Art as Metamorphosis: Artemisia Gentileschi

Can something as horrible as rape produce something as refined as beautiful art?
The answer comes from Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the few female painters that managed to immortalize her name among Baroque painters. She was the first female artist to join the Art Academy of Florence and eventually enjoyed the patronage of nothing less than the Medici.

One look at her paintings would reveal ruthless, determined women, many of them committing brutal acts: Judith Slaying Holofernes, Judith and her maidservant, Jael and Sisera…these are just a few examples. Artemisia was raped by an artist (Agostino Tassi) hired by her father to teach her drawing, but it was not the rape that would mark her character and her art, but rather the aftermath: she let the aggressor have sex with her again and again, hoping he would honor that with marriage. Little she knew. The tragedy was just beginning, because upon pressing charges against Tassi, she was given a humiliating virginity test and even tortured using thumbscrews to confess she was lying (when, obviously, she wasn’t). Even worse, Tassi got away with it, and never served the scandalous sentence (only one year in prison).

Artemisia used her art to promote her cause: her protagonists were avengers, they did not wait for justice to take its course, they ‘made’ it happen. An unmistakable ‘Caravaggist’ influence in her works comes as no surprise: the master of tenebrism lent her the dark technique necessary to theatrically stage her dramas. Artemisia did not hide and wither away in oblivion, on the contrary, her art immortalized her as one of the greatest painters of her epoch, while Tassi (who was hired to teach her) is remembered by no one.

This is not a story about good things happening to those who struggle against their misfortunes…this is a story about how art is capable of transforming pain into beauty, horror into glory, one woman’s rape into masterpieces for the next generations…all made possible by Artemisia’s talent.

Jael and Sisera

Judith slaying Holofernes

Salome with the head of John the Baptist

Self-Portrait

…and the fossil fuel became Picasso!

The story is not new. Qatar, the oil-rich gulf state, is turning its petrodollars, among other things, into art collections and art museums, just like its neighboring Emirates. After acquiring a Cezanne for £ 162 million and a Rothko for £ 47 million, a Qatari collector bought Picasso’s ‘Child with A Dove’ for £ 50 million last year, and he will ‘carry it off’ this year. A lot of money? No surprise, Qatar is among the three art buyers in the world!

Good for Qatar. Bad for other countries? Maybe. The case of the Picasso painting is a good example: this painting has been in Britain for the last 90 years, and now it will ‘leave’. The government cannot afford the luxury of paying as much money to the owner (a family) to acquire the painting for ‘the nation’. The alternative? An ‘art bar’ preventing the work from leaving the country for a certain period, hoping that a British investor/collector/fund would step in, buy the painting and save the day. The bar expired, no ones stepped in.

Painting, sculpture and crafts are sometimes classified as mobile cultural heritage (in other words, they can be moved from one place to another, unlike monuments and cultural landscapes). This, coupled with the fact that countless pieces are in the hands of private owners, makes this kind of cultural heritage particularly susceptible to moving across borders, basically in one direction: from countries that cannot afford to those who can, and this is how fossil fuel became Picasso!

Child with dove

Published: Article on Analusi Intellectuals in AL-RAWI Magazine

A few months ago, an article of mine about prominent intellectuals of al-Andalus in Egypt was published in Al-Rawi (Egypt’s Heritage Review), a wonderful quarterly magazine concerned with Egypt’s heritage in its different forms.

You can read the full article in the images attached, and I strongly recommend my friends in Egypt to follow the magazine and actually buy it in order to support this great initiative and to keep it running.

Magazine Cover
Pages 1&2
Pages 3&4
Pages 5&6

Why Femen sends the wrong message

Cultural activism, apart from being fashionable, is much needed.
Femen would have been a good example, just like Voina or Pussy Riot, if it was not for the fact that they ignored the first rule of activism: studying the cause they are adopting (in this case, women’s rights) and learning very well about it before ‘championing’ it.

