Mar 12 2016

March Meeting 2016: Day One

by Denise Tsui

Exterior of Dar Al Nadwa, Calligraphy Square, Heritage Area, the venue of Sharjah Art Foundation’s March Meeting 2016. All photos by Denise Tsui for ArtAsiaPacific.

“The word ‘education’ somehow leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and I often wonder why. Everybody is talking about education.” Such were the opening remarks of William Wells, co-founder of Cairo-based nonprofit initiative Townhouse­ and keynote speaker at the 2016 March Meeting. In its ninth year, the annual symposium organized by the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) has gathered some 40 art professionals from all corners of the globe to share contemplations and discussions under the topic of “Education, Engagement and Participation.” At the heart of the first day was the criticality of community involvement, and the indispensable role of education, in the present and future of art and culture at large.

Wells proceeded to set the stage for this weekend-long slew of talks and presentations by reinforcing the age-old belief that with education comes knowledge and with knowledge comes power. Making a suspiciously wartime-like pep talk, Wells boldly stated: “We are under siege and we must accept that. Being under siege means that we must fight for survival and continuation regardless of its threat. We must survive what we are going through for the sake of those coming after us.” Heavy and capturing, his words echoed throughout the room, seizing the attention of a mildly caffeinated audience.

Left to right: Sharjah Art Foundation director Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi and Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of Serpentine Galleries, London.

Continuing into the first panel discussion, the solemn reality of Townhouse’s forced closure in December 2015, following a government raid and accusations of administrative irregularities, resonated with Wells’ battle metaphor as he fervently introduced the important undertakings of Townhouse as a platform and space for artistic practitioners of all disciplines in Cairo. Anne Cutler, Tate Museum’s director of learning, proposed that “learning is about profound processes of change,” using examples of transformations that she has observed in the institution, which has seen the mindsets of her staff towards art education shift from passive to participative, private to public, and singular to plural. Pressing on the importance of reflecting and reeducating, she reminds us that “changing our attitudes and behaviors may be the hardest [challenge] of all.” SAF director Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi presented a rich slideshow of photographs, including many taken from her Instagram, to guide audiences through a snapshot of the foundation’s 13-year history. Featuring many of its landmark moments and the achievements of the SAF-led Sharjah Biennial, al-Qasimi’s passion for ensuring art was accessible to all members and age groups of Sharjah, and the wider United Arab Emirates was highly visible in the presentation.

The morning continued with succinct, open-call presentations from speakers hailing from diverse regions of the world including Jordan, the United States, Ukraine and Guatemala. Unfortunately, I missed out on the reportedly engaging presentations as I was called to a different event, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise—an exhibition walkthrough with curatorial star and co-director of London’s Serpentine Galleries, Hans Ulrich Obrist. Having just arrived to Sharjah that morning, Obrist was keen to see SAF’s iteration of “Do It,” his infamous ongoing project and exhibition-making concept, in preparation for his afternoon presentation. Following an hour-long sit-down inside the offices of SAF, we returned to the March Meeting to find a three-course lunch was being served in the deliciously warm sunlight of Sharjah.

Left to right: David Dibosa, Chelsea College of Arts, University of Arts London; curator Claire Tancons; Asia Art Archive’s head of learning Susanna Chung; Ahmed El Attar, independent theatre director, playwright and cultural manager; Zoe Butt, director of Sàn Art, Ho Chi Minh City.

Feeling the pinch of the afternoon slump, the day’s remaining talks were somewhat more difficult to absorb. In a conversation between Obrist and MoMA PS1 director and curator Klaus Biesenbach, at times made awkward by a faulty Skype connection, the focus briefly turned to the role of curating regarding education and audience engagement, using Biesenbach’s projects as examples. As part of the talk, Obrist recapped our pre-lunch discussion, commenting on the history of “Do It,” an open-source curatorial project of 23 years, which essentially involves select artists and art professionals to interact with individual artworks.

Rounding out the first day of the March Meeting was an engaging panel discussion that looked at community engagement from a grassroots level of involvement. Zoe Butt, director of Vietnam’s Sàn Art, alongside Asia Art Archive’s Susanna Chung from Hong Kong, curator Claire Tancons and D-Caf festival director Ahmed El Attar of Cairo walked audiences through the various achievements and challenges of small, nonprofit institutions and independent projects.

Taking art back from theory to practice, the evening also featured opening receptions for SAF’s four exhibitions spread across its various spaces. Also on view was a performance by emerging artist and dancer Radouan Mriziga, whose choreographed piece, ~55, was executed in the courtyards of SAF. Ignoring sheer mental exhaustion, we gathered around plush, upholstered stools and watched as the artist gracefully worked his craft.

RADOUAN MRIZIGA performing his 40-minute choreographed piece, ~55 (2015), in the courtyards of SAF.

March Meeting 2016 is taking place now until March 13, 2016, at Dar Al Nadwa, Calligraphy Square, Heritage Area, Sharjah.


Denise Tsui is assistant editor of ArtAsiaPacific.