BERLIN- You could say that the cry for expression and rebellion during the Arab Spring inspired an art revolution in the Arab art scene. Arab artists wanted to create work that could reach the masses outside museum doors and spark enough controversy to change the status quo. In their new found purpose, they sought for creative freedom in the pop art movement and redefined it into something more personal, liberal and influential. 

The Arab Pop Art movement became larger than a commercial phenomenon. Young Arab artists contextualized social, cultural and political daily life connotations. Thus, taking up the important role of commentators in rejoicing the Arab local identity with the aim of being candid, critical and blunt.  One cannot begin to explain the Arab identity and the Arab spring without reflecting on the rise of Arabic Pop Art.

That being said, the Arabic pop art movement did not kick off during the Arab Spring; It actually began decades ago in the late 60’s, transitioning away from contemporary middle eastern art of that time. In its beginnings, the movement was so shocking that it was claimed to be too rebellious and well certainly, out of order! 


Parviz Tanavoli, The Innovation in Art, 1964, Mixed Media, 154 x 115 x 20 cm, Iran, collection of the artist.

This brings us to the exhibition at Borghese Gallery, in Tehran 1965. The exhibit presented the works of 28-year-old contemporary Iranian artist, Parviz Tanavoli and it was nothing short of extraordinary. Tanavoli came to be known as one of the Godfathers of Middle Eastern Pop Art. Before he was adorned with such a title though, Tanavoli was under cruel criticism for his art which led him to question his own artistic path.

One work of his, showcased in the exhibit, that created such an outburst is this piece titled Innovation in Art.

Tanavoli at the Borghese Gallery, Background sculpture Lovers, 1965, courtesy of the artist’s website.

In this piece Tanavoli takes a traditional Persian carpet and cuts a suggestive opening into the handmade rug then places a toilet ewer in the middle and crudely traces the patterns of the rug in light blue paint. This was so shocking that as a consequence, the reputation of the gallery had gone under and it actually had to close down after only three days. There is no trace of the Borghese gallery today, it is only mentioned as the gallery that once hosted Parviz Tanavoli’s artwork. With the passage of time, this very exhibit was regarded as the first spark of Pop.

Hassan Hajjaj, Just Do it, 2006, Morocco

Fast forward to the early 21st century – prior to the Arab spring- the region was gripped with western consumerist culture. This was also translated in the art scene as rising Arab pop artists associated an Arab touch to a global, often Western, pop-culture image. The Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj, known as the “Andy Warhol of Marrakech”, and Lebanese artist Rana Salam are a great example in adopting such a tactic in their works. 

This work titled Just Do It from 2006 by Hajjaj is a white and black photograph of an Arab female model wearing a Nike scarf as a headscarf. He then framed the picture with bottles filled with stones of various colours as a reminiscent of flasks of spices one can find in a Moroccan souk. These elements all together sparks up the dialogue of global American culture superiority and its impact on cultural identity. 

Rana Salam, Harvey Nichols window display
Rana Salam, Harvey Nichols window display

Similarly to Hajjaj, Rana Salam showcases Middle Eastern roots in a western design. Her artwork -found in the window display at the London department store of Harvey Nichols – shockingly mixes Arab culture and global Western brands. The result is of a western pin up girl with the face of an Eastern vintage movie star. In both artworks, Hajjaj and Salam underlined the concept of the duality between Western consumerist society and the search for Arab identity.

That is the key phrase; “the search for Arab identity”. For the longest time in the East, the search for an identity against colonialism, war and revolution has widened a gap between how the people in the Middle East defined themselves. It comes with no question that the Arab Spring is therefore a key moment for Arabs in defining who they are. 

The Revolution

Four years after the production of Hassan Hajjaj’s Just Do It, a series of uprisings against the dictatorship and the lack of freedom of speech enveloped several Middle Eastern countries. Many young artists started moving away from the traditional scenery painting and joined the emerging pop art world as a way of expressing and sharing their views. 

For the longest time governments in the region took control of the art culture, there was and still is a lot of talent which is discouraged from emerging in the region. As a response, many artists made social media their main platform for publishing their work. Instagram is one of those key platforms in doing so.

So naturally I took to picking the brains of Abdelqader Hajjaj, a young Syrian man behind the rising Instagram page @Arabic.Pop.Art. With almost 200K followers who come from all around the world, he has inspired both professional and amateur middle eastern artists to join the pop art cyber movement.

