New Age Islam Edit Bureau
27 April 2018
Portman A Moderate Voice In Israel-Palestine Debate
By Ray Hanania
The Soft Power Of Mohamed Salah
By Salman Al-Dosary
Au Revoir, Nuclear Deal — Or Did Macron Play The Trump Card?
By Dr. Manuel Almeida
Challenges And Risks In The Historic Saudi Arabian Privatization Plan
By Frank Kane
EU Lobbies Trump To Disregard Realities In Iran
By Hamid Bahrami
Between Ai Weiwei And Bashar Al-Assad, We Wonder
By Hamid Dabashi
Who Gets To Picture And Narrate Africa?
By M Neelika Jayawardane
Compiled By New Age Islam Edit Bureau
Portman A Moderate Voice in Israel-Palestine Debate
April 26, 2018
Israeli actress Natalie Portman is the definition of the moderate voice in the Israel-Palestine conflict. And she’s not alone.
Last week, Portman said she would not travel from the United States to Israel to accept the Genesis Prize, an annual award given to a Jewish person who has excelled in their field. Because of her refusal and her public criticism of the Israeli government’s policies, Portman has come under intense attack from Israeli politicians.
But, just because Israeli extremism violates the international rule of law and undermines the universal principles of human rights, that doesn’t mean all Israelis are bad.
Portman refused to travel to Israel to accept the prize, which is valued at $2 million, and explained in a statement that, while she does not support the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement, she also does not support the extremism that is plaguing her country of birth or the policies of the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Portman wrote on her Instagram account: “My decision not to attend the Genesis Prize ceremony has been mischaracterized by others. Let me speak for myself. I chose not to attend because I did not want to appear as endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu, who was to be giving a speech at the ceremony.
“By the same token, I am not part of the BDS movement and do not endorse it. Like many Israelis and Jews around the world, I can be critical of the leadership in Israel without wanting to boycott the entire nation. I treasure my Israeli friends and family, Israeli food, books, art, cinema, and dance. Israel was created exactly 70 years ago as a haven for refugees from the Holocaust. But the mistreatment of those suffering from today’s atrocities is simply not in line with my Jewish values. Because I care about Israel, I must stand up against violence, corruption, inequality, and abuse of power,” she added.
Portman represents the moral backbone of a powerful Israeli movement that, in the past two decades, has been pushed underground by Netanyahu’s growing influence in Israeli politics and society. It’s the reason I, and other moderate Palestinians, only partially support the BDS movement, which is in a tug-of-war between extremists and moderates within the Palestinian community.
For far too long, Palestinians have been the victims of extremism from within — a faction of fanatics who reject everything and would rather see their people continue to suffer rather than compromise with Israel.
There are two BDS movements, the one that screams emotionally against everything that is Israeli and Jewish, and the one that strategically targets the illegal Jewish-only settler movement that thrives on the confiscation of Palestinian Christian and Muslim rights in the Occupied Territories.
But the extremist BDS movement is the one that gets all of the headlines and generates all of the commotion. Palestinian emotions tend to empower the extremist BDS movement, meaning the moderate BDS movement that seeks to undermine Israeli fanatics like Netanyahu and the illegal settlements tends to be suppressed or even cast aside.
Portman, born in Jerusalem in 1981, is an acclaimed Hollywood actress who has dual citizenship as both an Israeli and an American. She is best known for winning the Academy Award for best actress in 2011 for her performance in “Black Swan.” Her moderate voice is not alone in the American entertainment industry. Another strong voice is that of actress and comedian Sarah Silverman, who denounced the abuse of Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi after the latter was arrested and detained by Israeli authorities when she, unarmed, “slapped” a heavily armed Israeli soldier. The incident took place as Israeli forces suppressed Palestinians protesting the expansion of Israeli settlements in Tamimi’s home village of Nabi Salih in the West Bank.
Silverman, who began her career as a writer for the long-running American TV comedy series Saturday Night Live, protested Tamimi’s arrest in a series of tweets, including one in which she told other American Jews and Israelis: “Jews have to stand up even when — especially when — the wrongdoing is by Jews/the Israeli government.”
Like Portman, Silverman came under attack from many Israeli activists and officials for standing up for Palestinian rights.
Portman and Silverman are only two of the growing number of influential American Jews and Israelis who are speaking out against the Israeli government’s extremism. They represent a movement that includes the courageous members of organizations like B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization that is one of the leading voices against Israeli atrocities, and other groups including the New Israel Fund and Americans for Peace Now.
