Art as catalyst for revolution

“Creative Dissent” subverts injustice with satire

On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire, revolting against an abusive and autocratic government. It was unlikely that Bouazizi predicted the ramifications of what he put in motion, as the Tunisian revolution that followed and the eventual uprising of the Arab world would lead to significant turmoil in many nations. The movement’s grand scale brought with it grassroots student movements led by unstoppable social media platforms, tent cities in city squares, and people from all walks of life screaming for social and political justice.

The passion of the forces leading the Arab Spring movement inspired the McGill School of Architecture to create the exhibit “Creative Dissent: Arts of the Arab World Uprisings,” running until February 26 in the Macdonald-Harrington building on campus. This travelling display is a collaboration with the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the Arab American National Museum, with curators Christiane Gruber and Nama Khalil at the helm. “Creative Dissent” showcases a variety of political voices and opinions through diverse forms of creative expression, such as photography, performance, satire, cartoons, street art, and music, all inspired by the Arab Spring discourse. These creative expressions were all essential catalysts for revolutionary sentiment and a solidarity movement toward democracy.

Centred on the organizational themes “Photographic truth claims,” “Humor and Subversion,” “Revolution Reloaded,” “Sounding Walls,” and “Performing Dissent,” the exhibit seeks to illustrate different sides of the uprising. The multimedia pieces range from the political chant “The People want the downfall of the regime” to the famous photo of the Tunisian president visiting Bouazizi in the hospital.

The showcase of photographs is a powerful tool of influence in the exhibit. Often, a photograph can spark inspiration and outrage, but the power of an image can be its abilities to make the viewer discover a truth that they may have ignored or overlooked. One photograph from the exhibit of a young veiled woman comes to mind, who is being stripped to her blue bra and beaten by Egyptian security forces in Tahrir Square, Cairo on December 17, 2011. This appalling act sparked an emotional response across Egypt, especially among artists, who began a response of blue bra paintings and using the slogan “No to the stripping of women.”

The most effective form of creative dissidence in the exhibition is that of satire. One cannot deny the hilarity behind the work of Tunisian cartoonist Nadia Khiari. Her cat cartoon depictions of the political players in the Tunisian government succeed not only in being endlessly humourous, but also in disempowering the political elite.

Khiari’s Willis from Tunis piece epitomizes this idea. The cartoon series depicts the growing power of Salafism in post-revolutionary Tunisia. In the illustration, a rebellious cat of deep secularist beliefs is holding a placard that says “Live free or die” while a bearded Salafi cat beats him to death with a club. The cartoon’s violent theme is reminiscent of the whimsical Road Runner, but is nothing to laugh about in reality, as it depicts increasing assassinations of left-wing Tunisian coalition members. The satire is effective in triggering critical responses from the public and ridiculing those who are fostering instability and fear in the Tunisian political arena.

The same can be said of the work of Syrian group Masasit Mati. A running video loop of their satire program Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator pictures Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as a puppet. Masasit Mati’s characterization of al-Assad as a childish character disempowers the dictator and wipes out the fears associated with his governance. The puppet show comically portrays a dialogue between the al-Assad puppet and several of his doll-like government officials, their high-pitched voices resonating throughout the exhibition. The al-Assad puppet screams about losing the city of Hama to the revolutionaries right before his birthday and cries over the unfortunate timing.

Satire like this is so effective in its goals is because it is a language that many dictators cannot cope with. It is also very powerful in subverting dominant political forces. An autocratic government can implement censorship, but the collective laughter of the masses at the political elite is bulletproof. A banner hanging in the corner of the exhibition reads “Art equals freedom, freedom equals responsibility, to ban artists equals to ban responsibility.” These inspirational artists take their responsibility very seriously, continuing their creative political outrage, regardless of consequences.