Pop-history from a galaxy not too far away...
Arab sociopolitical history and cult classic icons like Yoda are central to Saudi artist Shaweesh’s Superheroes series. Humorous and satirical, the series merges pop culture with established visual documents that reference particular historical moments, such as Palestinian refugees fleeing occupation in the 1940s and Emir Faisal's delegation at the Paris Peace Conference after WWI. Shaweesh’s comic re-writes of these significant events, captured in black and white, are arrestingly cinematic reinventions of the real.
The Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by AP reporter Joe Rosenthal of American soldiers mounting their flag on the island of Iwo Jima is one of the most emblematic and disputed images of WWII. Widely circulated, it immediately helped to change the psyche of the American public as well as that of its allies. The image signified triumph, lauded its subjects as war heroes, and had a profound effect on winning the war. It could be argued that the symbolic event was in part made from the photograph, rather than the reverse. The image was perhaps less about the moment of victory – the fighting on Iwo Jima raged on for several more days – as it was about staking a territorial claim.
In Al-Baik, Iwo Jima (2013) Shaweesh disturbs this iconic image’s narrative by replacing the American flag with the logo from the Saudi fast-food restaurant chain Al Baik. While Rosenthal’s image served as an imaginative construction of a historical event, Shaweesh’s insertion of Al Baik into the composition encourages a complex reconsideration of meaning. The absence of the American flag is made evident by the Saudi chain’s logo – both representations of nation-ness and their tangled, complex assertions of power over time. This juxtaposition is a starting point to consider how brands that have historically been nation-specific are increasingly transnational by means of capitalist-driven consumerism (e.g. McDonaldization turned on its head). Al Baik in Iwo Jima personifies our enthusiasm for and fascination with modern day franchises of global proportions, and it commentates on our visually saturated consumer society.
In United Nation (2013), one can imagine the Jedi Master Yoda counseling a young Prince Faisal, then Deputy Minister of Defense of KSA, as if to say: “Do. Or do not. There is no try...” in his customary backwards-speak. This famous line from The Empire Strikes Back, in which Yoda encourages Luke to commit himself completely, seems a fitting dialogue for the actual event represented in the appropriated image. In 1945, 50 nations signed the United Nations Security Charter to, “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. With Yoda’s presence, Shaweesh transforms the narrative, re-performing history through a pop-culture allegorical lens. It is possible to envision the soon-to-be King Faisal, whose name has become synonymous with the country’s modernization (which was contentious amongst many religious leaders), acting as a surrogate Luke, internally guided by the Jedi Master’s moral clarity.
The origin of Shaweesh’s artistic practice is in performance and street art; he first gained public recognition with his graffiti depicting KSA Olympian Sarah Attar. He now employs various media, including photography, in his practice. Social media has become integral to his research on pop culture and public engagement with his work. With nearly 100k Instagram followers, Shaweesh explains that online platforms enable people to, “comment, share, and ‘Like’ the work I do—but also provide criticism. You can’t create this type of dialogue on the streets”.
For various reasons, it might have been challenging to publicly engage in such discourse within KSA in the recent past. Yet, KSA is now one of the most connected in the world; it has the highest YouTube usage per capita and amongst the highest Twitter usage rates. Youth demographics are having a transformative effect on its society (more than 70% of the population is under the age of 30), helping to produce an artistic and cultural boom of global reverberation. Work by Shaweesh, who is affiliated with collectives Edge of Arabia and Studio Gharem, challenges canons of knowledge, activating new dialogue about where reality meets perception.
Tribe 03, 2016