“Arab Divas” at the Institute of the Arab World: the singers who took center stage

PARIS – The diva sings about love and unbridled lust. Wearing a scarlet evening gown with her hair up, she cries out to her beloved, longs for a night of eternal passion and longs for the sun not to rise.

The singer in the 1969 concert video is Umm Kulthum: the greatest performer in the Arab world of the 20th century, perhaps the best-known Egyptian woman since Cleopatra and the star of the exhibition “Divas” at the Institut du Monde Arabe, or Institut du Monde Arabe, in Paris.

The show, which runs until September 26, is a richly illustrated flashback to the period between the 1920s and the 1970s. It depicts unveiled and openly voluptuous women performing on stage and on screen without fear of censorship or religious condemnation; and pioneering feminists, political activists and impresarios facing patriarchy.

Along with costumes and jewelry, passports and posters, album covers and high-heeled shoes, visitors can watch images of female artists wiggling their hips in fascinating movements and posing on the beach in shorts. The overall picture contrasts sharply with current Western perceptions of the Arab world as a place where women are veiled from head to toe and silenced by all-powerful men.

“The exhibition shakes up many stereotypes and preconceived ideas about this part of the world. Women indeed took center stage, embodied modernity and were not at all absent from history, ”said Élodie Bouffard, co-curator of the exhibition. “They sang, acted, 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 president of the institute, Jack Lang, who was French Minister of Culture in the 1980s and early 1990s, recalled in an interview that when he was a boy visiting Cairo, he had sneaked in in a theater where Umm Kulthum was performing and was “stunned, absolutely blown away.” . “He then heard another singer, Fayrouz (the other great diva in the exhibition), on a tour of Lebanon as a young actor,” he said, then presented her with a minister’s medal. of Culture in 1988.

These women were not only exceptional singers, Lang noted: some participated in their country’s struggle for independence from the colonial powers, 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 period of collective emancipation,” Lang explained. “The music they sing is an extraordinary expression of freedom.

The exhibition opens in pre-WWII Cairo, the artistic and intellectual center of the Arab world, where concert halls and cabarets have proliferated, many of which were created by women, said the co – curator of the Hanna Boghanim exhibition. Women have also played an important role in the film industry, she added, working as “directors, producers, actresses, costume designers, talent scouts.”

Many of these women come from very modest backgrounds, including Umm Kulthum, who is featured in a velvet-draped enclosure in the show. Born in a village in the Nile Delta, she first performed disguised as a boy, singing religious songs that bewitched the crowds. Eventually, she established herself, as a woman and as a voice, and rose to fame for her style of improvisation. His songs sometimes lasted over an hour.

Her story is told through photographs, album and magazine covers, videos and brightly colored costumes created for the 2017 biopic “Looking for Umm Kulthum”, directed by Iranian-born artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat.

There are no loans from the Umm Kulthum Museum in Cairo, the curators said; they were too complicated and expensive to organize. There are also no loans from Fayrouz, who is still alive, despite requests made through the family and entourage of the reclusive singer. Its section contains posters, album and magazine covers, photographs and other props, some compiled by a dedicated fan.

On the other hand, the section on the half-Algerian, half-Lebanese diva Warda is full of her personal effects: sunglasses, medals, earrings, passports, a oud instrument, a brown leather suitcase and a detective story by Agatha Christie. Born in the Parisian suburbs, Warda made her childhood debut in her father’s cabaret in the city’s Latin Quarter and became a successful recording artist before moving to Algeria in 1962, the year the country had gained independence from France. There she married an army officer who prevented her from singing. Her career took off when she moved to Egypt a decade later.

The exhibition becomes more and more racy, culminating with the last wave of Arab divas of the 20th century, including Dalida, of Egyptian origin, who became a superstar in France. Between displays of sequined evening dresses, pumps and powder kegs are video monitors that show a woman singing in a hot tub and rows of others lifting their legs up in light outfits worthy of the Folies Bergère.

In the decades that followed, the place of female performers in Arab countries changed. Islamist movements and the rural exodus have made parts of society more conservative in women’s dress and public behavior. This has led to assumptions in the West that Arab women are veiled and coerced today, as opposed to decades when divas ruled.

To Coline Houssais, the author of “Music of the Arab world: Anthology of 100 artists,These perceptions of yesterday versus today, which the exhibition risked encouraging, were wrong.

“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 was so good before. It was a golden age.

“The development of the Arab world is measured using ultra-Western criteria, such as whether women smoke or not, or whether they wear short skirts,” she said. There were “more important factors, linked to equality: the number of working women, the civil rights of women,” she added.

Despite the coronavirus epidemic, the show is a hit with Parisian museologists, and visitors to the exhibition seemed to validate Houssais’ assessment. On a recent afternoon, viewers seemed intrigued by the story of these yesterday’s stars, who challenged contemporary stereotypes about Muslim women in France.

“It’s really very interesting to learn about the emancipation of women in these societies and to see the contrast with today, even in terms of hairstyles,” said Camille Hurel, 23, visitor of the show. “They were strong personalities who were known around the world.”

“Today, I have the impression that there is not so much freedom of expression,” she added.

Houssais said that in fact the Arab world today is mostly populated by people under the age of 30, a generation “glued to social media, completely open to the world and leading their own private revolutions against their families and their communities ”.

Notions 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, snort coke and listen to American music,” she added.

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