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Where to Now? Shifting Regional Dynamics and Cultural Production in North Africa and the Middle East

Alex Dika Seggerman
1 June 2016

What are the urgent questions affecting cultural production in and around North Africa and the Middle East?


As a historian of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Middle Eastern art, I am concerned with the urgent questions facing cultural production as well as those facing histories of cultural production. My response below reflects that concern.


Who owns heritage?


Recent political, military, and market upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa have disrupted the twentieth-century artistic institutions that had previously preserved regional cultural heritage. The 'Arab Spring' dismantled state institutions, exposing their fissures, while the rise of Gulf capital has increased the value of modern and contemporary art production from the region. As a result, art from twentieth-century cultural centres like Casablanca, Cairo and Damascus steadily flows towards Dubai, Sharjah, and Doha. In the wake of collapsed Syrian sovereignty, ISIS violently and systematically obliterates all eras of cultural heritage, while the international media focuses on its destruction of 'classical' (read: Western) sites like Palmyra. These shifts raise urgent questions, including: How are capitals in the Gulf rationalizing their status as inheritors of twentieth-century Arab art? How can Euro-America feel responsible for protecting its Hellenistic cultural heritage while simultaneously refusing to aid millions of refugees? Who is responsible for protecting and preserving this heritage and its people?


Who decides?


In light of these upheavals, we must stop to ask: who decides what constitutes heritage? These decisions often result from transnational economic, political, and military power – not from the communities that originally produced those cultural objects. Art-activists have 3D printed Nefertiti's bust, an object housed at the Egyptian Museum of Berlin but annually cited for return to Egypt. Technologies like these increase access to masterpieces, while marginalized artworks literally decompose in the basements of regional state institutions. Gulf art museums and foundations collect modern and contemporary art from the Arab world, but the political, economic, and religious restrictions of these monarchies necessarily influence collecting practices. Meanwhile, Euro-American academia's "global turn" profits in this system, diversifying its disciplines to attract a global elite to pay full tuition at its universities. The ultimate decisions about what is preserved and where it is preserved has shifted to centres outside the cultures that originally made the objects, replicating Nefertiti's original dilemma.


How do we react?


Once we have recognized the profound economic and political impact on art circulation and preservation in the region, and the complicated multi-national network that supports that circulation, how should we react? As producers of culture or cultural historians, how much of this system must we acknowledge in our own work? Who is ultimately responsible for acknowledging the system of capital that affects cultural production? And, finally, is it possible to counter-act the system while still make a living within it?

Alex Dika Seggerman

is currently the Five College Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Islamic Art at Smith College and Hampshire Colleges, located in Northampton, Massachusetts, USA. She received her BA from Columbia University in 2005 and her PhD from Yale University in 2014. In 2011-12, she conducted dissertation fieldwork as a pre-doctoral fellow at the American Research Center in Egypt. She is currently working on her book project, Reawakening Modernism: Art in Egypt 1879–1967, which traces the development of the modern art movement in Egypt from the late-nineteenth century into the mid-twentieth century. She published an article on modern Egyptian sculptor Mahmoud Mukhtar in the World Art journal in 2014.

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