- By Sophie Arni
Arab Pop Art is a social phenomenon and an art historical movement that has not been the subject of great scholarship, as compared to other forms of Contemporary Arab Art. I hope that this essay will act as an introduction unveiling a relatively new art practice in this region, and initiate a debate about the current state and future development of Arab Pop Art. I consider the following four representative artists of the movement: Hassan Hajjaj, Rana Salam, Ayman Yossri Daydban and Laila Shawa, whose practices will be contextualized through the original Warholian definition of Pop Art. Some of Arab pop artists critique Western popular culture and its infiltration in the Arab world by using as medium Western brands and collage style conceptually similar to Richard Hamilton’s. Some explore Westernized branding by celebrating Arab consumerism and the golden age of Egyptian postwar movie advertisements. Others stand in between and explore Western reception of Arab mediatized popular culture. Ultimately, all these artists share promoting Arab identity in the global marketplace. I will examine the rise of Arab Pop artists through the global economic perspective. Are their practices driven by market demand? Given their prices realized in auction, it may seem this is the case. Given the Western media exposure that they have received, it also seems that Arab Pop Art is merely an Arab version of American Pop Art, made to suit Western curators and clientele’s familiarity with Pop aesthetics and taste for exoticism. However, by looking at artists’ interviews and the very definition of Pop Art, I will conclude that Arab Pop Art is an art-historical movement which should be not be regarded for any of the previously stated reasons, but should rather be celebrated as development of Arab commercial imagery and identity. The term ‘Pop Art’ has been increasingly used to describe the practices of some contemporary Arab artists. A Timeout 2012 entry titled “Arabian Pop Art?” analyzed Mohammed Kanoo’s ‘Fun w/ Fen’ exhibition of black and white photographic portraits of world leaders wearing kandoora, the male Emirati national dress. According to the article, Kanoo is supposedly ‘inspired by Pop Art’. Lahd Gallery, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, had in 2011 their first “pop art exhibition” of Kuwaiti Pop duo Hamad & Ali (Figure 1). These are brightly colored canvases presenting daily images of local dressed men and women on computers, or listening to music. Although their bright colors and consumer culture connotations seem like these works would fit in the compound of Pop, they do not encompass all Pop Art’s concepts as Andy Warhol (1928-1987) or Richard Hamilton (1922-2011) would understand it. The first step to a study of regional non-Western Pop Art is to define Pop Art in its initial context. Pop Art is a postwar movement that first in the mid-1950s in Britain and late 1950s in the United States. Hamilton defined Pop in 1957 as: ‘Popular (designed for a mass audience); Transient (short term solution); Expendable (easily forgotten); Low Cost; Mass Produced; Young (aimed at Youth); Witty; Sexy; Gimmicky; Glamorous; and Big Business’. In New York, and for Andy Warhol, Pop Art was a reaction against the success of Abstract Expressionism. When Abstract Expressionism was mystifying the individual painter’s emotional brushstroke, Pop Art provided an anonymous canvas. As Warhol described them, they stood as the “cold “no comment” paintings”. Photography, silkscreen print, and other machine techniques were used in Pop art practice. The artist was a creative director rather than a painter, a man full of ideas ready to implement often not by him but by his factory colleagues. Conceptually, the message was to transform “commercial art into real art, and real art into commercial art” . Commercial art is an essential medium of Pop Art. Pop ‘democratized’ the act of viewing art by making subject content accessible to virtually everyone outside museums. Through using commercials as a medium, it is only natural that some kind of social critique emerges. Richard Hamilton’s collage Just what is it that makes today’s home so different, so appealing? (1956) is considered to be one of the earliest works of ‘pop art’. In this work, he is recreating an average American living room full of misplaced images of Hollywood movies, advertising, packaging, pop music and comic books - an implicit critic or celebration of consumerism? Conservatively speaking, an observation that consumerism has entered his society's daily life. Since the 1950s, Pop Art has changed along with the changes in consumerist