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Considering Contemporary Strategies of Activist Curating and Art Making in Sharjah

Part II of a report on the 2018 Spring Exhibitions in Sharjah and the March Meeting.

The 2018 March Meeting, Sharjah: ‘Projections’ panel discussion on independent cinema and screening platforms. Left to right: Filipa Ramos (co-curator, Vdrome), Yaminay Chaudhri (artist and co-founder, Tentative Collective), Hania Mroué (founder and director, Metropolis Art Cinema, Beirut), and Butheina Kazim (co-founder, Cinema Akil, Dubai), with moderator Maha Maamoun (image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation)

SHARJAH, UAE  — An integral part of the Sharjah Art Foundation’s work, together with its biennial and the broad-based arts programming that takes place year-round, is the annual, three-day March Meeting – a gathering in a themed symposium format of practitioners, organizers, curators, commentators, and friends, and an important networking hub. The first Meeting, in 2008, was launched as a forum for art professionals in the region to network and collaborate on future events and programs, but it has since cast a wider net, inclusive of the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia (MENASA) region in particular but not exclusively.

For the 2018 Meeting, there was an open call for proposals addressing the idea of “Active Forms,” plugging into the groundswell around ideas about resistances to status quos and conditions through organizing and activating new and different modes of thought and practice. Invited participants ranged from artists, curators, writers, filmmakers, professors, activists, and programmers, to architects and performers, with many crossovers. ‘Active Forms’ means exactly what it says. It expresses that a lack of action can lead to paralysis and stasis, while an absence of form means not having the capability and means to practice action. One of the premises underlying the meeting was that submitting to the forces of historical, political, and socio-economic processes can mean events of whatever magnitude and severity can ‘happen to us.’ But the presentations all demonstrated what can be achieved when resistance is effected through organizing, activation, and action, and allowing people to be stage directors and actors in their own plays. The three-days of the Meeting featured many examples of such actions, recent and not-so-recent: analytical thought in writing and publishing; research and documentation of material scattered or suppressed by historical events and ruptures; the creation of new spaces and venues; collaboration and non-institutional collective activities; locally focused, lower budget projects in communities left out of the larger narratives and events. And lastly, but never least, intellectual and creative real estate was given over to the active forms of individual artist’s practices.

Bahar Behbahani and Almagul Menlibayeva, video still from “Ride the Caspian” (2011), two-channel video installation, HD color, surround sound, wall-mounted digital photographs. Co-produced by Sharjah Art Foundation with a grant from the Art and Culture Network Program, Open Society Institute Budapest and the support of Priska C Juschka Fine Art (image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation)

The three days were loosely sectioned into: institutional, individual, and community practices; film and the cinematic; and legacies, resistance, and agency. Meaningful connections could be drawn between the meeting sessions and the Sharjah Art Foundation’s spring exhibition program. Through each of the six exhibitions and the presentations, there were threads linking conditions of exile and migration; colonial histories and their aftermaths; trade and labor routes of modern global capitalism; collaborative and collective action. The sea journeys in John Akomfrah, Zineb Sedira and Anna Boghiguian’s work, for example, were echoed in a coincidental link with the moving image work of Tuan Andrew Nguyen.

Tuan Andrew Nguyen (left) and Wu Tsang (right) in conversation with Eungie Joo (Curator of Contemporary Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) (image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation)

Curator Eungie Joo had the impromptu opportunity (because of a cancelation) to speak with Nguyen and the artist Wu Tsang. Wu Tsang has engaged with the body and its cultural and physical manifestations and translations, while Nguyen, as a two-year-old, actually experienced the great migration of Vietnamese people across the sea in the 1970s–90s, during and after the Vietnam War, in which it is estimated that over a million lives were lost. A new work of Nguyen’s is filmed partly on the island where many of those refugees landed and stayed until they could move on. Nguyen also works with the Propeller Group collective, and in both his own, and the collective’s work, it is the images and staged performances and actions, as with Almagul Menlibayeva’s “Kurchatov 22,” that ensure such histories and cultures, and the situations that give rise to them, inform and live on in the visual languages, forums, and spaces of contemporary art at least, if not elsewhere. Menlibayeva also works collaboratively, and her 2-channel video work with the Iranian artist Bahar Behbahani, “Ride the Caspian” (2011), was in the ‘Active Forms’ exhibition.

