Oh Art, Where Art Thou?
Words, Non-fiction
2017—01 (24)     
Los Angeles, CA

May 1879, an independently published satirical journal –a precursor to the “zine”– printed a crudely illustrated political cartoon showing the ruler of Egypt, Khedive Ismail Pasha, standing next to an auctioneer offering up the Sphinx and Great Pyramids in exchange for British Pounds. Foreign buyers and dignitaries gather round with interest.

The paper was called Abou Naddara Zarqa, or “The Man in the Blue Glasses” and the force behind it was a sole individual: Yaqoub Sanua (or James Sanua), an Egyptian/Italian Freemason Jew who indeed wore blue spectacles and identified as an Egyptian Nationalist. The publication of this particular cartoon was only three years before the British officially occupied Egypt, making it a rather accurate premonition.

Although Sanua produced the paper entirely on his own from a small printing shop in Paris, located in the Passage du Caire –No, really!– its influence cannot be understated. The reason it was produced from Paris is because that’s where Sanua went into exile after two failed attempts on his life were made by the Egyptian regime. This after 15 issues of the paper had been produced from within Cairo all in the span of just two months. Being heavy on satirical criticism, and being the first ever Arabic publication to employ cartoons and colloquial Egyptian Arabic in its writing, the Khedive knew that it had the power to undermine his rule, even in a country boasting a population of, at the time, over 5.5 million of which 94% could not read or write.

But still, Abou Naddara was influential nonetheless. According to Blanchard Jerrold (1826-1884), a prolific English journalist and author of Egypt Under Ismail Pacha, which appeared in print a short time before the Khedive’s forced abdication, “[Abou Naddara] was in every barrack, in every Government-office. In every town and village it was read with the liveliest delight.” Often times, people gathered round in the coffeeshops to hear it read out loud to them.

Such was the popularity of this unconstrained journal –which in its heyday reached a circulation of 50,000 copies– that the Khedive wrote to Sanua in Paris promising titles and fortune should he refrain from further violating the ruler’s dignity. This is according to Sanua anyway (it’s hard to tell fact from fiction with these damn satirists, isn’t it?). Sanua’s reaction, being the gloriously outspoken person that he was, was to publish the Khedive’s letter in full.

Through his work, James Sanua may have brought a number of innovations to the Arab-speaking world, such as the use of colloquial dialect and political cartooning in mass print media, and before that, the introduction of colloquial Egyptian dialect to modern theatre, the precursor to Egyptian cinema, which is still the most influential across the Arab world today. But in reality Sanua was galvanizing a very Egyptian tradition: satire.

81 years prior to the launch of Abou Naddara Zarqa, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt. A campaign that lasted only 3 years and ended with Napoleon fleeing the country and leaving his troops behind, thanks in no small part to the Egyptian brand of satire which sent the European despot into fits of “narcissistic rage” according to Avner Falk in his book Napoleon Against Himself. One French prisoner of the British –who intervened in Egypt to keep it from French influence– had this to say: “When I was in Egypt… it would have been beyond my power to prevent the population from speaking freely in the coffeehouses. They were freer and more independent in their speech than the Parisians. Though they submitted to slavery in everything else, they meant to be free in that respect. The coffeehouses were the castles of their opinions.”

In a cave not far from the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut to the south of Egypt is a piece of rather rebellious graffiti that is a few thousand years old. It depicts what is thought to be Hatshepsut, female Pharaoh of Egypt from 1478-1458 B.C, bent over and getting penetrated from behind by her Chancellor and royal architect Senenmut. Although the female Pharaoh’s rule is largely considered prosperous by most historians, this piece of graffito may be a clue as to the control enacted over Hatshepsut by her Chancellor, and the general resentment felt by the populace towards that dynamic.

Was the Pharaoh actually romantically involved with her Chancellor or was this piece of artistic expression something of an exaggeration? A sort of… satire?

In my mind, that’s not really the important question to ask, because the Ancient Egyptians believed that the spoken word had an effect on the physical world. And even more powerful than the spoken word was the written word. The thing is though, throughout much of Ancient Egyptian history, words and pictures were interchangeable things. The act of carving such an image, of manifesting the idea into physical form, even if in a far away cave visited by no one, would have enough of an impact on the physical world to make it true. If the cave was however visited –even if by a select few– then such an impact would almost be guaranteed.

If Hatshepsut and her Chancellor were not actually romantically involved, perhaps the witnessing of such a vulgar piece of graffito by a peasant or two, even in secret, would create enough “buzz” around their relationship that they would indeed eventually end up romantically involved. Or, if not, they would still be remembered as such long after they’re dead, no matter what the reality actually was. Such is the power of words and pictures, especially ones charged with satire.

As Alan Moore, self-proclaimed shaman and arguably the greatest anglophone author of our time is quoted as saying: “Bards were feared. They were respected, but more than that they were feared. You piss off a bard, and forget about putting a curse on you, he might put a satire on you. And if he was a skillful bard, he puts a satire on you, it destroys you in the eyes of your community, it shows you up as ridiculous, lame, pathetic, worthless, in the eyes of your community, in the eyes of your family, in the eyes of your children, in the eyes of yourself. And if it’s a particularly good bard, and he’s written a particularly good satire, then three hundred years after you’re dead, people are still gonna be laughing at what a twat you were.”

In that sense, there is no magic greater or more powerful than the magic of words, which we’ve already established is interchangeable with images. What that means is that words and pictures, Art essentially, is magic. And with it, one can actively change the world. Perhaps that is why the Old English term for “be” was also “art”.

With that notion in mind, one cannot help but feel completely disheartened by the vast majority of art produced and exhibited today. Art that lacks intent, wielded by individuals who seem to be completely unaware of the magic at their fingertips.

Of course there will be artists, very good ones at that, who will say that this here publication is not a work of true art. How can it be spoken of in the same breath as anything produced by a Duchamp or Pollack? They will say the same of James Sanua’s work, an individual never cited in their art history books. This of course is understandable, as there are a great many among us who cannot get past the need for legitimization from big old established institutions. But rest assured, for the original journals of Abou Naddara continue to be successfully auctioned by the likes of Sotheby’s and Christie’s today.

Art aside, there are those with legitimate concerns surrounding the propagation of fake news. But as the fantastic English author Neil Gaiman once said “'Once upon a time’ is code for ‘I’m lying to you’.” Personally, I don’t see why the words “Breaking News” can’t be used to that extent as well. In fact, I’m sure they already are to some degree or another, even by those claiming to be telling the truth. I’m willing to bet that James Sanua would’ve agreed. Mark Twain definitely thought so.

I should point out, though, that everything in this here article is true by the way. No, really, I promise you. 100%.

First published in ALTERNATIVE FACTS, a fictitious newspaper created for the exhibition MAGIC CITY in Munich, and later Stockholm. Also appeared in Ganzeer’s newsletter, RESTRICTED FREQUENCY, on April 22, 2017.