Mounir Fatmi’s The Lost Springs represents the 22 pristine flags of the Arab League member states, clustered in close formation. Yet this unassuming first impression of a seemingly benign collection of flags begins to collapse as the signals unfold. In a poignant reversal of the sight of fluttering flags outside the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Lost Spring‘s crestfallen flags hang dejectedly against a bare wall as if to convey the disappointment of both the dashed hopes of the protestors of the Arab Spring and the broken dreams of 1950-60s Pan Arab unity. Singled out for special treatment are the flags of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, which ousted their leaders in the Arab Spring in 2010-11. These flags hang from what appear at first glance to be flagpoles but are in fact broomsticks, playfully evoking the “political spring cleaning” of the Arab Spring and the sweeping of detritus while foregrounding cleansing, renewal and rebirth. Positioned as if mid-sweeping, the quotidian brooms contrast sharply with the lofty aspirations of the Arab Spring protesters yet somehow also echo both their improvised tactics and rallying calls for basic rights: “Bread! Freedom! Social Justice!” The original French title of this work: “Les Printemps Perdus” implies staleness, thus spring is both lost in the conventional sense but also lacking in freshness and vitality.
The potency of this installation lies in its combination of subversion and evolution. First displayed in 2011 at the Venice Biennale, the flags have since been re-ordered with each display with a broomstick added to the Libyan flag, thus acting simultaneously as ongoing political commentary and ominous warning. Embedded within this installation is also a reminder of the Arab Leagues’ troubled past: for just as the founding nation states of Egypt and Iraq in 1945 ousted their kings, turning from monarchies to republics between 1945 and 1960, so too would these nations reshape the political landscape in 2010 and beyond. The Lost Springs further acts as commentary on the Arab League’s controversial decisions related to member states’ suspension or intermittently frozen membership in 2010-11, such as Syria and Libya’s suspension following the uprisings in 2011 and the subsequent challenges to re-admittance, particularly of Syria under an altered flag representing the opposition.
Simultaneously looking to past and future, Lost Springs’ potency lies in the subtlety of its implied prophetic nature as a shifting installation predicting future possibilities with the simple re-ordering of flags in an act akin to witchcraft or sorcery. Yet the artist operates here also as oracle, or perhaps even biblical prophet, forecasting both impending triumphs alongside the possibility of crushing defeat. With its ongoing display it further toys with our hubristic sense of certainty by questioning the very stability of political prediction and the inherent volatility of the status quo; a quality which may have contributed to the censoring of this work at Art Dubai in 2011. Current preoccupation with the serious implications of inclusion and exclusion of Arab countries in global sanctions, entry bans or otherwise, renders Fatmi’s work highly relevant as a stark reminder of the many challenges facing the Arab world.
Assistant Professor Islamic Art,
Architecture, and Urbanism
University of Kansas, Lawrence