Mar 14 2016

March Meeting 2016: Day Two

by Denise Tsui

Left to right: Critic and curator Murtaza Vali; Elizabeth Giorgis, director of Modern Art Museum, Ethiopia; Tina Sherwell, director of Palestine’s International Academy of Art; Christine Tohmé, founding director of Lebanese nonprofit Ashkal Alwan and curator of the 2017 Sharjah Biennale; Zineb Sedira, artist and founder of Algerian artist residency Aria; and Prateek Raja, co-founder of Experimenter Curator’s Hub in Kolkata. All photos by Denise Tsui for ArtAsiaPacific.

The second day of March Meeting 2016 began in a predictably ordinary manner expected of symposiums: the morning was plagued by the absence of many attendees, most of whom drifted in somewhere between mid-morning sandwiches and the fourth cup of coffee. Yet the first panel discussions of the day were certainly worthy of sacrificing that precious extra hour of sleep. Focusing on current models of art education in the United Arab Emirates, speakers convincingly made a case for the need to improve curriculums and approaches on all levels of learning, from elementary through to tertiary education and beyond.

Manal Ataya from Sharjah Museums Department presented disheartening statistics relating to schooling given to children in UAE schools. Although private schools are at a slight advantage—due to richer resources that afford them more museum visits and art materials compared to their public counterparts—Ataya’s pie-chart statistics made clear there is still little appreciation for the role of art education in general. Thaier Hilal, an artist and lecturer at the College of Fine arts, University of Sharjah, as well as respected UAE artist Mohammed Kazem, gave history lessons on the development of fine arts education in the cultural Emirate. Meanwhile Salama bint Hamdan al-Nahyan Foundation’s Khulood al-Atiyat placed emphasis on the necessity to develop a culture of critique in art studies at a postgraduate level. 

March Meeting attendees making physical contact with their neighbors as instructed during American performance artist JOE NAMY’s presentation.

Art education for children with special needs and disabilities was the presentation that proved to be most memorable. Over the course of a genuinely heartfelt 15 minutes, Maha Elazar, managing director of Awladouna Center for People with Disabilities, justified the authenticity of art therapy and pleaded to the audience for support, both moral and financial. Elazar asserted that “working with special needs has no limits, it is important to respect how the child feels and appreciate all their needs. We have to build a bridge between us and the special-needs child. This bridge should be based on love and respect.” Her words shed light on a pertinent issue faced not just by the UAE, but also by many countries worldwide. How should a society come to nurture and care for children with special needs and disabilities? What is its value and where should one go from there? However true and intimate Elazar’s words were, the talk ended up raising more questions than it was able to provide answers for.

The day flew by in a whirl, perhaps due in part to the copious cups of coffee that had been casually consumed—which I had given up counting by midday—or, perhaps, to the many stimulating and inspiring afternoon sessions of talks. Liverpool Biennial director Sally Tallant moderated a discussion on the concept of art biennials acting as an incubator and stage for the production and dissemination of art knowledge. The panel included: Kochi Biennale Foundation’s Riyas Komu; Biennale Jogja 13 curator Alia Swastika; curator of the just-opened 2016 Marrakech Biennale, Reem Fadda; and Patrick Mudekereza, co-founder of the Lubumbashi Biennial in Congo, which he humorously labelled a “home-made” biennale.

Exterior of Sharjah Institute for Theatrical Arts, where artist BASMA ALSHARIF performed The Doppelgänger.

Returning to institutional practices, the discussion titled “In and Out of School” featured a strong group of panelists comprised of Tina Sherwell, director of Palestine’s International Academy of Art; Prateek Raja, co-founder of Experimenter Curator’s Hub in Kolkata; Zineb Sedira, artist and founder of Algerian artist residency Aria; Christine Tohmé, founding director of Lebanese nonprofit Ashkal Alwan and curator of the 2017 Sharjah Biennale; and Elizabeth Giorgis, college professor and director of Ethiopia’s Modern Art Museum. Giorgis’s engaging presentation raised questions about the perception and discourse of contemporary African art, particularly surrounding the criticism of post-colonial theory. In a food-for-thought statement that truly flexed my brain muscles—which was slowly fading away and giving way to a post-lunch slumber—Giorgis concluded with the remark that we are all “victims as well as participants of the global world.”

American artist Nsenga Knight powerfully discussed her social practice project “X Speaks” (2015), where she invited African-American Muslims to collectively perform eight speeches given by African-American human rights activist in 1965. On a lighter note, Lebanese-American performance artist Joe Namy conducted a quasi-performance art piece involving the audience. One instance required people to physically make contact and touch someone nearby, while, in other moments of Namy’s presentation, audience members were subject to instructions such as humming in the lowest tone possible. While most people had fun indulging Namy in his demands, it was the request to make bird-singing sounds that left many attendees, myself included, out of their depth.

Performance still from MARK TEH’s Baling, enacted inside the Sharjah Art Foundation art spaces.

Closing this year’s March Meeting, were case studies on projects dealing with “lived realities” (the hot phrase of the day) and social practices, presented by Indonesian artist collective ruangrupa’s Farid Rakun, American artist Rick Lowe and Palestinian architect Sandi Hilal. But, of course, it isn’t an art-world event unless there is some form of unplanned drama. In a solemn manner, Marrakech Biennale’s Reem Fadda announced the absence of Colombian-British artist Oscar Murillo, who was due to present his “Frequencies Project.” It was revealed that Murillo had, in a bold move, renounced his British citizenship, destroying his passport en route to Australia for the Biennale of Sydney, which is due to open next week. After a stunned moment of silence, the room erupted in noise as people pondered out loud about the incident with their neighbors.

After a day of inspiring sessions, the evening was rounded out by two artist performances. The lush red seats inside the Sharjah Institute for Theatrical Arts were a welcoming change of comfort to the plastic chairs of the conference rooms. On stage, Kuwaiti artist Basma Alsharif captured our attention and mesmerized us with her 45-minute dialogue performance, The Doppelgänger, which, to my enjoyment, involved short film excerpts as well as a sequence involving rapid-succession strobe lights. After a short dinner break, we sat down on the concrete floor of the SAF art spaces for Malaysian theatre actor and director Mark Teh’s 100-minute long performance Baling, which reenacted the political Baling Talks that took place in Malaya in 1955. With only a seat cushion providing minimal padding for comfort, the lengthy history lesson was interesting enough, but its feature-film length proved testing for my exhausted body.

Denise Tsui is assistant editor of ArtAsiaPacific.