Art and Morality under Neoliberalism: Reflections on "Blasphemous" Art from the East—A Tale in Three Parts

By Ania Szremski

INTRODUCTION

"History suggests that capitalism is a necessary condition for political freedom." —Milton Friedman

The David Wojnarowicz censorship scandal of late 2010 reminds me of an earlier case in Poland, in which an artwork featuring a cross and the male nude body elicited outrage, confusion, and mass-media attention. The piece was Dorota Nieznalska's Pasja (Passion), which explored the construction of gender identity through a black steel cross, adorned with the photographic image of a penis. Nieznalska juxtaposed the cross with a video showing the contorted face of a man, grunting and straining as he strenuously lifted weights.


Dorota Nieznalska, Pasja, 2001. Photograph, steel, video (45 minutes, looped).

When the piece was first presented in 2001 at the Wyspa Gallery in Gdansk, it did not remain on display for long. But while Wojnarowicz's video was simply removed from the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in response to complaints from conservative parties, in Gdansk, the consequences were far graver. Activists raided the gallery and verbally assaulted the artist; a skinhead group called All-Polish Youth threatened to shave Nieznalska's head, as if she were a Nazi sympathizer; and the conservative Catholic Polish Family League successfully petitioned to have her brought to trial. In July 2003, Polish courts found Nieznalska guilty of blasphemy, by violating Article 156 of the criminal code. She was fined, sentenced to community service, and forbidden to leave the country until the charges were finally reversed in 2009.

The Wojnarowicz and Nieznalska cases are also similar in that they occurred during pivotal moments of economic restructuring. In the American case, the Wojnarowicz video was removed during a severe economic crisis and a push for privatization. In Poland, the censorship of Nieznalska's piece occurred roughly ten years after the end of Soviet rule, in the midst of the dizzyingly rapid adoption of neoliberal economic policies.

There is a particularly interesting facet to the culture-war dynamic in the transition from socialism to neoliberal capitalism. The underlying motives for acts of censorship are manifold, but brandishing the word morality to put an artist in check involves more than a mere concern for family values. In fact, public battles over morality are an important force in the attempt to mold a new neoliberal subject through the vocabulary of historical social norms.

This story becomes especially curious when we cast our art historical net a little wider and look beyond a Western context. In what follows, I will consider examples of "blasphemous" artworks in post-1989 Poland, Russia, and Egypt. The cultural confluences between the Middle East and the former Soviet Bloc are many, fascinating, and tantalizingly under-explored. What I hope to make clear in this essay is that, although strategies employed by Eastern European artists in the 1990s and Egyptian artists in the early 2000s look quite different, the artworks they produced (and the official reactions that they elicited) were ensnared in similar economic currents.

Using terms from Boris Groys's essay, "The Weak Universalism," I propose that during their countries' respective transitions out of communism, the Polish and Russian artists discussed here employed "strong signs of revolt, desire, heroism, or shock" that set out to do just that: shock and overwhelm with raw, aggressive gestures in order to carve out a new discursive space.[1] In the Egyptian context, however, visual artists most often negotiated the opening of the private sector with "weak signs" that operated more insidiously; the works they created were ambiguous in meaning, difficult to recognize, and anything but shocking. But in each instance, the official response was the same: problematic works, whether "strong" or "weak," were labeled an insult to religion and aggressively censored by the state.

This response helps create the illusion of timelessness. These acts of censorship suggest that these are values we have always believed in and will continue to believe in. In the midst of the extremely rapid change characterizing the neoliberal experience, the state's assertion that it needs to protect us from something corruptive gives the impression of permanence and stability.

Moral language also reinforces a buffer zone around the public sphere. The "political freedom" mentioned in Milton Friedman's quote is one of the promises of the free market. But as the examples here demonstrate, under neoliberalism, the open public sphere is really an illusory promise. The public may dip its toes into the shallow end of critical debate, but the state erects protective bulwarks that prevent public discourse from becoming too deep. These bulwarks are often disguised as feelings of fear, shame, disgust, or anxiety. Such emotions are circulated via various rhetorical strategies, like condemning an artwork as hateful and blasphemous in the media. These acts may increase curiosity about the object in question, but they also encourage the public to recoil from that same object's critical potential.

Finally, once the period of restructuring has passed and the public sphere has quieted down, those very same artworks that had caused such furor may even reappear. Only now, they have been drained of their incisive potential and bestowed with high market values.

