I arrived in Vancouver in 2017, a newly hired professor at a prominent public art university. I imagined myself hitting the ground running in this fresh academic environment. I took for granted an easy transition based on a common language and imagined socio-cultural similarities. Instead, after Newark and Beirut, Vancouver was a culture shock. The day-to-day was as puzzling as it was infuriating. From a “reverse Orientalist” perspective, the absolute rationality, the refutation of philia, the lack of social vitality,[i] the absence of street culture,[ii] the forbidding of public expression,[iii] as well as the dearth of the popular garrulousness and affability I was habituated to all made for an extremely difficult if not seemingly impossible integration.
The sense of estrangement extended to the political. Notions of decolonization, for one example, limited themselves mostly to contexts of local place and individual identity, as opposed to broader and overlapping economic and political conceptions. Thus, a hyper-awareness of land acknowledgments and personal terminologies were extenuated by their solipsistic disconnection from the world at large. Wholly missing were countervailing voices and the grounds for expansive counterpoint that are the hallmark of other cultural contexts. Sensing my disorientation and a need to “reground” myself, supportive colleagues informed me about a presentation by artists Walid Raad and Jayce Salloum speaking at Simon Fraser University.[iv] I welcomed what I imagined would, in fact, be a useful foil, allowing for an opening into a greater and much-needed interaction and dialogue: a bridging with neglected and overlooked worldviews.
Such a desired conversation would necessarily entail what is my own unease with an identification as “Lebanese.” Despite birth in a mountain village and many years living and working in Beirut, I do not claim this identity for myself.[v] Adopted by a U.S.-American family in 1963, I was not acculturated in Greater Syria. Nor did I experience the Civil War, the imperialist foray against progressive forces that devolved into a pre-ordained sectarian bloodbath. I did, however, return to Beirut in 2004. There, I taught graphic design and illustration, and founded an artists’ collective with a focus on protest and resistance.[vi] All in all, I resided in Beirut for twelve years. The resultant acculturation forms a bifurcated identification, to be sure. This sense of self, however, is wholly unrelated to colonially formed nation-states, notions of borders, or aberrant nationalisms.
To this point, life in Beirut belied a cessation of the War’s aggressions. The active violence from external as well as internal sources had grown intermittent, but for the most part had simply shifted. It was now formalized in the neo-liberal obliteration and privatization[vii] of the formerly popular city core,[viii] in the gentrifying destruction of developers laundering capital,[ix] as well as in the systemic disregard of local populations. Such groups, segregated to the niches and outskirts of a “rebranded” city, evoke the precariousness of those without utile visas or passports that might provide exile or exodus. In my beleaguered neighborhood astride the Green Line that still divides Beirut East from West, my community and I endured the War’s distressing slow-motion aftermath, the logical conclusions of imperialist-driven state formation, colonization, and depredation.
Previous to this integration, I had navigated place as an adoptee attempting rematriation;[x] a painful year lived as an unwilling “American” ex-pat, seeking ties that would literally ground me. The oppressive space carved out for this perceived elite exists sadly at the forefront of Lebanese reality. It reflects a plateau of privilege that amplifies local bourgeois mythologies in a tango of colonizers and compradors.[xi] In this attenuated domain, under pressures and incentives from various fronts, those of the dominant classes perform a base minstrelsy[xii] for outsider audiences.[xiii] The consequence is an exhausting impersonation, based in a mutually understood survival instinct, now irredeemably corrupted and emulated by those formerly resistant to it.[xiv] Then, in Beirut, I vowed an avoidance of all such affectation;[xv] now, here I sat, at a presentation by “compatriots,” yet again feeling multiply distanced from source. The audience at SFU had assembled to hear a discussion between two “Lebanese” artists. In our remove, we witnessed instead an entertainment, a consumable exoticism, a spectacle.
The sole sensed connection during the entire presentation was found in a mediated tangent: an interview with Soha Bechara, a digitized glimmer amidst the dross of video footage and cavalier banter. In terms of the lecture, her monologue, spoken in a solemn and measured Arabic, was literally beside the point. Her words remain wholly lost on those educated outside of their culture, and even more so on foreign audiences. I struggled to understand in my haphazardly regained language; I expanded the reductive subtitles as I could. I was conveyed to 2010, to her presence at a panel discussion held on the campus of the American University of Beirut. Then as now she spoke of patience in the face of adversity, of liberation, of justice. Then as now, she brought me to tears. Unlike then, however, I now felt quite alone in a room full of people.
