Participants of March Meeting 2016’s first panel discussion, “Engagement and the Responsive Institution”: (from left to right) Anna Cutler (Director of Learning, Tate, UK), Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi (Director, Sharjah Art Foundation, UAE), William Wells (Director, Townhouse Gallery, Egypt) and Melanie Keen (Director, Iniva, UK). Courtesy Sharjah Art Foundation.

Rising Above

United Arab Emirates
Also available in:  Arabic

An air of urgency weighed heavily on attendees at Sharjah Art Foundation’s (SAF) March Meeting (March 12–13) this year, resulting from a call to action by William Wells of Cairo’s nonprofit Townhouse Gallery. In his keynote address, Wells cautioned: “We are under siege . . . I cannot help but think we are living in a time where education is under the greatest threat in recent history.” At the ninth edition of March Meeting, more than 40 artists, cultural producers and educators from the United Arab Emirates and all corners of the globe convened at the Dar al-Nadwa building in Sharjah’s Calligraphy Square for two densely scheduled days of presentations and discussions under the rubric of “Education, Engagement and Participation.” Modern neoliberalism, Wells reasoned, is a universal condition in which the power of market forces in determining value in the art world is profoundly influencing the importance given to art education. Setting the tenor of the two-day event, he noted in earnest, “Being under siege means that we must fight for survival and continuation regardless of the threat.”

With the stakes set high, Wells, a returning speaker at the annual event, segued into the first panel discussion that examined the politics of engaging audiences from an institutional perspective. He cited Townhouse Gallery as an example of how smaller organizations are able to address the specific needs and interests of locals. Wells highlighted the nonprofit’s early initiatives in the late 1990s to engage with street children in neighboring districts because, as he sadly noted, “they were everywhere.” Responding to Cairo’s more recent turbulent events, Townhouse Gallery also began working closely with refugee communities, creating art programs with refugee centers, providing activities and events free of charge. “You can’t just parachute into these communities,” Wells warned, noting the importance of grassroots organizations establishing good, long-term relationships with their neighbors. Proudly, Wells pronounced, “our street became everybody’s street. It was the power of the street that came alive.” (At the time of the March Meeting, the nonprofit was preparing to reopen under strict new regulations following a forced, temporary closure after a raid in December 2015 by authorities from Egypt’s censorship bureau. Coincidentally, only three weeks after the March Meeting, it suffered a second setback when its decades-old building partially collapsed, destroying the library, administrative offices and the gallery extension on the first floor. At the time of print, Townhouse Gallery was still restoring its building.)

Following Wells, Anna Cutler, director of learning at Tate, spoke from the perspective of a much larger organization, and highlighted the imperative for public institutions to be responsive to change in order to learn and grow. Cutler observed shifts in the disposition of staff at the Tate Modern—who, at the time, were working toward the inauguration of its new building in June—leading to her realization that “changing our own attitudes and behaviors may be the hardest thing of all.” The final presentation of the panel was SAF director Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi’s slideshow of the foundation’s diverse activities and programming in which she drew attention to the operational nuances specific to a private organization with deeper pockets. Al-Qasimi emphasized SAF’s missions to reach out to all sectors of the Sharjah community, in particular to children, and to preserve the emirate’s cultural heritage through repurposing disused and neglected old buildings for art.

Perhaps deliberately, two of the four speakers at the second panel discussion, “Curating, Context, Community,” were representing art organizations that were (and mostly still are) working under pressures of censorship imposed by state authorities acting under opaque or vague laws. Among the panelists was Zoe Butt, director of Sàn Art in Ho Chi Minh City, who defended the integrity of Vietnamese artists as the main drive for social change within the country. Butt shared how Sàn Art’s residency program, Sàn Art Laboratory, had been forced to temporarily shut down in February this year following repeated scrutiny from Vietnamese officials. With confidence, she announced that the nonprofit was standing firm, preparing to fight the allegations in court, thus setting a new precedent in Vietnamese legal history. Founder of Cairo’s D-CAF Festival Ahmed el-Attar also spoke, preaching the importance of establishing common ground through staging multidisciplinary performances within the public sphere. As an endnote, el-Attar reported that D-CAF’s office was raided in January, having been accused of purportedly practicing without a permit—echoing the similar legal hurdles encountered by Wells at Townhouse Gallery and Butt at Sàn Art.

