Featured in
Issue 186

Durable Forms

The importance of art in war zones

BY Kaelen Wilson-Goldie in Opinion | 20 MAR 17

On the day that President Trump’s executive order first came into effect barring entry to the US for, among others, refugees fleeing from Syria and some of the most unconscionable violence of the 21st century, I headed to JFK airport in New York. Not, as it happened, to protest the so-called immigration ban but, rather more quietly, to fly home to Beirut with my family.

We knew that the scenes at Terminal 4 were chaotic. We knew that a crowd of heartier souls was demonstrating against the ban, that lawyers were setting up and digging in to work pro bono on behalf of those who would be detained or turned away. We knew that the wife of a Kurdish interpreter, who had worked for the US Army and who had taken enemy fire alongside US soldiers, had been prevented from boarding a flight bound for the US via Dubai – even though she held a valid Special Immigrant Visa and was, like her husband, a Yazidi: a member of the ancient religious sect most palpably at risk of being killed by ISIS if she stayed in Iraq. We had wondered if we should travel another day. We had puzzled over the fact that no one answering the phones at Air France had a clue what was happening.

Naeem Mohaiemen, United Red Army, 2011, video including NHK documentary footage of a failed military coup in Dhaka airport, 1977. Courtesy: the artist and Experimenter, Kolkata

In the end, our departure was eerily smooth; Terminal 1 was ethereally subdued. When we cleared security, I turned to look for our gate and saw – who else? – the artist Naeem Mohaiemen, standing with his bag and reading something on his phone with an energized look of concern.

I’ve known Mohaiemen for a decade and, by some burst of coincidental magic, he was exactly the person I wanted to talk to at that moment. He had come into his own as an artist from, and through, his work as an activist. There aren’t many other artists who have moved in that direction. More often, artists use their leverage, their power, to call attention to political causes once they are established in their careers. Mohaiemen, by contrast, seemed to have found the conceptual language and intellectual foundation for films such as United Red Army (2011) and Last Man in Dhaka Central (2015) – both part of his larger project, ‘The Young Man Was’ (2011), about the legacy of revolutionary leftist politics in the world today – through his more up-to-the-minute engagement with the Visible Collective. This group of like-minded artists and activists spent much of the early 2000s responding to the surveillance, interrogation and detention of Muslims in the US during the security panic of George W. Bush’s ‘war on terror’. The relentless attention to the present demanded by ‘The Young Man Was’  gave Mohaiemen’s subsequent work depth and resonance, as he filtered through layers of past history to find material worth reflecting on and rethinking now.

Art may be the only thing that truly grants us the movement of ideas and, with them, an irrational belief in what the tiniest bit of hope or freedom will do.

Mohaiemen also just happened to be flying out that day, but I found him in full interpretive mode. ‘We thought our work was over,’ he said of his time with the Visible Collective. ‘We thought that phase had passed. We thought we had entered a new era.’ Yet, with Trump’s immigration ban on seven  predominantly Muslim countries, we all seem to be plunging back into it – or worse. Standing in front of a huge glass window looking out onto the runways, we saw a row of sirens speed over the horizon line. ‘Ambulances,’ Mohaiemen noted. He looked around. ‘I think we didn’t pay enough attention to the lawyers,’ he said. ‘We didn’t listen to them enough.’ Clearly, they’d be necessary now, and we’d need to hear them.

The weeks that followed were filled – for me and for everyone else I know – with conversations about what to do and how to protest and whether making art or showing it or writing about it had any value at all. The hard truth of those days (which we are now pathologically returning to with the legal defeat of one travel ban and the introduction of another) seemed to be that, compared to calling your congressman or working as a lawyer in Terminal 4, it really did not matter at all. But an important schism emerged in those conversations between the effectiveness of protest actions and the more tenuous threads of solidarity that could link one place to another: the arrivals hall of an airport in New York with a young Syrian woman in Beirut or an older Syrian dissident living in Istanbul or a middle-aged Syrian playwright living in Berlin. If we need to listen to lawyers, then, on another level, we also need to listen to the stories of everything that has happened in Syria –  not only in this war but from the 1970s until now.

Naeem Mohaiemen, United Red Army, 2011, video including NHK documentary footage of a failed military coup in Dhaka airport, 1977. Courtesy: the artist and Experimenter, Kolkata

Another hard truth: protest art is often euphoric in its moment but awful upon reflection. Witness the flood of quick and dirty videos that were made by artists to call international attention to the war in Lebanon during the summer of 2006, or any number of Israeli strikes on Gaza in the last ten years, or the eruptions of violence in Egypt and Tunisia that marked the start of the ill-fated Arab Spring. Think of all the Tahrir-era graffiti in Cairo or the demonstration banners of Kafranbel in Syria. They don’t stand as art and shouldn’t be tasked with it: they would be stripped of their purpose if plucked from their circumstances. They work when they are left alone but also when they are framed in, say, a photograph by Fouad Elkoury or a video by Tony Chakar. They work not as art but as the substance of art, which gives them a mode of safe passage, the ability to travel unharmed. Art does that. It brings messages across borders, over chasms, into the places where certain ideas, persons and materials are, in theory, not allowed. But art needs durable forms to do so. It is those durable forms.

Artworks won’t end a war, bring down a president or end a regime. But as carriers, as vessels, they might make all of those things possible, by protest as one among many necessary strategies. Does art matter in that sense? Absolutely. It may be the only thing that truly grants us the movement of ideas and, with them, an irrational belief in what the tiniest bit of hope or freedom will do. There’s nothing more absurd than art in a war zone, but it may be the only thing that allows for dreaming, for imagining the day that war ends.

Lead image: Fouad Elkoury, Man with Radio, Beirut, 1995. Courtesy: the artist, the Third Line, Dubai, and Galerie Tanit, Munich and Beirut

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a writer based between Beirut, Lebanon, and New York, USA.