On the evening of March 14, the city of Flanders in Belgium witnessed a first-of-its-kind collective exhibition by 13 artists from the MENA region and its diaspora. Through the works of the artists, POPARTE challenges and transcends the stereotypical image of art and culture from the region.

The celebrated artists are Mouad Aboulhana, El Moustach, Sarah Addouh, Narmeen Hamadeh, Dar Fatyme, Rezza Mohebbi, Abdulaziz Alsefri, Shahad Nazer, Nisran Azouaghe, Hiba Widadi, Rabee Baghshani and Adnan Samman.

POPARTE  is the latest AL.ARTE project and was curated by Malikka Bouaissa and Anneleen Van Wulpen. We reached out to the two ladies and talked a bit about the show and the MENA art scene in Europe:

POPARTE neon sign

Tell us a bit about yourself and AL. ARTE projects.

Malikka: My name is Malikka Bouaissa and I’m the curator of the POPARTE exhibition. I organise cultural events and artistic exhibitions.  I have Moroccan roots and I’m based in Antwerp.
Anneleen: I’m Anneleen, a 23 year old art historian. I live for art and literature and do this in the most amazing city in the world Gent!
Malikka: Art is my long-time passion. I was always attracted to art, more specifically to photography and visual arts, and I follow the art movements in the MENA region closely. Now I remember that ‘Aesthetics’ was my favourite subject in secondary school. I love contemporary art and artists who tackle the social issues of our time.
In 2012 I started the online magazine al.arte.magazine after the Arab Spring protests inspired an artistic revolution. The very first article of Al.Arte.Magazine was entitled ‘ART AS MEANS OF PROTEST’, covering the artworks of the Syrian artist Tamman Azzam who showed the ugly truth about the civil war in Syria. I was also blown away by the Tunisian artist eL Seed, after watching his video about his calligraffiti on the Jara Mosque in Gabes, Tunis. The way he combined modern graffiti with traditional Arabic calligraphy, and sprayed a quranic verse on the minaret was for me at that time so groundbreaking. It was new, edgy, fresh, and cross-cultural. The way these artists stay true to their local, visually rich culture and heritage or background, despite the influence of globalization and the social and political situation of the countries they move around in,  gave me, as a woman born in Belgium from a Moroccan background, a feeling of homecoming and recognition. It defies all clichés about the MENA region – like him, I wanted to change the narratives. We got/get this very negative idea of that region. I noticed that this current image prevails over the orientalism of the past. The image that we have of the Middle East is not only distorted by what the media tell us, but also by these orientalist clichés. With Al.Arte I wanted to add more nuance to this highly problematic discourse and to the recurrent image of violence, threat, and terror . A group of passionate freelancers from different countries contributed to the magazine. At the same time I started cultural and artistic projects influenced by the magazine. Like a film festival and diverse artistic expositions.
POPARTE exhibition installation featuring work by artist Narmeen Hamadeh

How did the idea of this POPARTE exhibition come to be?

Malikka: I came up with this idea long time ago. Through our social media accounts we follow new and upcoming creatives experimenting with paintings, collages, illustrations, and objects.. They use visual art to depict their identity, traditions, and their surroundings and are inspired by visual culture, politics, and the influence of globalization. This all leads to stunning and stimulating cross-cultural designs. Those designs are very identifiable for me. I feel connected because of my heritage, as a Moroccan, as a North African, but also through my Islamic identity I can relate to their artworks. And that’s something I miss in Belgium or Europe. Art that makes you feel home.
POPARTE exhibition view featuring work by Dar Fatyme

How do you define pop art in this day and age?

Anneleen: Pop Art is an art movement from the 1950s that mainly draws its inspiration from mass culture or consumer society, something that is central to our modern society today. Practically everyone has a TV and is on the internet every day, often through a social media account. There are millions of photos online and more are added every day; this presents ideal conditions for pop artists to borrow cartoons for their art. Large companies also benefit from this and use your profile to send you appropriate advertising. In this way we are constantly encouraged to buy, which we subsequently show off on our social media. Our society as its works today is, I believe, the ultimate source of inspiration for the pop art movement.
Malikka: Pop Art continues to be relevant through different time periods and social structures. In an age where digital technology completely took over our lives, Pop Art comes -as a given, with characteristics that match our current environments perfectly. Maybe today more than ever, the movement is absolutely omnipresent, partly because of nostalgia and partly because of its particularly fascinating aesthetics.
POPARTE exhibition view featuring work by Hiba Widadi

Tell us a bit more about the exhibiting artists.

