Art at the Edge

by Administrator, September 3, 2014

Art at the Edge: Creativity and Conflict in the Middle East and Africa

Marl LeVine & Bryan Reynolds


Substance and context

Allow us to begin our narrative with three scenes drawn from our research on this project during the last two years:

Scene One: Port Harcourt, Niger Delta, Nigeria, September, 2013

The atmosphere inside The Crab Theatre, in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, was electric, even though the electricity was out, as often is the case. Despite the daylight darkness, the dozen 6-12 years old actors performed their devised theater work – conceived, written, and acted by them – with committed intensity, confronting their adult audience over the practice of forcing children (including some of the actors) to work as wandering vendors on the streets of this large, poor, and routinely violent Niger Delta city. As they recount the trauma resulting from the beatings, rapes, and murders they endure in daily life, the play marks a rare opportunity for children to challenge the violence visited upon them by their elders and, however implicitly, the history – from intensive colonialism to a brutal civil war – that has contributed to it. Yet the children do not merely represent the horrors of their circumstances. In a radical theatrical moment at the performance’s conclusion, they ask the audience to hold hands, and then after a pause that seems to include the audience communally with the children, the children judgmentally point at the audience and command them to, “Just say NO to child abuse,” and declare, “Children are people too.” Family members proudly watching the performance suddenly stand dumbfounded, shamed, and indicted for their role in the process of exploitation depicted in the play.

Scene Two: Tahrir Square, Egypt, April 2012

It was a sunny day, but you would have hardly known it in Tahrir Square, as hundreds of enormous banners, posters, and other forms of signage had blanketed in shadows the vast public space. This was not the Tahrir of February or even November 2011. Revolutionaries were now outnumbered by ultra-conservative Salafis, who had taken over much of Tahrir to campaign for their presidential candidate, Hazem Abu Ismail. Suddenly, the “Singer of the Revolution,” Ramy Essam marches into Tahrir surrounded by 100 Ultras, singing a new anthem he had just composed for the fanatical football fans-turned-revolutionary shock troops. Utterly dismissive of the Salafis’ bullying of liberal and revolutionary protesters, Essam and his Ultras companions boisterously cut through the crowd with ease to climb onto the last remaining liberal stage, in front of the Hardee’s Restaurant. Yet rather than aggravate the simmering tension between the opposing groups, the Salafi crowd slowly began wandering over to the stage, bobbing their heads and even singing along with Essam’s well-known songs. For an all-too brief moment, the spirit of solidarity that animated Tahrir in 2011 returned. It has not been seen since.

Scene Three: Ottoman Government Complex, Baghdad, Iraq, May 2013

In the midst of Iraq’s most violent month since the end of the US occupation (1,000 dead and rising as we walked the streets of Baghdad), a group of young anti-sectarian activists demonstrated in what became a fast-escalating event – as onlookers enthusiastically joined them – at the edge of al-Mutanabi Street, for over a millennium Baghdad’s cultural and intellectual center. Within minutes dozens of people had joined in, chanting “NO to sectarianism, YES to the nation” with what could non-ironically be described as religious fervor. Marching in front of al-Mutanabi’s statue, wearing cardboard vests and carrying posters identifying each as a “Shiite,” “Sunni,” “Christian,” “Kurd” or “Turkman,” the group circulated ink pads and asked the audience to use the blood-colored ink to mark their thumbprints on a declaration against sectarianism and for a renewed Iraqi identity. As each member of the audience became a vital part of the performance, the collective and affective energy of the demonstration heightened. A future without daily bombings seemed, fleetingly, possible.

Our project, “Art at the Edge: Creativity and Conflict in the Middle East and Africa,” builds on our individual and collaborative theoretical and field research on issues related to violence and transformations in political subjectivity through the production, circulation, and consumption of popular culture. Here we consider popular culture not just through its aesthetic productive component (music, dance, film, art, literature, etc.), but through the every-day performance of identities in urban as well as rural environments, and through the practice of core faith, tribal, ethnic and ideologically-grounded identities. It also builds on our related work as artists; Reynolds as a playwright, theater director, and actor; and LeVine as a guitarist and arranger. Working across humanities disciplines, and informed by our firsthand knowledge of arts disciplines essential to our study, we explore the links between highly-charged performative acts and attendant intellectual production by both individuals and groups, including ad hoc, community, and professional production, and illuminate their mutual aesthetic and political embeddedness in periods of intense social stress and change. Although our focus is on music and theater, given our backgrounds in each genre, we utilize various media – music, theater, poetry, and visual arts – as tools to explore the production of culture in times of intense social change, strife, and violence.

We combine critical analyses of cultural texts, historical/archival research, and collaboration with local artists and intellectuals through an ethical and epistemological commitment to building up, and ultimately moving beyond, what has been termed Southern Theory; that is, a theoretical approach rooted in the awareness of the explanatory and political power of theories emanating from the Global South (countries that experienced significant periods of direct European rule or imposed power) as framed by scholars such as Jane and John Comaroff, Raewyn Connell, and Pal Ahluwalia. Much important research has been done on literature, art, and culture of the Middle East and Africa, such as by Elliott Colla, Josef Alagha,Awam Amkpa, Osita Okagbue, Nwando Achebe and others, that is foundational to our project. Our perspective is also grounded, however, in our observation that today a significant degree of intellectual commonality has been achieved by scholars, culture producers, and activists globally that demands reconsideration of the privileging of spatio-cultural particularity. We believe that the positive development of research and scholarly collaborations not only across humanities disciplines, but also comparatively and interactively across disciplinary subareas of investigation (literature, performing arts, new technologies, etc.) and the geographical, national, and cultural regions on which they focus, are imperative to the humanities’ power to promote understanding and mutual respect for people globally.