Part I: Poland and the Body
In his essay, "Feminist Revolt: Censorship of Women's Art in Poland," the art historian and curator Paweł Leszkowicz claims, "Nothing is more striking about post-1989, post-Communist Polish visual culture than the domestic scandals stirred up by contemporary art."[2] This critical art of the 1990s was trenchantly provocative (even downright hostile), and, in the vein of the historical avant-garde, intent on violently disrupting "automatic modes of thought."[3]

The vanguard was led by women artists who ruthlessly exploited the nude body as a site for contesting entrenched notions of gender and social identity. They pushed the limits of the newly opened public sphere with frank, gritty images of vulnerable and eroticized human forms. Their efforts, however, were not well received.


Alicja Zebrowska, Original Sin, 1994. Installation view. Courtesy the artist.

Alicja Zebrowska was one of the first artists to lead the way with her 1994 video, Grzech Pierworodny (Original Sin), and the accompanying photo series, Narodziny Barbie (Birth of Barbie). The video opens with the artist biting into an apple, then transitions to frank scenes of vaginal and anal masturbation, a vaginal mud bath, and the emergence of a Barbie doll from disembodied female genitalia.[4]

Zebrowska's video installation responded in part to an anti-abortion law passed by the Polish government in 1993, which essentially made the procedure illegal. In her essay "Feminist Art in Poland," Izabela Kowalczyk points out that the work also proclaims an autonomous and active role for the vagina in the experience of sexual pleasure and reproduction.[5] The images touch on Polish society's deeply engrained conservative Catholic mores, as well as the ensuing vilification of the female body and female sexuality.

Both the video and the photographs were shown in the 1995 Antibodies exhibition at Warsaw's Centre for Contemporary Art, where they caused an uproar. Deriding the installation as pornography, Catholic activists called for the work to be removed and brought a lawsuit against the exhibition organizers. In addition, as evidence of how the market enacts censorship alongside state forces, a major funder withdrew financial support for the Centre.

Sara Ahmed discusses this sort of affective response in her book, The Cultural Politics of Emotion. For Ahmed, strong feelings of offense or disgust stem from the fear of transgression. In Zebrowska's case, there is the breaching of the human body's borders, rendered vulnerable and permeable via the exposure of normally unseen orifices. There is also the potential breaching of the borders of a larger social body, whose values are violated by the artist's debased references to Catholicism.

Ahmed suggests that by proclaiming, "That's disgusting" or "That's immoral," the speech act (whether uttered by a conservative activist, a journalist, or a policeman) "generates a community . . . bound together through the shared condemnation of a disgusting object or event."[6] In the examples of both Zebrowska and Nieznalska, we see the state censor and the market censor encouraging the public to shrink from the strong signals emitted by the artists' provocative works. While the art may have elicited a good deal of discussion, debate was focused on issues like whether or not the videos were really pornography, overshadowing the potential for a deeper critical exchange.

Kataryna Kozyra was Zebrowska's fellow pioneer in forging the new critical art in Poland. Art21 Blog guest blogger Dorota Biczel has eloquently summarized Kozyra's oeuvre in her essay, "Dissecting the Social Self," describing the artist's work as "the flag post of the period called 'the cold war between art and society.'" Today celebrated as one of Poland's better-known international exports, Kozyra aggressively provoked her viewers throughout the 1990s with photographic manipulations of animal and human bodies. While Piramida Zwierząt (Pyramid of Animals, 1993) definitively marked Kozyra as an artist "of scandal," once again it was images of the nude body in conjunction with religious symbols that elicited an outright act of censorship.


Kataryna Kozyra, still from Pyramid of Animals, 1993. Installation of life-size, stuffed animals and video.

In 1995, Kozyra executed a series of four photographs titled Wierzy Krwi (Blood Ties), which featured the nude bodies of the artist and her sister, posed on red crosses and crescent moons alongside swaths of cabbages and cauliflowers. Kozyra described the images as commentaries on the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, particularly the victimization of women during the conflict. In 1999, the Art Marketing Syndicate (AMS) company selected two photographs in the series to be exhibited on municipal billboards throughout Poland, as part of their Galeria Zewnetrzna, or Outdoor Gallery.


Katarzyna Kozyra, Wierzy Krwi (Blood Ties), 1995. Color photograph, 200 x 200 cm.