The importance of analytical thought and historical ‘active forms’ was given due attention through the voices of Manthia Diawara and Rasheed Araeen. Diawara is a scholar, theorist and filmmaker whose work has brought the ‘african/black’ intellectual and cultural traditions to the attention of the anglo-european world (although I stress the deep inadequacy of the terms ‘african’ and ‘black’ here – but I leave that discussion for others in other contexts). On referring to his immediate surroundings in Sharjah, Diawara said, “There is an amnesia about Africa and its place in the Arab world.” I would also add that outside of the great continent itself there is a similar blindspot about the complexity of ‘Africa’, its history and place in the modern world and its contemporary traumas as well. Diawara is one of the few voices in western academia to partially amend for this in his cross-disciplinary work.

Manthia Diawara (left) in conversation with Professor Salah Hassan (Director of the Institute for Comparative Modernities, Cornell University) (image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation)

Diawara entered the western academic world in his country’s post-independence years, leaving the former ‘French Sudan’, now Mali, to study in Paris and then the US. Rasheed Araeen followed another postcolonial route: after training as a civil engineer, he left Pakistan in 1964 for London looking to pursue a career as an artist. Encountering the difficulties of being acknowledged and accepted by the British cultural establishment and its institutions, Araeen turned to writing and publishing in an attempt to understand the structural forces at work. He spoke of his disillusionment on realizing that his ambitions to play an equal part as a modern artist in one of the centers of modernism were being thwarted, and how he turned to reading, particularly Frantz Fanon whose work helped him to understand that he was trapped in the legacies of a colonial past, and how he made his own attempts at writing in order to confront the colonial mindset he was facing. Third Text, the journal he founded in London in 1987 and which developed out of its precursor Black Phoenix, has for over thirty years now been a forum for a necessary critical voice with an international reach and influence. Now experiencing a relatively late successful career as an artist, Araeen warned younger artists about guarding against a ‘new imperialism,’ against becoming mere functionaries of the still existing colonial order.

Naeem Mohaiemen and Sharmina Perreira also spoke about their experiences of journal publishing and making books as a form of resistive and collective action. In New York in the early 1990s, Naeem was involved in the journal SAMAR, which connected artists and thinkers from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, which would not have been possible in the countries themselves. In Sri Lanka, curator Sharmina Perreira initiated the Raking Leaves publishing project in 2008 to produce artists’ books as an alternative form of production and dissemination, given the lack of a market and gallery infrastructure in the country as it emerged from a long and violent civil war.

The variety of ‘active forms’ presented at the meeting ranged from Subversive Film’s research into the lost and dispersed work of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s film unit and the work of other international “revolutionary” filmmakers filming in that pre-Oslo Accord time, to the Karachi-based Tentative Collective’s Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema project.

Tentative Collective’s “Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema project” (2012–15): a screening in Ibrahim Haidery on a participant’s house, 2012 (image courtesy of Yaminay Chaudhri and Tentative Collective)

It operated between 2012–15 and enabled the city’s poorer communities to be producers and consumers of their own films using reconditioned discarded smartphones as cameras and adapted rickshaws as projectors. Thirteen years ago, Sally Mizrachi co-founded Lugar a Dudas (“a place for doubts”) in Calí, Columbia’s third most populous city. Lugar a Dudas is a flexible space open to musicians, artists, poets, etc, for performances, rehearsals, exhibitions, study, meetings, and more, and has been an incubator for new cultural life in the city. Manuel de Rivero, from the architects’ collective, Supersudaca, demonstrated alternative approaches to urban planning and architecture and the real impacts they can have. The group, with initial members from Peru, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and Curaçao, works individually and collectively across South America and internationally, with a focus on engaging directly with the social realities of urban life in Latin American cities.

