The Longevity of Rupture
1967 in Art and Its Histories, June 1-2, 2012 American University of Beirut, Lebanon
The Longevity of Rupture: 1967 in Art and Its Histories
June 1-2, 2012
American University of Beirut, Lebanon
Organised by the Association for the Study of Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World, Iran, and Turkey (AMCA)
Can historical rupture and continuity ever be thought apart from one another? Is rupture not the very thing that allows for continuity (except when an imposed narrative of continuity serves some power or purpose), and the sometimes stagnant waters of continuity what open the way for radical breaks or less radical shifts? When attempting to write a retroactive history of a date, mustn't the present and future, however inaccessible, also be written into the account for that account to be substantial and just?
1967, Al Naksa: a defining moment in Arab military and nationalist defeat at the hands of the occupying Israeli Army; the annexation of Jerusalem and massive chunks of territory by Israel, and the creation and spread of huge Palestinian refugee camps across Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. A moment, by many accounts, of humiliation, failure and devastation. The Longevity of Rupture: 1967 in Art and Its Histories conference, organised by AMCA at the American University of Beirut, takes this date and the concomitant changes (or not) in regional aesthetic practices as its point of departure. It is almost always prevalent within the discipline of Art History to create a historiography of art around a date, a shift in the reigning order, an event. In the conference abstract, the organisers drew our attention to the ways in which the deadly bombing of Guernica in 1937, the atrocities of the Second World War and the wave of anti-establishment, labour and student protests of 1968 in Europe changed the way artists produced and conceived of art, and that so too 'the narratives that have been mobilised to write a history of Arab art are no exception'. The defeat in 1967 is that event, which has allegedly marked historians of Arab art into reconfiguring their understanding of what came after this point of rupture – in other words, a change in aesthetic responses and forms that might have affected the region's contemporary art forever more.
Over the two-day event, 11 speakers and one keynote speaker had as an objective to re-examine and chisel away at the question of whether the political events of 1967 did in fact pose a radical break in modernist, Arab aesthetic sensibilities and practices, through particular uses of form, colour, abstraction, figuration, graphics in political posters, literature, and so on. Since aesthetic choices and tastes are always embedded within already existing, broader lineages – historical, collective, artistic, local and international – is this prevailing, yet previously unquestioned narrative of rupture in fact more complicated? Of course it is. As the abstract for the conference put it, 'If we know that everything changed, how do we know it? Can we document it? See it? Track it? Diagnose it? Deny it?'
Even though the question of rupture versus continuity cannot at all be understood literally or didactically, most of papers presented at the conference were not quick to affirm or advocatethat 1967 was indeed a point of total transformation, not only in the state's relationship to the arts, but also in the art itself. Some presenters did attempt a more nuanced view of the way art practices from Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Iraq were differentially affected by 1967, marking paradoxes and lines of continuity, as well as clear changes on the ground.
Both Patrick Kane and Alexandra Dika Seggerman presented papers that dealt primarily with Egypt in the aftermath of '67, both choosing to zoom in on the work of eminent Egyptian painter Gazbia Sirry in both its forms and content (labour, the state, motherhood, the urban landscape, portraits, figuration, abstraction, etc.). Kane's understanding of the relationship between literature, film and theatre as intertextual material in an overall critique of labour, claims that art produced in or around that time (citing the work of Sonallah Ibrahim and Sirry) engaged social issues such as poverty, the dam project, the death of labourers, as well as but not solely and distinctly, the 1967 War. He did argue, to my mind contentiously and not convincingly enough, that a certain break did happen and that the war of 1967 in fact altered the state's relation to and sponsorship of art – once an ideological relationship based on a common nationalist cause, sidelining, perhaps inadvertently, the effects of the Cold War on the state's (or those of states further afield for that matter) sponsorship or policies towards the arts.
Seggerman, in turn, presented an acute étude of Sirry's work and its transformation from boldly figurative to the obliquely abstracted and gridded cityscapes of her later period, post-'67 and post her return from the US. She asks whether this move was one founded primarily on a critique of the Nasserite state, of the social realism that was prevalent during that epoch and supportive of the state, and the sense of alienation they both produced – without, however, delving sufficiently into whether American Expressionism of the Cold War period might have affected Sirry's compositions and formal choices, and in what ways, or for that matter in what ways the generation after Sirry came to be affected, if at all, by the changes in her art practice and of those around her.
