Can art change the way a culture thinks? Can it re-align social values?
Over the centuries there have, of course, been any number of those who believed it could, like the artists of the Russian Avant-Garde or painters like Eugene Delacroix, whose Massacre at Chios, a powerful commentary on suffering and disaster, was aimed as much at stimulating compassion as it was a study in composition and the possibilities of expression. Or there are the political works of American artists like Edward Kienholz and Keith Haring. And then there was Picasso’s Guernica.
More recently, artists, collectors and galleries in the Middle East have joined this effort. From Turkey to Iran, from Morocco to Azerbaijan, art scenes are emerging that not only tackle establishment political and religious thought, but challenge and invite a wider public to discover what artists have to say – and how they go about saying it. Galleries like Tehran’s Aaran Gallery, for instance, show controversial political paintings by the likes of Shahryar Hatami and important photojournalism elevated to the level of art, such as Abbas Kowsari’s stunning portraits of female cadets at the Iranian police academy.
Now a new project offers a slightly different take: a museum for contemporary art in Belgium, situated in the Islamist-militant infested quarter of Molenbeek, Brussels. The area has been prominent in the news since the terrorist attacks in Paris last November and the more recent attacks in Brussels; most of the terrorists involved in these attacks either lived or grew up in Molenbeek, home to a large Moroccan immigrant population.
The new initiative, known as the Millennium Iconoclast Museum of Art, or MIMA, opened in April with a group exhibition titled “City Lights” that featured work by Maya Hayuk, Swoon, Momo and duo Faile – artists all known for their murals and street art. Such artists (and their works) articulate well the stated commitment of MIMA’s founders, Florence and Michel de Launoit, Alice van den Abeele, and Raphael Cruyt, “to a culture that breaks down barriers and reaches out to a broad audience, reflecting the world of today and paving the way for the world of tomorrow.”
If this sounds like lofty idealism, well – it is. But the MIMA team is not alone: the founders of private museums in Istanbul, like Can and Sevda Elgiz , for instance, have promoted this same ideal since the start of this century, hoping not just to share their own art collections with a wider public, but to inspire that wider public to experience, appreciate, and learn from the art that they exhibit there. The idea, really, is to “spread the art” – and the kind of creative, challenging thinking it inspires
Molenbeek, of course, poses its own challenges, most of which MIMA’s founders were likely insufficiently aware of when they began the project in 2012. Yes, Molenbeek was by then known as a neighborhood with a large Muslim population, but it was (and is) also one where many artists live and keep their studios. Its reputation as a terrorist hotbed really only emerged after the November, 2015 Paris attacks.
Yet MIMA’s lead team is joined in their optimism not just by the founders of other museums, but by the creators of other local initiatives, like Molendance, a contemporary dance festival now in its third year, and “MolenGeek,”an organization that offers hackathons along with workshops in high-level technology and entrepreneurship to local youth.
Still, it is the art project that may have the most impact, giving young residents of the area a glimpse into a universe otherwise generally unknown to them: that fabulous, fantasy-rich, metaphor-dense world of contemporary art, with all its intricacies, mysteries, encodings, and sublimations. As cause-related marketing guru Eric Friedenwald-Fishman wrote in the Stanford Social Innovation Review:
There is no discipline that nurtures and sparks the cognitive ability to imagine, and unleashes creativity and innovation, more than arts and culture. There is no approach that breaks barriers, connects across cultural differences, and engages our shared values more than arts and culture. There is no investment that connects us to each other, moves us to action, and strengthens our ability to make collective choices more than arts and culture.
“Engages our shared values” is an important phrase here. As Europe (and increasingly, America) struggles with multiculturalism and its limitations, with its efforts to hold tight to democratic and humanistic values while religious fundamentalism pulls influential youth in other, dangerous directions, it is art that will best teach those youths to question, to create, to understand Western, Enlightenment values, and to strengthen their commitment to them.
Molenbeek is just the place to begin.
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