Instead of boycotting Israel as a nation and as a people, Palestinians should narrow their BDS focus against Israeli extremism.
Some Palestinians assert that the movement for the two-state solution is dead. Of course, they have been fighting to kill it since it was first embraced in 1993 by the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.
But just because those Palestinians scream and yell the loudest in the Palestinian community doesn’t mean we should listen to them. And just because someone is Israeli or Jewish doesn’t mean we should brand them as our enemies.
By Salman al-Dosary
He surprised everyone as if he came from another planet. The best player in the English Premier League. The top scorer in the world’s strongest league in his return season to England. The top scorer in all five major leagues, surpassing the likes of Messi and Ronaldo.
This is how Egypt’s Mohamed Salah awed football fans in Britain and the world. He became more than just a great footballer, entertaining fans, but an example, sending indirect positive messages to all of his followers.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry was not exaggerating when it described Mo, as he is fondly called by his avid Liverpool fans, as “a symbol of soft power in Egypt.” He has joined the ranks of Egyptian soft power icons, such as singer Umm Kulthum, writer Naguib Mahfouz, actor Omar al-Sharif and scientist Ahmed Zewail.
There is no doubt that Mohamed Salah’s actions on the football field, which have attracted millions of fans without saying a single word, are more powerful than millions of lectures, seminars, and, of course, ideological slogans.
The term “soft power” first appeared in a 1990 book, Soft Power: The Means To Success In World Politics, by American Joseph Nye. He wrote about strengthening American interests all over the globe through what he called “soft power”, and, of course, hard or military power.
An Influential Weapon
Soft power, he explained, is a means for success in the world of international politics. It is an influential weapon that achieves goals through attractiveness and persuasion, instead of coercion or bribes.
Nye concluded that the source of soft power in any country is its culture if this country has the minimum level of attractiveness and if it faithfully applies its policies on its internal and foreign fronts. This is how soft power turned into a major and main concept in political and social sciences.
The hard part lies in how to softly and indirectly influence others. Nye said that people have to be influenced and convinced through the ability to attract them, which will ultimately make them listen.
This is how sport is no longer just a game. Football no longer entertains millions of people around the world and ends when the match concludes. It has, for a while, been transformed into an important geo-political factor and main source of strength for nations.
Pascal Boniface, founder of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, said football differs from traditional power. “Everyone fears the US politically and economically, but no one fears it in football where it does not have control.” Can anyone doubt this truth?
During an interview with CBS in 2010, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that there are moments when music is more capable than speeches in relaying American values, regardless of how powerful this speech may be.
Indeed, soft power’s positive influence can take the shape of more than just an image. It can be a Chinese free trade market in Dubai, a Japanese restaurant in Riyadh, a Saudi film screened in New York, a painting by an Iraqi artist displayed in Paris, or an Egyptian football player, like Mo Salah, reaching new heights in the English Premier League.
These tools are more powerful than the millions of dollars worth of public relations campaigns. More important is how they should be used in uprooting extremism, which definitely cannot be achieved through security confrontations alone. Soft power, such as sports, culture and art, should be used as an effective weapon against extremist organizations.
When President Emmanuel Macron of France arrived in Washington on Monday to meet US President Donald Trump, it was far easier to list the key issues dividing the two leaders than those where they saw eye-to-eye. Both are out-of-the-ordinary politicians in their distinctive ways, but their very different world views are reflected in their divergent positions on trade, climate change and multilateral diplomacy.
However, it was the attempt to build bridges over an international agreement — the nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — that topped the agenda of the US-France summit. Midway through Macron’s state visit, the chances of narrowing the gap between the allies on Iran’s nuclear program and Tehran’s aggressive regional policies appeared to have increased. But, as the visit drew to a close, Macron did not disguise the uncertainty and even his pessimism surrounding European attempts to keep the US in the nuclear deal.
Speaking to reporters before departing from the US capital, the French president said: “My view — I don’t know what your president will decide — is that he will get rid of this deal on his own, for domestic reasons.” And he also chastised his American counterpart’s constant swings on critical global matters as “insane,” saying that this approach “can work in the short term but it’s very insane in the medium to long term.”
On Jan. 12, the US administration announced it would pursue with its European allies a “new supplemental agreement” to the nuclear deal of 2015. The aim was a follow-up agreement to curb Iran’s development and testing of long-range missiles, strengthen inspection powers by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and address the flaws of the current “sunset clause” on the lifting of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program after 2025.