culture, which expanded enormously and went global. Western commercials became a point of reference for all consumer cultures. Regardless of the regional variation of their connotations they still share Hamilton’s adjectives describing Pop Art: transient, popular, low-cost, mass-produced, young, attractive. Contemporary Non-Western Pop Artists have thus a wider range of sources to use as media. Arab Pop Artists source their material in both Western and Arab branded products, and their respective connotations in their selling location. It is thus important to note ‘Pop artist’ might be an overused classification for the newly founded scene of Arab Pop Artists, which have been active only since the 2000s. Not all Arab artists claimed as Pop are actually Pop artists. Kanoo could be thought of as Pop as he decontextualizes popular images, although differing in its practices. It is ‘ironic’, it stands as an ‘implicit social and cultural critique’, it deals with ‘popular imagery’, i.e the photographs of world leaders hung on an infinite number of walls across the globe, but there is nothing consumerist in his work. Hamad & Ali, similarly, do not take advertisements as the basis of their work. They do not take any existing brand, nor commercial material for social critique, but instead use daily life connotations such as national symbols and contextualize them in the technological age. Pop Art is larger than contextualization: it deals directly with the social effects of the consumer culture. Arab Pop Artists thus carry an important role: they are the commentators of rejoicing their local identity in the globalized consumerism. A number of these artists and their strategies will be analyzed in the next two sections.
Arab Pop Artists: Global Brand in Arab Context Hassan Hajjaj, Rana Salam The first tactic used by Arab Pop Artists is to associate an Arab touch to a global, often Western, pop-culture image. Think of the US flag made of blue Pepsi and red Coca-Cola cans: the epitome of the American cultural dominance. Now, think these same Pepsi and Coca-Cola cans with Arabic logos, next to an image of a veiled woman. The finished product is a social and geopolitical critique of the preponderance of Western consumerism in the Middle East. The formal appeal of the US flag shifted from a déja-vu to a fresh, new take on Pop Art in a non-Western world (Figure 2).
This is the work titled S.U.S.A, Salam United States of America (2011) by Hassan Hajjaj (b.1961). Moroccan by origin, Hajjaj’s British accent sheds light on his formative years in London. Coined as the ‘Andy Warhol of Marrakech’, he is emblematic of an Arab Pop artist. Economics and art meet in his works, just like they did in his life: his dual cultural heritage has been dictated by economic reasons leading his father to move from Morocco to England when he was still a teenager. His practice is one that mixes Western Pop Art concepts and references to a Moroccan background. It deals with dialogues between branding, marketing, fashion and luxury from the global economy, and daily consumption and aesthetics from his ‘local’ home country. A characteristic photographic work of his is Just Do It (2006). A black and white photograph of an Arab female model (models in Hajjaj’s works are usually from non-white backgrounds), is wearing a Western label product, a Nike scarf, as a headscarf (Figure 3). Framing the photograph are bottles filled with stones of various colors, which are reminiscent of flasks of spices that one could find at a Moroccan souk. The souk, the global Nike brand, the Arab model – these elements spark up connotations concerning the conflict between Western and Moroccan consumerist patterns. Nike is a sportswear brand in London, used for its utility and quality by gym runners, but in Marrakech, Nike is a luxury Western product that is being knocked-off and sold in popular souks. In this picture, the Nike slogan ‘just do it’ has shifted from a mass culture logo encouraging active lifestyles, to have a deeper political gender role meaning. Similarly, souks bottles are only simple popular commodities at Moroccan’s markets, whereas, when framed, and exhibited in the white cube of Dubai or New York’s art districts, they become ‘found objects’ – a Western postmodern art historical concept. This is what Warhol wanted to achieve: to erase the difference between ‘low’ and ‘high’ art. Attaching deeper social debates to superficial mass culture is the added conceptual value of Pop Art. But what Warhol did not produce in his time and place is the cultural dialogue between Western and non-Western. Just Do It is literally an advertisement of contradictions: Arab