Valentina Primo delves into the intricate details of artist and political researcher Omar Sheira's modern day hieroglyphic, symbolising the MENA region and all its players in a striking piece. Here, Sheira talks about the inspiration behind 'Writing on the Wall'...
The Star of David and the Twitter bird. A Chinese temple and a branch of olive oil. The Russian hammer and a simple boat. In Omar Sheira’s hieroglyphic, dubbed Writing on the Wall, every actor plays a role. A political researcher based in Istanbul, Sheira put together an intriguing piece that revives the ancient Egyptian art to symbolise the actors, from refugees to watchdog organisations, that outline the jumble of a region engulfed in conflict.
An analyst at the Global Political Trends Center, Sheira creates digital artwork on the side, crystallising his findings into symbols he makes through Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. Realising the fast-paced developments in the region throughout the past months, the 27-year old analyst looked into Egypt’s ancient temples to find iconography that could represent the recent developments in the region.
“Egypt was known throughout ancient history as a cradle of art, which was very symbolic while documenting a lot of what was happening through visuals, and this is something we don’t have right now. So, seeing how the old arts were lost, I thought of reviving them with the same structure, but more evolved to suit this day and time,” the Egyptian researcher explains.
“My research is based on the political field, but it is also more than that: today, you need an understanding of the social, legal and economic fields to understand what is going on in the Middle East. Things are not as separate as they once were, that’s why the interdisciplinary research field is a growing trend now,” he explains.
In a complex composition, Sheira includes state and non-state actors both in the region and beyond, as he explores the battle against extremism from a multi-focal point of view. “I am exploring the building of a nation in the Middle East, which typically consists of several tribes and ethnicities; it has gotten very problematic, because understanding the region means understanding all these elements,” he says.
While the hieroglyphics at the top represent the main external powers with strong influence over the region, the second row portrays the economic power progressively gaining weight, he explains. At the top-centre, the religious icons represent the three main monotheistic faiths in the region.
Below the rise of extremism, the six countries where the protests sparked the uprisings known as the Arab Spring: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria; each one represented by one protester, crystallising the significance of popular demonstrations as the engine that led to the Arab revolutions. Behind the pharaoh, on the right, are symbols of Russia, the EU, the Middle Eastern countries, and the ever increasing number of refugees, represented by boats.
But it’s not all guns, oil, and tanks in this puzzling composition: drones, watchdog organisations, and aid groups are also present in this contemporary portrayal of power and dynamics in Middle Eastern politics. On the left-hand side, “the communications revolution that took place in the past 15 years,” marks the presence through media and online networks. There is a satellite, mass-media icons, and social media giants Facebook and Twitter. “If you look at the head of a pharaoh, he is wearing a headphone connected to media, representing surveillance,” the artist explains.
“A lot of these symbols are open to interpretation, as I wanted to leave space for the readers to read into it and interpret the symbols,” says the young researcher, whose study path took across Istanbul, Cairo, Missouri and Holland, where he carried out his Master degree studies focused on International and Human Rights Law.
But what about the central symbol? Does the battle against extremism have a recognisable face? According to the author, its significance will have to be determined by the reader. “I don’t see optimism or pessimism there; it represents what you see and what you live every day in the Middle East. The centre figure is a symbolic effort to fight terrorism, but there is no single actor carrying out that effort,” he says.
Considering the ambiguities of international actors and the difficulty to point fingers in a global landscape where politics and the economy cannot be separated, Sheira thinks that the fight against terrorism is “a self-perpetuating cycle feeding itself. There is indeed a threat, but you cannot really fight an idea with guns: you need to fight and idea with an idea,” he concludes.