Trump set May 12 as the deadline for Paris, Berlin and London to either come on board or watch the US walk away from the deal, which in practice would mean not reissuing waivers of US sanctions by the May deadline.
The Europeans — who invariably see the nuclear deal as a landmark achievement for global security, with the additional advantage of fostering potential trade and investment opportunities with Iran — quickly responded to the challenge. A working group including senior officials from the E3 (Britain, France and Germany) and the US State Department’s senior policy adviser Brian Hook met regularly over the past few months to find a solution for keeping the US in the deal while meeting Trump’s demands.
Macron was a natural fit to spearhead this last, critical European attempt to prevent the US from abandoning the nuclear deal. France was the first of the E3 to call for tougher measures to address the issue of Iran’s ballistic missile program. And Macron also enjoys a better relationship with Trump than German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who arrived in Washington later in the week.
The proposal delivered by Macron for so-called add-on agreements to the existing nuclear deal seemed to have found a more receptive American president, although the exact content of the new proposal remains to be seen. Apparently, there are four documents (one main declaration and three specific texts) that address not only concerns about Iran’s nuclear activities and ballistic missiles program, but also a strategy of containment of Iran in Syria and the wider Middle East.
“Nobody knows what I’m going to do on the 12th, although Mr. President (Macron), you have a pretty good idea,” Trump said during a joint press conference on Tuesday afternoon. “But we’ll see.” He concluded the press conference on a positive note: “We can change and we can be flexible. In life, you have to be flexible.”
Macron also sounded a positive note, explaining that US and French officials were working “intensively” on a common approach to Iran’s military activities and regional policies. Specifically on Iran, he said that “we have a disagreement regarding the JCPOA but I think we are overcoming it by deciding to work toward a deal, an overall deal,” which apparently goes as far as the conflict in Syria.
The next day, in a joint meeting of Congress, Macron delivered a 50-minute address, during which he staunchly defended the liberal world order — a clear rebuke to the nationalism of Trump’s “America First” agenda — for which he received a long standing ovation. He vowed Iran would “never possess any nuclear weapons” and defended the notion that the best way to do it was through a substantial nuclear agreement.
Following his powerful Congressional address, Macron tweeted: “We decided with President (Trump) to work on a new comprehensive deal.”
The French president’s pessimistic final words before leaving the US capital could easily be interpreted as a sign the Trump administration has pretty much made up its mind about reinstating sanctions on Iran, which would equate to a rejection of the nuclear deal. Yet, when considered in the overall context of the visit and the various statements made during the summit — including those from US officials contradicting one another — it seems uncertainty will remain the word of order until the very last minute.
It is even possible that Macron intentionally sounded a more negative note ahead of the visit of Merkel, who has a far frostier relationship with Trump and has been less open to his administration’s demands and peculiarities.
Challenges and Risks in the Historic Saudi Arabian Privatization Plan
Saudi Arabia’s plan to kick-start its historic privatization program has been well received by an international investment community that is often sceptical of big announcements.
Bankers have spoken of the “positive momentum” behind the plan, and that it looks realistic and achievable. Raising around $10 billion through state sell-offs, public private partnerships and trade sales is certainly a long way from the $200 billion put up as the total value of the privatization program just last year, but you have to start somewhere.
The $10 billion figure relates to sell-off proceeds between now and the end of 2020, while the bigger figure was an estimate of the total value of proceeds from
all asset sales and other privatization measures (excluding whatever comes from an IPO of Saudi Aramco) under the Vision 2030 strategy. Saudi policymakers still have the potential to meet the higher figures over the next 12 years as the pace of sell-offs accelerates and they — and global markets — become more familiar with the process.
The value estimates announced earlier this week do not include any proceeds from assets held by the Public Investment Fund, which has hundreds of millions of riyals’ worth of holdings in public and private Saudi companies that can be sold separately from the process being organized by the National Center for Privatization (NCP).
Working out which assets will be sold first is still a guessing game, but the NCP report identified two individual “game-changers:” Saudi ports and the desalination business Saline Water Conversion Company. Both look relatively trouble free from a privatization perspective — solid revenue-generating businesses able to pay the level of dividend associated with utilities the world over. Trade and water are, in their own ways, what Saudi Arabia is all about, so there seems little need for explanatory marketing campaigns.