Collective action can be necessary and effective in specific contexts at certain moments, as John Akromfrah stressed in speaking about the Black Audio Film Collective he co-founded at a particular historical moment in the UK. Founded in 1983, in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s first few years, the Falklands War, and some major civil disturbances (at the time called ‘race riots’), the members disbanded the collective in 1998 with the understanding not that situations and problems had been resolved, but that they and the contexts had changed.

Wael Shawky, “The Song of Roland: The Arabic Version” (2018), produced by Kampnagel, Hamburg, and co-produced by Theatre der Welt Festival 2017, Sharjah Art Foundation, Holland Festival, Onassis Cultural Centre-Athens and Zürcher Theater Spektakel (60 minutes; Calligraphy Square, Sharjah, 17 March 2018. (image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation)

Collaboration can enable change and development in contexts where institutional or structural forces can block or disable pathways to doing so. But institutional forces can also enable, as was demonstrated in Sharjah in the program of evening performances. Wael Shawky’s The Song of Roland: The Arabic Version, for example, featuring over twenty fidjeri singers and musicians from the Gulf region, is a project supported by the Sharjah Art Foundation. Sometimes also called ‘sea music,’ this centuries-old tradition of rhythmic, syncopated chorus and solo singing, with handclapping, percussion and movement, was, and still is, practiced by Arabian Sea pearl divers on their long boat journeys. Shawky has reworked versions of the Muslim/Christian encounters and the Muslim presence in European history in earlier works, and in The Song of Roland: The Arabic Version he blends the 11th/12th century French reimagining of an 8th century battle as a fight with the ‘saracens’ with the Arabic language and this fidjeri tradition.

Larissa Sansour, video still from “Nation Estate” (2012), 9 mins. (image courtesy of the artist)

Other forms of artistic practice can be active in the way they twist, subvert, delight, inform, and affect, for both creator and experiencer. Fiction writers and graphic novelists can reinvent and reimagine using humour, words, and visual puns. In the visual arts, Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour’s moving image works Nation Estate (2012) and In the Future, They Ate From the Finest Porcelain (2016) have used the tropes of science fiction as a perspective through which to address absurd realities which can seem to hold little hope of positive change within them.

Opening image from Rheim Alkadhi’s communiqué “Our current dwelling is fire: When air fuels the contours of practice” (image courtesy of the artist)

Rheim Alkadhi delivered one of her communiqués, ‘Our current dwelling is fire: When air fuels the contours of practice,’ demonstrating how an artist can use the symposium format not to give an account of the progression of their career, but to use spoken delivery and projected images as a creative medium to express the nimble and changing place an artist occupies. Simplistically, this communiqué came from Iraq, or the multiple “fields” of the place known as Iraq – one of which is the large number of crematoria that have been in operation since 2003. The communiqué opens with an image from the early days of photographic image-making: a colonial eye on an apparently vacant land. Taking the form of objects, images, actions, and the written word, sometimes combined, Alkadhi’s mutagenic and nomadic practice defies easy descriptions; it ‘acts’ directly, with people, places, circumstances, history, images, and materiality. Her childhood was spent in Baghdad, and Alkadhi has lived in a state of exile since. Her communiqué conveyed a deep sense of bodily estrangement, trauma experienced by both land and people, a sense of place and loss, of loss of place, of the impacts of history and the vaporized lives, against which any actions of any kind can seem futile.

Sharjah’s 2018 March Meeting featured multiple forms of creative actions that demonstrated great potential for shifting perspectives and bringing about change. The possibility of being subject, and lost, to forces beyond our control is always there, to greater and lesser degrees, but the examples in the Meeting’s presentations showed that means and ways of subverting paradigms and forging other paths can be found. Whether through individual or collective means, organizational and proactive or reactive forms, creative practitioners will find them – or imagine them.

Anything could happen and whether we act or not has everything to do with it.  — Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark, 2004.

Sharjah Art Foundation’s 2018 March Meeting took place from 17 to 19 March.

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