‘Arab Divas’ at the Arab World Institute: Singers who took center stage
PARIS – The diva sings of love and unbridled lust. In a scarlet evening dress with her hair pinned up, she screams for her lover, longs for a night of immortal passion and longs for the sun not to rise.
The singer of the 1969 concert video is Umm Kulthum: the greatest interpreter of the Arab world of the 20th century, possibly the best-known Egyptian since Cleopatra and the star of the exhibition “Divas” at the Institut du Monde Arabe, or Arab World Institute, in Paris.
The show, which runs through September 26, is a richly illustrated flashback to the period between the 1920s and 1970s. It shows naked and openly sensual women who appear on stage and on the screen without fear of censorship or religious condemnation, as well as feminists, political activists and pioneering impresarios who face patriarchy.
In addition to costumes and jewelry, passports and posters, album covers and high-heeled shoes, visitors can also see footage of female performers wiggling their hips in a mesmerizing manner and posing in hot pants on the beach. The overall picture is in sharp contrast to today’s Western perception of the Arab world as a place where women are veiled from head to toe and silenced by all-powerful men.
“The exhibition does away with many clichés and preconceived notions about this part of the world. Women were actually the focus, embodied modernity and were by no means absent from history, ”said Élodie Bouffard, co-curator of the exhibition. “They sang, played, made people cry, broke hearts and showed their bodies like Western actresses did back then.”
“These images are still very present in the minds of the younger generations,” she added. “They don’t just represent the past.”
The institute’s president, Jack Lang, who was French minister of culture in the 1980s and early 1990s, recalled in an interview that when he was a boy he snuck into a theater where Umm Kulthum was performing while visiting Cairo, and He later heard another singer, Fayrouz (the exhibition’s other great diva), while touring Lebanon as a young actor, he said, and then awarded her a medal as Minister of Culture in 1988.
These women weren’t just exceptional singers, Lang noted: some took part in their country’s struggle for independence from the colonial powers Great Britain and France and joined a wave of nationalism that swept across the Arab world. “The emergence of these divas more or less coincided with a time of collective emancipation,” explains Lang. “The music they sang is an extraordinary expression of freedom.”
The exhibition opens in Cairo before World War II, the artistic and intellectual center of the Arab world where concert halls and cabarets proliferated, many of which were founded by women, said exhibition co-curator Hanna Boghanim. Women also played an important role in the film industry, she added, working as “directors, producers, actresses, costume designers, talent scouts”.
Many of these women came from very humble backgrounds, including Umm Kulthum, who is presented in a velvet curtain on the show. Born in a village in the Nile Delta, she first appeared in disguise as a boy, singing religious songs that enchanted the crowd. Eventually she came into her own as a woman and voice, and became famous for her improvisational style. Their songs sometimes lasted more than an hour.
Her story is told through photos, album and magazine covers, videos and colorful costumes that were created in 2017 for the biopic “Looking for Umm Kulthum” by Iranian-born artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat.
The curators said there were no loans from the Umm Kulthum Museum in Cairo; they were too complicated and expensive to organize. There are also no loans from Fayrouz, who is still alive despite inquiries about the family and entourage of the reclusive singer. Her section contains posters, album and magazine covers, photographs, and other paraphernalia, some of which were put together by a dedicated fan.
The section on the half Algerian, half Lebanese diva Warda, on the other hand, is full of her personal belongings: sunglasses, medals, earrings, passports, oud Instrument, a brown leather case and a detective novel by Agatha Christie. Born in the suburbs of Paris, Warda made her debut as a child in her father’s cabaret in the Latin Quarter and became a successful recording artist before moving to Algeria in 1962, the year the country gained independence from France. There she married an army officer who prevented her from singing. Her career began when she moved to Egypt a decade later.
The exhibition becomes more classy over time, culminating in the last wave of Arab divas of the 20th century, including Egyptian-born Dalida who became a superstar in France. Between sequined evening gowns, stilettos and powder compacts, there are video monitors on which a woman is singing from a whirlpool and rows of others in skimpy outfits worthy of the Folies Bergère raise their legs.
In the decades since then, the role of actresses in Arab countries has changed. Islamist movements and migration from rural areas have made parts of society more conservative about women’s clothing and public behavior. This has led the West to believe that Arab women are veiled and restricted today, unlike in the decades when the divas ruled.
To Coline Houssais, the author of “Music of the Arab World: An Anthology of 100 Artists,“These perceptions then and now that the exhibition dared to encourage were misguided.
“There are two visions of the Arab world,” she said in an interview. “One is: ‘They are barbarians, they are Islamists.’ The other is: “Everything used to be so good. It was a golden age. ‘”
“The development of the Arab world is measured against ultra-Western criteria, such as whether women smoke or not or wear short skirts,” she said. There are “more important factors to do with equality: the number of women working, women’s civil rights,” she added.
Despite the coronavirus epidemic, the exhibition is a hit with Paris museum visitors, and visitors to the exhibition seemed to confirm Houssai’s assessment. One recent afternoon, viewers seemed intrigued by the story of these yesterday’s stars who defied contemporary stereotypes about Muslim women in France.
“It is really very interesting to learn something about the emancipation of women in these societies and to see the contrast with today’s hairstyles, too,” said Camille Hurel, 23, who attended the show. “They were strong personalities who were known all over the world.”
“Today I feel like there isn’t that much freedom of expression,” she added.
Houssais said that the Arab world today is mostly populated by the under 30s, a generation “clinging to social media, being completely open to the world and leading their own private revolutions against their families and communities”.
Concepts of family, community, and religion were fading, and these societies were in the midst of a major “recomposition,” she noted.
“There are still 1,000 places in the Arab world where you can wear a bikini, sniff Coke and listen to American music,” she added.