History and duration of project

To realize these research goals, we are requesting salary support, as well as related travel, conference, and research-related expenses for one quarter of salary replacement (13 weeks) per year for three years, as well as related travel, conference, and research-related expenses for this period. In addition to our research, as described below, during this time we will work to expand and institutionalize overlapping networks of scholars and artists in Africa and the Middle East, several of which we have already begun developing. This will facilitate conversations and collaborations within and between these regions (and the United States) and encourage the production and circulation of collectively invested and reciprocally inspired research, theory, and art.

Here we reiterate that individually and together we have already visited our research sites, many of them multiple times, and thus can make full use of the requested support to deepen and extend our research, organization of conferences, and strengthening of networks, rather than having to begin each of them at the start of the grant period. Moreover, we have completed one core chapter of our book, Art at the Edge, which will be published in a forthcoming volume on popular Islam edited by LeVine, Martin Stokes and Karin van Nieuwkerk.


Co-Project Director, Mark LeVine, is Professor of History at UC Irvine and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He is the author and editor of a dozen books exploring the history and contemporary dynamics of modernity and globalization, nationalism, capitalism and European imperialism as they emerged and spread across the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the role of music and popular culture more broadly in social and political change. Together with Reynolds, LeVine will (1) conduct fieldwork at all the research sites, (2) participate as an organizer and research contributor to the conferences, (3) co-author the book, Art at the Edge: Creativity and Conflict in the Middle East and Africa, and (4) co-edit the volumes, Theater of Immediacy: Social Change and Revolutionary Performance in the Middle East and Africa and the special issue of The Glendora Review, as well as other publications that will come out of the project. He will also be responsible for administrative and organizational coordination of the project.

LeVine has over twenty-five years of experience as a professional musician, working with leading artists globally. Highlights include performances at major festival in the Middle East and production, performance and arranging on the Grammy-winning 2005 album, Street Signs, by Ozomatli, and more recently, his work with several Ghanaian and Nigerian Highlife and Afrofunk artists. He is one of the founders of the “culture jamming” movement, and is responsible for developing it beyond its initial use as purely a means of cultural and political critique. As with Reynolds work as a theater maker, LeVine’s extensive experience as a culture producer offers him unique levels of insight into the complex dynamics underlying the production, circulation, consumption and repression of politicized, and particularly revolutionary, art.

As Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University, LeVine directs the largest ever study of the history and current dynamics of human rights in the Arab world as part of a joint project with the American University of Beirut, which has received over $150,000 of funding. He is also the co-director with Ambassador Mathias Mossberg (ret.) of Sweden, of the “Parallel States” project at Lund, also the recipient of over $200,000 in grants from various Swedish governmental and donor institutions. Previously, his research on the public sphere in the Middle East won two major SSRC awards and resulted in the volume Religion, Social Practice and Contested Hegemonies: Reconstructing the Public Sphere in Muslim Majority Societies, published by Palgrave in 2005.

LeVine’s first research sites was Israel/Palestine, about which he’s published five books since 2005, including Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine UC Press, 2005); Reapproaching Borders: New Approaches to the Study of Israel-Palestine (Rowman Littlefield, 2007); Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009); Struggle Survival in Palestine/Israel (UC Press, 2012), co-edited with Gershon Shafir; and One Land, Two States: Israel/Palestine as Parallel States, co-edited with Mathias Mossberg(UC Press, forthcoming).

LeVine has published two ground-breaking books on the history of globalization and the role of music and popular culture more broadly in struggles for social change. The first, Why They Don’t Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil (Oneworld Publications, 2005), remains the most detailed and comprehensive history of globalization in the Middle East yet published as well as the first scholarly, field-work derived analysis of the dynamics of the US occupation of Iraq. The second, Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Random House, 2008), extending the research for Why They Don’t Hate Us, offers the first book-length study of the role of hard rock, heavy metal and hiphop, and through them the emerging youth culture of the Middle East and North Africa. The book, which was chosen as an Editor’s Pick for by the New York Times Book Review and received starred reviews from other major journals, has become one of the foremost pre-histories of the Arab uprisings. The book also led to the release of the 2009 compilation album produced by LeVine, Flowers in the Desert, on EMI, and to the award-winning, internationally released documentary Before the Spring, After the Fall, about the challenges faced by male and female members of Egypt’s metal scene during the years 2008 through 2012. The film will air on PBS’s POV series this spring.

Since the eruption of the Arab uprisings in late 2010 LeVine has continued his research into the role of music and popular cultures in intense social conflict and struggles for political change, making well over two dozen field visits to a dozen countries in the region as part of research for his book The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh, under contract with UC Press. During this period he also worked closely with both Freemuse, the international NGO devoted to fighting for freedom of expression for musical artists, and with Creative Commons Middle East, organizing workshops and collaborative writing, performance and recording sessions for revolutionary artists from Tunisia, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Lebanon, Syria, and other Arab countries. At the same time he has served as senior columnist for al-Jazeera’s flagship English-language website, publishing upwards of 150 columns during this period that have reached an international audience of millions of visitors. He also convened a major conference co-sponsored with Lund University and Jadaliyya, assessing the first year of the Arab uprisings featuring over four dozen participants from around the region, which produced a guest-edited volume of the leading journal of theory in the region, Middle East Critique, in which he further developed many of the themes discussed in this proposed.