Together Abdelqader and I looked through his page as he shared stories of some of the key artworks that portrayed the impact of the Arab Spring on the Arabic Pop Art world. 

“I wanted the followers to use this platform to pay attention to their surroundings and what is going on in the region rather than just make art for enjoyment. Art must serve a purpose. I consider myself part of the Arab Spring generation and serve the cause we started.” – Abdelqader Hajjaj
@mr_hanzz, digital design, 2019

In April 2019, Abdelqader shared this artwork depicting Alaa Salah, the Sudanese woman who stood atop a car leading the protest against the authoritarian rule of President Omar al-Bashir in 2019.

This pop artwork that says “the voice of a woman is revolution” proves the impact this had on the region and especially its influence on female empowerment. This artwork isn’t made for the rest of the world, it is for the locals and people in the diaspora, supporting a woman as a leading figure of freedom and creating a community that helps each other and says “I hear you, I see you and I am with you”. 

 @theglutenclub, Tanya, untitled, digital art, 2020

This new wave of freedom of speech and expression paved the way to not only promote justice, freedom and equality but also to criticize social injustices and toxicity. An important piece of art that reflects this theme is this digital artwork by Tanya

She unapologetically draws an Arab man tormenting a woman by asking her where her Hijab is while at the same time pouring beer in a glass for himself. The artwork directly confronts and criticizes the hypocrisy between how women are placed in an unforgiving standard which sometimes goes against their personal values while some men are exempt from punishment if they go against the standards placed upon them. 

“My target audience are the Middle Eastern local communities. I wouldn’t go for a picture of a woman in a bikini, I would rather post pictures showing women empowerment that does not go against the religious or cultural ideals but rather serve the causes that are controversial there and encourage ideas of the Arab spring and freedom of speech.” – Abdelqader Hajjaj.

The Arab Spring did not only spark a new mindset among the Arab people that encouraged them to speak out against their governments and social injustices, it also encouraged people to voice their appreciation of their culture. Arab artists created works that reflected how we know each other in our own homes and neighbourhoods, and this is where our identity lies. 

Ahmed Al-Barq @brg4art, Childhood Memories, Digital Art, 2020

This artwork posted on is a collaboration between Abdelqader and Syrian graphic designer Ahmed Al-Barq. The idea was to place all the beautiful products from the childhood memories of many Syrians. 

 Hanadi Alqurashi @loghat90, Untitled, Digital Art, 2020

One of my favourite posts featured in Arabic Pop Art page is this piece made by Saudi artist Hanadi Alqurashi. A familiar scene in an old Egyptian movie where a belly dancer performs for a group of men and women and beside her is none other than the Joker. The painting exudes drama, passion, darkness and warmth. It is quite peculiar and fascinating how compatible these two figures are together. Rather than seeing the superiority of one culture over the other, this work celebrates the existence of both.

Mohanad @mohannad9899, The Saudi’s Son of Man, Digital Art, 2020

Another artwork posted in the page is one made by Saudi artist Mohannad, who reimagined the famous painting of the Son of Man by Rene’ Magritte and named it The Saudi’s Son of Man

Mohanad plays with the same idea that Magritte spoke of with the conflict that can arise between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present. The viewer’s state of both curiosity and frustration with imagining what the face would be like is I think in some ways reflects how the people of the west view the people of the east. It is difficult to really see each other through the fog of stereotypes. 

But how does the western audience react to this? In Abdelqader’s point of view and first-hand experience he says:

“I get surprised sometimes with the followers from all around the world among them are American, German, Danish and Japanese. This is just a local regional page, for a local audience. I find a lot of people who are asking to translate, they are curious about what I am posting, and I am excited to show them another aspect of the culture that they are not used to seeing.” – Abdelqader Hajjaj.

It comes with no question that pop culture shapes how we understand reality and stereotypes of different ethnic groups. When you see an image repeatedly, it becomes a part of your collective consciousness and culture and identity becomes undoubtedly shaped by this. 

The intellectual vision of the Arab Spring paved the way for an artistic revolution, with the rise of the digital Arab Pop Art movement at the frontlines. Somehow, the radicalness of pop art gave a sense of community for the youth to freely express themselves and share their work at their own terms. Finally, as artists are influenced by their daily experiences, their online presence presents eternal documentation for future generations and historians to study. That is the value and power of the Arab Pop Art movement.

All image courtesy indicated in captions.