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The Creative City in the Arab World

Session IX-18, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
This panel looks at creative urban practices in the contemporary MENA region. Taking creative practices to include art, graffiti, and public performance as well as urban design, planning, and architecture, this panel asks two main questions: First, how are creative industries and creative practices transforming urban space and the processes of urban development in the contemporary MENA? Second, how is creative urbanism reshaping urban subjectivities in the region? Creative practices have played a dynamic and highly visible role in urban transformation in the MENA in recent years. During the 2011 Arab Uprisings, creative practices were visibly connected to activism and revolutionary organizing, through high profile revolutionary graffiti art, music production, and community-based art as well as through community “beautification” projects and grassroots urbanism. In the aftermath of the uprisings, practitioners have continued to reflect on the political role of art and design, often strategically using creative industry development to drive social justice agendas. Meanwhile, municipal leaders, following global trends, have supported arts investments as a boon to gentrification and neoliberal development. Programs of cultural diplomacy, which invest in the arts in order to promote Western-led political agendas, have also grown dramatically, partly as a reputation-laundering strategy of Western governments after the US led invasion of Iraq. The papers in this panel explore how these developments of creative practice and industry, beyond simply reflecting wider political trends, are shaping new dynamics of social and political engagement in Middle Eastern cities. Drawing on case studies from urban centers such as Cairo, Beirut, and Amman, we look at how creative urbanism in the contemporary MENA is engendering new civic identities and opening new possibilities for social-political mobilization and contest.
  • This paper explores the rapid development of a creative class in Jordan over the 2010s. During this period, Jordan’s creative sector grew rapidly in scale and influence, partly due to the high profile of art and artists in the 2011 Arab Uprisings, partly due to the rapid growth of international funding through programs of cultural diplomacy, as Jordan became a hub of international response to the Syrian crisis, and partly due to shifting municipal strategies in Amman, with municipal leaders increasingly pursuing “creative city” strategies of investing in the arts in order to drive gentrification and wider development. One impact of this was that a small set of creative professionals in managerial and curatorial positions acquired significant prestige and influence over this time. A second impact, however is that for a much larger group of class aspirational youth, art’s close ties to gentrification, aid employment, and other markers of class mobility, positioned the arts as an important source of prestige and cultural capital, central to emerging class identities. Due to the history of creative sector development in Jordan and internationally, the figure of the artist indexed not only creativity, but also entrepreneurial subjectivity and branding, liberal political attitudes, and a set of cosmopolitan practices. As aspirational youth learned and demonstrated artistic dispositions as part of an emergent class identity, they shaped wider social change and urban transformation.
  • In the wake of Egypt’s 2011 uprising, Cairo witnessed a remarkable fluorescence of research, activism, and intervention, much of it undertaken by newly empowered “professional elites” working in the creative industries. These non-state actors seized on the post-uprising farāgha–or opening–created by the country’s ongoing political turmoil to launch a range of urban initiatives that would have once been impossible to pursue given the government’s labyrinthine bureaucracy and systematic repression of “civil society.” Although these interventions took myriad forms–from street festivals and walking tours to heritage conservation projects and public art installations–many were committed to engaging local residents through a framework of “participatory urbanism.” This paper draws on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Cairo since 2014 to explore the sociopolitical valences of this interest in “community participation.” I focus on a workshop organized by Megawra, an Egyptian NGO tackling issues of urban upgrading in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Historic Cairo, and Cairo Urban Sketchers, a group of architects who host sketching tours across the city and who have been Megawra’s frequent collaborators. Held in 2016, this collaborative event brought together graphic designers, architects, and local residents in an attempt to generate mural designs for an empty lot that Megawra was converting into a community football pitch. Through an analysis of the workshop’s meetings, I demonstrate how urban-focused “creative practices” built around the concept of participatory urbanism attempt to engender new ways of “being in common” among Cairo’s residents. Such activities thus enable their organizers to “imagine and enact radically different futures” in the present–even amidst the Egyptian government’s aggressive efforts to crush political activism and dissent (Larner 2014). My paper thus offers an ethnographically¬–grounded exploration of creative urbanism as a “site of politics” and a field of action that attempts to challenge entrenched political structures and transform political subjectivities.
