BY Róisín Tapponi in Opinion | 04 DEC 20

How Arab Art Collectives Are Using the Internet to Cross Borders

In a time of heightened vulnerability, new media lends itself to the Arab diaspora, reconstructing ideals of exit, nationalism and things lost

BY Róisín Tapponi in Opinion | 04 DEC 20

In the Arab world, the art community is distinctly virtual. Spanning from southwest Asia to northern Africa and beyond, the Arab region is as decentralized geographically as it is institutionally. Through social-media platforms and new digital mediums, artists and organizers are mobilizing work in ways that extend corporeal agency into distant spaces.

These strategies of navigation stem from conditions of dislocation and displacement that include (but are not limited to) war, ongoing settler colonialism, environmental devastation and political conflict. Many people of Arab descent have settled in diasporas in Europe and elsewhere. Speaking from my own diasporic subject position as a UK-based Irish-Iraqi, I know that the place we call home’ is rarely limited to one geography or nation. Often, we continue to refer to these sites as home even when they become unrecognizable.

Social media has enabled us to reconnect with the vernacular and utilize local material culture – oral histories and archival photographs– within our communities. We can travel the internet more readily than we can cross borders, especially in the midst of a pandemic. This virtuality is not the social utopia of political scientist Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983), but one constructed by material conditions that both liberate and restrict us.


Bidoun, Spring/Summer, 2005, magazine scan. Courtesy: Bidoun

From this bondage, an incredible variety of digital art collectives has emerged. An early example is Edge of Arabia, established in 2003 by a collective of artists to encourage grassroots cultural dialogue between Saudi Arabia and the rest of the world. Founded a year later, Bidoun magazine has grown into one of the most prominent forums for critical thinking about art in the region, with notable contributions by Okwui Enwezor, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Sophia Al Maria, Fatima al Qadiri, Michael Rakowitz and Eyal Weizman.

More than websites for culture browsing, these platforms have widened the scope of a collaborative creative practice, mobilizing communities through self-representation. Via digital interfaces, we can disrupt the white, hegemonic order of things: telepresence is our superpower. This year, Amman-based project space Darat al Funun launched a digital exhibition, iotawip (internet of things another world is possible), to facilitate a collective inquiry by artists, academics, curators and critics into our heightened vulnerability during the COVID-19 pandemic at the epoch of communicative capitalism. The project is an invitation to reflect on situated knowledge – both online and offline – to deconstruct the contingency and crisis of the digital medium, cyberspace and its discontents. Simultaneously, it provides an alternative operational infrastructure for cultural practitioners challenged by the precarity of our current global crisis. Iotawip contributes to a wider ecosystem of experimental publishing that is already a pillar of alternative praxis in the region, seen through open-ended, text-based projects such as kayfa-ta and Barakunan, as well as oral interventions led by Studio-X Amman and immersive podcast Kerning Cultures.


iotawip (internet of things another world is possible), 2020, screenshot. Courtesy: iotawip/ Darat al Funun, Amman

An alternative cultural history can be speculated through the idea of becoming, a methodology pertinent to marginalized groups in South-West Asia and North Africa. I approach this through my research-led project Habibi Collective, an open-access resource and curatorial platform for filmmaking and moving-image work by women and non-binary folk. Through the sharing and reassessment of our fragmented archives of women’s liberation, the digital connections marshalled by the collective have evolved to encompass international film screenings and festivals. Recent online events include Independent Iraqi Film Festival (IIFF) and the Queer MENA film festival, neither of which could have happened outside of the digital realm. 

Whilst digital art platforms facilitate connection, they are by no means the answer to total liberation. It also goes without saying that social media – with its racist algorithms, censorship (especially relating to issues of gender and sexuality) and data-privacy violations – is not a democratic medium, despite the radical thinking that may connect those of us who use it. It can be just as convincingly argued that the era of progressive digital art platforms has already passed. As noted by curator and writer Legacy Russell in her book Glitch Feminism (2020): The paradox of using platforms that sensationalize on POC, female-identifying and queer bodies as a means of advancing urgent political or cultural dialogue is one that becomes impossible to ignore.


Poster image from the back cover of PFLP Bulletin, 1981, from Code Switch archive. Courtesy: Code Switch

There is, certainly, a paradox in the fact that identity-focused artist projects geared towards self-representation co-exist alongside grossly commodifying, performative and profitable media companies that claim to support these same people. In response, certain cultural workers have taken direct action against the appropriation of culture, identity and racial politics. Lifta Volumes is a collaborative, digital and print publication whose inaugural project was centred upon Palestinian liberation. Stepping away from the limitations of current affairs and popular rhetoric, virtually connected contributors from Palestine and its diasporas move towards a potential future, reconstructing ideals of exit, nationalism and things lost.

In reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement, research-led projects have been fundamental in drawing attention to the racism that exists within Arab communities. Founded in June, Black Arabs Collective shares the stories and amplifies the voices of Black Arabs. Meanwhile, the Afro-Arab diasporic site Code Switch has a more theoretical focus as an anti-imperialist and pan-African repository. Working as an archive and continuum of radical internationalism, Code Switch features artefacts from Black liberation groups such as The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Liberation Support Movement and Black Panther Party. Refusing instant gratification and the click-bait swamp of neoliberal politics, measured research and community-led approaches build resistance at an interface.

Main image: Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki, 2 Lizards, 2020, video still from Instagram series. Courtesy: the artists 

Róisín Tapponi is a film curator, writer and academic. She is the founder of Habibi Collective, SHASHA Movies, Independent Iraqi Film Festival and ART WORK magazine, as well as a recipient of a PhD Art History Scholarship at St Andrews University, Fife, Scotland.