identity is contradicted by overwhelming Western consumerism, and this dialogue is captured in a high definition black and white photograph quality that could be found in the advertisement pages of Vogue. Hajjaj’s other works include participatory installations, where viewers are invited to sit on low-grounded Coca-Cola plastic boxes and fake designer scarves sewed cushions like they would in a Moroccan hookah café, souk (Figure 4). “Salons are interactive social spaces where furniture and everyday objects made from recycled materials reflect the color and atmosphere of the souk”, he says. Hajjaj blurs the line between a Western white-cube conceptual installation and a Moroccan market stand selling popular fashion scarves and Coca-Cola. He is celebrating the mix of culture that he himself is a product of. The Arabization of Western brands can be seen as an implicit critique of global American cultural superiority, but it can also be interpreted as an Arabization of non-Arab products, an appropriation of the foreign. Resonations with local popular connotations is after all what Pop Art is based on – and what Hajjaj is focusing on. Rana Salam (b.1967), a Lebanese graphic designer, marketing consultant, and commercial artist has the same philosophy. She left Beirut in 1986 to study Arts and Design in St Martins and later in the Royal College of Art, London. She now lives between the UK capital and Beirut and is at the lead successful design firm. Her practices consist of a variety of mediums and concepts, that all tie into aesthetics of Pop Art. “During her studies, Salam focused on Pop Art and while she was encouraged to return to her Middle Eastern roots in terms of inspiration, her appreciation of industrial design and the bright colors favored by artists such as Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Oldenburg is palpable” – similarly to Hajjaj, she is at the crossroads of celebrating Western Popism, global brands, and her Arab heritage.
One work of hers that shockingly mixes Arab culture and global Western brands is the window display she was commissioned to do for Harvey Nichols, the large London department store (Figure 5). She produced, amongst other designs, a pin-up portrait of a woman, makeup and hair donr, winking at the viewer in a playful manner. She is wearing a bikini top – and matching red lipstick. One can only think of associating this pin-up girl to any Hollywood makeup advertisements of the fifties. But instead of being blonde and blue-eyed, she is brown-haired, brown-eyed, and holds the distinctive Arab strong and feminine brow. The result is that the pin-up girl has the face Middle Eastern vintage movie star, and the mimic and body language of an American beauty such as Marylyn Monroe. The infamous Monroe look is appropriated in a Middle Eastern context.
Another similar work is a product on sale at her online store, mishmaoul.com – on view at the 2010 Beirut Art Center design exhibition, titled ‘Capturing Culture’. Salam took the famous connotation of the blond red bikini California girl and used an Arab woman model instead (Figure 6). This is telling of the reach of Western beauty standards in the region – a region that might seem closed off from outside influence, about female beauty standards, but that in reality, is deeply active in the global world through consumerism. Consumerism has this power to reach all kinds of audiences and indoctrinate them through visuals and advertisements. By putting an Arab woman as a pin-up girl, Salam is redefining the reach of Marilyn Monroe’s image and ideology in the non-Western world. It is not a social critique however – Salam is celebrating this image, she is selling these works commercially, for somewhat affordable prices at design exhibitions. Because she is a designer and not an artist, Salam is contributing to the scope of Arab popular imagery. As a purely commercial artist, who can yet hold her distinctive style on her commission-based projects, one can only think of associating Salam to Warhol. Although she can be related to Western Pop artists, her work is deeply embedded in her Lebanese roots. She relates her eclectic mix of consumerist visuals to the ways souks are set out. She often adds a touch of Arabic calligraphy or geometrical patterns found in Islamic architecture to Western brand images. This underlines the concept that Hajjaj picked up in his own work: the duality between Western consumerist society and the search for Arab identity. Pop Art’s force was recontextualized images from the billboard to the museum. The force of non-Western Pop Art is that recontextualize images from the United States to Lebanon.
