Archive for the ‘Muammar Gaddafi’ tag
Al Jazeera’s news coverage of the Libyan Revolution currently unfolding is hugely symbolical: the left hand of the screen depicts jubilant crowds who have gathered in Benghazi following the news that the rebels have taken control of Tripoli, the right hand side of the screen depicts precisely these rebels as they are trampling, kicking, hitting and even driving over a carpet that depicts Muammar Gaddafi. Al Jazeera thus sets out one of the overriding dichotomies evoked by the Arab Revolution: hope symbolised by the jubilant crowds in Benghazi and fury symbolised by those defacing the image of Gaddafi.
The defacement of Gaddafi’s image in the Al Jazeera’s news footage has been, in fact, a reoccurring theme during the Arab Revolution. As the autocratic regimes of Tunisia and Egypt were toppled, it was representations of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak respectively that were attacked by protestors. Even in countries where the political shift has yet to occur, representations of dictators such as Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen or Bashar al-Assad of Syria are a common target for those seeking the end of their reign.
The Libyan Revolution in particular vividly illustrates that the defacing of a dictator’s image holds, in itself, a political power protestors appear to tap into. A recent news photograph depicts rebels as they poke their guns into a Gaddafi poster. The gun penetrating the surface of the poster is symbolical for the rebels penetrating the instruments of power of the regime in Tripoli. Importantly, in the photograph a hand holding a mobile phone can be seen reaching into the image. The mobile phone is recording an action which is similarly performed all over liberated parts of the country. The defacing of the poster is not simply an action worth recording on the mobile phone, or, by extension the news photographer on site, but also, it becomes a recognisable gesture symbolising the eventual toppling of Gaddafi himself.
To deface, as the dictionary notes, is to mar or spoil the appearance or surface of an image. Derived from the Old French word desfascier, it literally denotes the disfigurement of the ‘face’. In the true sense of the word, defacement of an image presumes that the image depicts a human being. As all the aforementioned regimes are ruled by individual men, it is only natural that it is their image that is consistently attacked. In other words, an autocracy, or a form of government in which one person possesses unlimited power, is the very precondition for the popularity of the defacement of rulers during the Arab Revolution. In Libya, after being visually bombarded with images of Gaddafi in heroic poses for more than four decades, the frustration of the Libyan people is most bluntly observed in the way they attack Gaddafi’s image. Attacking representations of Gaddafi becomes the conduit for political and ideological opposition.
Another news photograph depicts a little girl as she is kicking a drawing of Gaddafi. A reading of the photograph suggests that while the little girl is not participating in the armed uprising as such, she is, symbolically, standing up against his tyranny. The defacement of Gaddafi thus becomes a gesture that is not exclusive to those participating in the armed struggle. In the photograph, like in many other similar photographs, the physical contact between the shoes and Gaddafi’s face connote the ultimate insult in Arab culture as George W. Bush once famously dodged shoes at a press conference in Baghdad.
It is important to note however that there is a significant difference between defacing an image and destroying an image. Representations of Gaddafi are penetrated, torn, drawn over, kicked, hit, spat at, maybe even burnt – yet ultimately, as an image, it often survives. In the photograph above, the paint of a Gaddafi street mural is crumbling away in parts where it has been most consistently trampled. Yet Gaddafi right hand fist can still be seen as it is defiantly raised towards the sky. So rather than concentrating on what defacement is doing, let me spell out what it is not doing: it is not entirely getting rid of an image, a representation, a poster or any other type of visual propaganda imaginable. The partial preservation of Gaddafi’s image suggests that, ultimately, in order to move towards an unknown future, a reminder of the past must be stay in sight.
“I am in Tripoli and not in Venezuela.” These words uttered by Muammar Gaddafi late in the night on Libyan state television will be remembered as a key moment in the downfall of an autocratic and ruthless regime. Western media pundits were quick to point to the bizarreness of the TV footage, referring to Gaddafi’s ‘eccentricity’, implying that few elements in this artifact of visual culture made any sense. Some have even compared Gaddafi’s appearance with the surrealist art of the spanish painter Salvador Dali. At the same time, conspiracy theories emerged almost immediately. Gaddafi is holding a large umbrella, but did it actually rain that evening? Rain is so rare in that part of the world that it is a valid question.
Yet a more careful reading of Gaddafi’s short but memorable TV appearance shows that a number of elements are likely very deliberately planned and executed. Ever since the footage was screened, there has been a huge amount of curiosity regarding the vehicle that Gaddafi is sitting in. Here, it is important to point out that Gaddafi is sitting in the driving seat, clearly signifying that he is in charge of determining the direction his country is heading towards. Gaddafi’s TV appearance is reminscient of propaganda billboards erected throughout the country, which depict the dictator driving a Volkswagen Beetle.
The message is clear: he is the ‘driving’ force in running the country. Unlike the Volkswagen Beetle however, the vehicle depicted in the TV footage is, importantly, a car with only one seat. While the propaganda billboard shows Gaddafi driving without passengers, the single seated vehicle even negates the possibility of any passengers. In other words, Gaddafi is depicted running the country, without any interference, all by himself. The single-seated vehicle in the TV footage signifies precisely the type of state Gaddafi is leading: autocracy is defined as a system government by one person with absolute power.
The most important aspect of the footage is the location where it was made. Gaddafi says, “I am in Tripoli”. More precisely, Gaddafi is located in front of his compound in Bab Al Azizia which was heavily bombed by the Reagan administration in 1986. Instead of rebuilding the shattered compound, Gaddafi chose to leave it as it is. The skeletal structure of the building acts as a powerful message of defiance and resilience. In 2003, just as Libya’s relationship with the West was thawing, Gaddafi even held a beauty pageant with international contestants, including British and American women, at this historically important site. The British photographer Muir Vidler produced a strikingly surreal series of photographs that depict the proceedings. The Bab Al Azizia compound would also become the backdrop to Nicolas Sarkozy’s state visit to Libya in 2007. The photograph clearly depicts Sarkozy’s discomfort for being turned into a strategically placed pawn by Gaddafi’s propaganda apparatus.
Gaddafi’s late night TV appearance thus sets up a fairly complex web of signifiers that might not be immediately determinable. By depicting himself in a single-seated car, Gaddafi wishes to communicate that it is still him, who is leading the country. The location is carefully chosen as a site of historical importance, signifying Gaddafi’s assumed resilience and defiance vis a vis the most powerful nation on earth. Gaddafi portrays himself as David standing up against Goliath. But the message is also directed at Britain, as it was the British Foreign Secretary William Hague who initially speculated that Gaddafi was on his way to Venezuela. A photograph of Hugo Chavez and Gaddafi in a luxury car is an ironic symbol for Venezuela’s close ties with Libya. Unlike the TV footage however, it showed Chavez in the driving seat. In his very brief TV appearance, Gaddafi thus sets up a geopolitical web of international relations that spans the whole globe. Similar to my blog post on the final speech by the former Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu, the signs and symbols used in Gaddafi’s TV appearance are a desperate attempt to cling on to the steering wheel.