Begun in 1998, this initiative claimed new possibilities for public space by presenting contemporary Polish art on billboards in editions of four hundred.[7] Project directors Lech Olszewski and Marek Krajewski proposed, "The gallery is going to promote aesthetic alternatives to boredom and to the instrumental kitsch of the Polish contemporary city's ionosphere."[8] Kozyra's billboards were certainly an alternative to boredom, but they also became a lightning rod for conservative opposition. Upon the unveiling of Wierzy Krwi, the artist was accused of everything from Satanism to the defamation of Catholicism and Islam. To settle the matter, AMS papered over the nude figures and removed some of the billboards. The state punished the artist by drastically reducing the budget for her project representing Poland at that year's Venice Biennale.


Kataryna Kozyra, Wierzy Krwi (Blood Ties), 1999. Billboards.

Although her imagery is less shocking than either Zebrowska's or Nieznalska's, Kozyra's photographs were perhaps more problematic due to their public nature; viewers had no choice but to confront these street-side images. In these photographs, the exposed female body smears the sticky residue of shame onto eternal symbols of holiness and purity, thus eliciting a highly affective—and offensive—response. Unfortunately, the pressing social issues that the artist hoped to raise with these images were lost in the tumult of voices debating the moral appropriateness of her work.

In her essay, "Feminist Art and Democratic Culture: Debates on the New Poland," Elzbieta Matynia notes, "In Poland, where . . . the public sphere has become increasingly thin and formalized—nearly atrophied in fact—the art cultivated by a sizable number of women artists has generated precisely the kind of thicker, alternative discursive space in which contentious issues, silenced in the dominant public sphere, are posed and can be debated."[9] But did they, really? They certainly attempted to carve out a critical discursive space, and boldly so. The acts of censorship described here did generate debate over the role of art, the Church, and censorship in a new Poland. But that debate was contained in proscribed circles, where its potential effect was limited, and the debates that did play out in mainstream sources were far less ambitious. And now, as Biczel astutely pointed out, these artists have since been safely institutionalized, circulated through the international market, and assimilated into mainstream culture, effectively neutralizing the power they once had to generate truly critical discourse.

Part II: Russia and the Icon
If the new Poland has since entered a period of relative normalcy, both culturally and economically, the same cannot be said of the new Russia. From the early 1990s to the 2000s, Russia has witnessed the aggressive deregulation of the private sector in tandem with Vladimir Putin's re-nationalization of profitable companies. Such a volatile combination has led to rapid economic growth alongside severe authoritarian corruption.

In the midst of these changes, a series of artistic experiments cheekily (and sometimes violently) tested the boundaries of the public sphere. In this predominately male, Moscow-based context, we again witness historical avant-garde tactics of shock and awe, aimed at shaking up bourgeois mores. However, the emphasis here, unlike in Poland, tended to be less on the sexual and more on the scatological. Artists were ultimately concerned with the destruction of the beloved icons of Russian society, both art historical and religious.

Avdei Ter-Oganian was a leading figure during this time. Founder of the "Art and Death" group in 1989, Ter-Oganian co-founded Moscow's first artist-run space/squat on Trekhprudnyi Lane in 1991. During the gallery's short lifespan, September 1991 to May 1993, Ter-Oganian and his fellow artists staged about ninety one-night exhibitions in their small space.


Konstantin Reunov and Avdei Ter-Oganian, Charity, 1991. Drawings and performance.

Highlights include the gallery's first event, Charity, organized by Ter-Oganian and Konstantin Reunov, for which the artists hired three street beggars to sit next to three reproductions of etchings by Rembrandt (including the eponymous work, Charity). In the Moscow performance of 1992, Ter-Oganian, Alexander Kharchenko, Alexander Gormatiuk, and Vladimir Dubosarsky organized a four-hour-long bus tour of Moscow that included visiting the city's best liquor stores.[10] In Neonacademy, two models were hired from the Academy of Fine Arts to pose nude with neon lamps. And in Towards the Object, Ter-Oganian drank himself unconscious and remained passed out in the middle of the gallery for the duration of the one-night exhibition.


Avdei Ter-Oganian, Towards the Object, 1992.

