Arab Diaspora, Identity and Art

Nissrin Zaptia

Recently I was at the private preview and panel discussion of the Moroccan photographer Lalla Essaydi at the Kashya Hilderbrand Gallery in London. Titled ‘The Dangerous Frontier’ the exhibition was a series of photographs depicting Arab women as ‘femme fatales’ surrounded by and elegantly adorned with shimmering fabrics, giving an impression of opulence and luxury.  On closer inspection the image has been created using polished bullet casings which have been hand sewn onto the models’ clothes, jewels and beds – a metaphor, Essaydi has described for ‘the hidden violence endured by women in some Islamic cultures’.

Moroccan born and raised, Essaydi became an artist after relocating from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, then France, and ultimately to the United States where she now resides. As an artist Essaydi depicts issues surrounding the identity of women in Arab culture and their representation in the Western European artistic tradition.

While I find her work striking I find myself drawn to the question of identity, and how it is portrayed/communicated by artists of the Arab diaspora in the West.

The Arabic term for diaspora is ‘shatat’ which has the meaning of ‘dispersal’ or ‘scattering’. Many artists of the Arab diaspora relocated to Europe or the US between the late 1970s and mid-1990s, as a result of voluntary or involuntary exile. Others are children of mixed marriages or of first generation descendants of immigrants.

Libyan born and raised in the UK by Libyan parents exiled as a result of Gadaffi’s dictatorial regime, the question of belonging and cultural identity has been something I have, and will always continue to explore. Having had somewhat of a nomadic lifestyle and a keen interest in art I became absorbed by the diversity of Arab identities and how they are portrayed by contemporary Arab artists in the diaspora. Some examples are:

Naziha Arebi. Naziha grew up in the UK to a Libyan father and English mother. She completed a Masters in Screen at St Central St Martins before moving to Libya after the revolution to reconnect with her Libyan heritage and explore its rich culture.


Post revolution: Under the Gadaffi regime boxing was banned for being too brutal © Naziha Areb
She uses film and photography to communicate the stories of the people she meets, as takes a journey through her father’s homeland.

Tariq Elmeri is a film maker, born in the US and raised in the US, Africa and the Middle East.  Now living in the UK he describes himself as ‘belonging everywhere, and nowhere at once’ and attributes this to his ability to be able to ‘tell a story that can relate to most points of views’. One of his projects documents the lives of five successful Libyans living between Europe and Libya – one of his subjects is Grafitti artist Aimen Ajhani Aka El bohly who has made a name for himself as a street artist in Copenhagen.


© Aimen Ajhani Aka El Bohly
Celebrated artist Mona Hatoum came to Britain as a student in the mid-1970s. Born in Beirut to a Palestinian family she settled in London when the civil war in Lebanon broke out and she was unable to return. She first made a name for herself creating pieces focusing on the body and later moved on to the notion of ‘home’. She describes ‘Home’ in her work as ‘a mythical location, charged with loss and violence, from which we are permanently exiled, yet to which we are always drawn’

Mona HatoumMona Hatoum   Suspended   2011 (3)

[1] Mona Hatoum Bunker Mason’s Yard 2011 | White Cube. 2013. Mona Hatoum Bunker Mason’s Yard 2011 | White Cube. [ONLINE]
The artists I have illustrated are all willing or unwilling wanderers of the world, who are inspired by their experiences in either or both cultural contexts. Their work explores the question of identity which emanates from the joining of two or more cultures, and their unique personal journey of discovering or questioning their cultural roots. My aim is to continue the exploration of identity through Arab visual culture in the diaspora and select specific artistic projects which have been developed around the phenomenon of migration and the reality of cultural displacement.