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The Changing Face of Street Art in the MENA Region: Diminishing the Voice of the People?

[Ouzville in Progress. May 2017. Image by Camille Reynolds.] [Ouzville in Progress. May 2017. Image by Camille Reynolds.]

Street art in all of its forms has long been associated with subversive goals and a compelling aesthetic. Created by individuals and communities who strived to push back against oppressive systems of power, contribute to civil and political discourses they were otherwise excluded from, and expand upon the boundaries of artistic expression, street art has always been a highly inclusive, accessible, and often effective method for those in a society to amplify their voice.

Political actors across the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region in particular have used street art to articulate dissent and dissatisfaction with oppressive regimes. However, there are also those who are on a mission to beautify their communities and attract tourism through street art. With this effort has come a questionable development—a trend towards more permanent large-scale, site-specific installations of street art. These projects are subverting the ephemerality of street art and producing permanence through long-term community impact and a shift in popular discourse surrounding street art. Analyzing three different approaches to such site-specific street art initiatives, Djerbahood (Djerba, Tunisia), Dubai Walls (Dubai, UAE), and Ouzville (Ouzai, Lebanon) it becomes apparent that these interventions are complex in nature and raise a set of questions that must be asked in regards to their intentions, ramifications, and future. As an art form rooted in providing a voice to those often silenced, we must ensure that the voices in the region seeking an outlet through street art are not capitalized upon or hidden amongst a shifting discourse geared towards a depoliticized status quo.

The Case Studies: Djerbahood, Dubai Walls, and Ouzville

Different approaches to large-scale site-specific street art initiatives are presented through Djerbahood, Dubai Walls, and Ouzville. Found in both high and low socioeconomic areas, and in countries where street art is technically illegal, each of the initiatives has utilized street art as a method of beautification in order to craft a cultural attraction for tourism; however, we must note that there are important distinctions between the three sites.

Mehdi Ben Cheikh, a Tunisian-French artist and curator, was the driving force behind the creation of Djerbahood in the village of Er Riadh on the island of Djerba. Pulling together 150 street artists from thirty nations around the globe, Cheikh conceived of the first open-air street art museum in the region, completed in September 2014. A permanent installation that stands in contrast to the typically ephemeral nature of street art, a web series, a published book on the initiative, and an online portfolio containing photographs of all pieces painted documented the process of creating Djerbahood. It is apparent that the project followed a professional artistic process, and its mission is to highlight global creative expression through street art, while elevating Djerba as a sought-after tourist destination.

Dubai Walls also bills itself as an open-air street art museum. Developed by Meraas, a holding company located in Dubai, the project was completed in early 2016 in an effort to decorate City Walk Dubai, a retail complex offering an immersive lifestyle experience. The first phase of the project included a total of sixteen world-famous street artists, such as Blek Le Rat, Rone, ROA, and Aiko. Like Djerbahood, Dubai Walls claims to be introducing the Middle East to the street art movement while crafting a cultural destination for residents and tourists to explore the art form. Most likely influenced by Dubai Walls, a smaller initiative nicknamed the Dubai Street Museum also appeared later in 2016. The project seeks to celebrate Emirati heritage through decorating the 2nd of December Street, which is located in an area populated primarily by Filipino migrant workers. As expected, both initiatives are depoliticized and focus on demonstrating how Dubai should be considered part of the global street art movement, crafting an image of the city as a leader in the MENA region.

Ayad Nasser, a Lebanese entrepreneur and investor, is currently creating Ouzville, a more recent venture located in the low socioeconomic area of Ouzai, Lebanon. Departing marginally from the intentions of Djerbahood and Dubai Walls, Ouzville sprung up in May 2017 and aims to clean, beautify, and unite Lebanese citizens through street art, putting aside sectarian, class, and political divides. Building upon street art pieces left in place from Urban Dawn Volume II (an annual artistic series bringing global street artists to cities poorly represented in the media) Nasser has invited a host of Lebanese and international street artists to contribute to the project. The pieces are located in the immediate waterfront section of Ouzai on homes and local shops awash in bright colours and thereby visible from planes landing at Beirut Rafic Hariri Airport. Indeed, this is a strategic part of Nasser’s plan to make Ouzville one of the first sites one sees when arriving in the country. In addition to inviting artists to participate in the project, Nasser has been reaching out to anyone interested in publicizing and contributing to the agenda behind Ouzville, including students, photographers, media teams, and various other nationals and foreigners.  