In 2010 LeVine also realized a life-long dream to turn his professional and musical attention toward sub-Saharan Africa, beginning with his first trip to Ghana. There he delved into the history of Highlife and Afrofunk, studying with several master musicians and interviewing members of the country’s legendary scene, in particular Ebo Taylor, while also working and performing with the Ghana Dance Ensemble. Long discussions with Taylor and colleagues and other artists specializing in West African pop music inspired the present project, specifically in the politicization of Highlife and Afrofunk in Ghana and Nigeria and the role of artists in both countries in the long and still incomplete struggles for democracy and social and economic justice. This preliminary research led to his work with the NPR/PRI program Afropop Worldwide, for which he served as an academic advisor and consultant for several NEH-awarded program grants. The culmination of this collaboration was the one-hour documentary special on Ebo Taylor and the origins of Highlife, and the emergence of a new generation of politically-minded pop artists. LeVine also served as primary academic consultant on MTV’s celebrated recent series on revolutionary rock music, Rebel Music, and is a principal academic consultant for the documentary Rockin’ the Kremlin, currently finishing production, which received over $700,000 in NEH-funding through the Bridging Cultures through Film initiative as well as $50,000 from the NEA.

LeVine, alone and together with Reynolds, has made research trips in the last year to Iraq, Nigeria, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon (where we also meet with artists from Ghana, Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, and Syria). During these trips the foundation for the current collaborative networks was laid and expanded. In the next three years he, along with Reynolds, will be committing a minimum of three months each year to the research fieldwork and conference organizing and convening surrounding the “Art at the Edge” project. The remainder of each year will be devoted to writing, organizing, editing, and working to disseminate the research through printed, web-based, and open-access publications, conference presentations and invited lectures, teaching, and other opportunities for sharing.

Co-Project Director, Bryan Reynolds, Chancellor’s Professor of Drama at UC Irvine, is an internationally distinguished performance theorist and scholar of Shakespeare, English Renaissance literature and culture, and contemporary avant-garde theater. He is also a professional theater maker. Together with LeVine, in equal capacities, Reynolds will (1) conduct fieldwork at all the research sites, (2) participate as an organizer and research contributor to the conferences, (3) co-author the book, Art at the Edge: Creativity and Conflict in the Middle East and Africa, and (4) co-edit the volumes, Theater of Immediacy: Social Change and Revolutionary Performance in the Middle East and Africa and the special issue of The Glendora Review, as well as other publications that will come out of the project. Reynolds has twenty years of professional experience conceiving, researching, writing, funding, producing, editing, staging, and publishing, in other words, in successfully bringing projects to completion, as both an academic and an artist. Reynolds’ academic research and theater work (performance-as-research) has been devoted, primarily, to exploring questions of culture, subjectivity, affect, consciousness, identity, space, politics, and aesthetics across history and cultures, especially as they relate to performance both staged (as in a theater) and in society (as in social, cultural, and governmental performances). In this interest, he has developed, with a number of collaborators, the combined sociocognitive theory, performance aesthetics, and research methodology – building off uses of the term “transversal” by Sartre, Guattari, Deleuze, and Foucault – of what he terms “transversal poetics” that drives “Art at the Edge.”

To give an example of the connection of Reynolds’ scholarship to the present project, his book, Transversal Subjects: From Montaigne to Deleuze after Derrida, directly confronts questions of subjectivity as each chapter addresses an aspect of its contemporary occlusion, showing how various modern theoretical formulae, from different versions of reception theory and post-Marxism to cognitive approaches, have restricted a fuller response to cultural self-identification in art and culture. Reynolds shows how Deleuze’s idea of positive differentiation and Derrida’s différance re-orient the basic conditions through which the subject is constructed through the trace. Thus, Derrida’s deconstruction can be of use in rethinking not only subjectivity-as-naming but the very nature of being a subject. This culminates in an analysis of “the subject” in Montaigne, Agamben, Rancière, and Derrida in relation to literacy and human rights, which surveys a vast array of Western intellectual history, linking it to the urgent contemporary concern of global human rights. Reynolds maps the triangulation of the long history of torture related to sovereign and/or state power, the necessity of bio-politics as the ground of “civilizing subjects,” and the evolution away from the former and toward the latter in the eighteenth century through the rise of “compassion” as a concern in juridical matters that eventually becomes law. The historical sweep of the book is a backdrop to understanding the origins and development of what now seem “inherent” human rights, the negotiation of which is at the heart of the explorations of “Art at the Edge.”

Reynolds has held Visiting Professorships at the University of London-Queen Mary, the University of Amsterdam, Utrecht University, the University of Cologne, Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, University College Utrecht, UC San Diego, and the American University of Beirut. And he has taught at other academic and performing arts institutions, including The Freedom Theatre in Jenin, Palestine, The Grotowski Institute in Wrocław, Poland, and Deleuze Camp when in Köln, Germany (a summer school dedicated to Deleuze’s work). In addition to Transversal Subjects (2009), his books include Transversal Enterprises in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (2006), Performing Transversally: Reimagining Shakespeare and the Critical Future (2003), and Becoming Criminal: Transversal Performance and Cultural Dissidence in Early Modern England (2002). And he is coeditor of The Return of Theory in Early Modern English Studies,Vols I & II (2011; forthcoming 2014), Critical Responses to Kiran Desai (2009), Rematerializing Shakespeare: Authority and Representation on the Early Modern English Stage (2005), and Shakespeare Without Class: Misappropriations of Cultural Capital (2000). He has delivered invited lectures in twenty-one countries (USA, Canada, Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, Spain, Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Romania, Czech Republic, India, Australia, New Zealand, Iraq, Nigeria, Denmark, Sweden, Palestine, and Lebanon). And, as co-general editor of a book series in theater and performance studies, Performance Interventions, from Palgrave Macmillan (that includes “transversal” methodology as one of its guiding terms for publication), he has edited twenty-five books, covering topics, countries, cultures, and politics across the world. His experience as general editor of the series makes him especially well-suited to assessing the value and viability of the publications that will be produced through “Art at the Edge” to the fields of performance, theater, and cultural studies.

