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Arab Spring Reporter Highlights Role of Politics in Middle Eastern Art

Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, who reported on the Arab Spring protests in 2011, presented a lecture titled “Politics of Modern Middle Eastern Art” on Thursday night at Boston College. The lecture was sponsored by the Islamic Civilizations and Societies Program and the Art History Department. 

Al-Qassemi is an adjunct instructor at Georgetown University in the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Policy. He was also a Yale University Greenberg Fellow and founded the Barjeel Art Foundation in the United Arab Emirates.

During the Arab Spring in 2011, Al-Qassemi reported news through his  Twitter account, which was recognized as one of Time Magazine’s "140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2011."

He began his lecture with an anecdote about why he was limping—he had injured himself at the gym—before quickly looking for students to interpret the painting he had displayed on the projector behind him. Throughout the lecture, Al-Qassemi would look for active audience engagement.

The first series of artwork he displayed focused on the years 1947-1948 and the war that happened in the Middle East due to the creation of the state of Israel. The first three artists attempted to humanize and create a cultural connection between Jewish immigrants who had moved to the newly created state and were now fighting for its survival.

“What was important for Israeli artists in the late 1940s was to create iconic works,” he explained. “Works that you remember.”

He compared the Israeli attempts to the painting by Pablo Picasso entitled Guernica, which depicted events from the Spanish Civil War. The piece has become nationally recognized as an anti-war symbol and is culturally significant.

Israeli painters, and others in the region, attempted to create “Guernicas” that reflect the national experience.

Al-Qassemi transitioned from Israeli independence paintings to Palestinian artwork from the same time. He highlighted the transition from coalition and humanizing artwork to artwork full of pain and forced immigration.

“Palestine is interesting because it was a theme that reverberated and continued to reverberate for decades to come,”  said Al-Qassemi.

“A lot of Palestinian artists tried to show solidarity with other common causes,” he explained. “They said ‘hey you’re occupied, I’m occupied, we’re gonna join hands, we’re gonna show solidarity.’”

This solidarity extended to the International Art Exhibition in 1978, which took place in Lebanon, despite the fact that the country was undergoing a civil war. Over 200 artists presented work, which was then put into storage. Later, Israel invaded Lebanon and ransacked the storage facility, and many of the paintings are lost today.

Al-Qassemi also discussed the difference between the way the United States sponsored Arab artists and the way the USSR sponsored artists. The United States would sponsor a few artists at a time, while the USSR sponsored 12,000 Arab students.

In the United States, CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt, leader of the Iran Coup, was responsible for the creation of the group that supported Arab artists. 

“Twenty-one of them got together, American Arabists, and created the American Friends of the Middle East,” Al-Qassemi explained. “They said, ‘we’re gonna bring Arab art to America, and we’re gonna bring artists to show the value of the Middle East.’ The USSR, on the other hand, was wholesale."

Because of the time constraints, only two questions could be asked. 

One audience member asked whether “any of these universities tried to get into the content of the course?”

“Influence my class? No one would dare—no one would dare influence my class!” Al-Qassemi joked.

He did acknowledge that he worked to present material objectively by providing materials on both sides.  

“It’s important to praise what’s right, but it’s also important to critique what needs to be changed," said Al-Qassemi. "It’s a work in process.”

Al-Qassemi will a visiting professor at Boston College next semester teaching a seminar titled “Politics and Modern Arab Art.” The class requires departmental permission and those interested should speak to Professor Kathleen Bailey.

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