DUBAI: In his essay collection “Ghosts of My Life,” British theorist Mark Fisher writes of “popular modernism” — a culture that straddles the experimental and the mainstream and pushes boundaries to create innovative art. This concept is also the backbone of “New Affinities,” a Tunisian art exhibition currently underway at La Marsa’s B7L9 Art Station.
While the term popular modernism is still not widely explored in the West, in the Middle East and North Africa it is virtually non-existent. So, the Kamel Lazaar Foundation-organized event aims to delve deep into Fisher’s concept with an emphasis on the Arab world.
Curated by Ma3azef, a strictly-Arabic music magazine, and the Sharjah Art Foundation’s deputy director Reem Shadid, Tunisia's first-of-its-kind exhibition aims to challenge the false dichotomy between the experimental and the mainstream.
Or as one of the curators, Maan Abu Taleb, puts it: "Popular art is not by definition lowly, and vice versa, great art does not need to be inaccessible and exclusive. There can be great art that is also very popular."
The exhibition, which kicked off earlier this month with a performance by Tunisian DJ Ratch0pper, presents examples of popular modernist works from all over the Arab world in a multitude of different art mediums. Featuring films, music, poetry, literature, dance, video games and fashion, which is made and consumed in the Arab world, “New Affinities” hopes to re-adapt Fisher’s theory to the region.
Among the works on display are the clothing and smiley-face shaped rugs from Dubai-based lifestyle label Shabab Intl; eclectic paintings from the Saudi artist who goes by the moniker Rex Chouk; popular manga series strewn across wooden tables for the reading pleasure of guests; and projections of popular Arabic music videos, such as the clip for Moroccan rapper Issam Harris’ viral hit “Trap Beldi.”
Abu Taleb's favorite pieces? “The works that stand out for me are Abu Asalah's song ‘Talatat Talatat’,“ he shares with Arab News. “It has all the features of what we think a popular modernist work has,“ Abu Taleb shares of the song that was originally leaked during a wedding and went on to having a huge impact on Egyptian culture and music while simultaneously being ignored by the establishment.
One of the attendees, Amina Kaabi, 27, stated to Arab News: “It’s one of the most impressive exhibitions I’ve ever attended in Tunisia. The team behind it clearly have a deep understanding of the Arab world. They’ve put the spotlight on overlooked aspects of our cultures, which is a significant move.”
In addition to presenting art works from various mediums, “New Affinities” also brought together a host of guest speakers earlier this week, including renowned Tunisian dancer and choreographer Oumaïma Manaï, who sat down to discuss the evolution and impact of Tunisian contemporary dance on popular culture.
Another thought-provoking discussion saw Ammar Manla Hasan, executive editor of Ma3azef, engage in a talk with students from the underprivileged area of Bahr Lazreg about video games and how they’re created to push the boundaries of storytelling on Sunday.
"New Affinities" will run until Jan. 25, 2020.