Reynolds is the Artistic Director of the Transversal Theater Company (TTC), which is a nonprofit organization in the Netherlands. Reynolds has written theater works (plays and musicals) that, altogether, have been produced in eight countries (USA, Netherlands, Poland, Germany, Romania, Armenia, Czech Republic, Sweden) and in four languages (English, Dutch, Polish, Romanian), including performances at major international theater festivals, like the Gdańsk International Shakespeare Festival, as well as at the National Theaters of both Romania and Poland. He has also directed numerous productions in Europe. Most recently (October 2013), he directed his play Railroad in Sweden in collaboration with TTC’s partner theater companies from Sweden, Belgium, Italy, and Greece in “European Polytheatre: Cultural Awareness and Expression Laboratory,” which is a two-year project funded by a grant of about 120,000 Euros (25,000 dedicated to TTC) from the European Commission to create a series of performances and workshops designed to explore issues related to migration, cultural difference, and xenophobia in Europe. Reynolds’ diverse experience as a theater artist and producer make him especially well-suited to understanding the motivations, aesthetics, and production challenges and processes informing the art and culture production that “Art at the Edges” explores and engages.

Reynolds will be committing three months of each of the next three years to the research fieldwork and conferences of “Art at the Edge.” Over the remaining months of each year, with LeVine, Reynolds will be writing, organizing, editing, and working to disseminate the research through printed, web-based, and open-access publications, conference presentations and invited lectures, teaching, and other opportunities for sharing.


Our project marks a unique, transdisciplinary contribution to a number of fields of humanities and social science research. Specifically, we utilize the social theory, performance aesthetics, and research methodologies associated with and derived from “transversal poetics,” as developed by Reynolds over the last two decades, along with the theories and practices of “culture jamming” as developed by LeVine during the last fourteen years, as tools to engage analytically the marginalization of a critical mass of citizens from the political body by systems of governance ranging from partially democratic to fully authoritarian. We approach such performances of protest, dissidence, and transcendence, and the intellectual production that surrounds them, through the prism of what we call “theater of immediacy,” a term we define as artistic creation and performance that is emergent and urgent – in our terminology emurgent; that is, developing rapidly and in the context of heightened sociopolitical struggle.

Theater of immediacy operates at and even transcends the liminal moment in which the grass roots performance of culture destabilizes and begins to reconfigure dominant, congealed structures and networks of power and identity. Such performances offer citizens the greater possibility of pursuing deep and sometimes revolutionary change. It depends on actors and acts forceful enough to re-appropriate meaning and valence for lives which, if not always “bare,” are lived largely under and through the power of others with whom the primary relationship is one of domination and exploitation. We consider these practices at once imminently critical (revealing society’s internal contradictions and power imbalances) and auratic (affective and attractive, exhibiting an energy that forges solidarities between and demanding a response from all those experiencing them).

We also believe them to be intimately tied to fields of intellectual production and circulation engaged by local scholars and activists in dialogue and sometimes conflict with the artists with whom they share social and political space. Together, these artists, scholars, and “performance activists” challenge and even directly violate the boundaries between state and citizen, elite and subaltern, public and private, and political and cultural, without which political oppression cannot so smoothly operate. Our analysis of these cultural and intellectual products seeks to understand their roles in the production and movement between sub-, counter-, revolutionary, and control cultures, a set of spatial, epistemological, and political fields of action and agency whose interconnective pathways have yet to be explored in the detail they deserve. Our approach builds upon the work of Stuart Hall, Dick Hebdige, Chantel Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau, Judith Butler, Foucault, Jacques Attali, Althusser, Deleuze, Agamben, Achille Mbembe, Saba Mahmood, Deborah Kapchan, and Asef Bayat. Yet, we are able to ground their work in a depth of direct empirical fieldwork and cultural production that their more theoretically-bounded analyses are not able to reach.

Our project is anchored in three comparative studies, each set focused on specific themes. Our primary sites are Nigeria, Egypt and Iraq, which in turn are linked to a related site where we have also already conducted research: Ghana, Tunisia, and Palestine (West Bank and Gaza). The artists, intellectuals, and activists who are the subjects of our research represent a wide range of ethnicities, nationalities, and cultural, religious, aesthetic, and ideological traditions. Here our use of what Reynolds has termed “transversal poetics” offers greater potential for new and innovative knowledge production compared with conventional modes of ethnographic and historical documentation or performance studies research, which tend to focus on the performance itself – often from a distance – and seek totalized understanding. For instance, vital to aesthetic and research approaches of transversal poetics are what Reynolds calls “investigative-expansive modes of analysis.” These resemble traditional critical practices – characterized by “dissective-cohesive modes” – insofar as they divide objects of study into individual variables for interpretation. Yet, rather than reassembling these variables into a holistic, conclusive analysis, investigative-expansive modes maintain the singularity of each and explore relations with alternate planes of interpretation and connectivity. Moreover, investigated-expansive modes are specifically tailored to the subject matter under investigation; hence, they might take the form of fugitive exploration, a method of analysis devised, as its primary function, to serve the interest of comprehending and empowering marginalized or elusive objects of study, such as particular types of cultural expression and the communities that produce them. As this approach is necessarily fluid, the exact parameters of its praxis change according to the nature and course of each exploration. A chief objective of this expansive methodology is to contextualize historically, ideologically, and critically both the subject matter and the analysis itself within local and greater milieu. Mobile and vine-like, the investigative-expansive mode resists anything resembling predetermination or circumscription and requires continuous maneuverings and reparameterizations in response to unexpected, even sudden, emergences of glitches, quagmires, and new information as it deduces, trail-blazes, and follows off-beat leads. In our view, especially because of the interconnectedness it emphasizes both diachronically and synchronically, transversal poetics affords us tools compatible with the complex histories, localities, and affective facets of the specific sites we are investigating, especially as their influence expands inwardly as well as outwardly.

