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How these artists are working to fight extremism in the Mideast

A group of artists came together at the International Artists Gathering in Fez, Morocco, to generate strategies for a counterattack that points creativity to a social purpose and fights fire with artistic expression.

FEZ, Morocco — On Feb. 26, 2015, the Islamic State (IS) released a shocking video of its militants' purportedly taking hammers to ancient, centuries-old statues at the Iraqi Mosul Museum. Though onlookers have since questioned the clip’s veracity, today its images of pixelated destruction warn of extremism’s capacity to dismantle — and exploit — artistic heritage in the region.

This January, a group of artists have been coming together to generate strategies for a counterattack: one that points creativity to a social purpose and that fights fire with artistic expression.

The International Artists Gathering in Fez, Morocco, brings together artists, curators and historians to ask whether art, be it Islamic calligraphy or experimental photography, can aid the region at a time when most of its challenges evoke policy or military responses.

“Muslim culture celebrates art, but it isn’t given the right exposure,” said Omar Chennafi, a Moroccan artist and the founder of the event, which began Jan. 12. “We are trying to open up this conversation globally to show the world there is a place for art in Islam.”

Put a young performance artist and a Sufi scholar in a room together, and they will tell you the same thing: Art has always moved in tandem with political shifts in the Middle East and North Africa, and its relevance is not anymore diminished today.

“I think after 2011, the world began hearing about a lot of artists from the region. But I think we, artists, have always explored tragedy,” said Soukaina Joual, a young Moroccan sculptor who grapples with notions of violence and political protest through her work. “When you go through art history, many important works revolve around big shifts — events that changed the world.”

One thinks of the Lebanese generations of artists who explored themes of trauma and memory after the country’s civil war; the miles of street art that have unfurled across cities in the Arab world throughout its political upheavals; and Dia al-Azzawi’s enormous drawing of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres, which may soon hang next to Pablo Picasso’s famous Guernica in the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid.

After three days of roundtable talks, the International Artists Gathering culminated in the opening of an exhibition titled “Art in the Time of Crisis,” which tackles themes of migration, xenophobia and violence through a showcase of more than 14 different artists. For the community of Fez, whose historical medina lays claim to centuries of traditional craftsmanship, the exhibition is a bright nook of contemporary work drawing in both local visitors and foreign tourists.

A diverse span of backgrounds is represented at the exhibition, including artists from a collective in Tangier and an international residence based in Leipzig, Germany. The effect for visitors is an accumulation of perspectives from around the Mediterranean Sea that provide different understandings of the same global issues. Offering both artistic works and convictions, the exhibition displayed several manifestos defining the significance of art in a time of crisis, as well as pieces that ranged from narrative photography to more abstract installations. The exhibition will run through January and was funded with financial support from the German Embassy in Rabat, Werkstattgalerie Berlin and the Goethe Institute.

Outside the showcase, however, artists at the gathering highlighted the necessity of taking art beyond the confines of museum walls to a new, more public sphere. This past year, elections in Western Europe and the United States took place amid a reactionary sweep of anti-intellectualism; for the International Artists Gathering, stripping contemporary art of elitist connotations and expanding its audience is a necessary first step.

Michael Grieve, a photographer and former deputy editor of the 1,000 Words online photography magazine, believes the solution can be as easy as paring down one’s work to convey a direct message of resistance.

“Often, art today is so abstract that it can disappear into the aesthetic,” said Grieve, who came to the International Artists Gathering to advocate for “less apologetic, more confrontational” creative practices.

Grieve once used photography as a medium to explore issues such as identity and sexuality. Having observed the world’s changing political climate from his home base in Berlin, he said the focus of his work has now drifted from the poetic to the political.

His hope is that young artists at the gathering, especially those from Morocco, will be inspired to do the same. “Maybe these young people will see me and say, ‘Here’s a man [who’s] going to change the way he works in response to the world today. So why can’t we?”’

Yet in a region where conflict and instability can jeopardize artists’ livelihoods, a scheme for a liberated future is not enough. Some are also advocating for a return to the past through archival and historical research, which can yield fresh vistas of the ancient artistic traditions that have accompanied civilizations in the region since Islam’s beginnings in the 7th century.

“Islam has a very much richer tradition than most of us in the West know,” said Roderick Grierson, director of the Rumi Institute at Near East University in Cyprus and a panelist at the International Artists Gathering. Grierson’s work as a scholar often involves mining Islamic history for its neglected artifacts of art and cultural heritage, such as 18th-century Turkish lithographs or recordings of music played during Sufi sama ceremonies.

He believes doing so can correct an increasingly popular view that frames the Middle East as estranged from today’s global order, instead reminding the world of its historical and cultural ties to the region.

“One of the things that fascinates me about the visual legacy that surrounds [Sufism in Turkey], for example, is that some works were produced by those in the Sufi order, but others were produced by European artists who were in Istanbul and so impressed by what they saw,” he noted.

“An artist is obviously not going to be able to go into the battlefield with IS in combat,” he added. “But when we have artists and art historians recovering past cultural achievements, we can discover what was lost and begin creating again.”

The International Artists Gathering hopes to expand its scope when it meets again for another session next year, under a new theme that will swivel focus onto Morocco’s southern neighbors in sub-Saharan Africa. Chennafi says the session will analyze how art forges connections on the African continent, thereby allowing for an even larger view of art’s role in combating social issues that have become increasingly interconnected and pervasive in today’s world.

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