It’s been seven years since the Arab Spring. A historical turning point for the Arab World and one whose effects we are still experiencing. What began with the Tunisian Revolution, which saw the ousting of president Zine El AbidineBen Ali in January 2011, quickly spread to Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and Syria. All demanded and continue to demand change. Creative forces accompany all revolutions and it is often through the eyes of a nation’s artists that we foresee the future and also better understand the past—an idea that resonates with art critic and curator Lina Lazaar.
Many well-versed in the Middle Eastern art scene will remember Lazaar’s The Future of a Promise exhibition that she curated in 2011 at the 54th Venice Biennale. It was the biennale’s first pan-Arab exhibition of contemporary art. A landmark show, it examined the notion of the future during a time of great torment for the Middle East and the promise and hope for change thereafter. Through works by a comprehensive list of artists from the Arab world, including Manal Al-Dowayan, Ahmed Alsoudani, Ziad Antar Ayman Baalbaki, Lara Baladi, Fayçal Baghriche, Yto Barrada, Taysir Batniji, Mounir Fatmi, Abdulnasser Gharem, Mona Hatoum, Emily Jacir, Yazan Khalili and Ahmed Mater, among others, the exhibition explored how an idea is formulated within a visual context and how a promise opens the path to future possibilities, whether in the realm of the historical, social, aesthetical or political. Lazaar, born in Riyadh and raised in Geneva before moving to London where she obtained an MA in Statistics from London School of Economics and an MA in Art History from Sotheby’s Institute of Art, was a specialist in Post War and Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s London. The Future of a Promise was instrumental in better understanding the importance of culture in discussions revolving around modernism, civic society, globalisation, freedom of expression, justice, equality and the need for greater infrastructure to support artists throughout the region.
All are themes that Lazaar has worked on tirelessly through her many projects, including her establishment in 2011 of Ibraaz, a leading critical online forum on visual culture in North Africa and the Middle East; Jeddah Art Week, the first city-wide showing of contemporary artworks by established as well as young, unknown artists mostly from the Arabian peninsula; JAOU, a yearly arts festival in Tunis now in its fifth edition; and most recently, The Absence of Paths, Tunisia’s first national pavilion at the Venice Biennale since 1958, which saw Lazaar curate an interactive exhibition and performance exploring the baggage of national identity in today’s world. At three locations around the Arsenale, immigration kiosks manned by aspirant migrants issued universal travel documents called a “Freesa” to visitors, making everyone a citizen of the world with the ability to cross all man-made borders.
The campaign for JAOU 2018
Lazaar grew up surrounded by art, and drew great inspiration from her father, Kamel Lazaar, an international financier and a philanthropist. In 2005, he established the Kamel Lazaar Foundation (KLF) as a way to support and develop visual culture in the MENA region and beyond. “Today, KLF continues to develop one of the largest visual arts collections in the Arab world, an ambition to establish a dedicated contemporary art space in Tunisia, but equally importantly, it is actively supporting knowledge production, through Ibraaz, artistic production, through a cultural hub, in the village of Utique, and at the same time, providing grants focused on education and community building,” says Lazaar. “While KLF is very much anchored in its Tunisian heritage, it is an organisation with a regional focus. I am very lucky to wake up every day with the belief that we have a blank canvas, and I welcome all those that have an interest in collaborating to get in touch.”KLF’s recent acquisitions include Somniculus by Ali Cherri, the 1950s erotic aquarelles by Hatem El Mekki, and Power does not defeat memory “Jerusalem” #2 by Hazem Harb.
Like KLF, for Lazaar, what is vital is to build new platforms for the dissemination of culture. “Although my work has been born out of a longstanding passion for contemporary art, which is simply the medium through which these various initiatives can be explained, the truth is that there is an element of cultural activism that underpins most things that interest me,” she says. “When this is combined with the desire to bring creative minds together, as well as to foster a sense of interaction and dialogue across the broader region, it would be fair to say that I am keenly interested in launching creative platforms.”
Lazaar is busily gearing up for JAOU, taking place in Tunis from 27 June to 1 July. It will be devised into four pavilions dedicated to the four natural elements of water, earth, fire and air, with each pavilion overseen by a different curator. Myriam Ben Salah will curate the pavilion of water located in an abandoned French church that has been converted into a boxing ring; Khadija Hamdi curates the pavilion of earth located within a Sufi mausoleum, examining the role of the museum, the accumulation of objects and its relation to heritage; Amel Ben Attia curates the pavilion of fire, which will take place in Tunisia’s first printing press; and Aziza Harmel will curate the pavilion of ‘ghostly memories’ or air within an old palace in the Medina. “For the first time we are trying to promote guest curators—we went for earth, fire and water to try to portray a post-revolutionary Tunisia,” says Lazaar. Between the four pavilions, around 40 artists will show their work.