Hence, guiding “Art at the Edge: Creativity and Conflict in the Middle East and Africa,” is our recognition of the need to highlight cultural, intellectual, and political production outside as much as within major urban national cores such as Lagos, Cairo, and Baghdad. An example from Nigeria emphasizes the importance of doing so: Whereas nationally Highlife music and culture has long been largely devoid of political content or commercial potential, in villages across the country vibrant community-based and supported variants of the genre have emerged which incorporate local musical traditions and not only speak directly to local political concerns but reveal the “beauty and cultural and intellectual richness” that is at the heart of these societies (as Nigerian Afrobeat star Dede Mabiaku explained to us). At the same time, a comparison of the function of highlife as a form of protest or resistance music in these areas cannot be undertaken without exploring and charting the often quite different religious faiths, experiences, practices and power relations in major cities like Lagos and more exurban or even semi-rural/village areas—both within and between various Christian, Muslim and indigenous faith traditions.

At the same time we recognize that the production of theory in what have long broadly been conceived of as the margins of a so-called “Western,” Marxian-derived critical tradition constitute in reality the core of an effervescence of grounded “Southern” theory which, because of its direct implication to ongoing political struggles, pushes the epistemological – and through it, political – boundaries of critical theory well beyond the contours of even the most self-imagined “engaged” theoretical interventions of European or American academies. We see this direct implication, for example, in the largely unrecognized research of Nigerian scholars on the Frankfurt School, or the work of Egyptian thinkers that build on the anarchist and more recently Zapatismo traditions, and the role of Tunisia as the setting for one of the most important acts of intellectual production of the post-War era: the composition of Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge.

Our research and creative production focus precisely on the sites where beauty and violence, creativity and destruction, converge. We engage the work of Nile Delta musicians, River State guitar bands, Fallujan poets, Northern Ghanian theater makers, Palestinian sound catchers, Tunisian perspectivistes, and other cultural and intellectual producers operating at various removes from their societies’ political and economic centers. Equally important, the theater of immediacy that constitute the foci of our case studies have specific yet overlapping analytical themes that together provide unique scope to the larger project.

Nigeria and Ghana are centered around the formation and contestation of ethno-national identities in zones of ecological exploitation and stress, such as the Niger Delta and Sahelian regions. The emergence and dynamics of resistance art in Iraq and Palestine are explored through the ongoing power of Eurocentric and Orientalist frames of analysis within the indigenous cultures rather than merely imposed on them from outside, the histories of foreign occupation and the culture and knowledges of resistance shaped by them. Finally, our exploration of expressive culture and performance activism in Egypt and Tunisia are shaped through a genealogy of the flows of power and knowledge between and through modern states and citizens.

Here we would like to explain our choice of the three comparative studies. It could be argued that given the level of research required to address, adequately, the questions we are exploring, even a more concentrated focus on our three primary sites would stretch the limits of our research plan. However, our research to date in all six countries has grounded us enough in these research sites to allow us to engage them all fruitfully and in a synergistic manner. Indeed, we have already completed enough research to make this broad focus feasible. At the same time, we feel that the complexity of the sets of research questions each primary research site has produced makes the incorporation of our comparative sites crucial to encouraging the fullest possible accounting of the experiences and processes we are studying. They also enable – and indeed demand – a specific level and sophistication of collaboration with our partners in each of these sites, which we experience and envision as akin to the production of an album or theatrical collaboration: one in which the essential fabric of “authorship” is collaborative and interpenetrative between the participants in the act of creation. In that sense, our role is as much that of “producers” and “arrangers” of the incredibly rich and varied cultural and intellectual production we are encountering and engaging as much as authoring specific new productions of knowledge.


Work plan

The Sites of Comparison


Research: To understand the power of art, and the power of violence to suppress art, a few days in the Niger Delta port city of Port Harcourt will suffice. This is where the famed writer and activist Ken Siro-Wiwa worked, and was ultimately hanged by the military government of General Sani Abacha in 1995. Almost twenty years later one can spend days talking about the relationship between art and politics with artists and scholars in the city and hardly any one will mention his name, as if he’s a ghost that dare not be reconjured, even in ostensibly more democratic and seemingly open times.

But Saro-Wiwa is far from the only ghost haunting the Niger Delta. The still rarely acknowledged impact of the 1967-70 Civil War in Biafra claimed over one million lives in the same period that the present-day Syrian conflict has claimed one tenth that number. Our research explores examples of theater of immediacy in various forms of cultural production in the region (and through it, across Nigeria), focusing on the country’s famed Highlife and Afrobeat scenes, and its less well known but artistically powerful community and street theater.