Hospitals and schools also figure high on the NCP priorities list, but these present greater challenges, not in the sense that their profitability or value is in doubt, but in terms of the big role they pay in the Kingdom’s social and cultural life. Selling them will require a greater degree of sophistication.
The NCP “Delivery 2020” document was — justifiably — big on theory and structure, with much space given to explanations of the need for legal, regulatory and institutional frameworks for the privatization process.
Some bankers were surprised that further progress had not been made on this front, and a substantial amount of work does appear necessary before the first assets can be sold. But the Saudi government has shown that it is not afraid to get things done quickly.
The NCP document also recognized that there are challenges and risks associated with such an ambitious program of state sell offs — one of the biggest in history. The plan said that Saudi Arabia had only limited experience of private-sector involvement in the economy, confined to specific sectors. “Hence, necessary expertise, knowledge and skills related to the privatization of state-owned assets and activation of private-sector engagement across the whole government are very low,” it said.
There were issues, too, with the lack of sufficient skills and expertise in the private sector “since the government was the only available service providers for many sectors.” The document also highlighted gaps in the legal and regulatory structures to enable such a big privatization program. “The current situation is not attractive to the participation of the private sector, as it is not interested in sectors where there are no clear regulations or directory of procedures that govern all the above-mentioned points, and that may stand in the way of reaping the full benefits of privatization,” it said.
The NCP acknowledged that there were risks to the successful execution of the sell-off plan. It said that there was “high potential impact” from the “limited liquidity in the KSA financial ecosystem,” and recommended keeping the process open to international markets, among other measures. It identified a “critical potential impact” from changes in market conditions in the course of the privatization program, and advised hedging strategies, best and worst case scenario planning, and adoption of international best practice to gain access to global financial funds. Seeing potential pitfalls is an essential part of the privatization process, and it is commendable that the NCP has recognized that.
EU Lobbies Trump to Disregard Realities in Iran
With the Iran nuclear deal train fast approaching its final stop, both European powers and Iran’s regime are doing their best to preserve the deal that most Americans as well as the Iranian people believe does not live up to expectations.
US President Donald Trump described the deal, formally known as the JCPOA, as the “worst deal ever” and has set a May 12 deadline to fix its catastrophic flaws. On the other hand, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visits the US in a last desperate effort to assist the pro-JCPOA lobbyists who naively argue that the deal “must be preserved as there are no other options”.
“It is very important for Iran to receive the benefits of the agreement”, Zarif repeated during his many interviews in the US and added that “there is no way that Iran would do a one-side implementation of it”.
A source close to the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) told me that “our strategy is saving the JCPOA because considering the explosive situation in the country and the expensive presence in Syria, we have no chance to survive if the sanctions are re-imposed.”
Indeed, Zarif blusters and takes the carrot and stick approach playing the prisoner swap card with the US nationals currently held unjustly in Iran. But it is not President Obama who is in the White House this time around.
On the other hand, EU leaders are making a beeline to Washington one after another to try to persuade Trump to stay in the deal.
Both the French President and German Chancellor’s visits to the US means joining hands with the proponents of the JCPOA. Now, EU’s efforts will most likely be fruitless, and here is why.
The American roadmap to fix the deal is indeed straightforward:
- fix the deal’s sunset clause
- counter Tehran regime’s destructive interventions in the Middle East
- stop the missile program of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)
- stop human rights abuses in Iran
None of these demands have yet been addressed by the EU, yet its leaders persist to convince Trump to disregard realities.
In this regard, the French President Emmanuel Macron advocates the continuation of the failed policy of appeasement saying “my point is to say don’t leave now the JCPOA as long as you don’t have a better option for nuclear and let’s complete it with ballistic missile and regional containment.”
The EU has not even succeeded in ratifying an agreement among its member-states to impose some limited sanctions on Tehran for its destabilizing regional behaviour.
The efforts to save the deal without incorporating measures to change Tehran’s unacceptable behaviour provide the Iranian regime with the three vital tools – land, weapons and funds – to further destabilize its Arab neighbours.
While the Iranian regime rules out any possibility of reversing its missile program, one should ask how the EU wants to persuade the regime to come to the negotiating table. The most acceptable answer should be “sanctions”.
Indeed, it is naive to save the JCPOA, which provides Tehran with sanctions relief. At the same time new sanctions on the regime is likely to persuade Iranian clerics to respect international laws and UN Security Council resolutions.
