Cultural Initiatives in North Africa and the Middle East
The bifurcation of art into high and low, critical and aesthetically pleasing, has its roots in a widening class divide and an increased institutionalisation and commodification of cultural production. This allowed for an art that is predominantly privatised and inaccessible, for an artworld that usurps the right to intellectual, political and affective art forms.
In post war Germany, the Frankfurt School1 burrowed into this divide by anointing modernism the ‘critical antithesis to popular culture’. They viewed it as an extension of capitalism’s aims of total control with the sole function of creating a perpetual state of uncritical passivity by fabricating needs and desires. Some Frankfurt school thinkers for example rejected musical inventions of their time, most notably Jazz.
In the early 2000s, the late thinker Mark Fisher coined the term Popular Modernism to define art ‘which straddled the experimental and the mainstream.’2 These various forms of art identified by Fisher pushed the boundaries of meaning and formal innovation, using new technological advancements to create innovative art. Fisher highlighted the increase in modernist experimentation in popular culture formats which counter the Frankfurt school’s claims that popular culture is merely a tool of social oppression.
In the west, the term popular modernism is still not widely explored. In the Arab world, at a time of unprecedented consumption and production of popular culture, it has not been introduced in any scholarly or institutional capacity whether in Arabic, English or French. Mahraganat music, rap and trap music are developing new forms that are technologically innovative and have taken over an entire generation of listeners; films and new forms of moving image content have developed, especially TV series; there is a new and tremendous following of manga and anime; dance is revisiting traditional forms and developing new ones; YouTube and TikTok has an inexhaustible supply for original and beautiful content; video games, a controversial form of art, is being reluctantly accepted as such and has a large and committed following. These media and genres introduce new forms, ones that are not interested in nostalgia or replicating the past.
New Affinities, held at B7L9 Art Station, explores this false dichotomy between that which is experimental/critical and mainstream/popular by articulating a concept of popular modernism in Arabic, contextualised by and for the Arab world. Designed with the aim to create an intimate space, domestic in character, the exhibition presents examples of popular modernist works primarily from the Arab world in a variety of art forms, highlighting practices that are both avant-garde and popular. The exhibition and its use of domestic interiors of display puts into question understandings and engagement with different art mediums and their modes of consumption. New Affinities will feature films, music, poetry, literature, dance, anime, video games and fashion most of which made and consumed in the Arab world, it will also host Ma3azef office, library and radio station for the duration of the exhibition.
Ma3azef is an online music magazine dedicated to the critique and analysis of contemporary and classical Arabic music. Since its launch in 2012, Ma3azef has sought to develop independent critical discourse in Arabic and produce studied, bold and incisive long-form content.
Reem Shadid is an independent curator and Deputy Director of Sharjah Art Foundation, where she oversees the year-round exhibitions, public programmes, and the film, music, education, and community outreach programmes. Among her curatorial projects are Debt(2018), Active Forms(2018), March Project (2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019), Vantage Point Sharjah(2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019) and Selections: Summer 2017.
Moad Musbahi and Josh Harskamp are architects based between Toronto, Tripoli and London. They have worked on major exhibitions internationally which critically consider the role of architecture in defining social and cultural practices. They have recently been involved in the Sharjah Architecture Triennial, 2019 and Chicago Architecture Biennial, 2019.