Performances in which bodily excretions played a central role were popular. Modest Pupils of the Great Master, for instance, was an homage to Piero Manzoni's Merda d'artista: Ter-Oganian invited artists to contribute their feces to an exhibition installed inside a refrigerator, which was later donated to the Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art. In her paper "Controversial Performances at the Moscow Gallery on Trekhprudnyi Lane," art historian Joanna Matuszak discussed another example, in which Ter-Oganian recreated Duchamp's Fountain, but restored the readymade to its original function:[11] A urinal was mounted to the gallery wall, and copious amounts of beer were served to the opening's attendees; the bathroom, however, was locked and declared to be out of order, forcing those in dire need of relief to make use of the artwork itself. Interestingly, Matuszak notes that the performance is clearly for a male viewer; female attendees would be hard-pressed to participate. In general, the work by Ter-Oganian and his cohorts often revolved around the male body, the phallus, and stereotypes regarding the Slavic male's inherent machismo.


Alexander Gormatiuk, Konstantin Reunov, and Avdei Ter-Oganian, Neonacademy, 1992.

Despite the bold and sometimes salacious content of the works shown at the Trekhprudnyi Lane gallery, these experiments were safe enough from the wrath of censors. The squat's relative isolation from the general public—and the artists' preoccupation with dismantling art historical hierarchies (as opposed to local/social ones)—made the performances less interesting to state officials. But Ter-Oganian began to get in trouble when he turned his attention to the icons of Russian religion.

At the Manege Art Hall in 1998, the artist performed Young Atheist, in which he wielded an axe and attacked mass-produced icons belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church. Unlike his earlier experiments, this performance would not slip under the radar. Following a public outcry, the curator of the exhibition was fired from the gallery, and a lawsuit was brought against the artist for "activities aiming to rouse religious hostility, accomplished in public." Ter-Oganian subsequently fled to the Czech Republic, where he has since remained, in exile to this day.

In this instance, it was not the vulnerability of the exposed body that caused offense, but the destruction of objects that embodied traditional values. Critics feared losing the icon, an object that reaffirmed notions of home and tradition, as well as one that preserved a sense of continuity in a moment of extreme change. Furthermore, the very public and participatory nature of the performance made the piece downright dangerous (Ter-Oganian invited viewers to destroy the icons themselves or, if they chose, they could pay him to do the dirty work).


Avdei Ter-Oganian, Young Atheist, 1998.

The Young Atheist performance launched a series of the most incendiary cases of censorship in post-1989 Russia. In January 2003, the exhibition, Caution: Religion!, at the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Center in Moscow was vandalized by followers of the ultra-rightwing Orthodox priest, Alexander Shargunov. Criminal charges were brought against the museum director, Yuri Samodurov, the curator Ludmila Vasilovskaya, and the artist Anna Mikhalchuk for "incitement of ethnic, racial, or religious hatred"—a violation of Article 282 regarding blasphemy in the Russian criminal code. Although charges were ultimately dropped against Mikhalchuk, Samodurov and Vasilovskaya were convicted in 2005 and each fined 100,000 rubles. Tragically, in 2008, Mikhalchuk was found dead, presumably from suicide.

 

Alexander Kosolapov, This is my blood, This is my body, 2002. Light boxes, 82 x 150 cm each.

At the Sakharov Museum in 2007, Yuri Samodurov found himself in hot water again. That year, Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeyev co-curated Forbidden Art, an exhibition of all the artworks censored by Russian museums and galleries in 2006. Several of the pieces were again religious in theme, such as Alexander Kosolapov's Icon-Caviar and This is my blood, This is my body, the Blue Noses Group's Chechen Marilyn, and Vagrich Bakhchanyon's The Crucifix. In 2010, the curators were each fined 5,000 dollars for inciting national and religious hatred—a light sentence in comparison to the three years' imprisonment with which they had been threatened.


Blue Noses, Chechen Marilyn, 2005. Color photograph, 75 x 100 cm. Edition of ten.

Other cases of censorship have, of course, been overtly political—for instance, when the Russian government refused to allow Ter-Oganian's Radical Abstraction series to be shown at the Louvre in 2010, due to the artist's attacks on Putin and other governmental officials. The most troublesome work, according to Russia's Ministry of Culture, was an abstract painting of a black bar floating in a red field that bore the label, "This work urges you to commit an attack on statesman V. Putin in order to end his state and political activities."

But that case aside, the most dramatic and detrimental cases of censorship were carried out under the banner of morality. In an open letter to the Louvre curator, Marie-Laure Bernadac, Ter-Oganian claimed that this was due to the increasing political power of the Russian Orthodox Church. Of course, the extraordinary personality of Putin himself is another unique factor in post-Soviet Russia's culture wars. But beyond these local specificities, deploying words like blasphemy and morally offensive to attack the arts is an attempt to drain a "thick" discursive sphere of true critical potential. From this angle, then, there is little difference between the condemnation of Ter-Oganian under Putin and the condemnation of Mapplethorpe under Reagan.