Arab Brand in Global Context: Rana Salam, Ayman Yossri Baydban, Laila Shawa Arab Pop artists have adopted another way of dealing with the definition of Pop Art in the Middle East, to reclaim their cultural identity in the global consumerist world. They have dug into their own past, and their cultural heritage under the lens of Pop Art. They have put Arab cultural heritage into the global debate of Pop Art. Rana Salam, in addition to producing works that ‘Arabize’ Western consumer images, is also the creator of other kinds of visuals: ones that celebrate and markets Arab consumer images. In an interview, she talked about her Middle Eastern pop culture references: In London, people had a distorted image in the media of the Lebanese being all bombed out and of Lebanon being this kind of fanatic and politically messed up country. I was very tired of that image, so the only way I felt I could change that was through visual communication, and that came through graphics. Whereas American Pop Art celebrated well-known logos and brands, Arab Pop Art, when dealing with Arab popular culture material, is unveiling forgotten popular culture. One has to mention Egyptian cinema posters from the 1940s to the 1970s. If there was one major advertisement factory in the 20th century Middle East, it was of Egyptian cinema. The industry of film in Cairo was booming at the time and many advertisements, from romantic melodramas to comedies, were massively produced. A culture of advertisement was fostered and then lost after the decline of Egyptian cinema in the 1990s, given the rise of the Internet and the television. What is interesting to note is that these advertising posters were not merely marketing films, but political or religious leaders as well. They were on view from Cairo to Baghdad but were the products of only a handful of studios based in Egypt and Lebanon. Salam explored this subject for her Master's thesis – which is a quite interesting fact if we correlate this to her current practice as an Arab Pop artist. The past always influences the present, and it is, therefore, crucial for Arab Pop artists to look into the history of popular imagery in their own cultures.
These billboards have been subject to a number of Arab artists’ practices. Salam curated an exhibition of these posters while she was still a student in London, in the mid-80s, to “give a glimpse of the culture she comes from”. After this success, she realized an important number of commercial products using Egyptian posters designs as a medium (Figure 8). Salam was later invited to curate some of her own collection of posters at the Institute of International Visual Art, INIVA, London, in 1999. The street advertisements of the INIVA project titled ‘Celluloid Cities: Raw and Uncut’ were the Egyptian posters themselves (Figure 8). This resulted in a complex form of public art. Londoners commuting to work in 1999 had the same visual experience as Cairo taxi-drivers in the 1960s. They were essentially looking at the same advertisement: a situation completely distorting notions of space and time. The ‘Celluloid Cities’ project wanted to explore the dynamics of different urban experiences in the postcolonial city – through the medium of advertisements. Yet another proof of advertisements’ social impact and conceptual artistic value.
Other Arab artists have been using these Egyptian posters as ‘medium’. One of them is Ayman Yossri Daydban (b.1966). As a Palestinian artist who holds Jordanian nationality, he lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. His internationally-exhibited and acclaimed art practices have been quite conceptual, dealing with questions of identity and environment. Daydban’s Maharem (2006) is an installation that featured empty tissue paper boxes aligned on the white cube wall (Figure 9). All the boxes are printed with advertisements of Egyptian movies from the 1940s to the 1970s. They are then assembled in a rectangular geometric way and presented to the viewer directly against a white wall. The effect is one of overwhelming consumerism. One sees more than forty advertisements at the same eye-level. Each one seems more intense than the other. One starts to question the placement of these tissue boxes on tissue boxes, and presented in a gallery. Why is it that an artist recycles advertisements and has the legitimate claim of calling it art? Maharem is a direct heritage of Warholian Pop Art. This work evokes the Campbell Soup boxes, or better, the Brilo boxes. Each of these works put the consumer product, as it is, and presents it as an installation. The artist does not provide any explanations: he puts the object and opens the debate. In this case, the debate may consist of the nostalgia, hence the tissues for wiping tears, for Cairo’s golden age. It may open longing for uniting Arab popular culture, one in which spectators take pride in its advertisements. The work celebrates Egyptian posters as being a uniting force of the region’s cultural development - just like Warhol celebrated the Campbell soup as being an American mass product. In this whole study, Maharem is the one work that could truly be entirely defined as Arab ‘Pop Art’. Ultimately, this work, exhibited in the Venice Biennale in 2009, presents viewers from all nationalities, the existence of Arab popular imagery. This is crucial for the development of Arab Pop Art.