All three projects promote cultural tourism; however, on the surface level, there is a base distinction between the kind of artistic endeavors that are Djerbahood and Dubai Walls, sites that market themselves as museums, and Ouzville, a project that was initially started by private citizens who are supposedly aiming for social unification and change. This distinction manifests itself in the digital footprint of the initiatives. Social media accounts, and particularly Instagram in this case, are a useful platform to examine how the public interacts with these projects. Djerbahood’s official Instagram account has had minimal activity since 2015; however, the Instagram hashtag #djerbahood stands at over thirteen thousand entries and regularly has new photos posted. Most of these listings include either standard snapshots of the various pieces or pictures of people who visit the area to pose with the artworks. Dubai Walls is more active on their official Instagram account, but both their account and the hashtag #dubaiwalls, which currently has around four thousand entries, follow a similar thematic pattern to Djerbahood posts. The focus of these posts is the artwork and the physical interaction with it, rather than any highlight of a social change. The newest venture, Ouzville has been steadily attempting to build its online presence, also primarily utilizing Instagram. The biography on their Instagram account reads as a social entrepreneurship tagline: “beautifying the mess, unifying the country, breaking the stereotypes, initiating citizens to start giving back cleaning fixing and saving Lebanon (sic).” This message is reflected in how people are interacting with the project online, as many of the snapshots posted under the hashtag #ouzville mention the motivation of the project in some form or another. A common theme amongst the posts is a reference to the transformation, describing Ouzai as neglected, crime-filled, or a slum, but describing Ouzville as beautiful, colorful, and rejuvenated. The digital Instagram footprint of these projects demonstrate a telling shift in how street art is being perceived by visitors and the everyday public in the MENA region; stripped of its inherently political nature, it has now become a merely decorative act that is allowed to exist in countries that classify street art as illegal. 

Djerbahood, Dubai Walls, and Ouzville present three different approaches to large-scale site-specific street art interventions; the former two seem to be focused on promoting an artistic endeavor and the latter one a social enterprise that is relying upon street art to attempt a unification process amongst citizens. Regardless of the different approaches, there are important similarities found in the consequences of these initiatives.

Ramifications of these Endeavors

If these kinds of large-scale, permanent street art initiatives continue to grow in popularity across the MENA region, how will this shift public discourse around street art? At the very root of street art lies the potential to be a voice for the voiceless, an outlet for creative and political expression, and a beacon of individuality. Therefore, when curators, companies, or entrepreneurs utilize street art for ventures that are inherently depoliticizing a situation that should most certainly be political, it is contributing to a shift in discourse that portrays a harmful message to individuals wishing to use the medium for political expression. That message being street art is now a part of the process of cultural hegemony, by which subversive tools are co-opted to ensure their complicity in a continued status quo. Crafting a palatable and acceptable form of street art is what all of these initiatives are aiming to do, by virtue of the fact that they exist in countries that would otherwise label the practice of street art illegal. Instead of addressing this fact, these interventions choose to focus on marketing themselves as cultural attractions for both locals and tourists.

When these projects, especially those located in rural and lower socioeconomic areas, are heralded as the next great attraction, there are serious long-term ramifications for the local communities. The beautification of poverty stands as one of the most insidious legacies of global middle-class populations that feel sympathy but lack empathy. This unfortunate phenomenon leads people to reflect temporary attention towards systemic and institutional issues, resulting in surface level cover-ups and solutions. Particularly in relation to Ouzville, the question begs itself: how does this site-specific street art initiative actually address the root causes of poverty in the area? Are they simply using street art as a way to cover up unsightly areas, attract foreign tourists, but offer no viable long-term plan to help elevate and maintain the livelihood of individuals in the community? We should be asking ourselves questions on the long-term impacts of permanent site-specific street art projects in the region, especially focusing on rural areas that may be more susceptible to outside interest and involvement. 

The Future 

All artists and artistic initiatives within the MENA region do not have to be political in nature; there is certainly relevance and importance in art carried out simply for art’s sake. Art can bring joy, beauty, and purpose to communities, but this should never come at the sake of diminishing the possibility for art made with political intent to exist within these same communities. The ability to be political in their art should still be a viable option for all artists and creative projects in the region. If street art, one of the most accessible mediums through which to enact political participation is slowly co-opted by entrepreneurs who subconsciously and consciously are depoliticizing it, the opportunity for that kind of creative political expression is degraded.     

If these large-scale, site-specific, permanent initiatives are truly the new frontier in the street art movement, then the public and creative community’s focus must absolutely lie on how we can amplify the voices within the communities where these interventions are taking place and lessen the push towards depoliticizing the art. Street art certainly has the ability to address sociopolitical issues in impactful ways, as history has shown us countless times with Chicano communities in the 1960s, New York City youth of the 1980s, Colombian artists in the aftermath of their civil war, and Arab citizens during the 2011 uprisings. Thus, we must now be asking ourselves why one of the most accessible artistic mediums is slowly being pushed towards a depoliticized status quo. Street art has an incredible power to give the voiceless a voice and spark civil, political, and social discourse and engagement—why not harness and support that power instead of focusing on grand capitalistic initiatives? 

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