Egypt’s art world rallies to defend freedom of expression
Artists, curators, critics and academics fear new constitution threatens censorship of the arts and culture
By Anny Shaw. Web only
Published online: 24 January 2013
“Long Live Free Art”, the rallying-call title of an exhibition that closed in Cairo on 15 January, succinctly expressed the Egyptian art world’s growing resistance to the new constitution, which was approved at the end of December, handing a majority victory to Islamists. Artists, curators, critics and academics have united against president Mohamed Morsi and his controversial charter, which they say threatens freedom of expression and creativity. Resistance is increasing in other ways too—through mass protests, works of art in the street, open letters and artists’ statements. More demonstrations calling for a consensual constitution are expected on 25 January, the second anniversary of the revolution that swept through Egypt.
Cultural coalitions have also been growing in number. The Egyptian Creativity Front, which led protests against the constitution in Cairo in November and December, is the latest to be formed in opposition to the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafi Al-Nour party, which wields significant political power and believes society should be governed by strict Sharia law. According to reports in the Egyptian press in December, Yasser Borhami, a member of the Al-Nour party, praised the constitution for placing “restrictions on freedom of thought, expression and creativity”.
Despite a united resistance to the referendum, there already have been a number of cultural casualties as a result of political tensions. The Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum, a non-profit art space, closed in January amid the “heightened political and social transitions”. A report by York University for the British Council published in December warns that increasing violence and a lack of political vision is stifling creativity in Egypt. Legal cases are on the rise too: the secretary-general of the National Centre for Defence of Freedoms is suing the Egyptian cartoonist Doaa El-Adl for her allegedly blasphemous depiction of Adam and Eve in the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm. In her cartoon, El-Adl depicts Adam and Eve being told off by an Egyptian angel for not voting in favour of the referendum on the new constitution.
To date, the Muslim Brotherhood has focused on censoring the media in Egypt, with a slew of criminal defamation cases against comedians, television presenters, editors and journalists. Their crime is allegedly insulting President Morsi. But many fear the crackdown on freedom of speech will soon extend to the art world. “At the moment, there’s an emphasis on television and the movies,” says Keizer, a street artist based in Cairo, who has created several text-based works in response to the constitution, including Art is Not Forbidden and Morsy Beaucoup, a satirical poke at the president. “[The Muslim Brotherhood] has yet to really discover the art world, but when it does, it will clamp down. We have already had statements in the media from sheikhs saying that all art made in the past 20 to 30 years will be abolished.”
Despite the increased risk of arrest, Keizer says he and his fellow street artists will not be silenced: “We are being propelled more and more to go out in the street and make art.”
While Morsi says the new constitution will bring stability and democracy to Egypt, liberals and human-rights activists fear its vague language will allow for extreme interpretations of the law and give clerics the power to intervene in the political process. Article 44 states that “insult or abuse of all religious messengers and prophets shall be prohibited”, although what is deemed an insult is not clarified, while article 31 prohibits “insulting any human being”—a loose phrasing that activists say contradicts freedom of expression. Other clauses suggest state control over the arts (see link above).
“The new constitution puts religion above the law and civil society,” says Fatenn Mostafa, the founder of the Cairo-based foundation Art Talks Egypt and the curator of the exhibition “Long Live Free Art”. “The fear is that the Muslim Brotherhood will specify what is allowed and what is not allowed in art. The moment you put regulations on art, you kill it.”
“Long Live Free Art”, which was conceived in opposition to the clampdown on free speech and includes works by nine artists including Keizer, Moataz Nasr and Yasser Nabaiel, takes its cue from the 1939 manifesto of the Art & Freedom Group. Founded by the Egyptian poet George Henein, the revolutionary group of artists and intellectuals was committed to the freedom of creative expression in the face of traditionalism, state-regulated art and censorship. “Art as a means of resistance is just as crucial today,” Mostafa says.
Bassam el Baroni, a curator and critic and the co-founder of the Alexandria Contemporary Art Forum, predicts the new constitution “will prove a disaster, with all the tricky and vague language it contains, which would make ample space for Muslim Brotherhood manipulation on issues regarding freedom of speech and cultural and artistic production”. But, he says, the Islamist group would first need to gain control of all the country’s institutions before censoring the arts. “We need a couple of years to see what damage this constitution can inflict on culture. A lot can happen in that time to counteract that and push for a better outcome.”
Some are looking to the parliamentary elections, due to be held within the next two months, to restore political balance. “Protesting is one thing, but we need to fight [the Muslim Brotherhood] on the same ground,” says Mostafa. “The liberal coalition should unite and find a way to maximise its chances in parliament. Liberals need to have a voice in parliament and a presence in the culture committee.”
Sonali Pahwa, a lecturer in liberal arts at Northwestern University, Qatar, says that “concrete laws” will need to be passed before any crackdown on artists. “Since these [laws] are to be passed by a democratic parliament, they will at least be debated thoroughly and resisted strongly. The constitution in itself doesn’t threaten creativity,” she says, adding that artists who feel threatened “will have to work harder to justify their social role and cultural authority as Islamists consolidate their political power”.
Indeed, many artists are becoming more critical of the new regime. For Keizer, at least, protesting—whether through art or in the streets—is his weapon of resistance. “At this point we need to go out and fight fire with fire. There’s no revolution without sacrifice,” he says.
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