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Alqassemi Uses Art to Revisit Arab Political History

Professor Sultan Alqassemi came to Boston College on Tuesday night to give a talk about politics and Arab art as a sample for an upcoming course offered next semester. Alqassemi’s lecture was centered around works of art that addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Algerian War of Independence, artist Inji Aflatoun, and the Iran-Iraq War.

Having taught the course at New York University, Yale, and Georgetown, Alqassemi’s passion for this subject was evident throughout the lecture. Alqassemi is most commonly known for being a prominent voice on social media during the Arab Spring. He is also the founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, a non-profit organization created for the purpose of promoting the work of Arab artists.

Alqassemi praised the accessibility of social realism through artwork in his discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The two most prominent artists that he talked about were Moshe Bernstein and Ismail Shammout. Alqassemi discussed the difference in their perspectives, as demonstrated through their artwork. 

Bernstein’s The War of Independence emphasized the spirit of camaraderie between the Jews, coming together from different places in the world to work toward the creation of Israel. Bernstein works to humanize the new soldiers, painting the trust being built between strangers, according to Alqassemi.

Ismail Shammout’s Where to Go displayed the conflict from the Palestinian point of view. He painted a haggard, weary father, with eyes full of concern at the prospect of not finding a new home for his sons. Alqassemi said that the art highlighted the solidarity among the Palestinians.

Alqassemi moved on the discuss the Algerian war with France through the lens of abstract art. Artist Abdallah Benanteur immigrated to France at the height of the Algerian War of Independence in the late ’50s. While there, he learned of the death of his brother, who was fighting for Algeria. He painted Le Hoggar as a coping method to grieve his brother’s death. Alqassemi followed the theme of solidarity between countries by showing Iraqi painter Mahmoud Sabri’s The Massacre of Algeria. 

Alqassemi moves on to discuss one of his favorite artists: Inji Aflatoun, a Marxist painter and a women’s rights activist in Egypt. 

“Inji Aflatoun was a rebel,”  Alqassemi said. “She joins the communist party. She starts depicting the executions of the Egyptians at the hands of the monarchy and British. The girl goes radical.”

Aflatoun was a huge oppositionist of the Egyptian monarchy—even after its toppling, she remained persistent with her Marxist protests and was sent to prison, Alqassemi said. While she was in prison, she remained a prominent artist by bribing prison guards to smuggle her paintings out. 

The next paintings Alqassemi displayed were centered around the plight of Iraqi workers. Displaced from their farms due to government regulations, the workers moved to Baghdad and protested their lack of job opportunities, he said. 

The prime minister of Iraq in 1957 ordered forces to open fire on the protesters. Alqassemi showed the audience He Told us How it Happened, a piece in which artist Kadhim Hayder told a story of pain, bloodshed, and extreme brutality to women in the outskirts of his painting, Alqassemi said.

In presenting the Iran-Iraq War, which stretched through the ’80s, Alqassemi chose to showcase a different style of artwork: political cartoons. He contrasted two different works from two different perspectives.

The first was a depiction of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi President from 1979 to 2003, chained by both the Soviets and the U.S., all while being punched by an Iranian fist. The second was an image of Ruhollah Khomeini, the Iranian president, leaving a trail of dead bodies in his wake.

October 19, 2019