Part III: Egypt and the Mysterious Sign

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Egyptian and Soviet cultural sectors were in close contact. During Egypt's socialist period under President Gamal Nasser, countries like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia founded cultural centers in Cairo that became important hubs of activity and provided funding for major exhibitions and publications. If prominent Egyptian artists and writers didn't head to Paris or Rome, they traveled to Moscow to study cinematography and photomontage.

In the early 1970s, Egypt broke ties with the Eastern bloc and turned towards the United States. However, certain dynamics in the Egyptian cultural field continue to resemble dynamics in the former Soviet Union, including the use of moral language to censor problematic artworks. The three examples of censored works to which I now turn did not outrage and offend their viewing publics with shocking imagery, as in Poland and Russia. Living under a far more repressive regime, artists in Egypt had to adopt different strategies. The works were merely confusing, instead of shocking; worse, however, the works dared to escape the confines of the gallery, no matter how surreptitiously. This ambiguous invasion of the public sphere was what ultimately provoked the ire of authorities.

To understand the particularities of the situation in Egypt vis-à-vis Eastern Europe, a brief outline of Egypt's transition out of socialism is helpful.[12] After coming to power in 1970, President Anwar el Sadat's brutal enactment of neoliberal reforms devastated the local Egyptian art scene. The arts were one of Sadat's primary targets in his ruthless campaign for privatization; he went so far as to convert the state-run Palace for the Arts into his own personal residence. Other moves included selling the national Akhneton Gallery, which was then converted into an elite restaurant, and converting two other national exhibition spaces into Islamic banks. Finally, in the early 1980s, Sadat disdainfully pronounced, "Culture is for the intellectuals," and dissolved the Ministry of Culture altogether.

When Hosni Mubarak took power following Sadat's assassination in 1981, Egypt was experiencing severe economic and political turmoil. Although Mubarak kept the country on the path to free-market capitalism, he undertook key measures to reverse the chaos wrought by Sadat's reign. One of these measures was reviving the Ministry of Culture and quickly restoring it to its former power. Under the leadership of Faruq Husni in the late 1980s and early '90s, the Ministry of Culture once again began to dominate cultural production, producing high profile art events like the Cairo and Alexandria Biennale exhibitions.

After 1989, a series of regulations were passed to encourage the growth of private business. Consequently, just like in Poland and Russia, a new field of private galleries cropped up around Cairo through the '90s (many owned and operated by foreigners).

On the one hand, it behooved the state to make room for the burgeoning private art market, which represented a boon for business and tourism. Furthermore, the appearance of artists freely operating in alternative venues could help alleviate mounting frustration with Egypt's repressive regime. But on the other hand, the government felt compelled to protect its own interests from public critique. It also had to pay occasional lip service to the complaints voiced by Islamist factions. In Jessica Winegar's view, this balance "consisted, once again, of a pattern of restrictions and concessions that allowed 'freedom of talk.'"[13]

The culture-war dynamic in Egypt is usually discussed within a literary context. The Ministry of Culture often censors and bans books for "morally offensive" content, and major contemporary writers like Sonallah Ibrahim have received death threats from extremist factions—Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz was even stabbed in a failed assassination attempt. There are fewer high-profile censorship cases in the art world, notes Winegar, due to the fact that the Egyptian visual artists tend not to tackle the sensitive, hot-button subjects that writers have addressed (Ibrahim, for instance, is known for his biting critique of social conditions under both Nasser and Sadat, U.S. imperialism, and the Egyptian middle class). But more importantly, the arts are usually only accessible to a small, elite audience, and are thus less likely to "infect" public opinion.[14]

Most Egypt-based artists I know have experienced some form of censorship at some point, but precisely what art gets censored can be puzzling. Potentially seditious pieces that reference actual Egyptian political figures—or that enact pointed social critique—can sometimes be shown, depending on the critique's degree of overtness. Art that is ambiguous, difficult to identify, and difficult to interpret proves more worrisome. But it is when artworks exit the gallery space that the problems really begin.

