Shilton, Siobhán. 2021. Aesthetics of Revolution and Resistance in Tunisia and Beyond. Cambridge University Press. pp. 250.

Objectively considered, icons should not be celebrated as either revolutionary or counterrevolutionary. Still, Siobhán Shilton finds them problematic because—she thinks—they are reductive of how revolutions and resistances unfold in practice. Such is the premise of Shilton’s impressive volume on art in the context of the Arab uprising. This revolutionary movement started in Tunisia in December 2010 but swept to Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen in the following months and years. Even when this movement, otherwise known as the Arab Spring, toppled long-reigning dictators, it has not so far led to a smooth transition or translation of the revolutionaries’ aspirations. Hence, the role of artists is traced in this book as they accommodate the social explosions and change.  

Given the usual channels of sense-making, famous among which is iconography, “The significance of the uneven phenomenon which has often been named the ‘Arab Spring’ is still not fully understood.” (p. 1) because iconography often, if not always, falls into either black or white portrayals and binary stratifications. Art is, thus, supposed to encourage an informed and nuanced engagement with the events. And icons fall short of this prerequisite for all intents and purposes. In this volume, Shilton asks a pertinent set of questions: How “…photography, sculpture, graffiti, performance, video, and installation—forges a way between internal and external cliches? How does it invent new aesthetics? How do these works call for alternative critical approaches?” all for propagating an art that does not subscribe to propaganda. Irrespective of how we look at icons, they essentialize what is usually considered a fluid phenomenon, “…places these revolutions outside history and sets up Arabs as apolitical” (p. 2). hence, the call for an aesthetic form that exceeds the iconizing—Bouazizi’s iconography, a single act that unseats a dictator! Therefore, “My focus, by contrast, is on art that negotiates a way between a range of icons, including these revolutionary (or anti-revolutionary) bodies or objects; that is, art that reveals the unsaid, the unheard, or the unseen of ‘revolution’….” (p. 11) By exceeding icons, Shilton means those artistic works that target the senses instead of the merely visual. She seems to be sharing Slavoj Zizek’s concern about the post-euphoria phase or the next day of the revolution. That is why she addresses only those pieces whose preoccupation is the ” ‘reordering’ space, [as they] challenge sites of power through elements such as framing, camerawork, editing, and corporeal movement.” (21)

The work lies in four chapters, each extensively addressing one form. The first two zoom-on pieces are exhibited in museums and galleries. Galleries do not restrict the second two as they have been displayed to the wider public through social media. The first one addresses a technique founded by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) known as the “Infra-thin Critique”: Shilton brings Duchamp’s technique to enable art goers to distinguish and, at a second level, negotiate the relationship between the visible and invisible. The chapter elaborates on distinctions that resist essentialization by exploring Nicène Kossentini’s video, “Le Printemps arabe” (2011), and later versions of this work, among other works by other artists. Shilton zooms in on what she labels the ‘poetics of absence’ as instantiated through the layering of colours or sculptural ‘casts’ along with transparent materials. Other than encouraging a transnational outlook, Shilton finds that reworking modernist themes and techniques can be an opening for “…the transhistorical and multidirectional.” (p. 32)

In the second chapter, “Contingency and Resistance: Exceeding Icons through Matter and Motion Chance Aesthetics”, Shilton insists that contingency is anti-iconic par excellence, hence its value in resisting essentialization. Aïcha Filali’s sculpture pieces: Bourgeons en palabres (Buds in Discussion) and Bourgeons d’i (n)vers (Opposing Buds). Similar works by other Tunisian and Syrian artists are studied too. Decomposing portraits of deposed dictators (and other icons) such as Ben Ali’s are meant to communicate the limitations of power.

Chapter three follows on Contingent Encounters as the pieces considered encourage comparisons with revolutionary situations elsewhere. Shilton calls these situations: transnational practices of resisting through social media. Unlike how participatory art is classically viewed, Shilton insists on those pieces that reiterate artisans’ work (weavers) with an artist in a collective ensemble, such as Majd Abdel Hamid’s mural titled: Mohammed Bouazizi (2011). The second part addresses how spectators reorder space through the generation of alternative iconography. Mouna Jemal Siala and Wadi Mhiri’s Parti Facelook / Parti Facelike (2012-13).

To further challenge iconography, chapter four addresses the interface of bodies as they can be ambivalent and defy easy categorizations. The interface, in a nutshell, is based on a collage of various images or scripts, even icons, so that they start evoking alternative meanings and stories in contradistinctions with the ones specified by orthodox narratives of the uprisings as celebrated in media or by politicians. Among several examples, Shilton studies Lalla Essaydi’s Bullets and Bullets Revisited (2012) along with Majida Khattari’s Libertéj’écrirai ton nom (Freedom, I Will Write Your Name) (2012). A dancing performance occurs in markets, transportation junctions, and the least expected spaces of downtown Tunis. Unused to confusing spectacles, crowds react differently to the phenomenon.