For example, Fela Kuti is well known and has been much studied for his highly politicized and aesthetically innovative music. We return to the roots of his innovative sound and politics by exploring his still little understood experiences in Biafra, the center of the Nigerian Highlife scene out of which Afrobeat developed, which then informed his development upon situating himself in the cultural center of Lagos. Our working relationship with Femi Kuti and the Kuti family is enabling a unique level of access to archival documentation and to still surviving artists and activists from the late 1960s with whom he worked, a period which also saw him spend time in Ghana and the United States.

In this regard, our research to date includes in-depth interviews with over a dozen Highlife and Afrobeat artists and contemporary performers, as well as several children’s and youth theater companies across the country. We will be working more intensively with artists and theater makers in subsequent trips, while also working with colleagues at several Nigerian universities and the University of Legon in Ghana to collect archival material and documentation related to the role of both music and theater in the struggles for civil and political rights in the Delta/Biafra region. Finally, drawing on our connection to Nigerian scholars working in the northern and eastern sections of the country, we will help provide a culturally grounded political and economic genealogy of the militant Muslim movements such as Boko Haram in these regions, enabling the artists and intellectuals most under threat from these forces to help narrate the histories that produced them.

Our comparative case study, Ghana, is deeply related to Nigeria, because the two countries share a common British colonial heritage, because of a shared history of Highlife (which began in Ghana but became internationally popular via Nigeria) and Afrobeat, and because of the presence of many Ghanaian artists in Nigeria after the Rawlings coup and subsequent military-led government in Ghana beginning in 1979. Here we explore the different trajectories of music under the two military governments, as well as comparative role of ethnic and religious divisions in shaping the experience of musical production and circulation, particularly in the Muslim north of both countries. Our work here builds on research LeVine has conducted in Ghana since 2010, part of which was incorporated into an NEH-funded radio documentary on Ghanaian Afrobeat legend Ebo Taylor by the PRI program Afropop Worldwide, who was a good friend of Fela Kuti and himself spent time in Nigeria. Our project is being assisted institutionally and by colleagues at the Universities of Lagos, Ilorin, and Port Harcourt, the National Theater, and Nigerian Institute for Cultural Organization, as well as the University of Legon in Ghana.

Conference (Fall 2015)/Networks:

 We are working with the Center for Niger Delta Studies and the University of Port Harcourt to organize one of the first global conferences on Delta studies, as part of a “Delta Studies Network” we are establishing with the Center. The conference, tentatively titled “Deltas in Africa: From Vulnerability to Sustainability,” will bring together both scholars and artists from the Niger, Nile, Volta, and Senegambia deltas, as well as from the Shatt al-Arab delta in Iraq, and from the Mississippi River delta, which has long standing historical – and far less known, far more ancient geological – ties with the Niger Delta where the conference will be held. In contrast, for example, to the recent World Delta Dialogue, a major gathering that focused entirely on scientific concerns, this gathering will incorporate our own research into the cultural economies underlying political, economic, and ecological conflicts. At the same time, we will bring artists from these delta cultures directly into the conversations between scholars and policy-makers on the broader relationship between ecological threats and cultural, political, and economic processes that surround them. We have also reestablished a central node in African philosophical discourse, the Lagos-based Glendora Review, with whom we are organizing a special issue on African critical theory focusing on the work of the Frankfurt School, which is one of the two co-edited volumes that will be products of this project. Please see the attached letter from the Center for Niger Delta Studies as well as a tentative agenda.


Research: In Iraq, we focus on the emergence of alternative music scenes and anti-sectarian civil society groups, the intellectual developments within Iraqi civil society that guide them, and how these types of cultural production are fostered and interpreted by Iraqi intellectuals. The artists we engage are typically both talented musicians and educated in the sciences and computer technologies. Many of them are also part of youth movements that have emerged in the last few years to combat sectarianism and foster a global intellectual culture. We are studying movements like the youth entrepreneurial NGO Fikra Space, the National Front Against Sectarianism (whose activism we described above), and the Independent Iraqi Film Institute, where many of the country’s best young filmmakers train with Iraqi and international practitioners. We also explore how artists have responded both to the destruction of Falluja in 2004 and the ongoing toll from the assault’s toxic aftermath.

Here we cite the examples of filmmakers such as Oday Rasheed and Furat al-Jamil, who have been core members of the new generation of Iraqi auteurs who in rebuilding their country’s benighted film industry have expanded the boundaries of contemporary film and documentary making, as they shot Iraq’s first post-Saddam film literally in the middle of the American conquest and occupation of Baghdad. And we consider the experience of the extreme heavy metal group Acrassicauda, who, despite their own flight into exile in 2007, has helped to make Baghdad one of the Middle East’s most vibrant metal scenes. We focus on the evolving challenges to artists, scholars (dozens of whom have been killed by insurgents and extremists in the last decade), and social and political activists from a variety of ideological and cultural perspectives – not merely from the cultural center of downtown Baghdad, but from locations as diverse as Sadr City, Basra, Tikrit and Mosul. The great majority of these groups, as our introductory vignette indicates, are attempting to create what the sociologist Manuel Castells has termed open, positive, and proactive “project identities” in the face of a sea of closed and hostile “resistance identities” whose pre-history includes three decades of brutal rule under Saddam Hussein’s “republic of fear,” and who have been shaped in the cauldron of a decade’s worth of invasion, occupation, insurgency, and terror.

