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With the benefit of hindsight, what role does new media play in artistic practices, activism, and as an agent for social change in the Middle East and North Africa today?

Rijin Sahakian
2 November 2012

A significant component of Sada's programming provides seminars, lectures, and workshops to young, emerging artists and students in Baghdad. We do this using basic Internet connection, Skype, some simple software, and a projector. A private Facebook group is the site of extensive conversations, critique and debate. This was not done out of an interest in exploring distance learning or online curriculums, but because Baghdad was, and remains, too dangerous and unstable to bring 'visiting' artists or professors into the city. There were two options: ignore the urgent needs, isolation, and violence being faced by these artists until the security situation improves, or find an alternative way to support the development of rigorous work emerging from this period of Iraq's radically shifting and complex history – work that takes on heightened importance given the systemic suppression of images, stories, and information by Iraqi, American, and multi-national forces over the past decade.


Projecting Arabic-speaking artists and professors into a classroom in Baghdad has been an ongoing experiment. It is an imperfect solution, but one that has allowed Sada to build a community of practitioners that can and do connect in the 'real' world in multiple ways. This technology has also enabled programming to take place in a capital where, for all intents and purposes, the potential of work being undertaken by the next generation of artists living in the city today has been largely ignored.


Is this a use of new media as an activist action? I'm not sure if it matters.The idea of a separation, or maintaining this distinction between artists and activists sustains a false notion that there is a fixed line between the two. When did it become acceptable to ignore the fact that for many, the work of being an artist is itself an activist action, leading to works that emerge from context and period?


In the context of Baghdad, when does your work become 'activist'? Is it when you choose to continue painting, regardless of the fact that you have been kidnapped, beaten in front of your family, and threatened for creating work at the age of 22? Once you've travelled through multiple military checkpoints every day for six years to get to art school? Or is it activism only once an artist makes a work that is somehow defined as 'political', even if the 'political' has become as ordinary as the still life of an apple? Are curators activists when they include a few unfortunate cities in exhibitions whose shelf life rivals a milk carton? Or does it graduate from activism once a market is established that approves, appropriates, and/or monetises these expressions?


More useful, I'd imagine, than focusing on the categories of politics during the 'Arab Spring', is a sustained undertaking of the politics of production, access, and the possibility of practice itself for those who do not have the desire and /or opportunity to leave the cities they live and practice in.

Rijin Sahakian

(born in 1978, Baghdad, Iraq) has developed multidisciplinary arts programmes in the U.S. and internationally. Sahakian has presented work on contemporary Iraqi art and culture at universities and cultural institutions including Stanford University, the Dubai International Film Festival, the Sharjah Art Foundation, Darat Al-Funun, and the Royal College of Art, London. She has also consulted and acted as a producer on various film and exhibition projects, including feature film Detroit Unleaded (2012); the Iraq:Reframe project at Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, California; and the Desert Initiative at the ASU Art Museum. She received her MA in Contemporary Art and Cultural Policy from New York University. Sahakian served as public programmes curator as well as catalogue essayist  for the Iraq Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale. She was awarded a graduate Fulbright Fellowship that took place in Amman, Jordan, where she was also a visiting scholar at the Columbia University Middle East Research Center. Sahakian founded Sada for contemporary Iraqi art in 2010, which she currently directs.

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