Huda Lutfi is one artist who has borne the brunt of state censorship on charges of religious defamation. Lutfi's collages, paintings, and found-object installations combine images culled from pop culture, folk traditions, and Egyptian history to comment on gender identity politics and consumer culture. Some of her works are more overtly political than others, but the piece that has caused Lutfi the greatest legal difficulty was a surprisingly innocuous one.


Huda Lutfi, Remembrance (or The Secret of Repetition), 2003.

This work, Remembrance (or The Secret of Repetition, 2003), consists of wooden shoe molds that were collected from shoe factories, scraped clean, and painted silver. Lutfi inscribed the shoes with an Arabic phrase used by Sufis to meditate, which translates as, "I am in the company of the one who remembers me, and the one who remembers me is in my company." She organized the shoe molds in rows, intending to recreate the quiet atmosphere of Sufi meditation; in her essay, "The Artist as Bricoleur," Lutfi says that she was "grappling with a challenging paradox: how to represent the state of meditation, dhikr, leading to silence."[15]


Huda Lutfi, Remembrance (or The Secret of Repetition), 2003. Detail view.

The piece was executed for Lutfi's solo exhibition, Found in Cairo, held at the Townhouse Gallery in 2003. An image of the shoe molds was used as the exhibition poster, hundreds of which were placed around the city. According to the artist, just a few days after the posters appeared on the streets, a complaint was filed, and she was called to the police station. An officer asked Lutfi to explain the meaning of the work and decided that "all posters and invitation cards bearing the same image were to be brought to the police station for confiscation"; Lutfi said, "What he seemed to be concerned about was protecting the public space from contamination, from images that may be offensive, and hence cause trouble on the street."[16] The piece itself, however, was allowed to remain on view for the remainder of the exhibition without further incident.


Huda Lutfi, Sufi Circle (or Circle of Remembrance), 2004.

A year later, in 2004, a new version of the work also caused trouble. Lutfi sent the installation, Sufi Circle (or Circle of Remembrance), to Bahrain for a solo show at the Riwaq Gallery, only to find out that the shipping agent in charge of the artwork had been detained, and the Department of Artistic Items had confiscated the piece. The fact that the shipping agent was Coptic allegedly made customs officials suspicious that some sort of religious blasphemy was involved. They asked a "religious expert" to examine the script on the shoes, and he erroneously concluded that they were extracts from a sacred text in the Quran. Lutfi was charged with "exploitation of the Islamic religion in [her] artwork; conspiracy with the Coptic community to disparage the Islamic religion; [and] threatening the national security of the Egyptian nation."[17]

Lutfi was ultimately acquitted of the charges, and the case was finally closed earlier this year, during the first weeks of the revolution that began on January 25.[18] The piece, however, still remains hidden somewhere in the confiscated items department of the Cairo airport.

The fear and anger inspired by this work seems a bit puzzling. After all, there are no nude bodies or exposed genitalia on view, as in Zebrowska's work (notably, other works in Lutfi's Found in Cairo exhibition did display the female nude, and they were not censored), nor did the artist use any actual icons associated with religion. It was not the shock value of the piece that caught the attention of the officials, but rather its ambiguity and perceived potential for subversion: Was it communicating something derogatory or subversive in some kind of hidden code? Or could it inspire the viewer to think that it did, and thus generate conversation? It was the possibility of an undefined transgression that rendered the work fearsome or anxiety-causing. Unlike an overtly political work, the potential for risk could not be clearly identified, assessed, and neutralized.

A similarly perplexing case of censorship occurred at the 2003 Youth Salon in the Palace of the Arts.[19] The new media artist Magdi Mostafa had been invited to execute the first sound piece ever to be installed in a public exhibition space in Egypt. His proposal was rigorously vetted by the event's organizers, and the three-week-long installation process was closely monitored. For the piece, the artist installed speakers of different sizes in hallways throughout the Palace of the Arts. These speakers emitted three different looped soundtracks, creating what the artist called "an obscure dialogue."[20]


Magdi Mostafa, studies for Sound Installation 1, 2003.

The day after the opening, the piece was abruptly removed from the exhibition without the artist's knowledge. According to Mostafa, there had been complaints from some individuals who were disturbed by the work: it was not in a clearly defined exhibition space, and there was no object to look at—was it even art, then? If so, what was it about? What could the artist be trying to hide inside all this noise?