A final way that Arab artists have used materials from their own popular culture by playing with the Western connotation of Arab culture. The work Fashionista Terrorista (2011, Figure 10), by acclaimed Arab painter and conceptual artist Laila Shawa has been coined to be part of a movement called ‘Islamopop’. Shawa (b.1940) is criticizing here the ignorance of Western fashion trends. At one point, the Keffiyeh was selling at all the shops in London as a fashionable accessory for fall – an alternative to the usual navy winter scarf. Many people were wearing it without knowledge of the cultural significance it originally caries in Palestine. Shawa thus did a repetitive photographic work in the same way that Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe was printed, representing the same man wearing the Keffiyeh in four different colored photographs. Behind him are repeated the all-caps letters ‘Fashionista Terrorista’, framed by rectangular placed gun bullets. From far away, the bullets fade away to a shape of a regular wooden frame. When one looks closely, the real meaning of this work emerges quite dramatically with the word ‘terrorist’ repeated infinitely, framed by a multitude of deadly bullets. From far away, this work is instantly deemed Pop because of its formal qualities: bright colors, fashion items, and repetitiveness; but looking more closely, it is a definite social critique of consumerism rather than a celebration of it. Pop Art has a considerable amount of cultural complexity and locality attached to it. Popular imagery is one of the heaviest weapons of social indoctrination; think of Fascist posters or Communist propaganda. Pop Art is a legitimate, museum-approved, way of playing with these visuals and their cultural connotations. Pop Art in the Arab world, as we have analyzed it, encompasses (a) a critical play of Western consumerism appropriated in an Arab context, (b) a celebration of Arab commercial art contextualized by a Pop philosophy and (c) a political weapon that can carry deep social criticism. In sum, Arab Pop Art is made to raise questions on transnationalism, globalism, capitalism, and cultural ignorance. These are key issues of today’s daily life in the Middle East – a life that is not portrayed as much as the overmedicalized wars and political struggles the region has suffered in the last century. Pop Art as a medium can shed light on the daily life ‘local’ social complexities. Commercial motivations and Western press Arab Pop Art is thus an important part of Arab social art history. We have seen that Pop Arab artists have used two techniques to position their Arab identity in the global consumerist world. They have either framed global brands into an Arabic context – to denunciate the overarching American consumerism patterns infiltrating the Middle East, or, on the other hand, to appropriate the ‘global’ into the local. They also have done the inverse: they have framed Arab popular imagery, especially from the latter half of the 20th century (a time of independence from imperialist powers and rise of patriotism), into a global context of Biennales and exhibitions. Pop Art has been their medium to conduct the positioning of their Arab identities in the contemporary mass production and consumption world. However, every large statement about an art movement has to be contextualized in the marketplace and the press reviews that exhibitions live up to in today’s contemporary art world. Hajjaj has sold an edition of M.U.S.A. (Figure 1), at Sotheby’s Doha 2013 sale for $27,500. Salam is selling an Arabic logo Pepsi pouf for the modest sum of $450 at her online shop. Daydban’s reputation and prices rose with his Maherem (Figure 10) exhibited at the Venice Biennale, selling in the same year for $25,000 in an auction . Shawa’s Fashionista Terrorista has been estimated at £28,000 - £35,000 at Sotheby’s London Contemporary Arab & Iranian Art Sale in 2011. It may seem that Pop Art is the guaranteed-success gem that Arab artists are tapping into to capitalize on their Arab origins and appeal to the market. Pop Art is in fact one of the sellable kinds of art: it is usually quite affordable at its time of production, because of its ‘cheap’ conceptual value, while its value goes higher and higher as time passes