Espousing the ultra-conservative, if a not reactionary journalist, Rami G. Khouri, particularly when the latter claims that “There is no single, unifying theme to the Arab Uprising”, as a rationale for her approach to the book epiphenomenon (The Arab Uprisings), one wonders why Shilton trust certain renderings and choose to overlook diametrically-opposite others, hence, how the book does not answer the criteria for its selection of the impressive body of artistic works. Why not, for the sake of example, Mohamed Mounir’s song “Ezay” (2011) or “Ragg’een” by the group, Eskenderalla, knowing that, along with several works, they do not hinge their message on icons and do not cheaply excite listeners as they address the sense, perhaps more than the ones Shilton select. This leads us to observe that every work which pretends to connect with the Arab Uprisings, even when it dialectically opposes these uprisings’ destiny, is chosen and extensively commented on. Khattari’s allegedly ambivalent dance spectacles aim to distract and confuse, not to invite and discuss. Not for nothing, the dancing spectacle starts and closes in markets, with an eye on smoothing everyday shopping and transactions regardless of the crisis and distracting people from tracing the causes and drawing the essential consequences, which are how counterrevolution answers through hyperinflation.

 Meanwhile, non-spectacular and truly subversive works are ephemerally mentioned and never studied. It is not until the end that Siobhan’s work is seen as a field of testing/experimentation of the infra-thin, chance aesthetics, participatory art, and corporeal images. The author is less interested in how the selected works communicate the revolution’s strongest or weakest and more engulfed in how the expressive techniques deployed in each artistic piece advance the infra-thin and other aesthetic formulations. And here lies the problem of projection, the presumption that theory exists in a realm separate from history’s real movement. Other than a depressive narcissism, readers cannot seize the benefit(s), if any, from seeing Marcel Duchamp, Michelangelo, or any other celebrity artist reproduced in the streets or the galleries of Tunis, Cairo, or Damascus.

The book is overly technical to the point that it is disorienting in its technicality. Does one wonder what is behind its penchant for reproducing the revolution at its weakest? That is producing those situations when disagreements between revolutionaries emerge. Has anyone told you that Gaddafi’s two-scores rule ended with a tsunami or that Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth mandate was reversed by his democratic inclination, not an incendiary revolution? The antinomy against icons and iconicity, which is how the book is premised, is motivated by a stigma against division and diversity. But division and diversity, even polarity of opinions, are the natural consequences of defunct regimes and decades-old orders. The real motive for dispositions against icons is how icons facilitate the historical transmission of past struggles and victories. Similarly, what if the divergent opinions stem from historical outlooks, that is, between those radical elements of society against those who are reformists and desire only applying some make-up for the unjust and enslaving order?    

Art, in a nutshell, expresses the reversal of the reversal, the alienating world order that corrupts the senses and which needs to be ultimately abolished for the process of emancipation to set in. Shilton reclaims those works of art she thinks are more revolutionary than abolishing them, mostly to celebrate them and develop an identitarian affiliation with fetishistic outlooks that keep alienation in place. While the select works of art variably criticize the dictatorial powers, commodity fetishism remains intact because it is never questioned. Similarly, portraying the Arab Spring as a movement of a population stuck between modernity and tradition is a classical veering into the culturalist approaches, which are anti-historical and counterrevolutionary.    

Overlooking the author’s disposition against icons even when knowing it is icons that galvanize action and sharpen intentions, the celebration of the transnational is the most bothersome. Transnational, as conceived under the current global order, not only does not but never propagate toward the universal. Transnational is a celebration of parochialism and enclosures—a process similar to international cocktails or Parisian banlieues that facilitates the circulation of goods and capital. Transnational is revolutionary only because it seeks the explosion/forced openings of national markets and cultures to give leverage for multinationals to exhort profit from previously protected markets. A true revolutionary work of art, however, targets the fetishization of interiorities through culturalist approaches. Culturalists target the few remaining defence mechanisms, opening the way for the vassalization by capital with the same vehemence culturalists fetishize icons under the pretext of exotism. Transhistorical outlooks are anti-historical. Being the privileged weapon in the arsenal of capital, a transhistorical subject is forced to scorn intergenerational history and its legacy of resistance so that capital forces flood the few remaining vestiges of defence. 

Fouad Mami

Université d’Adrar (Algeria)


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