Malikka: We have selected upcoming artists as well as more established names like Mouad Aboulhana and El Moustach. Because of the region’s diversity we chose artists from Morocco, Algeria, Palestine, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, and European artists with roots from the region. It was a conscious decision to have a balanced man-woman ratio. The artists selected for this exhibition got their inspiration from images out of magazines, comics, pop music, and social media. We have artists dealing with social issues in  light-hearted and funny way.
Anneleen: The artists participating in this exhibition are mostly younger people. There artistic career is budding and they are very much experimenting. Many may still be looking for their own style or their place in the world, while others know exactly what they want to communicate. For many, this is the first time that their art has been professionally presented to the public and for all of them, it is the first time in Belgium. This makes the exhibition unique, and a first!
POPARTE exhibition view featuring work by artists Adnan Samman, Abdulaziz Alsefri, Shahad Nazer and Nisran Azouaghe (left to right)

Of the themes explored by the different artists, what were the recurring ones? 

Malikka: The common thread in the exhibition is the search for an identity of its own in a globalized and consumption-oriented world.  After we selected the works we realised that the fez hat is recurrent item in the exposition, so we made an installation made out of huge fez hats. Most people recognize the red cylindrical fez hat with a black brush, but many are unaware of its complex history. The stereotypical image of monkeys with a fez on is unfortunately a deductive image that has been lingering on since orientalism. In North Africa and the Middle East the fez has a much richer cultural, religious or military/political resonance.
POPARTE exhibition opening reception

With the ever expanding definition of culture, artists are inspired and influenced by their cultural surroundings. Similarly, culture is influenced by artists and their work. What messages do you hope the Western audience will take from attending POPARTE?

Malikka: It sounds sentimental but I tried to connect people with art. We had a fantastic opening of the exhibition with an immensely diverse audience. Also the “western” people were blown away by the creativity and sense of  humour applied in the artworks. Art makes it easier to understand each other. There is still a very classic orientalist point of view on art from the MENA and I hope the western audience realises that art from that region is refreshing, cutting-edge, and groundbreaking. A new generation of designers is defying all clichés about the MENA region.

Accompanying the exhibition was a series of workshops, tell us a more about them.

Anneleen: We have several art workshops for children between 6 and 12 years old. There’s a collage art workshop to make collages from pictures, photographs, magazines, and paper, and a workshop about the fez hat. The children have to make an unique fez hat that emphasizes their personality.
POPARTE exhibition opening reception

Future plans for AL.ARTE?

Malikka: More exhibitions, more cultural events, more artistic projects, more changing the narratives!

We also reached out to some of the participating artists and asked about their online involvement in this exhibition and what it means to them and their careers.

Rezza Mohebbi: The great thing about this experience was getting to know other artist who were born and raised in Middle Eastern countries and due to the growing access to the media, were exposed to western pop culture since a very young age. It was really inspiring for me to see how these guys were representing this clash of cultures in their own unique way. Also the fact that this exhibition was held and got positive reactions in Belgium -a Western country with a diverse culture- was quite heartwarming.
Adnan Samman: The exhibition has been getting so much love and it appears to be a hit! This, and most other exhibitions I’ve been part of, started and unfolded online. I knew [the curators] were putting serious work into this, and it’s paying off now. Some fellow participating artists talked to me online too. Most of them couldn’t be there [at the show] for traveling restriction reasons. This was a precious networking opportunity. Of course it led to more exposure and people started engaging with my work on [social media] and [the show] just embraced how easily you can cross borders these days, even if not physically do it.

POPARTE runs at ‘t Werkhuys in Zegelstraat 13, Borgerhout, Antwerp through March 28th. Follow AL ARTE to stay updated on all upcoming projects.

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Image courtesy of alarteprojects.