this ancient civilisation, a vast artistic and scientific work that was published in 10 huge folio volumes as well as supplements, and contains 3,000 illustrations, among them pictures more than a metre wide.

A handwritten manuscript of this colossal work has been destroyed in the fire that consumed the Institute of Egypt during clashes in Cairo earlier this week. This is a tragedy, as a brief account of Napoleon's daring project will reveal.

Napoleon took 167 scholars with him when he invaded Egypt in 1798. He was there to undermine British global power by establishing a French colonial presence. Being Napoleon, however, his proclamations of cultural respect for Egypt went far beyond the usual hollowness of propaganda. At the Battle of the Pyramids, he famously told his troops: "Soldiers, from the height of these pyramids, 40 centuries look down on you ..." It is a reminder that should ring in the ears of both sides – revolutionaries and the army – when they are close to Cairo's fragile treasuries of world culture.

The 167 scholars were not there as a publicity stunt. They included architects, mathematicians – who measured buildings and statues – and civil engineers, writers, artists and printers. Napoleon ordered them to discover the remains of ancient Egypt, which he called the "cradle of the science and art of all humanity".

Nelson wrecked Napoleon's military plans in Egypt, but the scholars did produce their Description. I have it before me, in a modern edition published by Taschen. What a book. Meticulous engravings depict the wonders of Egyptian archaeology: the temples of Philae, for instance, are shown in their original setting on an island in the Nile, seen from every angle in measured architectural views. Today the temples are on another nearby island after Unesco moved them to save them from flooding caused by the Aswan Dam – so the Description's precise record of their original appearance is invaluable.

It goes on like that. The French team journeyed to all the great archaeological sites of Egypt and made the first precise studies of them. This book is a monument to human curiosity and reason. Out of it came a new understanding of the legacy of one of the world's most charismatic civilisations. Yet the French also studied the modern Egypt of their time, the natural history of the Nile, the Islamic architecture of Cairo, even agricultural techniques and industries.

One of four original copies of this great work in Egypt has been lost forever. It is a warning. Whatever the political stakes, all sides must respect Egypt's art and history. The Description of Egypt was a record of what Egyptians have created over millennia. Those astounding antiquities themselves, many of the greatest of which are in the Egyptian Museum on Tahrir Square, are just as vulnerable. Please protect them.


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August 22 2011

Carlos Latuff: The voice of Tripoli – live from Rio

A Brazilian cartoonist has become an unlikely star of the Arab spring, writes Jack Shenker

In one cartoon, an Egyptian revolutionary is lying on the ground, blood seeping from his back, into which a dagger bearing the name of Egypt's new military junta has been plunged. In another, drawn only yesterday, Barack Obama stands over Libya, hoisting a flag that's half US and half EU over an oil tower. A third shows a London policeman atop a giant petrol can with the word "Tottenham" emblazoned across it. He is dropping a lit match into it.

These are the work of Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian cartoonist who has become an unlikely star of the Arab spring – and, more recently, cartoonist to protests and conflicts around the world. A smiling, shaven-haired 42-year-old who still lives with his parents in Rio, Latuff has shunned the traditional platform of newspapers and magazines, and turned instead to Twitter – where his pictures, reacting in near real-time to breaking news, are rapidly disseminated among campaigners and held aloft at rallies across the Middle East.

"I'm not producing artworks to illustrate news articles," he says. "My cartoons are directly geared towards activists who can share them and use them for free. They have a message, they support a cause, and they're designed to be spread widely."

It's a far cry from Latuff's humble beginnings as a cartoonist in the early 1990s, working for leftist publications in Brazil. In 1997, a TV documentary about Mexico's Zapatista insurgency prompted Latuff to change tack. "I thought, 'I need a way to support this movement.' So I made two cartoons. I sent them to the Zapatistas by fax, and the response was positive. But afterwards, I realised it would be more efficient and constructive to put the artworks on a website. It would express solidarity with the group and allow them to download the images and use them. That was my first experience with artistic activism through the internet. I began applying those principles to other causes around the world."

Fourteen years on, Latuff now exploits the ever-growing possibilities of the web and social media to the full, responding quickly to Twitter messages from activists worldwide. These might be requests for some artwork supporting their cause, often taking a provocative stance that might be too dangerous for local artists. Sometimes, a tweet alerting Latuff to an issue in North Africa will be converted into a cartoon in Rio, sent out over Twitter and then appear on the streets of Cairo – all in under an hour.

According to Graham Fowell, chairman of the Cartoonists' Club of Great Britain, an increasing number of cartoonists now scour the 24-hour global news, looking for hotspots and then speedily presenting the view from the street – or at least as conveyed through Twitter. "I like Carlos's cartoons," says Fowler. "They're a bit 'colour-Banksy', depicting the ridiculous ironies of our imperfect civilisation, only much quicker. In some ways, they reflect the globalisation of everything – money, commodities, language and perhaps humanity, too – which, in my opinion, is no bad thing."

Not everyone has been so flattering. Since visiting the West Bank in 1999, Latuff has become known for his support of the Palestinian cause; some campaigners claim his work is antisemitic. "Part of the supposed 'evidence' for my antisemitism is the fact that I've used the Star of David, which is a symbol of Judaism," he says wearily. "But check all my artworks – you'll find that the Star of David is never drawn alone. It's always part of the Israeli flag. Yes, it's a religious motif, but in Israel it has been applied to a state symbol; and it's the institutions of the state – the politicians and the army – that I'm targeting. Including the flag of Israel in a cartoon is no more an attack on Judaism than including the flag of Turkey would be an attack on Islam."