Considering the recent success of the policy of pressure toward North Korea, scrapping of the deal is not only the best option but also the most effective way to deny terrorist organizations such as the IRGC and Hezbollah vital income.
As the deal’s history teaches us, the Iranian regime refused to negotiate until economic sanctions brought the theocracy to its knees.
On a fine early afternoon in late March a young German-Iranian friend and I walked into the Garage Gallery at the Fire Station in Doha, Qatar - and we wondered.
We were there to see the famous Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's "Laundromat": "A traveling installation", as the official description of the exhibition says, "that brings the current European migrant crisis into sharp focus." We had read before that "the work is centered around a vast makeshift camp near the village of Idomeni, on the border with the Republic of Macedonia. As part of his recently released documentary Human Flow, Ai Weiwei has borne witness to the brutal plight of refugees worldwide."
Borne witness? Does the brutal plight of refugees worldwide - those from Syria in particular - need a witness? Surely. But how - we wondered. How can an artist, a work of art, transcend the mundane materiality of human wherewithal (a brush, a camera, a pen, a pair of washed and ironed pants) to reach for the quintessence of a man-made calamity? If the principle (but by no means the only) culprit of the Syrian catastrophe is Bashar al-Assad, what can Ai Weiwei teach us to better bear witness to the crooked timber of our time?
Syrians Doing Their Laundry
Ai Weiwei is a dissident Chinese artist who has become globally famous by virtue of European and US honorary awards bringing close attention to his work. No doubt he is a gifted artist deserving all the US and European accolades he keeps receiving. If you were to follow the list of awards he has received, you see his name appearing next to such suspect political figures like Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi and the US' Hillary Clinton.
None of these should, of course, be held against Ai Weiwei. He just happens to be top of the list for European and US joints giving top prizes to dissidents in China or Russia. They deeply care about "the human rights situation" around the world except in Palestine of course, or in Yemen for that matter, especially when Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and his fat chequebook arrive in London or Washington.
The provenance of Ai Weiwei's name and reputation being launched from US and European art and human rights pedestals is a mixed blessing, however. It makes him globally renowned indeed - and yet once people outside the US and Europe - in Asia, Africa, or Latin America - go to see his work they wonder: Where's the beef? When will the other shoe drop? What's the big deal?
Rows after rows of neatly cleaned and pressed clothing items. Rows after rows of pointedly paired shoes. Rows after rows of pictures of the artist and his companions plastered on the walls. Where do we go from here? How are we supposed to look at these items and bear "witness to the brutal plight of refugees worldwide?"
There is a bizarre kind of sanctimonious politesse about these exhibitions. But one look at the face of a Syrian refugee child, a young Iraqi widow, or a Palestinian dead body on the border of Gaza robs us of all such outdated etiquettes. We must politely stand up and publicly wonder.
Can Syrian or Iraqi or Palestinian or Afghan or Somali refugees' suffering be turned to art - and to what effect? Day in and day out, we are flooded with pictures, news, videos, and analysis of one calamity after another. We scroll down our newsfeed like watching Hieronymus Bosch's hell panel from The Garden of Earthly Delight (1490-1510) - or The Harrowing of Hell, by one of his followers. What can we gather in a gallery in Doha or London or New York where we see people's laundry cleaned, ironed and hanged?
There is something off about Ai Weiwei - his art does not quite resonate, and it certainly does not travel outside Europe and US art venues in any meaningful way. There is always a gap - at once aesthetic and political, semiotic and visceral, a cognitive dissonance standing between the work of art and our perceptions.
You never know if you are to shrug and call it a day and leave the venue, or sit down and ask yourself: what did I just see, what is the meaning of this? Am I to feel sadder, angrier, more determined after I saw these bizarre constellations of neatly cleaned and ironed pieces of clothing items and shoes?
The Blood-Dimmed Tide Is Loosed
There is a reason for this cognitive dissonance, for this aesthetic disconnect. Ai Weiwei became globally celebrated and found his way to Doha or anywhere else around the globe by virtue of his US and European reception and celebration. He does not bring his Chinese experiences as a committed artist to other countries. His aesthetics are mitigated by his European curators. He projects a Euro-universalism with a Chinese signature: "Ai Weiwei".
It is from the vantage point of those compromised gatherings of artists in US and European art institutions that Ai Weiwei comes to look at Syrians and their plights like Shirin Neshat did during the Egyptian revolution before him.
