In the 1960s, a new art form took the US by storm – it dazzled, it razzled, and it was loud. Pop art sought to ridicule the unrelenting machine of mass consumption constantly churning out “packaged goods” in 1960s America’s rat race of consumerism.
Using the same symbols that represented that system, the movement was an embodiment of the era in which it was born. A resistance to the status quo of the art world, pop art transformed the “packaged goods” of a consumerist culture, into the star of the (satirical) show. Where fine art brought to mind images of high society and exclusivity, pop art conjured up representations synonymous with mass culture, and the mainstream – but with a pop of color and personality.
The satirical art form was born in Britain in the 1950s, peaked in the United States in the 1960s, and found a home in the Middle East by the early 2000s. In the past decade, it truly took off as young artists in the region attempted to emulate their search for identity in a world torn between a return to a grassroots definition of individuality and a pull towards increasing globalization.
Taking a quintessentially Western art form, these artists infused it with elements of Arab heritage as a means of cultural resistance as well as a poignant representation of the duality present within their own identities. Much in the same way that Andy Warhol used symbolism in his famous Marilyn Monroe portrait to reflect the commodification of a starlet in an increasingly consumerist society, these young Arab artists also use figurative elements to project the internal conflict of the third culture kid, the rise of the “new Arab” and the dichotomy present within this generation.
“Pop art is our [digital] revolution,” says Lebanese pop artist Adra Kandil (@Dear.Nostalgia). “It’s visually impactful; you can’t miss it. We’re saying we want to be heard and seen as Arabs. Being an Arab sometimes feels like a faded letter or a faded photograph – it’s still there but you can’t see it as clearly anymore.”
Adra muses that there “are multiple factors affecting the fade out of our identity: immigration and social stereotyping being among them.”
“On a personal level, I think people kind of don’t want to be Arab because of all these negative associations [in the media], but deep inside, we know who we are,” Adra says.
This sentiment of a fading misrepresented Arab is echoed among much of the youth in the MENA region, who took to social media recently to condemn the controversial portrayal of Arabs during the reporting of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. In the face of the double standards on full display by the media, where prominent reporters and journalists flagrantly drew comparisons between Western refugees and POC refugees – with terms like “uncivilized” being thrown around liberally when referring to Syrian and Palestinian refugees – many disgruntled social media users took to their accounts to call out the unethical and biased (read: racist) reporting.
The coverage was sobering to many across the diaspora. Art containing slogans such as “Un-civilized Civilized Club” among many others sprouted to proudly re-assert the Arab identity as equal to any other. In much the same way, the wave of pop artists within the region are using their reality and current culture as inspiration to create impactful depictions of what it means to be a young Arab wedged between the Westernized zeitgeist of our era and the constant pull towards our roots.
Arabic Pop Art (@Arabic.Pop.Art) is an online account that is a treasure trove of pop art by regional artists. From iconic visuals of the joker superimposed alongside Egypt’s golden era starlett Soad Hosny as she performs a bellydance routine; to illustrations of the Pink Panther in a type of Middle Eastern garb, the Instagram account reflects the chasm of opposing cultures present in today’s youth.
Founder of @Arabic.Pop.Art, AbdelKader Hajjaj, is himself part of the diaspora. “How our generation identifies itself, their issues, their existentialism, it’s a big element of our pop art,” he explains.
Adra and AbdelKader aren’t the only ones from the region taking part in this reclamation of digital space through embracing and asserting an Arab identity. Marah Alhoujairi and Mostafa Olwan founded @ElEutheriArabi, an Instagram page that collaborates with several artists to create pop art pieces using classic Middle Eastern music symbolic of the region’s golden era, as well as alternative compositions to accompany the art work. They are setting out to revive the “memories and stories that define us as a region.”
“Our mission? That’s like asking what’s the point of museums? It’s to preserve our cultural heritage. But instead of stone, we’re using colors and a digital paintbrush to erect our museum of heritage,” says Mostafa.
The pair have about 126,000 followers on their Instagram page with a majority being Arabs that are part of the diaspora. Tackling a scope of issues varying from the refugee crisis, to immigration to the diaspora, @ElEutheriArabi uses features of the pop art movement to communicate the contrasting cultures constantly battling within third culture kids.
“A lot of Arab youths are influenced by Western culture and a lot of English terms have found their way into our colloquialism,” says Marah, of the @ElEutheriaArabi duo. “I find that in Lebanon, many can’t write Arabic properly. Without knowing your roots, you can’t find your identity. We’re the children of Arabs – it’s who we are.”
This is the case in a number of countries across the MENA region, where English isn’t necessarily spoken by the majority and yet has found its way into much of the day-to-day. Most of Egypt’s population isn’t bilingual, and yet the billboards running along the capital’s major highways are written in English.
Marah, who is currently living abroad, says, “When I juxtapose Umm Kulthum or any Arab icon on a pop art background, it’s not so much to resist as much as it is to emphasize a reality that people can relate to.”
In a report released by the World Bank in 2017, the Middle East and North Africa were found to have the highest number of diaspora citizens living outside of their countries at approximately 20 million.
“Most of us are refugees or immigrants so it’s imperative for us to preserve our identity,” adds Mostafa. “If we lose our identity, we lose ourselves – not just as a people but as a collective.”
“When you think of pop art or pop culture, you think of the typical icons: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and so on,” says Adra, “Where my art is concerned, I want to reclaim our glory days and put these representative icons of Arab heritage [Umm Kulthum, Mahmoud Darwish and Khalil Jobran] in the limelight by making them pop culture stars.”
Adra’s artwork uses icons of both worlds to paint a picture (pun intended) of the Arab Gen-Z and Millennials’ lived experience – one that longs for the scent of Beirut’s lemon trees wafting through the narrow streets peppered with cafes and street vendors; one that yearns for Egypt’s fava bean cart owners haphazardly preparing sandwiches as traces of Umm Kulthum’s voice floats dreamily somewhere in the background; and one that covets the idea of a Palestine freed from its oppressors.