A few days ago, Femen staged what they referred to as the ‘International Topless Jihad Day.’ Basically, they posed topless right next to Paris’ Mosque, in support of the Tunisian activist Amina Tyler (herself a member of Femen) who had received threats from some Islamists after she posted her topless photo with ‘Fuck your morals’ and other phrases written on her breasts.

Where did Femen go wrong then? Because at a first glance it would seem they were only supporting Amina and defending the liberty of Arab/Muslim women in general, not a bad cause at all! No?

No, not a bad cause, but a method that beats the purpose (and I am not referring to nudity). Here is why:

– The choice of the term ‘jihad’ for describing the ‘action’ they did is more than lame, it’s simply ignorant. While a vast majority of non-Muslims tend to understand the word ‘jihad’ as equivalent to ‘holy war’ (al-Qaeda, Taliban and the Western Media are to blamed for that misunderstanding), Jihad in fact means struggle, mostly against one’s own self in order to be a better person.
Jihad is not the Islamic equivalent of the Crusades!

– Shock therapy (now I’m referring to nudity) beats the purpose of their action. If the idea was to get a message across to the Arab/Muslim world through nudity, then I assure you that the only message that reached the people there is this (knowing how a mainstream Arab would think): what these women of Femen want is for our women to have the kind of freedom and liberty that made them (Femen) free to go bare-breasted or fully naked down the street. No, thank you, we don’t want this ‘model’.

If Femen really wanted to send a message of support, they definitely had not done their homework: the name is wrong, shock therapy does not work for Arabs (we are speaking millennia of rigid traditions) and nudity is not the kind of ‘teaching-by-example’ that would appeal to that part of the world.

Having said that, if the point of the whole ‘campaign’ was some media frenzy, then at least they got that.

Femen's Topless Jihad 2Femen at mosque in BerlinAmina Tyler's Photo

Goya deformed by the Chapman Brothers

Destroying (or recycling) artworks in order to create new works of art sounds like an absurd idea. Nevertheless, on a second thought, one can find parallels from daily life and from different systems of belief where the creation-destruction-creation cycle is anything but a stranger.

Jake and Dino Chapman joined a long list of artists and adventurers who destroyed (or modified) works of art to create something new: Rauschenberg did it when her erased a De Kooning, Yuan Cai and Jian Jun Xi did it when they jumped into Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’ because they though it was not ‘unmade enough’, Ai Weiwie did it (and documented it) in his ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Vase’, featuring the artist dropping and smashing a 2000 years old vase.

Now it’s the Chapman Brothers hit the scene with what some would consider innovative art and what others would call a crime: their ‘Insult to Injury’ is a set of 80 deformed prints of Goya’s masterful ‘Disasters of War’ etchings I say ‘deformed’, but they use the word ‘rectified’. The original etchings were inspired by the brutalities committed by the Napoleonic army in Spain. In 2001, the Chapman Brothers bought en edition made from Goya’s original plates back in 1937, and later on, they superimposed grotesque heads of animals, clowns and puppets that sharply contrast with the tragic setting and theme of the etchings.

A friend asked for my opinion, and I have to say: as a great admirer of Goya and his ‘modern’ mentality (for his epoch), I was appalled. Aesthetically I would give it zero. Zero form and zero content because, personally, I don’t think any message is valuable enough to justify the destruction or deformation of a masterpiece in order to get this message across. But that’s not all. To this ‘intervention’ by the Chapmans, I give 10 out of 10 for being 100% true to the spirit of our time. After all, isn’t this what art is all about?

A ‘Kiss’ amid the Syrian Civil war

“I want to discuss how the whole world could be interested in art and on the other hand two hundred people are killed every day in Syria. Goya created a work to immortalize the killing of hundreds of innocent Spanish citizens on May 3, 1808. How many May 3rds do we have in Syria today?”Tammam Azzam

Tammam is the Dubai-based Syrian artist whose photomontage (of Gustav Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’ on the façade of a Damascene house perforated by shelling) went viral on Facebook and other social networks. There is something about his art that I like, something that he himself never referred to: the fact that war is not just about suffering or destruction or the loss of life and loved ones…war is also about a million little and anonymous stories of love, hope and human beauty.

Check his artworks for yourself here (below).