And it is precisely for that reason that it makes no difference to him if he stages his work in occupied Palestine or in an Arab capital that welcomes him. Artists like Ai Weiwei are products of US and European art stages - their political and aesthetics sensibilities, as a result, are aloof and abstract, rootless and available to the highest bidder. They care about everything - a little bit.
Hanging clothing items in Doha or planting monumental iron trees in Israel - it makes no difference to Ai Weiwei. "Unifying massive works by Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei" we learn, "the Israel Museum presents Ai Weiwei: maybe, maybe not, an exhibition that features a series of installations that examine notions of the one and the multitude and of the individual's relationship to his or her broader social culture."
That's lovely, isn't it? When they are done shooting Palestinians dead in Gaza, maybe Israeli soldiers could take a break and go for a tour of Ai Weiwei works at the Israel Museum.
Justifying his decision to exhibit in the racist apartheid state of Israel, Ai Weiwei is reported to have said: "my voice should be heard. I have to make the argument … (and not say) 'OK, let's boycott it, and it's nothing to do with me.' I think that's too easy." Indeed; there is no message stronger than the medium. Walking over the dead bodies of Palestinians and their ravaged homeland to exhibit in Israel is a message the world hears loudly and clearly.
A Syrian Artist Can Hear the Falconer
I have had other occasions to wonder if a work by Ai Weiwei about the terror of Syrian refugees makes any sense at all. But my argument is neither personal nor questioning the validity of any other artist coming close to the Syrian catastrophe and dwelling on it.
Compare the case of Ai Weiwei to that of the Syrian artist Tammam Azzam who in 2012 had digitally reconstructed the US Statue of Liberty from the rubble of destroyed buildings in Syria. The artwork became the subject of varied and opposing interpretations, finally landing on the lap of pro-regime loyalists who appropriated it for their pro-Assad propaganda. The piece was also presumed to be a real sculpture until the artist said: "the work was done by a photomontage on the computer and not a real statue."
Was this a pro-Assad or an anti-Assad piece? Pro-US or anti-US? Made from actual debris or only digitally? The issue is not to provide an accurate answer to any one of these questions. The issue is how a simple work of art has been so deeply rooted in the destruction of the artist's homeland.
Much of our modern and contemporary conceptions of art and aesthetics are varied forms of Euro-universalism. When US and European artists produced art for their own galleries, museums, biennales, and audiences, that was their own business. They could, and they did, imagine their allegorical conception of "the west" as the epicentre of the universe. All the power to them. But today that Euro-universalism clones itself in artists from around the world.
An Arab, Iranian, Chinese, Pakistani, Turkish, Indian, South African, or Mexican artist strives to get exhibited in Venice or Santa Fe, which is perfectly fine too. But before long the symbiotic relationship between these artists and their European or US curators, benefactors, customers, and audiences transforms them into an empty shell of their former selves. Their lived experiences become limited to airports and biennales, interspersed with trouble spots like refugee camps, where people and their cultures are brutally cut from the organicity of the life, interrupted by those very US and European powers that now celebrate a Chinese, an Iranian, or a Pakistani artist who is there to represent truth in the world of alternative facts.
This, of course, is not necessarily the fate of all artists. There are countless examples of people like Nicky Nodjoumi or Amir Naderi whose stubborn fixation with their own rooted truth has charted a long, arduous, defiant, but ultimately triumphant course for them.
The World Press Photo Foundation recently announced the participants selected for the 2018 Joop Swart Masterclass. It is the foundation's flagship education programme that "rewards the most talented emerging visual journalists and is designed to support and enhance diversity in visual journalism and storytelling".
This year, far more women were selected, and that alone must be commended in a field that routinely overlooks women. Although the immensely talented Leonard Pongo, who is Belgian, but of Congolese descent, was one of the selected photographers; African-born, Africa-based photographers - male or female - were notably absent.
Why Is This Lack Of Representation From African Countries So Important?
Gifted and experienced photographers from the continent continue to be marginalised. Lack of recognition by powerful organisations like World Press Photo (WPP) and Magnum means that photographers lose out on opportunities to enhance their technical ability and network with each other and commissioning editors.
It is important to note that photographers from African countries often do not even make it to the list of nominees for competitions, because the nominators themselves are based in localities that do not give them knowledge of the existence of these photographers.
By choosing who gets to be recognised, selected for training by respected photographers and photo editors, and networked into powerful media houses, such organisations have the power to direct who pictures and narrates our world. More importantly, they get to choose who photographs and narrates the experiences of those who the geopolitical west has seen as "other".
