Go to Hell Moamar: Benghazi’s Aesthetic Insurrection
August 24, 2011
In the last ten months there has been a rash of high-profile arts censorship incidents. Late last year, following complaints, David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly was pulled from the Hide/Seek exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. That December, a mural at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles by street artist Blu was painted over, again, following complaints. In April, the work of Mustapha Benfodil was pulled from the Sharjah Biennial. In June, Aidan Salakhova’s work was removed from the Azerbaijan pavilion at the Venice Biennale. And of course, there was the arrest and detention of Ai Weiwei. I would like to continue listing these incidents, but they would fill this column.
There is no shortage of negative consequences to censorship, and I trust my readers are well aware of many. But there is an odd silver lining to take away from all of this. It says something about the power art possesses when one of the most important lawmakers in the United States, a powerful Emirati Sheikh, and the governor of Maine all become involved in art criticism, as has happened over the last year. These acts of censorship only exist because powerful people and organizations recognize that art influences the world—something that is all too easy to forget.
The positive side of this power has been witnessed this year in turbulent North Africa. Alongside the protests and insurrections of this year’s Libyan civil war, there has been an equally vociferous artistic outpouring. Rather than mere epiphenomena, resulting from but not influencing the revolution, the explosion of street art and graffiti in Libya has been a pragmatic part and parcel of the uprising. My own biases and doubts sometimes lead me to question the role of artist-as-activist. But the artists of the Libyan civil war have faced challenges far more dire than those of most North American or European MFAs or career artists—I’ve never even seen a Kalashnikov on an art school campus. By examining a situation where artists risk their lives and the future of their country is at stake, one can cut through biases about the immediacy of art and see its relevance to political situations that appear less pressing or dire.
In a June 18 Al Jazeera English report on the post-uprising street art of liberated Benghazi, journalist Sue Turton stated that the anti-Qaddafi graffiti had grown increasingly sophisticated since the beginning of the revolution. The images shown in the report depict the colonel’s head in a trashcan, in a meat grinder, being punched, hanging from a noose, and scrawled on with a confusing mix of swastikas and Stars of David. Unlike barely-legible Sharpie tags, these murals exhibit technical skill and are often large scale. Some even appear to have been created with paint, palette, and patience. Not only have artists taken the city as their canvas, they have done so with more confidence and pride than was possible under the Qaddafi regime.
In the same report, cartoonist Akram Briki stated that prior to the uprising he would draw pictures of Qaddafi and his crimes, but he could not show them to anyone and had to tear them up, out of fear of repression. Briki’s actions suggest a fundamental need to express political convictions or concerns, so much so that he felt compelled to do so, if only for himself. If humans are truly political animals, then a lack of substantive political expression is a torturous form of dehumanization. Another street artist, Radwan Zwae, reported that before the uprising, he was arrested and beaten for attempted graffiti, and his friend was shot and killed for drawing a caricature of Qaddafi. Now, in an atmosphere that allows for political expression, he is allowed to actualize himself as Radwan Zwae, artist. It is worth noting, however, that my research found no evidence of pro-Qaddafi graffiti in rebel-held Libya, or an indication of what the reaction would have been from the rebel National Transitional Council.
Journalist Rory Mulholland reports in the Guardian that, when the uprising began, Briki (also romanized as Akram al-Bruki) and a group of young men took up arms with their art. The group handed out paper caricatures of Qaddafi, intending people to publicly display them. On March 20, a member of the group, Qais al-Halali (also Kais al-Hilali), was killed by gunmen, suspected by some of being secret police, just after finishing a piece on a Benghazi roundabout. Undeterred, Briki and his colleagues continued their aesthetic insurrection, believing that murals and street art boosted the morale of the armed rebels.
Another interesting observation is that many murals and graffiti scrawls contained English text, suggesting they were intended to be viewed by foreigners just as much as by locals. The word “freedom” appears on countless walls, along with phrases such as, “We don’t give up; have victory or die,” “We are not your puppets anymore!,” “Game over,” and the Obamanian “Change we need,” among others. For these artists, graffiti is more than self-expression; it is also a means of communicating with the outside world. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand tweets. The international support rebels have gained is indebted to their public relations campaign, of which images of these murals serve as an assertion of dissatisfaction with the ruling regime.
In both the resolve of these artists and in the confidence of their murals, one can witness one of the essential elements of politics. Philosopher Jacques Rancière argues that politics arises when people make “pronouncements on the common which cannot be reduced to voices signaling pain.”[i] That is to say, when one is only a victim, he is not engaged in politics, but is the subject of oppression. The majority of the murals and graffiti of liberated Libya, however, are triumphant and optimistic. With these works, large segments of Libyan society have not just argued, but have shown that they are equals that can co-star on the political stage with the Qaddafi regime. Graffiti is an aesthetic assertion of freedom and power.
These works are the beginning of a post-Qaddafi culture and set the groundwork for the state that will follow, should the rebels succeed in dethroning the colonel. Freedom of expression is quite literally splashed on the walls of the country. Kleptocracy and oppression have been openly criticized for all to see and rally against. To be sure, revolutions rarely end swimmingly, as the messy French Revolution and America’s apartheid revolution quite plainly illustrate. There is no guarantee that democracy will prevail even if the National Transitional Council establishes total sovereignty between the Egyptian and Algerian borders. There is almost no doubt in my mind that graffiti will be viewed as criminal vandalism, as it is all over the world. But the more the messages of these murals are seen, openly discussed, and digested by the Libyan people, the harder it will be for a new regime to usurp these hard won freedoms.
As graves fill in Libya, one could accuse me of failing to understand that the end of the civil war will come through warfare or diplomatic negotiations or something else far more “practical” than adolescent taggings. My approach to understanding the political role of art, however, is holistic, appreciating that no gun, no diplomat, and no mural can change the course of a revolution alone. But politics and culture are not separate spheres, not even separate sides of the same coin. They are inextricably weaved together. To understand this is to acknowledge that cultural producers are politicians—revolutionary or counterrevolutionary politicians, depending on one’s own disposition. We must fight against censorship with vigor, but when Eric Cantor and John Boehner personally attack an exhibition, we can at least take solace in their fear of contemporary art. Libya’s aesthetic insurrection documents the immediacy of the political role of art, but it is not more immediate there, just more present.
[i] Jacques Rancière, “Aesthetics and Politics,” in Aesthetics and Its Discontents, trans. Steven Corcoran (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2009), 24.