BEN LUKE [Art Newspaper] — “Arab Spring” (2014) [in the “Unlimited” section of Art Basel 2015] consists of 16 glass vitrines, empty but for stones that have shattered their glass; more boulders and bricks lie at the cabinets’ feet. The work was triggered by the plundering of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo in 2011, and uses the same traditional display cabinets that were raided by the looters.
Although it refers to a specific event, it is also [artist Kader Attia’s] metaphor for much more. “What fascinates me in this image is the fact that on one side there is this undoubtable disappointing aspect of what the Arab Spring has been,” Attia says. “And now we are in front of this incredible mess, where all the revolutions have been taken over by the military on one hand or by radical Islamism on the other hand.” But he also argues that the pillaging of the museum “really symbolised the anger of people, but also this deep desire to repair the psychological injuries and political injuries within the society they’ve been shut out of”.
The work is relevant for the events of recent months, he says; the destruction of cultural sites in Mosul and elsewhere “raises questions that we have to wonder about constantly, regarding what does culture mean? And what does the destruction of cultures mean?”
Attia admits that he “was always sceptical about the Arab Spring” because of historic events in Algeria. In the late 1980s, pro-democracy demonstrations ultimately led to an Islamist party, the Front Islamique du Salut, winning power at the first elections, a subsequent military coup and then a 10-year civil war. “I remember very well that my father, as an old Algerian communist, used to tell me that Arab countries do not need democracy,” he says. “What they need is a growing economy first, and then, when their great grandsons are rich enough, they will make a revolution.”