The question-and-answer session boded no better. One audience member fetishized “camera angles” and lauded “the deconstruction of the interview form”: a revelry in funhouse mirrors distorting reality. I calculated the distances of time, space, culture, and class that allowed for such statements as well as their ensuing elaborations. My mind wandered to thoughts of extended relations I was newly in reunion with who, like Bechara, had spent years in the detention camp of El-Khiam in formerly occupied South Lebanon. I recalled comrades joyously recounting that prison’s liberation. On a separate level, I harked back to the politically charged artistic output of the Global South during the early 20th century, eclipsed by U.S.-American Abstract Expressionism,[xvi] itself co-opted by Cold-War reasonings.[xvii],[xviii] I winced at the insular arrogance of the questioner assuming he was surrounded solely by those sharing his worldview.
A question broke my reverie. “I would like to have more information on the woman who spoke in the video clip, I found her very inspiring.” A pause, and an unsure reply: “I believe she lives in Switzerland.” I waited, but absolution was not forthcoming. I turned and whispered, noting for the record: “She lives in Switzerland, she spoke in Beirut in 2010 as well as last year, addressing the Lebanese Communist Party. She wrote a book Resistance: My Life for Lebanon which is available in multiple languages.”[xix] An addendum: Since then, she has engaged via video link with the left-wing Red Oak Club at the American University of Beirut; inspiringly her connections to Greater Syria remain intact. She has come under attack on the political front from Switzerland’s far-right. It is hard to say, comparatively speaking, who does her more damage.
To be quite fair, I was in the wrong place. Art that is intrinsically representative of the ideals Bechara embodies is rarely found within the structures, edifices, and engines of art economies. Current efforts bring to light this art world epitomized by inequality: the anti-artwashing movements in LA[xx] and Manhattan,[xxi] the museum decolonization[xxii] efforts taking place in New York City[xxiii] and elsewhere, the day-to-day labor of cooperatives, collectives, and popular artists manifesting their creative yearnings and struggles.[xxiv] The active nature of such labor stands as a stark reminder that the Master’s house[xxv] is not a valid destination.[xxvi] Case in point: One of our collective’s posters happened to end up in an exhibition at the MoMA.[xxvii] Quite on the contrary, our sense of accomplishment stems from our work affixed to the walls of every Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, ever on display. Here, our work is not a “one-off,” but a continuation of traditional methods and modes. Creation from scratch of alternatives to the art world’s vaunted realm remains, to be sure, a herculean task. In the long run, these efforts are far less wasteful of precious energy, and promise to be much more fruitful, creatively and otherwise.
Such endeavors define an actual and active praxis that points up the vacuity of prevailing class–affirming and bubbled co-optations: “social practice” and “placemaking,” among other trending monikers. To understand is that the backlash against the truly communal and resistant, as historically referenced here, is as systemic as it is vehement. For example: the shutting down of an ascendent Newark Print Shop in that hyper-privatized city; the Eurocentric efforts of Tania Bruguera in the heart of Cuba; the apologia for imperialist statuary during the 2019 College Art Association Conference; the disallowance of popular posters or political murals in Vancouver; the attempted relegation of Soha Bechara and the resistance to a historical footnote for the sake of “art.” The list is endless.
