Apr 24 2013

Report on Global Art Forum_7

by Jyoti Dhar

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla at Global Art Forum, Dubai, 2013.

The staging of this year’s Global Art Forum at Art Dubai set the tone perfectly for what we were about to view: an animated, performative event. North African throws draped across the seating; potted palms flanked the platform; TV monitors intermittently blared ad-breaks, one featuring a group of Chinese girls enthusiastically singing in front of an SUV. You were not quite sure what the set was modeled after—perhaps a television talk show?—nor were you ever certain what would happen there next. On stage, quick-tongued hosts sat on sofas and were visited by a range of guests: writers, artists, curators and musicians, including the legendary front man of REM, Michael Stipe. GAF was by no means your typical conference with a series of talking heads presenting dry Power Points.  

Over the course of the forum, these personalities lectured, improvised, performed and ranted about a range of salient political and philosophical issues relevant to the region; while unmistakably cerebral, the talks somehow maintained an informal and playful tone.

The idea of “place” shaped many of the discussions. Why is place important? How do we begin to discuss or define it? In their introduction to the forum titled “It Means This,” commissioner Shumon Basar and director HG Masters [AAP’s editor-at-large] asked: “Is place a place before it is written about?” and “Is reality not reality until it is profiled and captured in words?” The term MENA (Middle East, North Africa) was a useful starting point. First used in the financial world in the 1990s, the term was later adopted by the art world, despite the preferred name West Asia rather than Middle East.

Charles Arsene-Henry, a French writer, editor and founder of research and fiction agency, White Box Black Box, suggested that the disputed acronym shows how language can imprison imagination. He gesticulated fervidly as he spoke, perhaps himself attempting to move beyond the limitations of speech. He further proposed that words used to classify geographic regions often evolve in relation to culture.

Following Arsene-Henry, Palestinian artist Shuruq Harb spoke about her experience in Ramallah where the Palestinian Authority is attempting to re-label streets. How does the naming or re-naming of a place change the way we locate ourselves? Is this re-naming a way of “making history visible,” as Harb said?

In the same talk, London-based author of In Ramallah, Running, Guy Mannes-Abbot, agreed that art and literature were often the best forms to consider weighty, critical concepts, such as state and occupation. Later, after reading a passage from his book, he emphasized that “the notion of state is very limiting when it comes to understanding place.” In this case an abstract concept, rather than language, was the restricting factor.

GAF director HG Masters and participants Kate Sutton, Turi Munthe and Victoria Camblin read from a GAF publication, “GLOBE 4: Biography.”

As the participants turned to “non-place,” the pace of the discussion quickened. The international crew—Turi Munthe, an English-French-Swedish online news platform founder, Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati professor of political science, Manal al-Dowayan, a Saudi artist, and Parag Khanna, an Indian American writer—took on the confused politics of free zones. Once solutions to the complexity of emerging, post-colonial nations, free zones (both no-man’s lands and places of business) have now become permanent and quasi-governmental. “Can we build great cities out of free zones?” Munthe asked. “How do we build allegiance to such spaces that were once temporary and now long-lasting? What are the rights and responsibilities of the ex-pats who live there?”

Suddenly the discussion, though still in a conceptual free zone of sorts, was more urgent and close to home: we were after all in the United Arab Emirates. At first defensive, Abdulla said: “The contract is you come here as a temporary guest and that is enough . . . Foreigners shouldn’t demand rights, but they have an obligation to the place. [They should] give something back to the place they’re in.”

Abdulla was frank, and the discourse continued to be remarkably open with the audience offering rebuttals. Concluding the discussion, one polite audience member suggested that language could be a tool for the “ferrymen” (the alternative term for “urban nomad” or “bridge-builder”). In other words, learning the native language is one way for ex-pats to invest seriously in a place, in a culture. What this would mean for foreign rights or local sensitivities was not, however, addressed. But perhaps these are issues for next year’s Global Art Forum.  

Jyoti Dhar is a contributing editor for ArtAsiaPacific and Harper’s Bazaar Art and is based in Delhi.