Saturday, March 26, 2016

Comment | Sharjah discusses meaning of art in the time of Isil and Hezbollah


Sharjah discusses meaning of art in the time of Isil and Hezbollah

Anna Somers Cocks attended the annual March Meeting and found it did not shy away from the pain, extremism and corruption of the world today
by Anna Somers Cocks  |  24 March 2016
Sharjah discusses meaning of art in the time of Isil and Hezbollah
Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, head of the Sharjah Art Foundation and Dynamo of the Sharjah biennial, with her father, the emir, at the opening in 2015

“What does it mean to be talking about art when we have Daesh [Isil] and Hezbollah around us?” asked Christine Tohmé of Beirut’s Ashkal Alwan at last month’s March Meeting, posing a fundamental question not just for the art world of the Middle East.

To a packed room, this founder of a very influential community centre that runs art seminars, workshops and scholarships in Beirut went on to say: “Here we have 20 museums, 15 foundations, collections—how do we sustain ourselves in the face of money laundering when our structures are about resistance. We are not interested in doing sexy programmes, in the hype. We are not interested in the histories of contemporary art as taught by universities, the ‘white’ history. We are injecting history into how we want to write about ourselves. To say that we did educational programmes if we didn’t express ourselves politically would be meaningless, but I don’t mean political parties; rather, people who question things; communities, resistance; people who are not mobs. We nourish and are nourished by the local art community.”

This March Meeting was a radical event. The United Arab Emirates is not known for radical discussion, favouring a bland consensus in the media, but there is an exception to this in the emirate of Sharjah, under the patronage of the Sharjah Art Foundation of which the emir’s daughter, Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, is president, director and moving spirit. She says: “If something is in the news, why can’t we discuss it here and talk about it directly or indirectly through works of art?” She has also committed herself to a radical biennale in 2017 with her appointment of Tohmé as its curator.

The theme of this meeting, which every year invites Curators and thinkers fr om all over Menasa and points east and west to discuss whatever theme Sheikha Hoor has chosen, was education, engagement and participation. At the same time, the foundation and art museum put on exhibitions in the courtyards and houses of the old town of Sharjah. So if you wanted total immersion in a non-Western vision of the world, this was the place to be last month.

The opening keynote address was by William Wells, the Canadian founder of Cairo’s Townhouse, an art and community centre closed down last December by the authorities on the pretext of “administrative irregularities, which are closing spaces everywhere”. “We hope to overcome these ‘irregularities’, but just before our closure we were able to get financing for a bus to take our activities to discuss, debate and perform around the country. The bus is our future, our voice, our survival at the moment. When they closed us they had no idea what they had, because the street, the artists, the life ended. It’s not just our world; it’s our neighbour’s world,” he said.

Speakers went on to tell of other spaces that the authorities found just too provocative. Ahmed Al Attar said that in January the increasingly repressive Egyptian authorities had raided the offices of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF), a multidisciplinary event that has taken place in Cairo every spring since 2012 all over the city centre. The excuse was that he was “practising a profession without a permit”. “It seems that just bringing people together is a political act,” says Al Attar.

Zoe Butt of Sàn Art in Vietnam, another community project with residencies for artists and the country’s only registered facility for contemporary art, says they were also closed down recently after operating in a context wh ere there is no official support at all for contemporary art. Elizabeth Georgis of the Gebre Kristos Desta Center in the University of Addis Ababa described how Ethiopian artists are being imprisoned; there is no academic freedom; students are paid to be informers, while the corrupt government uses the word “development” as “the clarion call to squash opposition”.

A movement in the making

There were presentations of new biennales, including the already very popular event in Kochi, whose curator, Riyas Komu, said that it was particularly needed because racial intolerance was rearing its head in India. Alia Swastika of the Jogja biennale in Indonesia, whose first edition was in 2011, said that it plays on the Indonesian word “binal”, which means wild and was the name of an artistic protest movement in the 1990s: “We have chosen to work with the equatorial belt, 23 degrees above and below the equator, so last year’s partner was Nigeria.” Silvia Franceschini of the 2015 Kyiv Biennial said that they had an educational programme to develop a new language “for their political situation, for non-violent discussion and negotiation without fear”.

With the Louvre Abu Dhabi about to open, it was interesting to hear that, while there are 18 teaching institutions in the UAE with art and design programmes, only four teach fine art, while design, especially interior design, is what impresses parents. Public schools in the UAE are reducing their music and art classes from two a week to one from 2017.

Khulood Al Atiyat, manager of the increasingly active foundation set up by Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan, wife of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, pointed out something that is true of Arab cultures in general: “We are too polite; we lack a critical tradition.” So they have set up group sessions to teach artists how to discuss strengths and weaknesses without taking offence.

One of the exhibitions has been particularly good in engaging the public, and it is a creation of the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist that has been touring for 23 years: the artist gives instructions on how to make a work of art, the instruction itself being a work of art. It can be followed by another artist or the public. Here the artists are all from the Middle East and thus avoid what Obrist calls “horrible homogenised globalisation”. Do it (bil arabi [in Arabic]), has had families and school children playing enthusiastically (until 23 April).

The major exhibition is the survey by the Egyptian Tarek Abou El Fetouh. The Time is Out of Joint (until 12 June), which is a complex curatorial construct part-sponsored by the Sharjah Art Foundation and commemorating the first Arab Artist Biennial in Baghdad in 1974, and the China Avant-Garde Exhibition in Beijing in 1989 and presaging the Jogja Equator Conference in 2022, through contemporary works of art, essays, databases, performances and talks. A gripping two-hour performance gave us, verbatim, the negotiations in 1955 between the defeated Malayan insurgent Chin Peng, a British colonial official and the newly elected Malayan leader Tunku Abdul Rahman.

Another, less politically gritty performance, was Wael Shawky’s third video about the Crusades seen from the Arab point of view, using glass puppets made for him in Venice by Berengo (two of these were for sale at the Dubai art fair for $65,000).

It is typical of the lateral-thinking nature of the March Meeting that one of the last but most substantial papers was by a Finnish philosopher, Taneli Kukkonen, who told us about the creation of a 12th-century Arab thinker (first published in the West in 1703, this may or may not have been the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe). Hayy ibn Yaqzan (living son of consciousness) is raised by a doe alone on a desert island and comes to his own idea of the single principle of reason behind the universe. When he is 50 he meets his first human being and they wrestle. The Arab is astonished when he discovers what Hayy has understood without benefit of revelation. Hayy tries to enter the world to teach this unitary principle of reason, but the world does not listen, so he retreats to his island. With this ambiguous, not very optimistic conclusion, the March Meeting came to an end.

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