Despite the revolutions and waves of change that hit societies of the Arab world in the past few years, these areas seem to be stagnating in terms of reform, civic participation, or social justice. Rigid political and social hierarchies refuse to give, while social diversity and individualism are hindered by conservative views and practices, intolerance, and manifold restrictions to personal and collective freedoms.
Revolution and a short-term, exploding type of crisis that initially destabilised political regimes and empowered civil society have been replaced by a dragged-out crisis that threatens to smother the promises of revolution. What are the new fronts of the fight for democracy in these areas? What can citizens use to fill the vacuum in knowledge and practice of democracy? How can the many rights and freedoms demanded during the revolutions be now materialised, in a post-revolutionary standstill, where inequality is rampant, unemployment is high, and social welfare is non-existent? Socially-conscious art and culture appear to be a way.
If in political and military conflicts it is essential to maintain a dominant narrative, the worth of creative activism and socially-engaged art is that they can produce alternative visualisations and articulations of this narrative, without being pressured into maintaining a role within the given power structure. The gap between government and civil society that characterises much of the Arab-world countries where uprisings occurred is turned into an advantage by artists and creatives. Their status as “outsiders” allows for the openness and flexibility necessary for debate, the formation of social capital, and for an enhanced sense of community. Marginalisation and trauma are thus inverted. The scene for this transformation has been clearly defined by new communication technologies, which help reimagine the fragility of post-revolutionary civil society: even if it´s missing a space of its own, it maintains the possibility to accumulate meaning and value in a non-physical environment.
Nevertheless, the relationship between individuals and space is central to art activism in these areas. The responsibility citizens have towards public space is a crucial point of debate, and it is, in fact, what defines protests and revolutions, as events manifested in public spaces. The representation of shared spaces and emerging collective subjectivities is the focal point of Tunis-based L´Art Rue (Art Street), an organisation that explores freedom of expression and intervention in urban public space. Al-Fan Midan (Art is a Square), an art festival launched in Cairo in 2011 (and interrupted in 2014) with the express purpose of enabling citizens to be free in public space, faced difficulties in obtaining permits from local government, emphasising even further the distance between public authorities and civic participation, all set on the scene of public space.
Even when artists and practitioners do not form a collective, the impact of creative activism and socially-engaged art is not dimmed. Libyan street art, for instance, played an important role on the streets of Tripoli, during the revolution, and its aftermath. Emerging or established graffiti artists turned their practice into a form of resistance and intervention. The work of artists such as Aimen Ajhani aka Elbohly or El Boshga aka Sektwo became synonymous with the spirit of the Libyan youth, a generation that found a voice and a channel to speak their own truth, in the midst of chaos. Transience is one feature of graffiti art that makes it vulnerable and incredibly powerful, at the same time. The walls of the city can be cleaned or painted over, but they remain a fertile ground for further intervention. Erasure is never permanent; creativity will always prevail.
Words: Elena Stanciu