Our comparative study, in Palestine, will be the Jenin Freedom Theatre, one of the premier Palestinian cultural institutions based in the Jenin refugee camp that sees its goal as using theater as a mechanism to create a vibrant and creative artistic community that empowers ordinary people, in particular youth and women, to engage in cultural resistance against occupation and towards universal values of freedom and justice. Here, our field work will center on understanding the delicate and often conflicted relationship between the Theatre’s core and multilayered missions: 1) the professional training of young actors; 2) the staging and international touring of well-known and original works of theater; and 3) the need to remain grounded in Palestinian popular struggles against the Israeli occupation, in which amateur, community based and even guerrilla theater must play a much more important role, but which threatens the position of the Theatre vis-à-vis Israel or conservative local forces, and drains energy and time from 1 and 2. We contextualize not only the production of resistance cultures through the work of the Freedom Theatre, but also the way the Theatre functions as an NGO in the midst of an ongoing occupation, with the work of a growing body of grass roots NGOs in Iraq who are also using theater, first in response to the US occupation and now as a mechanism of pushing for greater democracy and equitable development within their country.

Conference (Spring 2016)/Networks:

In May of 2013, LeVine and Reynolds helped organize and participated in the first major international conference in Baghdad to bring leading American scholars of Middle Eastern studies to Iraq to present their research and dialogue with local colleagues. During our stay we organized meetings and lectures with colleagues and students in the Humanities at Baghdad University. It was during these meetings that we were approached by the Dean of Humanities, as well as colleagues at several other Iraqi universities, about establishing a research and pedagogical network that would encourage professors and students from the United States to come to lecture, research, and work with colleagues and students in Iraq. This project marks the realization of our work to hold a follow-up conference and solidify a Collaborative Research and Pedagogy network with colleagues at Baghdad, Mosul, Tikrit, and Erbil. This will foster exchanges of scholars and artists to rebuild Iraq’s damaged global cultural and academic/intellectual networks. As Iraqi colleagues in the humanities explain, they feel like they have been locked in a forty-year time warp and most scholars who have remained in Iraq have had little exposure to the last two generations of trends in methodologies and theory. As we help shape this network we will work collaboratively with our colleagues to document the dynamics, difficulties, and successes involved in so doing.

The first product of this network is a conference based on a program at the University of Mosul, exploring the history and present-day impact of Euro-American Orientalism on the ways in which Arabs perceive and interact with their histories and present-day cultural production. Tentatively titled, “Re-Imagining Orientalism in the Arab World: Colonial Pasts, Indigenous Futures,” it utilizes the epistemological framework offered by a unique and ostensibly counterintuitive engagement with what is generally believed to be a discredited set of theoretical and methodological practices to inform our investigation of emurgent cultural production in both Iraq and Palestine.

(A note on the security situation in Iraq. From our previous experience together in the country, LeVine’s regular trips across the region, our work helping to organize a major international conference in Baghdad this past spring during a time of intensified violence, and our regular conversations with Iraqi partners and US Embassy personnel, we are confident in our ability to complete our planned research and collaborations with colleagues and students in Iraq during the next three years, barring a major deterioration in the security situation that causes the violence to spread well beyond the sectarian conflict with its fairly coherent geographic distribution. However, should it become impossible to hold such a gathering in any Iraqi city, we can either move the conference to the American University of Beirut, where LeVine has longstanding collaborations, or to the West Bank, which would shift the focus to our work with the Jenin Freedom Theater, with whom we already have strong relations.)


Research: In Egypt, our focus, not surprisingly, is on the ongoing revolution, which LeVine has witnessed much of firsthand since the eruption of protests in late January 2011. Midan Tahrir is possibly the most visible site of theater of immediacy in the millennial era, where the demons of 9/11 were finally exorcised by an unprecedented revolutionary impulse that inspired a global movement of solidarity and rebellion as well: Occupy. As with Tunis shortly before it, music and art more broadly played a crucial role in the revolution. Our research begins with establishing a prehistory of Tahrir, building on work done by LeVine for his book, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh (under contract by UC Press), to the various and interconnected cultural, political, economic, and activist networks that produced the initial uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Our focus is two-fold. First, we explore how the internet and associated new media has encouraged the largely uncommodified yet endlessly circulated production of culture, which we describe under the rubric of the “return of the aura” to artistic production in the age of digital media – a moment where nevertheless powerfully materially and physical presence and performativity are crucial to moving societies towards revolutionary change. Second, we explore how these new dynamics shape the production and contestation of physical space, where cultural production must ultimately be grounded if it is to have any long-term impact.

We argue that the return of the aura involved in auratic sub-, counter- and revolutionary cultural production helped create a new aesthetic in Egyptian (and Arab) cultural production, enabling previously subcultural forms of expression to intensify to become countercultural and even revolutionary. The years we have already spent in close collaboration with Egyptian revolutionary artists and activists, from rock artists like Ramy Essam, the “singer of the Egyptian Revolution” with whom LeVine has collaborated since February 2011, rappers like Arabian Knightz, traditional musical ensembles such as Tanboura, and street artists and poets of the Revolutionary Artists’ Union and the digital agitprop of the Mosireen collective, together provide the entrée for our continued research. Equally important, and until today almost entirely unresearched, is the workers’ theater at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company factory in El-Mahallah El-Kubra, where protests in 2006 and 2008 planted the seeds of the Tahrir uprising of 2011. We have been making research trips the workers’ theater since 2011.

As described above, our research in Egypt and Tunisia will focus on the return of the aura to artistic production in a digitally grounded, post-commodified era of cultural production, circulation/distribution and consumption. Cognizant of the longer historical durée that produced them, our focus on the musical, theatrical, and visual resistance art will explore the stages of revolutionary artistic production, from the formation of small subcultures in the 1990s and early 2000s, through the emergence of countercultures in the middle of the last decade, and finally the explosion of revolutionary cultural production in last three years. As important, however, is our concern to explore how such revolutionary cultural production, and the political and social activism they are supposed to encourage and sustain, continue in both virtual and material space long after the initial wave of revolutionary euphoria has dissipated.

