Practices, Narratives and visual politics of graffiti and street art in Jordan and Morocco
My Ph.D. thesis is about a comparative study on cultural practices and narratives related to art production and its entanglement with resistance and visual politics in North Africa and the Middle East. By working on Morocco and Jordan, I mainly focus on wall-writings, street art, and graffiti in order to understand what wall expressions do, the extent to which they have a particularly political place in society, and how they relate to socio-political transformations.
My aim is not about presenting an artistic evaluation of the quality of these demonstrations nor providing definitions of graffiti and street art, because “too much focus on definitions could lead to, for example, art historians studying “good” street art and criminologists studying “bad” graffiti” (Ross et al., 2017: 416). Rather, I look for what street art does (Tsilimpounidi 2015) in a context where the mainstream media do not cover the voiceless' struggles.
I assume that examining wall writing and painting in Rabat and Amman would vocalize the city's visual scene, which is charged and marked by a rich cultural diversity as well as protestations on the streets. To illustrate, the existing Murals, tags and writings read social, cultural and political themes like love, education, gender equality, environment, right to public transport, and paying tribute to activists. These murals and graffiti inscriptions are a (visual) text that read messages with different significations like “Where’s the sea?”, “I’m Arabic”, “The City is So Empty”, “Freedom”, “Learn Arabic”, “Outside is Our Home Too”, “Asking Allah for Forgiveness”, and “Peace Be Upon the Prophet”, and “O Allah, guide us to the righteous Way”, to name a few.
Public space, as well as hidden and spot-heaven places, have become pages for lines quoted from local hip-hop songs (El Far3i, 47 Soul, for instance), hadith, Arabic (pre-Islamic) poetry, portraits and sayings of well-known figures like Mahmood Darwish, Ghassan Kanafani, Fayrouz, Caliph Omar Ibn Khattab, and Al-Mutanabbi, to say some. In addition to painting murals and jotting down words that refer to legitimate personalities and ideologies, walls and surfaces of the city are also accommodating “ordinary people”, not only “professional writers”, in an aestheticized manner that brings into light the question of content, the place of feelings in making ethnography of space as well as aesthetics as locally constructed, imagined and symbolized by artists themselves, religious activists, and politically dominant groups.
In order to tackle the complexity of the aforesaid, I examine three questions. On a first scale, since writing or painting something on a wall already implies a claim of relevance, importance and reality (Schielke 2018), I want to understand the kind of concerns and social experiences that forms of wall-writings and murals paintings express in Jordan and Morocco as well as what they possibly share.
In this study, I consider wall writers and street artists are subjects and agents (cf. Bourdieu, 1980) experiencing realities and processes in which they live (or caught up), making the artworks they produce a visual and material expression and a reflection of their selves and their social view. It is true that graffitists and street artists are subjects and actors embodied with will and feelings. However, they are at the same time being subjected to power processes and “aesthetics standards” that construct and shape their subjectivity (Foucault, 1982). Even though artists and writers have the will and the intention to come up with a product, they do not invent what they do paint or write on walls. The content of their works often contains social and cultural citations that have been circulating from a field to another (cf. Schielke 2016).
I see the artistic expressions from a phenomenological way that goes beyond the personification of self that might be translated into artworks of graffiti and street art. I use the term “social experience” in the sense Clifford Geertz uses the term “perspective” instead of “attitude” to avoid “the strong subjectivist connotations [of the terms subjectivity and attitude and their] tendency to place the stress upon a supposed inner state of an actor rather than on a certain sort of relation—a symbolically mediated one—between an actor and a situation” (Geertz 1993: 110).
Secondly, I examine the way wall-writings and murals painting are practiced within and vis-à-vis legal and legitimate narratives in both countries. By within and vis-à-vis I mean how graffiti and street artists practice inside power. To put it in Michael Foucault’s sense, this practice is not outside the dynamics of power nor a neutral one, because art is a symbolic system, instrument of knowledge and construction of the world of objects as well as a “symbolic form” that reflects the “active aspect” of knowledge (Bourdieu 1977: 405-407). Looking for a permission to paint a mural on a vertical surface, collaborating with city councils and local associations or foreign embassies are all examples of the fact that artistic production is not only is conditioned by the restriction authorities. More than this simple view, it is an instance of how individuals are caught up in disciplinary processes taking place in “open” air places more than prison or closed spaces.
By legal and legitimate narratives, I draw upon Max Weber’s symbolic conceptualization in order to shed light on how wall writings and murals painting in public space serve as spatial poetics and as a symbolic discussion with religious actors and authorities that invest in textualizing and symbolizing public space (Ferrell 1995; Smith 2020). Public space is not only an open-air place where graffiti writers and street artists may draw on a “blank surface”, but it is also a place in which they find scribbled religious sayings, quotations from religious leaders and portraits of political leaders and chefs d’état. This can be added to auto-censorship and the challenge of “standard” of aesthetics.
Despite any possible revolutionary aspect of wall expressions, I do not see wall-writings and murals painting “as a sign of the ineffectiveness of systems and creativity of the human spirit in its refusal to be dominated, [but instead] as signs of the human freedom, which will tell us more about forms of power and how people are caught up in them” (Abu-Lughod1990: 42) in monarchy contexts where the Arab Spring have not had the same effects compared to republic countries like Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, for instance.
Correspondingly, I do not perceive graffiti artists, and street artists, in particular, as pure resistors. In Medieval societies, artists were kind of sociological mediators between the bourgeoisie and le peuple. Artists, especially those linked or close to power, were establishing, transmitting and reproducing hegemony, for which sometimes they struggle against the dominant class (Bourdieu 1977). Rather, I question their social position to analyze their position in the dynamic of power. Based on that, what makes individuals write on the wall? What is the sense that writers give to their practice? If they resist, what forms of authority (immediate enemy) do these graffiti writings resist? And what (other) forms of authority do they possibly affirm or try to establish?
The third scale concerns the question of borders and the imaginative geography and its representations in Edward Said’s conceptualization (Said 1978). But away from a “West-Orient” dichotomy, I am interested in understanding how graffiti writers and painters express the Maghreb and the Mashreq (North Africa and the Middle East). By the question of how these wall-writings and paintings deterritorialize and reterritorialize the geographical boundaries between North Africa and the Middle East? I re-examine the generalization of the notion of ‘the’ “Arab world” bearing in mind the historical ad ongoing realities of Morocco “as a Maghrebi society”, and Jordan as “a Middle Eastern country”. Therefore, I examine how art products of local graffiti writers and street artists as well as foreign artists who worked in the two countries represent the local contexts and “culture(s)”.
Comparing visual politics is very essential to see how street artists represent “the national visual identity” of Morocco and Jordan to comprehend if wall-writings and paintings do reterritorialize, and what kind of boundaries they draw? My question has to do not only with the historical, geographical, linguistic particularity or the colonial experience of the Maghreb and the Middle East (Hammoudi 2021), but also with the internal diversity of Morocco and Jordan.