Music’s influence on Middle East

‘Snail Fever’ at The Third Line explores how music shaped Arab world


Legendary Egyptian singer Abd el-Halim Hafez was known as ‘The Nightingale’, his rare, enrapturing voice the evocative backdrop for millions of people’s lives throughout the ’50s and ’60s. Those not familiar with Arabic music will still know his song ‘Khosara’, resampled in Jay Z’s ‘Big Pimping’. El-Halim’s voice was cut short in 1977 when he died of a snail-borne bacterial disease called bilharzia at the age of 48.

Iranian/Canadian curator Sara Mameni chose to name The Third Line’s latest show after this incident to allude to the almost dangerous connotations surrounding music. ‘In this region, music has been thought of as a decadent practice,’ explains Sara. ‘Singing and dancing creates an alternate state similar to drug and alcohol consumption. In countries such as Iran, music is prohibited (strictly so if the vocals are by a woman). I chose ‘Snail Fever’ as a metaphor for music as a disease.’

Sara likes to curate exhibitions organically: looking at the latest creative output from young artists, she’ll come up with a theme from what she sees in front of her. ‘I was struck by how many artists create work about music. It’s a popular medium, and I think it’s a great way to study culture.’ In ‘Snail Fever’, Sara, along with the nine exhibiting artists, explore an aural medium visually, each looking at how song can create national identities.

‘Electric Del Roba’ by Ala Ebtekar, 2011
In this, the central piece of the exhibition, Iranian-born, US-raised artist Ala Ebtekar surveys hip-hop culture using a boombox placed on the side of a mat (a prayer rug or a breakdancer’s pad?), alongside a pair of sneakers laced with ribbons covered in a traditional Persian motif. He’s perhaps showing how this once counter-cultural movement influences or is influenced by the society it pervades.

‘Listen’ by Newsha Tavakolian, 2010
This self-taught Iranian photographer’s works are enhanced through silence. The series of photographs, all titled ‘Listen’, portray static images of six female singers from modern Iran who are forbidden to perform, sing or produce CDs.

‘Hymns of No Resistance’ by Slavs and Tatars, 2010
This mysterious Eurasian art collective dedicate themselves to an area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China. Here they reappropriate the classic Stealers Wheel tune ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’, but instead refer to Ossetia, an area of land that is disputed – should it be under Georgian control or Russian control, or should it be independent?

‘WaWa Complex Dragas Series’ by Fatima Al Qadiri and Khalid al Gharaballi, 2011
This series of photographs by the Kuwaiti duo, featuring traditional dress alongside Western-style clothing, examines and subverts the gender stereotypes in play in Arab pop music today.

The lowdown

Exhibition: ‘Snail Fever’, until July 28 at The Third Line, Al Quoz (04 341 1367).
Artists: Abbas Akhavan, Fatima Al Qadiri and Khalid al Gharaballi, Ala Ebtekar, Haris Epaminonda, Christodoulos Panayiotou, Rayyane Tabet, Slavs and Tatars, and Newsha Tavakolian.
From: MENA, Iran, America, Greece and central Asia
Price range: Dhs9,900-Dhs45,000

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