An installation view of 'All the World is a Mosque'
Art is about documenting the current zeitgeist and telling the stories that unfold in our present day world. “I don’t presume to be the best person to hold the pen, or to tell the story, but I am passionately interested in making sure that the right stories are told,” says Lazaar. “Contemporary art is a medium that enables for a dynamic expression and one that I have found to be an honest arbiter of the most complex discussions in the most challenging environments.” The socio-cultural, religious and political turmoil that has wrecked havoc on the Middle Eastern people over the last decade has threatened to shatter beliefs in the promise of a better future. Yet the artists continue and theirs are the voices that Lazaar is helping to transmit through her work.
Still, we often hear of a lack of patrons, collectors, and institutions championing art in the MENA region. More, everyone seems to say, could be done. Education and infrastructure are of principle importance. But as Lazaar states, it’s also crucial to look at what has been done and to then fill the gap. “I am personally quite pleased with the current pace of change and development in the MENA region,” she says. “There is a naturally evolving process across communities in which art is being appreciated across the board. There are obvious challenges of funding, infrastructure limitations, and government intervention, notwithstanding, the MENA region is actually an incredibly potent and vibrant region in which artistic production, is increasing at a rapid pace.”
Confidence is key. On the global art playing field Lazaar says that artists and professionals need to have “a greater confidence.” And this she says, is “a confidence in its heritage, a confidence in its indigenous skills and traditions, and a greater confidence in its future.” Such a statement might be surprising at first, but it rings true when we look back at the last decade and the amount that has been achieved for the Middle East in the face of adversity. “It appears that we are all guilty of constantly beating the drum of a ‘half empty glass’ when considering our current state, but if one scratches beneath the surface, some of the largest buyers of art are from the MENA region, some of the most ambitious art infrastructure projects are from the MENA region, and without a doubt, some of the most daring artists are from within the MENA region,” continues Lazaar. “We just have to believe in the natural process that we are going through, and remind ourselves that this is a renaissance, and not a beginning.”
A view of 'The Absence of Paths' in 2017 at the Venice Biennale
Lazaar’s many projects and initiatives form an artistic web—one is born from the other enhancing a Middle Eastern art dialogue through various localities. JAOU has been particularly instrumental in its desire to reconstruct Tunisia’s art scene post-revolution. “Although the letters in the acronym are different, JAOU was born out of an initiative that I started in Saudi Arabia, JAW; Jeddah Art Week,” explains Lazaar. “At the time I wanted to start a moving caravan, which would bring together all cross sections of society, and introduce subtle themes of discussion across important social subjects. JAW was a mélange, and I look back and celebrate the simple, but powerful outcome of a mixed gathering of young men and women, interacting with major international artists, set alongside photographic exhibitions by migrant worker communities, and all of that, with a DJ playing in the background. Let’s be clear, the outcome was the curatorial endeavor, and this was long before Saudi Arabia had found its ‘vision’ for the future.”
The process resulted in JAW evolving into JAOU, the Tunisian Arabic word for “fun.” It has since become a light-hearted way of tackling complex socio-political issues. Lazaar’s 2015 exhibition at JAOU, All the World’s a Mosque, is a great example. Housed in a bespoke mobile mosque museum constructed out of 24 sea containers, All the World’s a Mosque brought together artists from across the MENA region to present an artistic response to the abhorrent terrorist attack at the Bardo museum. “That same spirit went into The Absence of Paths in 2017, which marked Tunisia’s participation at the Venice Biennale after nearly 60 years,” she adds.
Artists often sense an impending shift in social consciousness. It is the artists who are the documenters of our time. “Art is a medium of communication and dialogue, and it would exist whether the politics necessitated it or not,” says Lazaar. “It just so happens that our recent cultural history has been set in the backdrop of tremendous political change, and as a result, without a doubt, politics seem to be a regular topic of artistic expression.” But it’s about truth instead of politics, says Lazaar. A crucial statement given that the rest of the world still largely looks at the Middle East and its artists as representative of political and cultural mayhem. “Artists are no more political than they are apolitical, what they are is a truth seeking community that can sometimes represent the conscience of a nation,” she adds.“Because of the subversive nature of art, artists can activate ideas and reformulate historical narratives that might not otherwise be represented in the mainstream.” And Lazaar has worked to get these artists into the art mainstream. Yet perhaps of most importance is that her projects don’t just seek recognition from abroad—they bring Arab artists and their work home. And home is where the heart is. Kamellazaarfoundation.org