Today, public attitudes in Egypt towards sound art (and new media in general) have shifted, and such a project would likely be considered almost de rigueur, if exhibited now. But even in 2003, I think there was more at play in this act of censorship than mere wariness regarding a new art form. Implicit in this project is something that consistently informs Mostafa's other works. He plays with the viewer's/listener's understanding of space and place to create a small-scale, micro-"public sphere," one that brings together an accidental community of strangers. In the Youth Salon installation, he attempted to create a "stranger relationality" through tactics of spatial disorientation. Confused by the mingling of abstract electronic sounds, the viewer's normally passive experience would be intentionally disrupted; she would become aware of those around her and the structure that they were in together. For Egyptian officials, there lies the rub: the potential creation of an alternative discursive space.

Mostafa has since moved away from these early experiments with ambiguity, finding more success with works that are clearly defined and safely constrained within the exhibition space, like his fantastic Transparent Existence of 2010.


Magdi Mostafa, Transparent Existence, 2010. Light and sound installation.

The third case of Egyptian censorship features an art form that one would expect to be problematic, regardless of the seemingly innocuous nature of its content: the form, after all, is illegal. In May 2009, Ayman Ramadan took to the streets of Cairo every night for three weeks, stenciling an abstract, ghostly figure of a street sweeper. The artist describes the project as an attempt to render visible those workers who invisibly keep Africa's largest city running: street sweepers, garbage collectors, and other manual laborers occupying the bottom rungs of Cairene society. But scandalized local police officers begged to differ. Soon after the works were completed, the nightly news began to release reports that the images were Satanic symbols, anti-government propaganda, or the work of the mysterious "emos" (a label for fans of Western "emotional hardcore" music and fashions derived from it). Ramadan gave himself up to the police and spent three days blindfolded in jail, while those city workers labored, washing away their own portraits.[21]


Ayman Ramadan, Street Sweeper, 2009. Spray-painted image on street grate.

An interest in Cairo's graffiti surged during the recent revolution, when the streets, sidewalks, and buildings were transformed into colorful banners adorned with political messages—the public apotheosis of what was formerly a sly practice executed only in the semi-privacy of night. In a 2010 article published in Daily New Egypt, Cairo-based journalist Jano Charbel briefly outlines a decades-long history of graffiti in Egypt, focusing on young taggers who served time for their political scrawling.


Image of street art in Cairo, from Jano Charbel's blog.

Over the past few years, a countercurrent in graffiti art emerged in Egyptian public spaces. Instead of expressly political or subversive content, aesthetic and formal considerations came to the fore; the taggers self-identify as street artists. These artists are formally organized, even conducting workshops and other pedagogical endeavors, like Alex Street Art, founded in 2008 in Alexandria by a fine-art student, Aya Tarek.

 

Pieces by the Alex Street Art group.

Cairo's private galleries have encouraged this trend. In 2009, for instance, the New York-based street artist, Swoon, spent two months in residency at the Townhouse Gallery, plastering the surrounding streets with her distinctive forms of portraiture. At the end of the same year, the Darb 1718 Contemporary Art and Culture Center held a graffiti workshop with the French artist (and self-proclaimed "sensory terrorist") Missill, who painted murals with local artists and youths in an abandoned area of the city used to store refuse. Gallery director Moataz Nasr described the work as a community-service-oriented beautification project.


Missill's work with Darb 1718.

Anecdotal accounts by some of these artists suggest very little interest from the police, despite the illegality of their projects. The most severe reprisal was reported by a young artist who identifies himself as AS. He stated that he and his friends were once detained for a few hours after being caught spray-painting a mural, but then were released with a warning not to do it again. Another artist describes being stopped by a policeman who told him to get a permit from the Ministry of Culture to recreate the works in a gallery. Artists like Swoon and Missill, on the other hand, are the safest from official reproach. Gallery-commissioned works in the streets may get covered up fairly quickly, but the consequences are rarely more serious than that; association with an institution lends such works a greater degree of acceptability.

One would expect Ayman Ramadan to be similarly protected. Affiliated with the Townhouse Gallery and having exhibited his works at venues such as the New Museum and Tate Modern, the artist has no small measure of institutional legitimacy. So, why was Ramadan targeted to such an extent that he would be defamed in the media and even briefly imprisoned?


Ayman Ramadan, Invisible Workings, 2009. Courtesy the artist.

