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New coat, same colors: Ilka Eickhof on funding and cultural politics

The Arab uprisings presented an opportunity for Western cultural institutions and donors in Europe and the Middle East to break free of restrictive binaries and stereotypical depictions of the “West” and “East,” said Ilka Eickhof in a recent public talk, but orientalist narratives of the other, driven by interests and the market, unfortunately still persist.

Based on her PhD research, Eickhof — currently based at the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo — spoke about recognition and representation as important sources of social currency, power and legitimacy in the artistic contest, as French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has previously argued. She explained how foreign cultural institutions and their funding lines project certain discourses of what contemporary Arab art and culture look like.

In “The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism” (2012), Hamid Dabashi, whose vision Eickhof described as important and hopeful, anticipated the end of normative knowledge production from the West and the emancipation of the Arab world through the uprisings. However, Eickhof suggested that the post-9/11 discourse around stereotypes of Islam, modernity, tradition and terrorism continues to be perpetuated through a new ethnocentrism — same coat, different colors. Understandably, many Egyptian artists working within the parameters of such expectations become extremely frustrated, as described in a 2003 article by artist Basim Magdy in Nafas Art Magazine, “Walk like an Egyptian.”

Yet, “If you don’t use the buzzwords you don’t get the funding,” Eickhof said, including herself in this dilemma.

Giving a few examples from among many representations of the “revolutionary” or “rebellious” other in Western cultural discourse, Eickhof argued that events such as Shubbak festival in London and the 2011 Venice Biennale have perpetuated the notion of the rebel artist, problematically using art as a code word for proper consciousness or modernity.

She said that Europe still perceives itself as the normative culture of reference, rather than striving for any real cultural exchange.

Representations of the educated, modern, graffiti-spraying rebel do not challenge global structures, she explained. Rather, the assumed anti-position of the Arab artist fits into the Euro-US ideal of the progressive individual who breaks with tradition, closely allied to the rise of the bourgeoisie in modern Europe.

However, it is not all bleak, as Eickhof pointed out to a room that was largely full of staff and associates of Western cultural institutions in Cairo. Many beneficial and nuanced projects in Egypt continue to be funded by Western taxpayers, making up the shortfall in local government funding for the arts. After all, Egypt’s Ministry of Culture receives less than one percent of the state budget and much of this goes to the same providers, leaving other artists and new initiatives dependent on external funds.

“It is hard to do something without funding,” Eickhof said. “You need to be part of the global market — or who will pay you?”

She added that she has come across an acute awareness, on both the side of the donor and receiver, of these thorny issues.

A quote from Egyptian street artist Aya Tarek in culture magazine “Reorient” was used to emphasize both the difficulties of mediated representation, and the awareness local artists have of the power dynamics at play.

“After the revolution — or the ‘Arab Spring’ — I didn’t care about politics, and I still don’t care about politics… The thing was that a market opened up after the revolution. Everyone was looking at Egypt. If you produced anything about the revolution, about politics, it would sell immediately — it would sell rapidly, in a scary way… This is my problem, generally, particularly with how the ‘West’ looks at us. If I were from the West, then my art would be critiqued [for what it is]. But because I’m Egyptian, I find there is often this undercurrent, like, you are just so brave for making art in spite of all your suffering.”

The crux of the issue is the existence of asymmetrical power structures that make one the giver, another the receiver.

Eickhof gave an example of the limitations of European cultural policy using EUNIC (the European Union National Institutes for Culture — of which both the Goethe Institute and British Council, key funding institutions in Cairo, are members) and their yearbook for 2012/13, for which the foreword was insidiously titled, “Lifting the Veil,” advocating “soft” approaches to cultural diplomacy.

One of the most interesting elements of the talk was Eickhof’s assertion that the projection of the modern, rebellious youth is not contrary to the rise of anti-Muslim racism and anti-immigration sentiment in Europe. The global obsession with hip-hop and graffiti as a means of legitimate rebellion can be seen as a way for Western governments to understand and monitor issues of identity, race, immigration and dissociation.

The simultaneous consideration of Western cultural institutions, funding streams, “rebel youth” and migration politics, in both the Arab world and Europe, raises some interesting questions. Are they two sides of the same coin? Do the funding streams represent attempts to understand and therefore control civil society through conscious cultural diplomacy? Or are they a sincere but lacking enquiry into the world of the other that focuses on notions of Arab society, Islam and youth culture that can be identified with in the West?

I think Eickhof’s observations, based on her work in and for cultural institutions in Berlin and Cairo, are pretty spot on. Although the talk packed a lot into 45 minutes, I found the lack of discussion about the agency of individual artists or the reciprocity of their relationships with cultural institutions problematic. It would have been useful to hear more about the many interviews Eickhof has conducted with artists and cultural institutions in Cairo during her PhD project in order to better consider the ways in which both sides perceive and frame this relationship, and determine the motives and expectations of the other and how these have evolved over time.

“Do you think European countries think that they’re successful in their allocation of funds?” one audience member asked during question time at the end. “Are they getting the results they expect?”

Eickhof replied that this depends on the specific character who sits with the artists, the representatives of the cultural institutions to whom the task falls of translating the bulky policies of their governments.

As we stood sipping cold drinks outside after the talk, I overheard staff members of several prominent cultural institutions in Cairo patting themselves on the back for what they seemed to consider a more enlightened way of working than their European-based counterparts. As they in turn emphasized their knowledge of Arabic, the number of years they have worked in Cairo, and name dropped young, hip artists they are working with, I wondered what impact Eickhof’s talk would have, if any, on this audience.

Ilka Eickhof’s talk was on March 27 at the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo, as part of their weekly public lecture series, where I will be speaking about my own research this Thursday on the commodification of Egypt’s revolutionary martyrs.