PARIS — At the Palais de Tokyo and in collaboration with Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, the exhibition Our World is Burning offers a platform to 30 artists to express the dream and necessity of a sustainable future in an egalitarian world.
The exhibition, which is part of the Qatar-France 2020 Year of Culture, is a poetic yet brooding look into the scale of the environmental emergency we currently face. The title of the exhibition refers to literal fires burning in every corner of the world, the fire of conflicts destroying lives and lands, and the revolutionary fervor to advocate for democratic reforms and environmental awareness. These artists also endorse drastically changing our strategies instead of giving up on the world. As co-curator Fabien Danesi puts it in his exhibition catalogue essay, “Fire is another word for revolution.”
In “A country without a door or a window” (2016/2019) Bady Dalloul uses 200 pocket-sized paintings placed in matchboxes to piece together the scattered chronicle of the Syrian war, interweaving historical facts with imagination. The large-scale fresco panels of Aslı Çavuşoğlu, “The Place of Stone” (2018), named after the Sar-e Sang mining site, retrace the history of Lapis Lazuli trade and exploitation. The semiprecious stone exported across the world from Afghanistan produces the ultramarine pigment associated with the most brilliant moments in western art history. The color is also associated with the ravages of war, with its link to the Taliban, now in control of these mines. Through portraits and sincere, documented conversations with Syrian refugees in “I Strongly Believe in Our Right to be Frivolous” (2012–ongoing), Mounira al Solh further reveals the ashes wars leave behind.
Sophia Al Maria’s “Scout” (2012) sits in the corner of a gallery like an extraterrestrial brute, glimmering and emitting a recorded voice that says in Arabic: “greetings to our friends in the stars. May time bring us together.” This is a message recorded for the Voyager Golden Record, which was launched into space in 1977 as a sort of time capsule telling a story of the earth’s inhabitants through sounds and images. The fiberglass sculpture, which is shaped like a concrete tetrapod, symbolizes the modernization of Qatar. By covering the coastlines to protect the shore from erosion, these structures support Doha’s incessant urbanization and the country’s development of the oil industry. Hearing its recorded message decades later, from the modern world then so sure of itself, is bittersweet.
Before its opening, Our World Is Burning stirred controversy as the Palais de Tokyo, an admittedly LGBTQ+ friendly institution was criticized for collaborating with a country where homosexuality is still criminalized. Artists and activists including philosopher Yves Michaud raised ethical concerns. Michaud told the Art Newspaper that he considers this project “part of the Qatari government’s shameless and long-term strategy to bribe French society and soften its stance on human rights issues in the Persian Gulf region.” The museum responded, “We want to emphasize that we do not partner with a state but with a museum,” claiming Mathaf’s exhibition program is very relevant and open to diversity. This is one of the first exhibitions in Palais de Tokyo under the direction of its new president, Emma Lavigne. In an interview with l’Agence France-Presse, when asked about the backlash against the show, Lavigne urged the public to have faith in the power of cultural institutions as tools for changing mentalities.
Our world is burning is indeed burning with a will to fight back. It ignites hope for profound ecological, political and ethical actions. It communicates the potential of our collective transformation through the important step of accepting our individual responsibilities.
Our World is Burning has recently reopened and is scheduled to continue through September 13 at the Palais de Tokyo (13, Avenue du Président Wilson, Paris, France). The exhibition was co-curated by Abdellah Karoum (Mathaf) and Fabien Danesi.