It is generally appreciated that art has an intrinsic value in that it enriches individual lives. At a webinar on 7 June 2020, hosted by the Good Society Forum, Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi asserted that it art also has a societal value. Al-Qassemi is an Emirati columnist and researcher, and the Founder of Barjeel Art Foundation. He was a 2018 Yale World Fellow and taught a class at Yale on the Politics of Middle Eastern Art. Al-Qassemi described how in the Arab world, art played an instrumental role in the formation of national identity during the 20th century. He used the example of the prominent Egyptian sculptor, Mahmoud Mokhtar, who was commissioned to sculpt a monument that he called Nahdat Misr, Egypt’s Awakening. He depicted a woman with her hand on a sphynx, lifting up her veil. It symbolized both modernity as well as rootedness in Egypt’s Pharaonic past. Egypt’s different peoples of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Greeks each have their own heritage — but Egypt’s Pharaonic heritage provides a unifying sense of identity of which all Egyptians are proud.
“It is the humanities,” Al-Qassemi stressed, “that define us as humans… If we didn’t have art and poetry we probably would have to invent them all over again. Art is the highest form of human expression.”
To contribute to a ‘good society’, Al-Qassemi asserted that art should be accessible and free. It should reflect the best of human beings — but also document the worst.
Myrna Ayad shared how art helped her understand who she was, her history, and her background. Myrna was born in Lebanon and moved to Dubai at a young age. She is an arts consultant, cultural strategist and editor — and describes herself as a Middle Easterner, while acknowledging it is also a contested term. Ayad sees herself as part of a long line of women who have been active in art scenes across the region going back decades. The Minister of Culture of the United Arab Emirates is a woman — Noura al-Kaabi — and also attended the webinar. Ayad related how at school she had studied about President Gamal Abdul Nasser and the Aswan dam. But it was only through the works of feminist modernist artists such as Tahia Halim, Gazbia Sirry and Inji Aflatoon that she learnt the dam was a disaster for the people living on the Nile delta who were uprooted. Ayad had no idea that Lebanon planned to join the space race in the 1960s until she found out about it through art made by Lebanese couple Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. Art, she said, had been instrumental in building her sense of identity and history. She described defending art as a civic duty. “How will I know you if I don’t know what is your creative expression?”
Saleh Barakat looks at art as a powerful tool for the betterment of societies. He is a Lebanese art expert, gallery owner and curator, and a 2006 Yale World Fellow. Change, he asserted, can come about through religion, politics, and art. Art can breakdown taboos and censorship. He gave the example of the film al-Dunya which addressed the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM). It caused such an outcry in Egypt that it led to al-Azhar, the seat of Islamic learning, declaring that FGM is not an Islamic practice.
Barakat championed the primary value of art as aesthetic. It brings a different value than morality and reason — it is beautiful. He views himself as a custodian of cultural identity, relaying to future generations the beauty of Levantine culture of multi-confessionalism and multi-ethnicity.
Referring to the current demonstrations in the United States in support of ‘Black Lives Matter’, Al-Qassemi stressed that racism is not inherent in humans but is something that people learn as they grow up. He said that the arts can play a role in helping people unlearn racism by ensuring that women and minorities are represented, and by perpetuating positivity and anti-racism.
The full webinar is available on YouTube.
By Emma Sky, Co-Founder and Co-Host at Good Society Forum