  • This paper analyzes the significance of chromatic politics for how young graffiti/street artists in Amman, Jordan construct and mobilize imaginations of the ideal future city. A diverse cohort of artists primarily between 20-30 years of age articulates the distinct value of public art in Amman through negative aesthetic judgments of the “boring” monochromatic cityscape. Artists lambast working-class cement apartment buildings in central Amman that the Greater Amman Municipality paints beige as visual signifiers of a city that is “futureless” and “empty” of both excitement and jobs (Jordan’s youth unemployment rate is around 50%). Conversely, artists laud what they perceive as multichromatic art’s potential for rectifying ubiquitous characterizations and their personal experiences of Amman as a site of dislocation and absence. However, strongly held beliefs about the inherent positive value of colorful art for realizing new, artist-built futures and social orders also shape art practices that at times obscure or intensify spatial inequalities and exclusions. These power dynamics were brought into sharp relief, for example, when artists “beautified” the new site of Amman’s Friday flea market after the state forcibly removed vendors from their former space to “clean up” the city. This paper offers the concept of chromo-topia to explore these processes. A vernacular analytic inspired by Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1982) notion of the “chronotope,” and Farha Ghannam’s (2016) idea of “heterotopic spaces,” chromo-topia sheds new light on the types of civic identities or political-economic worlds that color, lack of color, or particular colors make or are thought to make possible in Jordan and beyond. Furthermore, by examining how Amman graffiti/street artists’ practices can be simultaneously oppositional and complementary to the agendas of the state and its allied institutions, this paper contributes insights into the shifting political landscapes of public art in Middle East cities since the 2011 uprisings.
  • Mapping and data visualization have become exuberantly present in shaping conversations about the urban in recent years. With that, an interest in counter-mapping has emerged, fueled by a retooling of cartography as access to digital mapping interfaces expands and a practice capable of challenging colonial, capitalist, and liberal topographies appears to be increasingly possible. The subliminal features that govern the map’s technical and political production, however, are not dismissed with a more open cartographic practice. GIS mapping –the poster child of a people’s cartography– tends to solidify classificatory systems already carved into the cannon of cartographic convention, and its aesthetics of dispassionate computation further reinforce traps of Euclidean geometry, scientific epistemology, and the blind ethics of accuracy. Before we even consider that accessibility is far from ubiquitous –that the digital divide consists of a flagrant disparity lag between social groups– how can we be critical of ‘critical cartography’? Scholars have addressed this question in notable ways (Ghose & Elwood, 2003), and some have proposed visualization experiments that, although folded under the larger term of critical mapping, are nuanced as authored mapping (Kim, 2015), narrative mapmaking (Maharawal & McElroy, 2018), or mapping otherwise (Awan, 2016). While such examples are mostly concerned with rendering visible certain practices and agencies of urban dwellers while driving representations of subjective territories and sites of resistance, they do not engage GIS technologies directly in their attempts to elaborate alternative mapping methodologies. This is not to say that there have not been recent explorations in digital GIS-based spatial representations that are mindful of the dangerous assumptions embedded in the tools used to carry them out (Kurgan, 2013). But in contexts plagued by the scarcity, secrecy, and neglect of data in both its raw and visualized forms, there is more to be said about the ‘countering’ role GIS can play in producing knowledge about the built and lived environment. While referring to multiple original research and mapping projects from Beirut, this paper will argue for the need to consider local contextual conditions, all while challenging the (un)representability of things in a global world saturated by data and information (Galloway, 2012). This discord is examined through multiple online geo-portals published by Beirut Urban Lab, as well as practice-based mappings that propose visualization approaches guided by a feminist praxis (D'Ignazio, 2015). These include mapping islands of security, territories of sectarian political governance, and the navigations of food delivery drivers.