Aesthetic Mediations in Neoliberal Times: Public art and the reconfiguration of political fields in Egypt

By Yakein Abdelmagid
Submitted to Session P3583 (Mediums of Protest, 2013 Annual Meeting
Ethnography; Media; Modernization; Nationalism; Political Economy; Pop Culture;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper explores the public art world in Egypt after the 2011 revolution. Through ethnographic research, I will suggest that new aesthetic imaginaries and art techniques have come into being in Egypt after the revolution, but were products of intricate historical contexts. The emergence of art networks and scenes in post-revolutionary Egypt follows years of fermentation and experimentation before the revolution, when artists started to adopt creative modes of living and art practices, and which employ the material of the neoliberal world and make use of its opportunities to conjure unexpected creative approaches in their art and lives.

After the 2011 revolution, the use of public spaces shifted - opened for artistic expression and performance – unleashing the expressive thrust of underground artists whose approach appealed to ordinary people in public spaces and media networks. My paper suggests the various ways in which aesthetics and performances shape fields of power by cultivating new sensibilities and ways of seeing and listening to the world. Simultaneously, I want to explore how power comes to shape aesthetic mediations and artistic networks. By looking at how political groups, social movements, state institutions and media industries appropriate artistic production and artists’ skills and successes, this paper suggests that artists negotiate heterogeneous social backgrounds and imaginaries to conjure identities and worldviews within emerging publics shaped by both the neoliberal economy and state cultural policy.

My paper is based on three ethnographic studies that I conducted in Egypt in 2011 and 2012. Through my analysis of the art-scene in Egypt and its revolutionary dimensions, I argue that the “real revolution” has been taking place in the forms of sociality simmering in Egypt long before 2011, emerging alongside neoliberal structural adjustment policies in Egypt. The Egyptian revolution, rather than a chronological rupture, is in fact a moment of intensity in which wider social and cultural changes came to reconfigure the political dimensions of publics, aesthetics, and identities.