Part of the problem may lie in the slippery, ambiguous nature of Ramadan's ghostly signs. They could not easily be identified as tags, political slogans, or as an artwork-cum-beautification project. They were just mysterious signposts. Those people who stopped, pointed, and wondered about the signs would become bound together as a community of witnesses. The strange signs created the possibility for critical discourse in their very ambiguity, because viewers wanted to know what they were about. Without understanding the function or content of the symbols, the authorities could not decide which half of the phrase "repressive tolerance" to enact. So, they assigned the images a blasphemous meaning, accusing the maker of Satanism, amongst other charges.


Ayman Ramadan, Invisible Workings, 2009. Courtesy the artist.

Of the three censored Egyptian artworks discussed here, only Ramadan's work had any seed of social critique. But all intended to prick the viewer's consciousness in subtle ways, whether by encouraging awareness of a particular mental state (in Lutfi's case), or of one's location in space (as in Mostafa's work). These pieces seem less likely to be targets for the censor boards than the raw, highly sexualized, even downright hostile imagery employed by the artists in Warsaw and Moscow. Yet, the underlying mechanisms at work in the three locations' case studies are similar.

There is a strange parallel logic in the strategies of the state and those of the censored artists. During the period of increasingly rapid change that is the hallmark of neoliberal capitalism, both the moral, repressive language of the state and artists' responding subversions slowed down time. The state resurrected an image of tradition through the language of morality; the artists created images (shocking or mysterious) that created a space for oppositional discourse.

When looking at censorship in "the East," it is easy to fetishize location and say that this sort of thing happens "over there," where religious sentiment runs high and states lean towards the totalitarian. Of course, various cultural and political specificities inform the cultural playing fields of a given country. But it is telling that the state reactions to the potential criticality of art were so similar during parallel moments of deregulation and privatization in not only Eastern Europe and the Middle East but also the United States. We like to believe that America's democratic, capitalist system ensures an unparalleled degree of freedoms, including the potential for a robust, critical discursive space. But as the recent Wojnarowicz case reminds us, the discursive space provided by neoliberalism is often chimerical.


[1] Boris Groys, "The Weak Universalism," E-flux Journal, no. 15 (April 2010), paragraph 10. Groys borrows Giorgio Agamben's term, weak signs. I would like to thank Dorota Biczel for introducing me to this essay, discussed in her master's thesis, "Weak Signals in the Fog: Tactics of [In]visibility in Neo-Conceptual Peruvian Art." Many of our conversations have informed the thinking behind this essay.

[2] Paweł Leszkowicz, "Feminist Revolt: Censorship of Women's Art in Poland," Bad Subjects, 2005, paragraph 6, http://bad.eserver.org/reviews/2005/leszkowicz.html/view?searchterm=Leszkowicz.

[3] This concept comes from curator and art historian Piotr Piotrowski, a leading theorist of the post-Soviet avant-garde. See Piotr Piotrowski, "Obraza uczuć. Odbiór sztuki krytycznej w Polsce," Res Publica Nowa, March 2002.

[4] Note that this description refers to the second version of the video.

[5] Izabela Kowalczyk, "Feminist Art in Poland," n.paradoxa 11 (October 1999), 14.

[6] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 94.

[7] Aneta Szylak, "Have Billboards Changed the Meaning of Public Space in Poland?" M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online, no. 1 (2002), http://writing.upenn.edu/epc/meaning/01/anetaszylak.html.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Elzbieta Matynia, "Feminist Art and Democratic Culture: Debates on the New Poland," PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 27, no. 1 (January 2005, PAJ 79), 3.

[10] Alcohol was an important trope in '90s Russian art; see the artists' Sea of Vodka exhibition of 1992, as well as the 1997 Vodka exhibition at the Guelman Gallery, one of Moscow's first private art spaces.

[11] Matuszak's paper was presented at "The Art of Scandal" conference, Ohio State University, May 14–15, 2010.

[12] The following history is from Jessica Winegar, Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2008).

[13] Ibid, 153.

[14] Ibid, 152–153.

[15] Huda Lutfi, "A Testimony: The Artist as Bricoleur and the Dynamics of Visual Representation in the Egyptian Cultural Field," unpublished manuscript, 16.

[16] Ibid, 17.

[17] Ibid, 19.

[18] From the author's conversation with the artist.

[19] For an excellent essay on the hotly contested nature of that annual exhibition, see Omnia el Shakry, "Artist Sovereignty in the Shadow of Post-Socialism: Egypt's 20th Annual Youth Salon," E-flux Journal, no. 7 (Summer 2009).

[20] From the author's conversation with the artist.

[21] From the author's conversation with the artist.