By Jyoti Kalsi
Snail Fever is an art exhibition about music. And curator Sara Mameni has an interesting reason for the intriguing title. "Legendary Egyptian singer Abdul Halim Hafez died of bilharzia, also known as snail fever. His death in 1977 has symbolically marked the end of the ‘Golden Age' of Arabian music. Going back to the 1940s, this era produced classical singers such as Umm Kulthum, Abdul Wahab and Fairouz. It was a time of political change across the Middle East and the music of these great icons became the sound of reconfigured identities, nation states and fights for freedom.
"The golden age of classical music was followed by the modern, urban sounds of Arabpop, which touched a chord with a new generation and spread like a virus throughout the region. The idea behind this exhibition was to study the relationship people in this region have with music today and to examine its link with national identity in contemporary times. The title pays tribute to Hafez and music's golden age. It also alludes to the contagious nature of popular music and to the fact that in some countries in this region music is viewed almost like a disease that must be avoided," Mameni says.
The United States-based Iranian art critic and curator is at present working on her PhD on contemporary Middle Eastern art, and the idea for this show was inspired by her research into the art, sounds and revolutions of the past. Mameni invited several artists from around the region to explore the emotions and notions connected with music. And their works present various personal, political and cultural interpretations of our relationship with music.
US-based Iranian artist Abbas Akhavan looks at music and musicians from the point of view of an exile. His artwork, titled Greener Pastures, shows a picture of what looks like a large Iranian family enjoying a picnic in a park. But a closer look reveals that the people in the picture are all well-known Iranian musicians who left the country after the revolution in 1979. The nostalgic piece speaks about the pain of exile, suggesting that musical icons become a substitute for the family that one cannot visit and their songs become an important element of national identity. The artwork also comments on how politics affect a nation's socio-cultural environment.
For Newsha Tavakolian, music represents cultural repression. Her video, titled Listen, shows various Iranian women singing on what looks like a glittering stage. But their voices have been completely muted, making a strong statement about the restrictions on music and on women in general in her country.
In contrast, Cypriot artist Christodoulos Panayiotou's video, Slow Dance Marathon, is a humorous look at music's ability to make people forget their inhibitions and connect with one other. The artist organised a slow dance marathon and photographed various couples, who did not know each other, dancing together at the event. His camera captures the passion that music and dance ignite between strangers and comments on the social, cultural and political borders that divide people and the power of music to unite.
Ala'a Ebtekar examines the role of music in cultural hybridisation. His installation, comprising a tablecloth, a boom-box and a pair of sneakers, combines traditional Iranian artistic motifs, 19th-century Iranian café culture and elements of American pop culture to represent modern Iranian youth, who are influenced by the West but are also looking to reconnect with their history and heritage.
The title, Electric Del Roba, is itself a hybrid of the boom-box and the dilroba, a traditional Iranian musical instrument.
Cypriot artist Haris Epaminonda also looks at the American influence on international pop culture in her video installation titled Gramophone. The video features a still photograph and several clippings from Egyptian soap operas with American background music. Interestingly, this music was the first song used in an Egyptian film. The artwork thus alludes to the contagious, viral nature of music and makes a larger socio-political statement about Western influence on regional media and culture.
Kuwaiti artists Fatima Al Qaderi and Khalid Al Gharaballi are interested in the notion of celebrity and cultural icons. The two New York-based artists have redesigned the covers of albums by popular and controversial Middle Eastern stars Haifa Wehbe and Nancy Ajram to examine how these female icons are presented to the public and how they are viewed by different people.
Rayyane Tabet's work, Sherihan, Sherihan, Let Down Your Hair, also explores the idea of stardom and the fairytale-like image of a diva. The Lebanese artist has done a lot of research on the life of Egyptian singer and actress Sherihan, who was famous for her beautiful hair. He is displaying pages from a book he has written that retells the story of Rapunzel, with Sherihan replacing the fairytale character.
Slavs and Tatars, a group that includes Iranian and European artists, has taken the theme quite literally to examine the political connotations of music. They have written and composed an album titled Hymns of No Resistance, which contains songs that are meant to be anthems for nations that do not exist. Their song for this show, Stuck in Ossetia With You, refers to the region in Georgia and takes a witty look at the role of music in forging a national identity.
Jyoti Kalsi is a Dubai-based art enthusiast.
Snail Fever will run at The Third Line gallery until July 28.