Inevitably, by leaving out photographers from African countries, and continuing to skew the selection process towards photographers who are from Europe and North America, the way the world pictures and imagines Africa and Africans will remain as they have historically been framed by the geopolitical west - as location of a special brand of savagery and darkness to which those in the west have no parallel experiences or equivalent.
Last year, in an article for Al Jazeera English, titled The problem of photojournalism in Africa, I wrote a response to the New York Times' use of troubling photographs of African refugees and migrants, as well as the larger issues surrounding the way in which photojournalists pictured Africa and Africans in deeply problematic ways. In the article, I discussed how the main reason for photojournalists' depictions of Africans in caricatured ways was the reluctance by powerful news organisations based in the geo-political west to employ African and locally-based photographers.
In subsequent conversations, many photographers have said that African photographers, too, might feel pressured to produce certain stereotypical narratives; media houses expect and pay for caricatured, "easy-to-read" images.
Despite the pressure to get photographs that reflect simplistic notions of "tribal" conflict, savagery, disease and general darkness that reflect the geopolitical west's expectations for "Africa", a local photographer would almost certainly produce more nuanced narratives than a parachuted-in photographer who has little to no knowledge of a given situation.
World Press Photo was founded in 1955 by a group of Dutch photographers, who organised an international contest as a way of creating global recognition for excellence. Its annual competition and prize is seen as the pinnacle of achievement in photojournalism, with a worldwide exhibition programmegiving the winner the opportunity to show their work in 45 countries to an audience of some 4 million people, according to WPP. Most of these locations happen to be in Europe, and none are in Africa.
Prince Constantijn of the Netherlands is the patron of the organisation which is financed through sponsorship from the Dutch Postcode Lottery and Canon, as well as partnerships with other supporters and contributors, including the Associated Press, ING Bank, and WeTransfer.
The power of this patronage and income allows WPP's managing director Lars Boering and his 27 staff members to promote, according to its mission statement, "high-quality visual stories, we create and support the conditions that make possible the stories that matter."
But those powerful networks of patronage and income do not seem to have figured out a way of meeting their goals of "transparency" and "diversity" when it comes including photographers from Africa in its prestigious training programme.
Although just over 20 photographers from Africa were nominated within the pool of 219 total nominees, eight photographers made the nominee list from Egypt, and two from Morocco - areas of the continent that are networked with Arab geopolitics in far different ways from other parts of what is (problematically) called "Sub-Saharan" Africa.
Three of the nominees are from South Africa, two from Nigeria, and one photographer each from a scattering of other African countries. Of the three South Africans, only Nocebo Bucibois a black photographer; the other two are white.
In a country with South Africa's racial dynamics, which continues to offer far more opportunities to those who are white, it is (laughably) not uncommon to hear grumbling about black artists and photographers getting opportunities over those who are white in closed conversation circles.
Yet of the large young, talented black photographers who are making their way, the South African nominators only found one black person to nominate. Perhaps not many black photographers applied.
If that is the case, is it not part of the mandate of WPP's on-the-ground people and nominators to cultivate less-represented photographers' portfolios for presentation?
On Twitter and Facebook, photographers expressed their ire. It was obvious that despite good intentions, the cycle of exclusion continues, and the excuses continue. Andile Buka noted, wryly:
When Jack Yakubu Nkinzingabo - a Rwandan photographer and founder of Kigali Center for Photography - expressed his disappointment in a Facebook post, the responses from WPP's managing director Boering and education programme coordinator Juliette Garms were predictable:
To be honest, I laughed when I saw these responses. Black and brown people (and women, and anyone from a group that's been systematically excluded) will only recognise all this rhetoric too well. What is there to "discuss" at this stage?
No one who is "conscious and addressing those problems" would leave such glaring gaps in who exactly is chosen to nominate, where they are located, what their (national, racial and gender) positionalities are, and where the nominees come from. We are not a gender and colour-blind world. "Those problems" to which Garms so delicately alludes - conveniently without naming them - are built on structural racism and personal prejudices.
WPP's selection process reflects exclusionary practices - created by such tired, old, obvious ways of privileging certain groups and erasing the presence of a specific "other" that's historically been excluded for the same exact reasons. "Discussion" has been on-going, apparently without much result, for decades. If one has to still "discuss" the obvious, I can only laugh.
Garms' and Boering's rhetoric are almost stereotypical examples of corporate evasion and cover-up. Their practices leave those employed as "tokens" in a terrible position (case in point - the anecdote Garms puts forward to "prove" WPP is making an effort).
