Mizna’s Arab Film Fest panel discussion: The politics of art in revolution


On Nov. 10, Mizna, a Minneapolis-based non-profit organization that promotes Arab-American arts and culture, hosted a panel discussion about art in revolution in the wake of the Arab Spring and as a part of its seventh Twin Cities Arab Film Festival. The discussion was held in Anderson Hall on the University of Minnesota’s West Bank. On the panel were five scholars and artist activists who exchanged their divergent points of view on the politics of art.

The panelists were Fadia Afashe (a human rights activist and artist), Mohammed Bamyeh (a professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh), Waleed Mahdi (a University of Minnesota Ph.D. candidate in American Studies), Tania Khalaf (a filmmaker), and Heba Amin (an artist). Imed Labidi (a University of Minnesota lecturer) moderated the discussion.

Their discussion found its footing when Labidi said, “There is this fragmentation [how people discuss the North African revolutions]: either the revolution is taken out of the Arab, or the Arab is taken out of the revolution” when the Western media reports it.

Bamyeh described what “tremendous license for creativity on an individual level” had been found through the revolution. Later, Khalaf, the Lebanese-born director of Gaza Shield, a documentary that screened at the film festival, added to that statement. She said that video games where you can pummel your political nemeses without fear of reprisals (such as Douma and Salam Ya Masr) had activated and engaged activists. Her bottom-line: “Part of the revolution was won online!”

Once the panelists were in full swing, they even disputed one another’s sensibilities about the politics of their arts. Late-arriving Egyptian artist (“fresh” from a 17-hour flight from Germany), Heba Amin, may have made the most memorable impression. Many in the audience found that she disputed the “authenticity” of some of the Egyptian arts that are reaping Western notoriety, and epitomizing the Arab Spring in Egypt, even if she did so by accident. Amin said she noticed an “extreme interest in a specific sort of art,” on the part of Western media. According to her experience, at least in terms of Arab Spring Egyptian art, they reported on artists who identified as rappers, or very popular Western-style genres. Native Egyptian genres, which would have to be explained to them, and in-turn to their audiences, garnered less attention. She asked whether the most publicized activist art was coming from “our own voice or something being imposed?” Many in the room dropped their jaws at least figuratively at her non-Minnesota Nice contention. While there were no audible gasps, arms exploded into the air.  

As the panel ended, she tried to clarify herself. She wasn’t disputing her fellow artists’ authenticity, but the way the Western media chose to cover their activist art.

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