This year has seen the art world lose some of its most valuable proponents, from both East and West. The deaths of acclaimed Egyptian director Yousif Shaheen, the renowned Emirati stage legend Mohammed al Janahi, and on the other side of the hemisphere, the consecutive deaths of musician Isaac Hayes and comedian Bernie Mac, have shocked the world and saddened art lovers across borders alike. When he started his film career, Yousif Shaheen shocked his contemporaries by tackling issues which broke the norm of lighthearted entertainment prevalent in Egypt at the time.
Using his trademark straightforward style, Shaheen tackled various serious issues as ranging in diversity. He was among the first eastern filmmakers to tackle sexuality in a frank and objective manner through films such as the Alexandria series. The quality of his work made him a frequent sight at film festivals the world over and won him international praise. Perhaps his success abroad lay in the universality of his stories, which made them relatable to both Eastern and Western audiences.
He was among the pioneers who broke the great East-West cultural divide and his death robs the entire world of an exceptionally fine artist. Similarly, Mohammed al Janahi was one of few Eastern artists to crossover into Western cinema. While, western actors and directors easily break into new audiences in the East, the process has been harder the other way round, possibly due to the dynamics of globalization. Yet this fact only serves to exalt his status amongst his contemporaries.
He was able to provide his presence both on-screen (La Guerre de l’eau) and off-screen (art direction for Charlie Wilson’s War) on Western productions. He will most surely be missed for years to come. On the other side of the world, the death of Isaac Hayes, who was one of the definitive pioneers of soul and funk music, is creating ripples the world over. A brilliant songwriter and composer, Hayes is credited with defining the sound for a generation. Apart from his studio work, he frequently contributed to film soundtracks.
His work on the groundbreaking Shaft score is especially notable. Hayes also lent his voice talent to the popular but controversial animated series South Park, playing the roles of ‘Chef’. It will be this role, for which he will be missed by the younger generation. Just a day before him, another African-American entertainer lost his life. Bernie Mac, a highly successful actor and stand-up comedian, succumbed to pneumonia. While his big screen career was somewhat recent, he spent close to two decades as a renowned stand up comedian.
He also starred in his own Emmy nominated TV show, which won him, fans among the younger audience. Bernie Mac was also notable one of the few African-American comedians to break away from tradition and do more than just cliched comedies which seldom move away from stereotype. As such, he can be considered a pioneer in breaking on-screen racial stereotypes and proving that art has no tangible boundaries. All four of these unique people share this one thing in common.
In their own way, each of then has been successful in transcending some boundary or limitation that has impaired their respective art form. Be it cultural, geographical, racial, or even a boundary between two art forms themselves, all of them have been able to bypass these boundaries and prove that all limitations when it comes to art are our mind’s creation. They have proved that art has no tangible boundary and that it is capable of transcending physical barriers. Artistic expression stems from the deepest recesses of the heart.
It is able to convey feelings and emotions that one cannot straightforwardly express. As such, art furthers understanding, both on an individual to individual basis, and on a larger scale, on a culture to culture basis. It is able to show that despite are differences, we are still human, all of us. Culture is but a mere product of circumstance. Art is both able to maintain cultural identity, yet at the same time transcend it. For example, a good story will always stay true to its socio-cultural backdrop while its essence will be universally relatable.
Similarly, although good music will utilize indigenous cultural elements, it will still at the end of the day, sound good. Good art is able to communicate over borders and might even help us bring closer by allowing us to empathize with our counterparts in some other part of the world. Each of these four artists has accomplished that in one way or another. Their contribution to the world of art is invaluable. They will surely be remembered for their contributions for times to come and their presence shall be greatly missed.