What could art possibly say about the Arab revolutions that hasn't already been said? It might seem that the upheavals that deposed three regimes and continue to roil the Middle East and North Africa have been thoroughly covered by the media. But from the get-go art was central to the Arab Spring — symbolized by Kais al-Hilali, the Libyan street artist murdered last March after his public portraits ridiculed Moammar Gadhafi — and art remains an invaluable guide to the historic events that began in Tunisia 13 months ago.
In San Francisco, Egyptian artist Taha Belal is exhibiting a series that takes a sly and provocative look at the revolution as it played out in Cairo. Sly because Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the bloody protests that saw millions of Egyptians raising their voices and risking their lives, appears sparingly in "The Atmosphere from before the Step Down Returns to the Square."
Using full pages from Arabic-language newspapers and magazines published in Egypt in the last year, Belal both beautifies and obfuscates the revolution. He edits the pages by adding overlapping grids reminiscent of Islamic art patterns. He excises small squares, rectangles, triangles, and circles; he flips around typefaces and bleaches out headlines. The effect: a series of dazzling see-through shrouds that envelop the media beneath. And what media we see reveal a startling truth: While protesters were being jailed, tortured, tear-gassed, and killed, the Egyptian press followed stories like the nuptials of Kate Middleton and Prince William, as Belal shows in his piece Shorouk. There, we see the British royals on a news page that also spotlights a young, hip singer. What revolution?
In Hukouma (Al Musawar), Belal juxtaposes a magazine advertisement for the good life (swimming pool, tennis, beachside real estate) with a facing news page that shows a crowd thronging a square — likely Tahrir at the height of a demonstration. If you thought all of Cairo was in the throes of uninterrupted protests for the past 365 days, think again. Belal, who participated in the first day of Tahrir Square demonstrations last January, tells me that "there were definitely people in Egypt who were completely oblivious [to the revolution] and went about their lives as if nothing was happening."
Belal isn't after sweeping statements. Instead, he's questioning the media's role and responsibility in shaping our perceptions. During the past year, Belal, who earned his MFA from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, did freelance translation for NBC News in Cairo. "For me, it's about this stream of information, and how it interrupts [our lives], and how the significance of it is questionable," Belal tells me of his installation. "I hope it's seen more as about pattern and abstraction, and less culturally about 'this and that.'"
Other artists are making more provocative statements. At Clarion Alley, the Mission District corridor (paralleling 17th Street, between Mission and Valencia) where protest art is the order of the day, muralist Daniel Doherty has put up a large homage to Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit-seller whose self-immolation begat the Arab revolutions. Doherty's mural, which he dedicates to "all the people fighting and dying for political freedom in the Arab world," features a fruit cart with watermelon, a map of North Africa, and a smiling Bouazizi, whose portrait evokes something of the feeling I get with portraits of Abraham Lincoln.
When I visited Clarion Alley, passersby were taking photos of the various murals, stencil work, stickers, and graffiti. At Haines Gallery, I saw a woman in her 70s use her camera to record Belal's diptych Red and Blue on Newspaper, on which a diamond-shaped grid swathes across both frames. The woman told me she found Belal's grid patterns "fascinating," "incredible," and "intense." She said nothing about the Arab Spring itself, nothing about the deaths of Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans, and Yemenis. But the opening was there to make the leap from street art to the Arab street.
Andre Malraux said that "Art is a revolt against fate." Art, in other words, keeps people's spirits alive in times of crisis and oppression. Al-Hilali's work helped inspire Libyan protesters to continue their resistance against the Gaddafi regime. Belal's seems to have a more modest goal: To make you think twice about Egyptian events that have been characterized so many ways ("A Facebook Revolution!" "An Incomplete Revolution!") that the generalizations have completely lost their meaning.