The antithesis to the above requires a divining of common cause, beyond both ascribed as well as inscribed boundaries of class and identity. It demands a return to the globally encompassing critiques, discussions, and examples of the OSPAAAL, of The Lotusmagazine, of the Taller de Grafica Popular, of the Tricontinental.[xxviii] This list of examples is equally limitless. These are rarely noted, to best preserve dominant class methods and modes. They will never attain canonical status, except as subaltern historical reference, for the posited teleological advance of “Western” philosophy and theory. This impasse is summed up in Stephen Sheehi’s manifesto for decolonization in which he states, paraphrasing Mehdi ‘Amil: “The contemporary ’crisis’ in civilization...is one that is inbuilt as a crisis of the bourgeoisie...”[xxix] To similarly heed are Hamid Dabashi’s words deploring the vain and barren efforts of Gulf monarchies to achieve “Western” validity: “[Artists] must find the courage and the imagination to cast off Eurocentric modernity and dare to reconfigure a renewed conception of aesthetic interiority with its rooted intuition of transcendence.”[xxx] Evoked here is a desired reconnection to and continuation of nahḍah, an “enduring renaissance” messily born of dialectic and contradiction; a rerooting in millennia of spirit, heart, and gut instinct:[xxxi] a stepping into stride with a “modernity” that has always been ours.[xxxii]
In the stasis of neo-liberalized realms I yearn for active and activated signs of such art as well as a sense of grounded community. But Vancouver—like Beirut, like most cities in our globalized context—imagines itself an exalted cosmopolis. Like them, it succeeds instead as an ersatz locale designed for “global citizens” and not local denizens.[xxxiii] Divided as well East from West, it similarly formalizes violences that target those doomed for extirpation. In this light, Vancouver stands in odd inversion, the wrung-lifeless destiny of peripheral cities still in struggle: a polished and refined barbarism, a quintessential and perfected colonialism. Here is the wholly denigrated working class.[xxxiv],[xxxv] Here arrive the refugees used as fodder for foreign policies and mythologies of multiculturalism.[xxxvi] Here strive the segregated immigrant[xxxvii] communities[xxxviii] that have choked on these promises for over a century.[xxxix] Here exist the Indigenous survivors:[xl] case closed.[xli] For those dislocated from source, the pressure to assimilate by waving white flags weighs heavy.[xlii] For those dispossessed and displaced, performing ethnicity and culture[xliii] in alien and alienating realms is a double bind, like Vaudevillian Bert Williams smearing burnt cork on his not-quite-dark-enough skin.[xliv] Given such contradictions, transcendent work and true audience are sequestered by dominant norms that demand the reductive versions of such expression within crucibles of mediocrity.
Minimizing such a chasm is work; avoiding an expansively mediated and technologically reductive dominant mode is labor. Nonetheless, activist art praxis can ever be found in the infinite realm of creative voices otherwise disregarded. It ceases to exist as such when repackaged and repurposed for an unconcerned “West.” Such packaging despairingly conflates a vertical mediation—recognition from above—with a bestowal of existence. For much of the world, said existence is instead forged by the infinite efforts within daily routines embedded in practices of mutual support. In her memoir describing her ten years in El-Khiam, Bechara recounts receiving a package from a former fellow inmate, the collected prison poems she had managed to write on tiny scraps of paper while incarcerated: communal gestures maintaining sanity.[xlv] It reminded me of a friend and brother from my neighborhood in Beirut, working in a greengrocer’s shop, far from his village in Syria. He would write poems on random scraps of paper. His sublime Arabic channeled references and experiences lost on most in a chain of existence and culture going back beyond time. He would read me his poems, his eyes welling with tears, then he would throw the poems away. When I would protest and inquire why, he would reply: “Who will read such poems, professor?” and I would fall silent.
Indeed, why concern our creative output with a dominant culture unwilling to glean our symbols, metaphors, and meanings, yet demanding our assimilation? Such audiences discount our very humanity and are thereby disqualified and dismissed. With dominance and privilege, they deceptively prepare a theater stage. They prompt us into the spotlights’ glare. There we are goaded into performing a wretched and interminable dress rehearsal that has replaced our own quotidian.[xlvi] And so I bend to the collective Sisyphean task of dismantling the very theater itself. For we cannot allow a sense of impossibility to prevent our attempts to learn from source, to critique the present moment, to re-imagine the future. Quoting a former Black Panther I conversed with in Oakland in 2010: “I may not live to see the revolution, but it is my duty to carry the torch aloft for those who follow.” In this light, decolonization starts with self: the willful descent from class positions, from individual comfort zones, from plateaus of privilege. From there a regrounding, a reformulation of relation to place, to the land in solidarity with others doing the same. Finally, a regrouping of kith and kindred spirits that allows for return, for rerooting. Such a solid anchorage inspires hope of renewed flourish. Such a steadfast communal starting point presages a genuine and genuinely creative liberation.
*Featured image: Poster produced by جمع اليد (Jamaa Al-Yad) for Occupied Wall Street Journal, 2011.
