They are usually the forgotten casualties until they are gone: artworks, artifacts, cultural relics of our own histories. More than objects, they document our narratives and where we came from, so that we can better understand where we are going. Nothing in history exists in a vacuum, and these cultural heirlooms remind us that everything in the present is motivated by something in the past.
Yet as treasured as they are, these vestiges have no voice of their own, and their salvation lies in how actively we as societies value our own preservation. Which makes these artifacts silent victims in times of political distress.
“Art vandalism has been a form of cultural warfare since the French Revolution,” wrote The Atlantic. In recent decades, cultural vandalism has become a form of cultural oppression, such as the Taliban’s attacks on ancient Buddha statues in Afghanistan. Many times, their destruction is carried out by unknown perpetrators, “elevating suspicions in already tense post-conflict areas.”
Amidst the deadly protests in Egypt, culture was pushed into the media forefront when it was reported that vandals ransacked the Egyptian Museum and decapitated two mummies. The museum is “the great repository of Egyptian art. It is the treasure chest, the finest sculptures and treasures from literally 4,000 years of history,” New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Campbell told the AP. “If it is damaged through looting or fire, it would be a loss to all humankind.”
Young Egyptians formed a human chain at the museum’s front gate to keep looters away and turn them back to the protests. It’s not a new tactic. On January 7, Muslims all across Egypt attended Coptic mass to act as “human shields” against possible terrorist bombings, “an initiative… partly spearheaded by El-Sawy Culture Wheel, a prominent arts venue in the country,” reports ARTINFO.
After media reports speculated on the lack of museum security, the museum’s antiquities chief, Dr. Zahi Hawass, issued a statement on his website condemning the vandals. “What is really beautiful is that not all Egyptians were involved in the looting of the museum,” he wrote. “A very small number of people tried to break, steal and rob. The Egyptian people are calling for freedom, not destruction. When I left the museum on Saturday, I was met outside by many Egyptians, who asked if the museum was safe and what they could do to help.”
Yet many are not buying Hawass’s statement. “People in the streets… do not believe a word the current regimes says,” wrote Syrian journalist Danny Ramadan, “and Hawass is no different.”
It has led to the speculation that the vandalism was not caused by “about a thousand people” who “jump[ed] over the wall on the eastern side of the museum into the courtyard,” as Hawass described it, but was actually an internal operation, committed by the museum’s guards and the police.
The vandals “were the guardians of the museum,” former Egyptian Museum director Wafaa el-Saddik told German magazine Zeit, who looted the museum because “they are extremely poorly paid… But the Egyptian Ministry of Culture… celebrates itself with expensive projects and receptions.”
Whether or not el-Saddick is right, her statement has contributed to an already established theory on Cairo’s streets that Mubarak had undercover police loot the museum to give him motivation for a government-led crackdown.
“There is a discourse of army vs. police that is emerging,” wrote influential Egyptian blogger Issandr El Amrani. “I don’t fully buy it – the police was pulled out to create this situation of chaos, and it’s very probable that agent provocateurs are operating among the looters, although of course there is also real criminal gangs and neighborhoods toughs operating too.”
“The police are dressed in civilian clothes and looting to discredit the protesters,” Cairo-based artist Lara Baladi told Iran Inside Out curator Sam Bardaouil. “But the people are strong, cleaning the streets, helping each other find food. The police opened the prisons setting the inmates free. We are being tear gazed [sic] even in our homes. But we are strong! We want Mubarak out!”
Baladi is one of several artists Bardaouil has been able to contact, despite Egypt’s internet coma. Another one is Amal Kenaway:
“No more intimidation! Our fear is gone. On the streets no one is thinking ‘I am a Christian or Muslim, Brotherhood or Baradei! We are all one. I am honored to be part of this and for my son to witness a new era and have a better future. Mubarak is gone! We will march tomorrow!”
Baradaouil has been posting artists’ messages from Egypt on his Facebook wall.
Amidst the chaos and confusion, two things have kept focus for Egypt’s change-to-come: preserve the relics of Egypt’s past, and push for a new modernity in its future. It’s a curated revolution, Bardaouil told ARTINFO, “with the curator being: 30 years of oppression.”
Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera English via Flickr