Monday, April 02, 2012

Graffiti is not JUST art

I just can't wrap my mind around this form of bullshitting:

Khawam is set to defend himself in front of a judge on Wednesday. Ayman Mhanna, executive director of the Samir Kassir (SKeyes) Center for Media and Cultural Freedom, which is giving the artist legal counsel, argues, “we understand that theoretically we cannot destroy public property, but we know that the walls of Beirut are quite ugly, so having nice drawings and graffiti on them is not something that’s degrading public property, it’s adding value to public property. And there is so much graffiti on public walls, it’s totally ridiculous to pick on this guy specifically and prosecute him.”

In addition to mentioning this on my Facebook I had to repeat this and add a bit more.

I often struggle with art, not only because as a person I always had traumatizing experiences with performing arts. You see, in Lebanon we brag about freedoms, and our argument is always the esthetics of our country.

Our women are free because they are uncovered. Our men are free because they dress like Europeans. Our children are free because they are forced into tri-lingualism and because their names are usually fractions of sounds that sound European, even if they don't mean anything (like thea, marita, etc.). We are cultured because we appreciate the finer arts of life (like scribbles we title as modern arts).

And that's the thing, we often ignore the class war happening in the backstage. We rarely ever take the time to reflect on what our actions mean. We're like a fine example of successful post-colonized cultures.

We do the same with art. Almost two years ago, I became intrigued and remotely involved in a spoken word initiative named 7keeleh. It was a series of spoken word event that was deeply rooted in local hiphop and rap music.

While some shit was really impressive, a lot was just disturbing. More specifically when the series started to get more and more attention, the list of artist started to lean more towards the mainstream, and yes that involved more Hip-Pop, women trashing rap, existential white people rants, artsy fartsy boring shit, etc.

And a quick overview of the history of hip-hop and rap is enough to enrage you about this. Hip hop is deeply rooted in African-American culture of the poor, the alienated, the oppressed, it is an art for people who never had access to the formal forms of art, of self-expression. It is pretty much political by nature. The fact that the pop culture co-opted hip-hop does not change that fact.

Fastforward to post-colonial Beirut, and hip-hop is an art of flashy MCs bragging about women, rhyming shit that barely sticks together, social activity rap, and ambiguous generalist statements that sound more like Lebanese sectarian warlords preaching about social cohesion... at its best.

At its lowest its simply rhyming shit that doesn't even rhyme.

And as best put by a journalist friend "At work at a certain point I was working to interview the main rappers in Lebanon so I naturally had to do background research. Lebanese interested in adopting rap as a form of self-expression made sense, but it didn't reflect what I was finding on the ground. I was actually interviewing a dude that was telling me that rap is about the suffering, it is a street art, while sipping coffee in his mansion."

That is what the rap scene is like in Lebanon except for a few unpopular examples of Palestinian rap bands from the camps in Lebanon, and maybe Touffar.

Graffiti, same. Graffiti is a pure form of street art. Mural art is one thing, graffiti is something else. Graffiti is an art that inherently involves provoking society, painting statements, breaking laws and reclaiming streets as a public property (as opposed to institutional property).

I remember my first encounter with graffiti in Lebanon. It was the walls of Qarantina. Qarantina is a history of its own that won't fit in this post. Point is, when I saw them I was impressed, pointing it out to my father his response was simple, "eh in most countries they would get arrested on the spot, here they probably get congratulated for beautifying the streets".

Indeed, no one ever gets arrested in Lebanon for making grafitti. They can get arrested for something they had stenciled or graffitied, but not for the act itself. Hence the sadness of the report quoted at the beginning of this post.

You see, certain streets abund with graffiti art, from the popish shit (like the ones romanticizing the amazing awesomeness of Beirut) to the deeply political ones (like the one for which Khawam is going to trial for), going through the deeply political but co-opted ones (like the ones expressing solidarity with Gaza, denouncing the Iraq invasion, etc.), in addition to what I call, for the lack of a better word, the traditional forms of graffiti/stenciling (e.g. M+R=<3 4 ever kind of shit, and the sectarian "pissing on your territory" shit).

Graffiti and stencils rarely ever provoke a reaction from people in Lebanon. If you're stenciling something and the police approaches you just say something along the lines of "it's about some cultural shit" and they will probably respond with "ya3tik l 3afye". Municipalities rarely ever re-paint the wall. Most probably no one will even vandalize it, even the stencil denouncing the Ministry of Tourism pimping Lebanese women to attract tourists didn't get vandalized.

The few exceptions I have personally witnessed were first the #FightRape stencils. The stencils in terms of esthetics were un-provocative to say the least, it was simply a stencil of a woman raising her fist with the line "Fight Rape" over it. The fact that these stencils actually provoked anyone to vandalize them is simply creepy!

Recently as well, for the 1st year commemoration of the Syrian revolution. A group of activists stenciled several messages in solidarity with the Syrian people's uprising. The people involved had to do them secretly and at night. The stencils were systematically vandalized by sunset. But then again, if compared to getting completely beaten up, chased in the streets of Hamra, sieged in restaurant bathrooms, activists having their hips, bones, ankles smashed... it doesn't sound that bad.

And then you have Khawam being charged of disrupting public order for stenciling something that resembled a military suit. Make no mistake, he is accused of disrupting public order, not because he is stenciling or anything, but because he is perceived to be demeaning the Lebanese army. The same army which has repeatedly failed to protect any bit or shred of the Lebanese borders, the same Lebanese army that destroyed and besieged civilians in a camp in the Nahr Al Bared war. The same army that did not move a finger to protect demonstrators in front of the Syrian embassy. And yes the same armed forces that have done nothing to stop sectarian clashes over and over and over again.

Don't get me wrong, I am not asking for a stronger army. I have zero desire to be living in a military state. What I am saying is simply that we live within structures of power, I would support the Lebanese army when they stand against other armies intruding into Lebanese borders (e.g. IDF masalan) but I refuse to see my tax money serving the active bullying of citizens like Khawam.

And let's bring the cycle to its closure now.

If you do art for the sake of art, you're doing murals, if you label yourself a Graffiti group respect its history. That does not imply that you need to get yourself arrested, but be faithful for the history of the art you claim to represent. This is called co-opting voices, taking over others' identities.

And that is the basic problem with Lebanese adopting "cool colonial shit". It is not always that cool. Graffiti, rap, and other forms of working class self-expression did not come to life because of their esthetic value, they came to life as an expression of a need, a must, a survival mechanism. You can do art for the sake of art, but not through these forms.

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