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Leiden University Centre for the Study of Islam and Society

MENA Cultures and Global Aesthetics

Aesthetic formations and cultural repertoires give meaning to our reality in ways that are never neutral. Focusing on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and its global interlocutors, this project brings together a team of scholars from Leiden University who bring in inter-disciplinary, inter-area archives and methods.

Their main question is: how has the MENA region acted as the cross-roads of global aesthetics in the long twentieth century?

The project raises a set of questions:

  • What do certain genres of visual culture, from superhero comics to modernist painting, allow us to see and what do they obscure?
  • How do rituals and collective performances, from the traditional halqa to radical feminist urban interventions, reinforce or subvert existing social relations?
  • How does the organization of our material environment, from shiny highrises to informal settlements, reproduce or challenge socio-economic inequalities?
  • And how do innovative narrative modes, from poetry to internet blogs, articulate new visions of changing social realities?

Exploring modern and contemporary visual, material, literary and immaterial cultures, we seek to stimulate conversations about the politics of aesthetics from Morocco to Iraq and from Yemen to Tajikistan.

The programme is particularly interested in aesthetic formations that transcend these geographical boundaries and the local articulations of transcultural conversations, from Islamic cosmopolitanism to modernist abstraction. The LUCIS research programme MENA Cultures and Global Aesthetics forms the intellectual space to discuss these issues with local and international scholars and experts, through a series of events including lectures, film screenings and roundtable discussions.

Selfie statue in front of the Azadi tower, Tehran. Photo: Arnout van Ree

Global Frictions & Creative Traces

In April 2019 the MENA Cultures and Global Aesthetics research group received funding for a related project: “Global Frictions & Creative Traces”. This project is supported by the Force of Art initiative, which is a consortium of Prince Claus Fund, Hivos, and the European Cultural Foundation.

The initiative aims to shed light on the sometimes tricky balance between the need to appeal to international funding bodies and managing the realities on the ground. As part of this larger initiative with several teams of researchers, our project comparatively analyses four distinct case studies of cultural community building initiatives in the Middle East and North Africa.

Apart from regional cultural affinities, the four cases share an engagement with the global challenges of contemporary moments of crisis: armed conflict and occupation, displacement and refugees, and climate change and sustainability. In contrast with the magnitude of the crises to which these initiatives respond, the projects under scrutiny are all marked by the local and the intimate. They seek to stimulate community participation in precarious urban environments, and aim to salvage personal stories and cultural expressions from perilous conditions. We propose to bring each of these research projects together around a single point of comparison: how do these projects negotiate the magnitude of global crisis in the local, mundane, intimate and community based approaches of their practice?

The output will include one co-authored article to be published by the funding agency as well as a final conference with all participants. The results will be shared in late 2019 in a public presentation as part of the LUCIS research programme, MENA Cultures and Global Aesthetics.

Team members: Mark Westmoreland (PI), Judith Naeff, Cristiana Strava, Arnout van Ree, Kasper Tromp, and Lenneke Sipkes.

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