Those who are thus tokenised are aware of their predicament. They realise that refusing to partake robs them of an invaluable opportunity to make headway in an industry that rarely opens doors for black people from Africa, and for women.
Photographers also know that if they directly confront a powerful organisation like WPP, they will be further marginalised, marked "troublemaker", and not invited even as a token.
African photographers speak up
Of the many people who responded to my own criticism of the WPP's choices for the Joop Swart Masterclass, which I posted on Facebook, it was mostly African diasporic photographers who operate outside Africa - who have more opportunities to network - as well as those photographers who already have well-established careers, who felt comfortable enough to make public statements.
Cedric Nunn, a South African photographer with a long and distinguished career, remembered that he attempted to address the issue of exclusion of African photographers by WPP about 20 years ago, as then director of Market Photo Workshop.
"I was not afforded the dignity of a response ... I think they just didn't give a damn what anyone said in the colonies, and now they have to make some polite mumbles."
Like others with whom I discussed this latest instance of exclusion, Nunn, too, said, "We came to the conclusion that we needed our own standards and institutions that would have a different set of values attached, and depart from the sensationalistic images" that agencies based in the geopolitical west preferred, and sometimes demanded.
French-Ivorian photo editor Anna-Alix Koffi, who served as a nominator for the Joop Swart Masterclass in previous years and as a judge this year, notes that the process is fraught to begin with.
Though there were many Egyptian photographers nominated, few from other parts of Africa were nominated, she pointed out. And judges - inevitably - bring unconscious biases to the table, unless they have been immersed in processes of addressing and countering their existing prejudices.
Last year, when Koffi was part of judging the Masterclass in West Africa, she pointed out that African photographers dealt with enormous obstacles, such as lack of finance and mobility. For many African passport-holders it is nearly impossible to obtain visas to travel within Africa and outside Africa.
But her honest comment had been met with scepticism, and her statement was scrubbed and shaped into a neat, generic "thank you WPP" message.
"It's a very good thing that a major and prestigious organisation such as WPP are interested in creating opportunities for photographers from Africa. […] But it's a long process that requires more involvement from more organisations. At the moment, however, 'Africa' is like a piece of soap in western hands - they don't really know how to handle it."
It's too complex to do it from the outside. There are surely good intentions, but what they really need are people who are there, imbedded into photographers' networks, who understand the local gender and class dynamics, and even racial or ethnic group dynamics of the locale. There are African specialists from the field that they can hire. In the case of WPP, they should have an office in Africa with locals to make sure it's genuine and long-term success.
A myriad of other structures - including prizes - maintain photographing Africa a game for white, European photographers, most of whom continue to re-imagine and re-present it exactly as their cultural history has trained them to do.
Toronto-based Liz Ikiriko, an independent curator and photo editor concurred. "WPP has learned the language of co-opting without creating any significant and long-lasting opportunities for African photographers. Those practices are also reflected in other, smaller competitions."
As a member of the jury for the Contemporary African Photography prize (run by Ben Fuglister in Berlin), she also realised that problematic dynamics are inherent to the selection process, which resulted in very few African-born photographers being included.
"I was shocked to realise that there was no way of identifying African and/or Diasporic submissions. That was not a requirement and of course, because [Fugulister's] circles are mostly European, the submissions are 80% from white European photographers who shoot in Africa. I spent considerable time [trying to] identify African photographers and prioritising their contributions in my voting. I'm happy to see that a few of them were shortlisted but of course there are many Europeans in the shortlist."
Because this prize is framed as "a photography prize not a photographer prize" it means that well-meaning efforts to imagine the playing field as equal yields few photographers who are actually African. Instead, it is slated to reward, once again, Europeans who fly into Africa to photograph locations with which they are not familiar, often through the same, unquestioned and stereotypical lens.
As one photographer who wished to remain anonymous said:
"There is a difference between good intentions and real actions that create space for those we've historically and actively marginalised. We've seen plenty of well-intentioned initiatives, but if they are not making headway, WPP and others need to recognise that they may not actually be doing anything but making themselves feel better."
It remains important to critique the prejudices and myopia of so-called "international prizes" (that really privilege Europeans and North Americans), training programmes, and photographers' agencies.
But it is also important, as Koffi and Nunn suggested, to have African-built spaces and organisations to promote local photographers and operate with a different set of values and outlook.