by. Commercial artists like Salam sole purpose is for her work to be sold. It is quite ironic for these Arab Pop artists to sell so well to a wealthy, and thus globalized, audience when their goal is to raise questions and educate the general public on Arab popular culture. However, one thing has to be remembered. Art is sold in the market, and the boom in the market for Contemporary Arab Art is not limited to Arab Pop Art. Mohammed Ehsai, abstract calligraphy artist, has regularly works sold above $100,000 at Christie’s Dubai. An important amount of works from Contemporary Arab artists is now in the permanent collections of the British Museum or the Tate. The fact remains that gaining international and Western exposure brings the work of the artist to a wider audience and helps it carry its original educational message. In the case of Arab Pop Art, a wider acceptance fosters and sponsors the development of Arab commercial imagery. Venice Biennale viewers, who would never think of Egyptian movie posters, are now faced with a tradition of popular imagery away from the famous Hollywood predominant subculture. Salam’s Egyptian cinema cushion covers are sold in London as well as in Beirut, which speaks of the increasing consumption of Arab Pop goods, helping re-envision Arabs’ place in the global consumerist world. It may also seem like Arab Pop Art is an art practice that uses a Western concept, targeted to a Western audience. How much does the average Palestinian care for Daydban’s Egyptian posters installation? Do Lebanese brands use as much Salam’s branding techniques as London shops do? Hajjaj just had in 2014 his solo exhibit in New York, in a prestigious Chelsea gallery, Taymour Grahne. Thanks to his New York exhibition publicity, many prestigious Western publications who wrote about him, including Vogue, W, Artsy, The Huffington Post, National Geographic, The New York Times, and the BBC. Quoting the opening sentence of The Huffington Post article: “The New York Times sees shades of Matisse and Koons. ArtNet is convinced he’s the next David LaChapelle. But Hassan Hajjaj (…) started out simply wanted to capture the essence of his home country in ways his buddies in London would appreciate.” The Western press coverage adds up to the over-mediatization of these work – but also show the positive Western response to the emergence of successful Arab Pop Artists. Western critics have been impressed with the historical development of Arab commercial imagery, and the conceptual value that Arab Pop Artists such as Hajjaj hold in today’s multi-centric world. America and Europe are not the only poles of cultural influence in the contemporary world, and we see a growing trend of emerging non-Western Pop Art as a visually graphic way to claim this polycentrism.
Conclusion Pop Art today cannot be dissociated from globalism, because the contemporary consumerist Pop culture is first and foremost a global culture. From this premise arises a lot more questions than Pop artists can ask with their practices: issues of identity, nationality, ethnocentrism – that Andy Warhol could not have asked in his time. Globalism answers the question of why Pop Art in the Arab world only emerged in the 2000s, sixty years after Pop Art was declared an art historical movement. The insurgence of Arab Pop Art today is explained with interconnected economies and marketing strategies. Firms ‘go global’ – and this has serious social repercussions on local populations. The role of the Arab Pop artist, as we have seen is twofold. Arab Pop Art not only stands by Arab identity against Western consumerist ideology but also celebrates Arab consumerist identity in the global world. Salam, after her visual studies, began to look at popular Arab imagery under an “orientalist eye”, her mission is to give a “cooler and trendier image of the oriental identity”. Pop Art can thus be a way to advertise a local identity to a broad, international, savvy audience.
Non-Western Pop Art can be summarized in three words: cross-cultural dialogues. This is today’s ‘Pop’ culture: we can buy Pepsi in N’Djamena, watch Baywatch in Serbia, buy fake Louis Vuitton scarves made in mainland China in Rabbat. The founding principle of Pop Art, the decontextualization of images, has found another traveling route.