Latuff has also turned his attention to police abuse cases in Brazil. "I have been arrested three times in Rio for my cartoons of the police here," he says. Lately, Latuff has focused on political upheaval in the Middle East, particularly in Egypt – a country he has never set foot in. "In January," he says, "some people got in touch and asked me to make some pictures [in solidarity] with protests that were planned in Egypt for 25 January."

Despite the recent revolution in Tunisia, Latuff was sceptical of anything similar happening in the Arab world's most populous country, but he produced five cartoons. One depicted Egypt as the body of Khaled Said, an Alexandrian businessman who was beaten to death by police the previous summer. Said is shouting, "Wake up Egypt", while "#jan25", the Twitter hashtag for the forthcoming protests, is scrawled across his jumper.

The first indication Latuff received of his cartoons' popularity came on 25 January itself – when he saw protesters bearing placards of his work on TV. He quickly set about producing more, responding to the dramatic twists and turns of the 18-day anti-Mubarak uprising, and continuing his efforts even after Mubarak was ousted – turning his ire instead on the generals who replaced him. Those generals have morphed into figures of hate for many Egyptian revolutionaries, who accuse them of stifling the struggle for meaningful change. But, while domestic commentators risk being hauled before military tribunals if they openly criticise the armed forces, Latuff has been free to mock them mercilessly.

Some Egyptians have been irritated by Latuff's ubiquitous presence online, complaining that other cartoonists tackling these issues – including young, local artists like Ahmad Nady and Amr Sleem – are being sidelined. "Latuff's effort and willingness to put his art in the service of revolutionaries is definitely praiseworthy, but I think there might be better ways to do it," says Egyptian lecturer and activist Soha Bayoumi.

"I think the artistic value of his cartoons is not that high; they are too simplistic, literal-minded and quite rudimentary, both in absolute terms and compared to several Egyptian cartoonists currently working on the revolution. His work is overly praised in Egypt, mainly because he's a non-Egyptian who's taking what seems to be a genuine interest in Egyptian politics, and also because he has more freedom to criticise SCAF [the ruling military council] and other political figures, who could harass or sue him if he were a well-known cartoonist in Egypt."

While Latuff has some Lebanese ancestry, he has no other connection to the Middle East. The cartoonist would like to visit Egypt eventually, but believes he would be detained or deported by the authorities. "One day I hope to stand in Tahrir and see it with my own eyes," he says. "That would be a very special moment."


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July 19 2011

'This is freedom' – visual art and the Egyptian uprising

Sara Elkamel talks to Egyptian artists about cultural life in the country before and after the overthrow of Mubarak

Art may not have started the Egyptian revolution, but it played a large part once the spark was lit. Visual artists documented the people's uprising, first in Tahrir Square, and then across galleries in Cairo and Egypt in the months that followed. The young multimedia artist Ahmed Bassiouny was killed on the third day of the revolution; his work was shown posthumously at this year's Venice Biennale. Today, the art scene remains in a state of flux, experiencing a kind of chaotic freedom as demonstrators return to Tahrir Square.

During the Mubarak era of pseudo-democracy, many artists camouflaged their opposition behind symbolic colours and shapes. In the years leading up to the revolution, 58-year-old painter Mohamed Abla focused on social and environmental issues, his canvases crowded with thousands of dots – a comment on Egypt's burgeoning population. He also painted Lego-like apartments, loosely stacked, apparently about to topple over. His most controversial project in recent years was Street Talks, an exploration of social injustice that could not be exhibited in Egypt. "My art was against the regime, so I had no choice but to exhibit it abroad," he says. "But now, anybody can paint anything. This is freedom." In the first week of the uprising, Abla set up a three-day workshop for children in Tahrir Square, so people could paint through the long days. Today, working in his studio in central Cairo, a vibrant mess of colour, he paints dots that float among Egyptian flags, symbols of pride and hope.

Other artists are currently transforming the landscape. Hany Rashed, 36, paints the Egyptian flag among groups of protestors. Before the revolution, he says, "art was limited, aimless, superficial, due to the regime's pressure to keep societal issues away from our work." The revolution has now given them greater freedom of expression, as well as a subject. Today's art is mostly patriotic, and the Egyptian flag features heavily. "I believe that Egyptian art will now experience a very positive change," Rashed says.

Since the revolution, a few independent art galleries have opened up in Cairo – against the odds, as the Egyptian economy suffers in the wake of change. Curators and artists are investing in a new, open scene, hoping to put Egyptian art on the global map.

The most powerful art is not confined to white-walled galleries. The young graffiti artist Ganzeer has propagated street art and many others have followed suit, painting celebratory murals. Young photographers have also captured the revolution as it happened – Alaa Taher and Basem Samir, among them. In one of Taher's photographs, protestors march under a roof of deep-red fabric, as rays of sunlight illuminate their faces.

The 25 January revolution blurred the divide between popular and "fine" art. Art no longer belonged to the rich or those who could afford it; it was the property of the masses. Alongside the paintings and the photographs, there were witty cartoons and posters. Some even used their bodies as canvases. "Leave, I miss my wife" a man scribbled across his chest to the delight of the crowds. "Traditional art is no longer the star," says Abla. "The revolution moved art to the streets." The uprising may have brought political chaos, but there is a hope it could yet yield a more powerful Egyptian art.


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


July 06 2011

An Arab cultural spring – in pictures

Shubbak: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture runs in London until 24 July. It will feature about 100 artists in 30 venues throughout the city



April 21 2011

Tim Hetherington – a retrospective in pictures

British photojournalist and documentary maker Tim Hetherington has been killed in Misrata, Libya. The Oscar-nominee won numerous awards for his coverage of conflict zones around the world



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