We ask, how, in the context of the “revolutionary grind” in which Egypt and Tunis find themselves, do artists continue to produce revolutionary art that educates and motivates the “people” to continue to struggle against “the system” at a time when most have little energy or ability to return to the streets? Can revolutionary cultural production survive the implementation of what Deleuze describes as “control” societies by counter-revolutionary states, as is occurring in Egypt? Do the same techniques of anti, or better, counter-disciplinary and non-sovereign cultural resistance still function under such new strategies for constraining and encouraging political subjectivities? We see these as crucial questions for understanding the larger history and dynamics of emurgent, revolutionary artistic performance in the context of theater of immediacy.

Conference (Spring 2015)/Networks:

Arab scholarly/academic networks are among the most developed anywhere and well-integrated into global networks. We hope to make three contributions to this already robust milieu. First, working with (and to a significant degree at the behest of) our Iraqi colleagues we hope to facilitate the reincorporation of Iraqi academia into regional Arab and through it global networks, for which Egypt has long been a primary hub, and Tunisia increasingly so today. Second, we hope to strengthen the still limited contacts and collaboration between scholars from the Middle East and North Africa with their counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa, who apart from South Africa remain largely outside the Arab intellectual, academic, and cultural networks, particularly when it comes to Egypt and Anglophone Sub-Saharan Africa.

Third, and perhaps our most significant, we seek to illuminate one of the most important yet little known episodes in the intellectual history of the Arab world, and of Western critical theory during the last half century: Michel Foucault’s two-year sojourn in Tunisia, from 1966-68. This was a crucial period in Foucault’s intellectual trajectory, as he wrote almost the entirety of the Archaeology of Knowledge, the monographic pivot in his oeuvre, while in Tunis. Surprisingly given the book’s focus on the discursive production of knowledge, truth, and power, hardly any of Foucault’s interlocutors have thought to study how his time in Tunis, which coincided with a large-scale and brutally repressed student-led revolt in which he was routinely monitored, harassed, and beaten severely by Tunisian security forces as a result of his support for his students, shaped his writings on the power/knowledge dynamic.

Even fewer have wondered how Foucault’s presence shaped the experiences and strategies of the young rebels who took on a system that would not fall for another two generations. The conference we are organizing, cosponsored by the Centre d’études maghrébines à Tunis (CEMAT) and also involving the journal Foucault Studies and the School of Humanities at UC Irvine, explores these issues by bringing together many of Foucault’s Tunisian students and colleagues for a conference to consider both the impact of his Tunisian sojourn on his subsequent work (and through it, of most contemporary critical theory), his impact on the students and intellectuals at the crosscurrent of revolutionary action in mid-late 1960s Tunisia and, finally and perhaps most to the point, what these dynamics tell us about the role of the intellectual in revolutionary moments – most recently of course, in Tunis, Cairo and other nodes of the so-called Arab Spring, whose intellectual geography has yet to be adequately mapped.


Final product and dissemination

“Art at the Edge” bridges cultures and fosters the creation and sharing of new humanistic knowledge, cultural production, and networks between intellectuals, scholars, and artists. By bringing scholars based in Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the United States into sustained dialogue and collaboration, our project also bridges the gap between celebrated digital cultural production, circulation, and consumption and the far more demanding, and often costly, physical gathering of politicized bodies and minds that remains crucial to the long-term success of movements for social and political change.

In this context, we have three goals for our collaboration: First, our co-authored book, Art at the Edge: Creativity and Conflict in the Middle East and Africa. Second, two co-edited volumes: Theater of Immediacy: Social Change and Revolutionary Performance in the Middle East and Africa and a special issue of The Glendora Review, focusing on the continuing impact of the Frankfurt School on African cultural studies. A possible third co-edited collection is a special issue of the journal Middle East Critique, for which LeVine has been a guest editor. We have also discussed with Foucault Studies co-sponsorship of the conference in Tunis and the publication of a special issue of the journal.

The third goal involves the series of conferences in Nigeria, Iraq, and Tunisia that we have outlined above and, through both the collaborative research and these conferences, the creation of interconnected networks of scholars and artists engaged in exploring the boundaries of theater of immediacy as a zone of cultural production, theoretical analysis, and critical political practice. We are already well on the way to realizing these goals, as indicated by the work done toward organizing both the conferences and networks.

We are committed to sharing all products of our scholarly and cultural collaborations as freely, widely, and publicly as possible through the numerous mechanisms afforded by the internet and related new media technologies. To this end, we are committed to publishing all academic research in open access journals, and to ensuring that any books that are published have price points that make them affordable to students and unaffiliated scholars and culture producers (based on our previous experiences publishing two dozen books, we expect our jointly authored volume to be priced at $35 for hardcover and $19.99 at most for paperback. We plan to use Creative Commons licenses whenever possible to cover the distribution of our scholarly and cultural production.

Based on our joint experience designing and administering websites, we also plan to establish public web portals for “Art at the Edge” and “theater of immediacy” that will foster critical conversations and the sharing of ideas and creative products by scholars, artists, activists, and the public globally. They will also serve as media to disseminate digital editions of all our work and to ensure that free physical and digital copies of our research products are distributed to universities, organizations, and collaborators of the various projects described here. Additionally, all conferences will be free and open to the public, streamed live and archived digitally via Vimeo, YouTube, and other free social media sites.