We live in a black hole.
In science, a black hole is almost beautifully defined as “a region of spacetime exhibiting such strong effects that nothing—including particles and electromagnetic radiation such as light—can escape from inside it.”
In our reality the definition is much more tragic. Our black hole is a region where youth are struggling to breathe, let alone express themselves; a region where our dreams and aspirations are diminished, squashed and thrown stones at.
Between the occupation of land and the occupation of minds, young Arab artists find themselves lost with a lack of a clear healthy debate on wether freedom has, or should have, any boundaries.
Meet Emma Boutros, one such Lebanese artist, expressing her talent with art, design and passion.
Emma is in fact a renowned luxury footwear designer who has established her brand POISE, from scratch, and with no local or regional governmental support whatsoever, landing her heels in different countries of the globe.
Major international brands found pride in coupling their names with POISE, that sense of pride gave birth to POISExSUPERGA and more recently POISExCOCACOLA which has dedicated a limited edition Coca-Cola Light Can as a blank canvas for four artists and designers from the Middle East in celebration of their #LOVELIFE campaign.
Yet in this part of the world, the road to self expression is paved with struggles, intense debates and sometimes disproportionate reactions.
After the ban against Mashrou’ Leila which lead to the cancellation of their long awaited show in Jordan due to their free thoughts and beliefs not matching “local values”, we are witnessing today another retaliation against this Lebanese designer for having used one specific pattern in her shoe designs: the Palestinian Kouffyeh and Jordanian Chamagh.
In fact, after the release of these new designs, many people in the Arab World expressed their concern and objection on Social Media as this pattern is closely linked to the Jordanian identity and Palestinian cause, a noble cause, or shall we say the noblest of all causes, which we all defend wholeheartedly especially that designers like Emma herself has tasted occupation, illogical wars and loss of innocent souls in her own country and can only imagine how multiplying this exponentially can feel.
In reply to these concerns, Emma posted an official reply on her Facebook fan page stating the below:
“…This print commonly used on my creations depicts a distinctive standard woven checkered pattern that has originated in an ancient Mesopotamian representation of fishing nets. It is present on a traditional Middle Eastern headdress non-exclusive to either Palestinians or Jordanians, rather common to all Middle Eastern countries.
This graphic pattern however, is not a flag nor does it in any way depict any religious connotation whatsoever.
I as a designer am inspired from people and cultures. In the Arab culture, which I am proudly part of, this is a graphic print that is common to all of us Arabs, thus is used graphically on my designs to celebrate culture; and this in a wide panoply of artistic color combinations.
Furthermore the Print is not stepped on, or degraded on any way, rather proudly incorporated and embroidered on fancy material work to create luxury products in the perspective of spreading our Cultural heritage…”
Coca-Cola clarified their side of the story:
“We regret that a collaboration with a Lebanese designer has resulted in the promotion of a product which has raised concerns amongst some members of the community. The collaboration in question was limited, and has ended.
The design was intended to showcase the shared pride in an important universal and long-standing symbol of Arabic culture.”
The problem however is not in a debate about freedom of expression versus local values and rooted beliefs, as the same freedom of expression that allows Emma Boutros to design these shoes also fully allows any person to object, or even avoid buying a certain product.
The real problem is when freedom of expression evolves into calls for ban and expulsion of an artist who has repeatedly asserted that her will has always been to reflect to the world her pride of belonging to the Arab culture by choosing this pattern as her very own personal signature.
Among numerous comments by users online, an example of such calls is in the recent article by Alsiasi.com which called Boutros a “dirty and insolent designer” which “should be expelled from the United Arab Emirates” while punishing her and Coca-Cola for degrading national symbols.
Ironically, a similar anti-Israeli campaign recently launched from the Arab world targeting Reebok for planning to release a sneaker holding the colors of Israel in honor of Israel’s 68th Independence Day, adding up to the confusion of whether we believe that branding and design promotes countries or degrades them.
All of the above sure raises a lot of questions.
In an objective, open minded approach, should we really defend that an object can degrade the globally respected Jordanian identity and the invincible Palestinian cause which are both stronger than any item, person or entity can even scratch? How do countries like England, known for their patriotism accept to have their nation’s flag designed on all types of items without any feeling of offense?
Shouldn’t we be using any medium of expression to push the world to notice our culture and causes, instead of further alienating our young artists to follow the path of all legendary Arab figures which were only able to express themselves and change the world after they have emigrated to the west?
Most importantly, can we claim to be freedom fighters while at the same time force bans on the freedom we are asking for?
While preserving a positive discussion, we invite you all to express your point of view in the comment box so we can keep a healthy debate in hope that some day, this region would morph from one big black hole, to an oasis of expression and growth where our local talents merge with our deep cultural experiences in a beautiful synergy letting the whole world know who we truly are.
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