Media @ McGill

Tammer El-Sheikh | Strategies of Refusal: Art and Cultural Politics in the Work of Edward Said and Hassan Khan

Submitted by Justin on


In my dissertation entitled “Strategies of Refusal: Art and Cultural Politics in the Work of Edward Said and Hassan Khan,” I show how recent photography and new media art dealing with the Arab world might be brought into a productive relationship of tension with a centuries-old tradition of Orientalist scholarship. In particular, I show how photography and new media art are enlisted, albeit in very different ways, by Palestinian-American literary scholar Edward Said, and by London-born, Egyptian artist Hassan Khan, respectively, in an effort to challenge dogmas and stereotypes that have structured representations of Arabs since the eighteenth century. The dissertation aims in general at an historical study of Arab representations, self-representations and misrepresentations through an engagement with the work of Said and Khan.

The dissertation is organized into four chapters, the first two of which focus on aspects of Said’s engagement with visual and literary Arab representations. In the third chapter, I apply Said’s strategies for interpreting and criticizing representations of Arabs in a study of some new media art practices from Cairo. In the fourth and final chapter of the dissertation, I focus on the work of leading Cairene new media artist Hassan Khan. It is in relation to this artist’s work that, I argue, both the limits and power of Said’s critical and interpretive strategies appear most clearly.

The first chapter of the dissertation is entitled “From Myths of Arab Presence to Scenes of an Arab Present: Said’s Approach to Arab Literary Representations”. In it, I characterize Said’s (highly visual) approach to the study of Arab literary self-representations. I show, in particular, how Said’s work on Arabic literature fulfilled an objective to explore visual artistic representations of the Middle East as alternatives to Orientalist misrepresentations of the region and its people. Through an engagement with a key document from “The Collected Papers and Correspondence of Edward W. Said” I argue that Said’s approach to Arabic literature fulfills a task set for, but not carried out in, his best-known work entitled, Orientalism (1979). Furthermore, I argue that Said’s visual approach to interpreting Arab literature is adaptable for use by art historians dealing with contemporary Arab representations.

In the second chapter of the dissertation, entitled “After the Last Sky: Pictures, Projection and Repetition in Said’s Narration of Palestinian Lives” I examine in detail Said’s most sustained engagement with visual representations of Arabs. In his book After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives (with photographs by Jean Mohr), Said applies strategies used in his work on Arabic literature to the interpretation of Jean Mohr’s documentary photographs of Palestinians. In doing so, Said supplements the documentary value of Mohr’s photographs with a distinct artistic value. This increase in value, I argue, is a result of Said’s attention to the formal details of Mohr’s photographs. Although they are to serve a testimonial and political purpose, Mohr’s photographs as they are narrated by Said, render the Palestinian experience in its broadly cultural, historical and psychological as well as artistic or aesthetic dimensions. Ultimately, I argue that this mode of interpreting Mohr’s photographs provides an alternative for Said to generic, and in his view unhelpful, mass mediated and “grossly” political representations of Palestinians.

In the third chapter of the dissertation, entitled “Edward Said’s Critique of the ‘Textual Attitude’ and Some Cairene Speech Acts”, I show how Said’s approach to the critique of Orientalist and Neo-Orientalist textual representations may be taken up in an analysis of some leading art and curatorial practices in Cairo which deal with speech acts. In particular, I show how Cairene performance and new media artists contest, to varying degrees and more or less effectively, the Orientalist association of Arabic language with ‘Arab mind’ and ‘political temperament’. In this chapter, I argue that, just as Said refuses a strictly political representation of Palestinian Arabs in his work with Mohr, Cairo-based artists aim in their work at complicating reductive (i.e. strictly political, or worse, racist) representations of Arabs.  

In the fourth and final chapter of the dissertation entitled, “Hassan Khan and the Formalization of Speech Acts,” I argue that Said’s critique of Orientalist dogmas concerning ‘Arab mind’ and ‘political temperament’ is most effectively taken up in Khan’s new media artwork. I argue as well that Khan’s approach to Arab representation is distinguished from Said’s in critical ways. Crucially in this chapter, I show how Khan refuses the kind of activist agenda Said pursues in both his work on Arabic literature and in After the Last Sky. I argue ultimately that Khan develops a technologically mediated strategy for representing his experience in its national, ethnic but also institutional and artistic dimensions that seriously undermines the notion of Arab cultural identity on which much of Said’s work is based. I make this case on the basis of a close examination of several of Khan’s performance-based film, video and new media works.