[ii]. Jesse McKee and Amy Nugent: “Vancouver Mural Festival: The Present Is A Gift For Developers”; The Discorder, 4 September 2017. <https://www.citr.ca/discorder/september-2017/vancouver-mural-festival-the-present-is-a-gift-for-developers/>
[iii]. Yves Engler: “Postering Revolution”; CounterPunch, 14 March 2013. <https://www.counterpunch.org/2013/03/14/postering-revolution/>
[iv]. Walid Raad: “Sweet Talk: Commissions (Beirut 1994)”; Audain Gallery, SFU. <http://www.sfu.ca/galleries/audain-gallery/Walid-Raad.html>
[vii]. Saree Makdisi: "The Architecture of Erasure," Critical Inquiry36, no. 3 (Spring 2010): 519-559.
[viii]. Olga Habre: “Same streets, different view New walking tour re-examines Beirut’s urban landscape”;Executive Life, 16 February 2018. <http://life.executive-magazine.com/design/architecture/streets-different-view>
[ix]. Richard Becherer: “A matter of life and debt: the untold costs of Rafiq Hariri's New Beirut”; The Journal of Architecture, 10:1, 1-42, 2005. <http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13602360500063089>
[x]. Steven Newcomb: "PERSPECTIVES: Healing, Restoration, and Rematriation." News & Notes. Spring/Summer 1995, p. 3. <http://ili.nativeweb.org/perspect.html>
[xii]. Daniel Drennan ElAwar: “Sacha Cohen and Arab Minstrelsy”. Dissident Voice, May 2012.
[xiii]. Daniel Drennan ElAwar: “Traversing Meanings: Remapping East and West”. Culture Critique, 2009. <https://www.academia.edu/11585725/Traversing_Meanings_Remapping_East_and_West>
[xv]. Daniel Drennan ElAwar: “‘Citizen, Denizen, Alien’, Adoption via Lebanon: Practices of Extirpation and Their Impact on Kinship, Community, Identity, and Citizenship”. Public lecture, Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship, 2016. <https://www.academia.edu/24829030/_Citizen_Denizen_Alien_Adoption_via_Lebanon_Practices_of_Extirpation_
[xviii]. Farhat, Maymanah. “Depoliticizing Arab Art: Christie’s and the Rush to ‘Discover’ the Arab World”. Art Market, 2006. <http://contemporarypractices.net/essays/volume4/DepoliticizingArabArt.pdf>
[xx]. Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement: <http://alianzacontraartwashing.org/en/coalition-statements/bhaaad-the-short-history-of-a-long-struggle/>
[xxi]. Chinatown Art Brigade: <https://www.chinatownartbrigade.org/>
[xxii]. Daniel Drennan ElAwar: “Decolonizing illustration: Rerooting culture, language, and activist practice”. College Art Association 2019 Annual Conference, New York City, February 16, 2019 <https://www.academia.edu/38533840/Decolonizing_illustration_Rerooting_culture_language_and_activist_practice>
[xxiii]. Decolonize This Place: <http://www.decolonizethisplace.org/>
[xxvi]. Malcolm X: “Message to the Grass Roots”, 1963. <http://www.csun.edu/~hcpas003/grassroots.html>
[xxvii]. Museum of Modern Art: “9 + 1 Ways of Being Political: 50 Years of Political Stances in Architecture and Urban Design”. <https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1289?locale=en>
[xxx]. Hamid Dabashi: “Art as the Politics of the Impossible”, Al-Jazeera, December 2011.
[xxxi]. Mayssoun Sukarieh: “Decolonizing education, a view from Palestine: an interview with Munir Fasheh”. International Studies in Sociology of Education, April 3, 2019. <https://doi.org/10.1080/09620214.2019.1601584>
[xxxvi]. Positive-Negatives: Meet Our Team: <https://positivenegatives.org/about/meet-our-team/>
[xxxix]. Anand Patwardhan/National Film Board of Canada: “A Time to Rise (ਉੱਠਣਦਾਵੇਲਾ)”: Canadian Farmworkers Union, 1981. <http://patwardhan.com/wp/?page_id=216>
[xlii]. For example, South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy (SANSAD): <https://sansad.org>
[xliii]. For example, “Kim’s Convenience”: <https://www.cbc.ca/kimsconvenience/>
[xliv]. Claudia Roth Pierpont: “Behind the Mask: On the minstrel circuit.”. The New Yorker, 12 December 2005. <https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/12/12/behind-the-mask>
[xlv]. Farhat Art Museum: <http://www.farhatartmuseum.com/index.php?pageid=collection&gid=38>