This is a tale of a slicked wedding singer from the Gaza Strip who won Arab Idol. This is a tale of joy blooming from a loosely defined region where nuances are overlooked and histories are simplified through the lenses of failure, conflict, and narrow aesthetic formulas.
This is a tale of strangers in strange lands, of non-native wanderers with attitude, of individuals who navigate the chasms between cultures and don’t care anymore about what Edward Said said.
« I’m telling you, if you don’t come now and bring Viagra for your father, I’ll go shame us all. »
This is a tale of male thugs and of father tongues, of alternative imagination, of alchemical reactions, and of human intimacies.
This is a tale of dark humor and light spirit, of grooming of bodies and cars and carpets, of bifurcated gender relations, and of a “Global” South / “Middle” East / “non” West burdened with symbols and placed within the vacuums of loaded cardinal points.
This is a tale of the familiar and the foreign, and of the unapologetically vernacular.
This is a tale of sensuality.
This is a tale of cracking into the sidelines and cracking jokes.
This is the tale of Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights: a failure to amuse means kaput.
On June 23, 2013 celebrations have erupted across the Palestinian territories at news that a wedding singer from the Gaza Strip has won the Arab Idol talent TV show. Mohammed Assaf, 23, came ahead two other final competitors following his rendition of “Ali al-keffiyeh” (“Raise The Keffiyeh”). BBC reported that traffic in Gaza City was gridlocked late into that night and that the city hadn’t seen celebrations or such outpouring of emotion since the end of the last conflict with Israel in 2012. There were fireworks, middle-aged men dancing the Palestinian dabke in the streets and groups of youths in cars cheering the name of Mohammed Assaf. The sight was quite unusual on general television, taking the opposite view of current news from Gaza, but also from Egypt or Syria or any other country from a region that the world still seems to look at through the singular lens of failure and conflict. In an article titled “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontent” published in Artforum’s February 2006 issue, art critic Claire Bishop states “the typical western viewer seems condemned to view young Arabs either as victims or as medieval fundamentalists”, describing the media’s selective production and dissemination of images from the Middle East. Mohammed Assaf’s modern day fairytale is the tip of an iceberg that this exhibition aims to offload by fostering an alternative way of looking at art and culture from the Middle East and neighbouring countries.
Usually there is little attention paid to pop culture within the region and to a vast and blithesome patrimony inherited from a long and overlooked period of cultural modernity : the wit and the humour, the irony and the irreverence, the sensuality and the kitsch. Middle Eastern culture does not tend to be associated with laughter and levity in the global imagination, yet the latter are crucial foundations of the cultural bound holding together the whole region beyond the ever-present idea of “conflict of civilization”. The West has alternately romanticized and fomented fears of the Middle East, keeping it a “serious” subject matter. This is probably why for a long time, artists from the region have been obsessed with struggle narratives and a a rhetoric of the past, creating works that were almost a response to a “tacit commission”, arbitrarily linking authenticity with traumatic backstory and past/drama storytelling.
The idea of We Dance, We Smoke, We Kiss is to shift away from the established ‘East-West’ binary that oversimplifies complex realities and cultural identities and to feature the works and researches of a new generation of artists who digested both the rich cultural history of their respective countries and the contemporary connected world that we live in. Creating some kind of “vernacular desorientalism” , decongesting the stigmatized visions of the region in a post 9/11 context, they challenge playfully the stereotypes and provide alternative narratives through image production. They foster an art that is playful and provocative, developing new views on the religious experience, blending together politics and pop culture with social satire and salutary self deprecation.
This exhibition is made possible by generous support from the Institut Français.
 Jumana Manna, Blessed, Blessed, Oblivion, 2010.