Palestine and Syria figured prominently in the papers presented by Saleem al-Bahloly and Anneka Lenssen, as they both tried to problematise the question of continuity and rupture post-1967, though seeming to give more texture to the ways in which 1967 was a point of rupture and change in art practice. Lenssen presented her rigorous fieldwork on the Syrian avant-garde, noting how in the aftermath of the 1967 War – in which Syria was deeply implicated – Syrian art critics in fact took a harsh stance against abstraction. Up until then, she argued, abstractionism had been a formal turn partly instigated and nurtured by artists at the College of Fine Arts at the University of Damascus in the mid-1960s, and championed by the then visiting abstract painter Guido La Regina. For the artists themselves, Lenssen explained that this formal, abstracted, 'plastic' manipulation of colour and form was thereon considered a form of overcoming the affect associated with abstract expressionism in painting, and a 'significant act of bearing witness rather than indulging in mere reactionary shouting'.
The paradoxical title of Al-Bahloly's talk, 'The Freedom of Despair', pointed to the ways in which the creation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was quick to pose the Palestinian question in and on strictly Palestinian terms. He explored how the work of Iraqi artist Dia Azzawi was a pinnacle in celebrating the Palestinian figure, one not based on grief or the bare life of refugee camps, but one that transformed the work of mourning (despites its motifs and poetics being close to the Shia tradition of lament for the Hussein) into the canvas and beyond it. Giving the example of Azzawi's Witness to Our Times (1972) and Drawing from the Land of Sad Oranges (1973), to name only a couple, Al-Balohy attempted to examine the ways in which a political existence outside the state was possible through art, as a mark of persistence or endurance – particularly in the case of Palestine – outside the rhetoric of bare life on the one hand, and human rights discourse on the other. Given that this paper focused solely on Azzawi, it does leave one wondering how this links up with the forms, place and role of Palestinian art and artists of that period.
On the panel titled 'On Withdrawal and Its Horizons', Angela Harutyunyan's presentation genuinely considered what a historiographic account would be, and what kind of historiography we would need today. In other words, dealing with 1967 as an organising moment around which to understand aesthetic responses and practices, was far more stubborn or slippery than the habitual, simple way in which knowledge is produced in art historical narrative when the latter is based around a determining historical or political date. The impact of Al Naksa itself, like all complex historical, military, political events, is at best complicated. Who is really qualified to speak about Al Naksa and its impact on art? Harutyunyan's talk raised some pertinent epistemological questions including: How are those allegedly transformative histories knowable? How is historiography related to reality and how can it intervene in reality through actually changing things on the ground, such as the material conditions for cultural production? What are the possibilities that the writing of art history itself might change things on the ground and intervene in politics and narratives? More theoretical and critical in tone, this presentation welcomingly altered the more strictly historical, case-study approach of previous papers.
It was during the questionand answer sessions that issues were picked apart and significant points were raised, demonstrating how in fact the conference seemed to raise more questions than answers, not to mention leaving many unanswered. Overall, the papers presented, and the terms of the conference itself, did not concretely or analytically link 1967 to, say, the labour protests that swept Europe, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, Algeria, the Tricontinental, Leftist battles in labour, in women's rights, in art, in post-colonial liberation movements in the context of internationalism.
As some art historians and anthropologists in the audience added, the heart of the matter less about how we can know that the rupture of 1967 happened, and what were its effects on and representations in art production (or the art canon for that matter), but more critically about how art itself can produce or manufacture rupture in history. How does art help set out the terms of the political or how does art in fact make a particular terms of the political possible? If the relation of Euro-American art to that of the Middle East is already determined by the terms of the Euro-American art canon itself, what are the consequences of this on the teaching of Arab thought, or the teaching and writing of a contemporary Arab art history?
The conference was successful and dense on some levels, especially if one is interested in particular national or artist trajectories of the 1960s. Yet for those seeking a more theoretical engagement with historiography or the philosophical conditions of the question posed by the conference, they would have been left wanting. In addition, if one were interested in the contemporary and future resonances of 1967 as both a watershed date and, in the 1960s, as a political turning point, unfortunately in this respect the 'Longevity of Rupture' did not fully live up to its name.