PEOPLE’S PAPER CO-OP’s Transforming the Narrative of Reentry, 2016, view of the project space in which communities have cleared their criminal records and made new paper to rewrite their futures. Part of RICK LOWE’s initiative for social engagement “Project Row Houses” (1993– ). Photo by Alex Barber. Courtesy Project Row Houses, Houston.

At the heart of the symposium was a more considered look at socially engaged artistic practices and community-focused initiatives. Many of the speakers, selected through an open call and interspersed throughout the first and second days, shared the challenges of operating within the lived realities of their home countries while striving to stay true to their aspirations of nation-building through art. From Amman, curator Toleen Touq discussed Spring Sessions, her nomadic artist-residency that restores and uses culturally significant but abandoned sites, such as the historic King Ghazi Hotel—the city’s oldest concrete building—in collaboration with members of neighboring communities. Describing the fluid nature of the program, Touq noted the importance of allowing projects to unfold organically in response to the urban development of Amman. Her sentiment paralleled Wells’s comments that the streets of Cairo, following the 2011 revolution, are “where the conversations take place” and “without a doubt the most valuable spaces we have.” American artist and 2014 MacArthur fellowship awardee Rick Lowe’s highly successful Project Row Houses (1993– ) in the United States, which transformed shotgun-style houses in Houston into a cultural hub and social program to provide support to marginalized and low-income communities, was perhaps the prime example of socially conscious projects that directly benefit the people who need help the most. “Art is a powerful tool,” Lowe noted. “We just have to use it.”

Lowe’s message carried across the second day’s panel discussions, which explicitly addressed immediate issues facing art education in the UAE and the role of art as a pedagogical tool. Mohamed Bakr Taha from the Sharjah City for Humanitarian Services, and Maha Elazar from the private Awladouna Center for People with Disabilities, also in Sharjah, passionately spoke about the function of art therapy as a solution to many obstacles and challenges for children with special needs. Elazar’s urge for March Meeting attendees and arts practitioners to support their efforts resonated with the ideas of American education psychologist and philosopher John Dewey (1859–1952), who famously proclaimed “education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” Continuing the thread, Sharjah Museums Department’s director Manal Ataya gave an informative presentation on museum visitation by local school groups. Ataya shared statistics showing that the new and revised 2016 school curriculum in the emirate has left public school children with only one art class per week—emphasis was shifted to science classes instead—with private schools faring only marginally better.

Another agent of the production and dissemination of art knowledge is the biennial. Sally Tallant, director of UK’s Liverpool Biennial, examined five case studies from a spectrum of countries and regions: the Liverpool Biennial; the Marrakech Biennale; Indonesia’s Biennale Jogja; the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India; and the Centre d’art de Lubumbashi from Congo. The discussion proposed the importance of the art biennial in bridging the gaps often left by museum institutions and market-orientated commercial galleries. Biennials and other such festivals provide a place for sharing—of knowledge, resources and creativity—and allow a certain freedom of operation outside the constraints of the institution. As Kochi Biennale Foundation co-founder and director of programs Riyas Komu noted, organizing a biennial should always be for, and about, the people.

A handful more open-call presentations and artist projects rounded off the 2016 March Meeting. Of these, Beirut-based artist and composer Joe Namy transformed the auditorium into a site for a participatory artwork by asking March Meeting attendees to perform instructions that he gave, such as holding your neighbor’s hands or mimicking the chirping sounds of birds. Namy’s group exercise sought to be a reminder of the “transformative influences of our present” when we put our mind and hearts together for a cause.

In her presentation earlier that afternoon, Ashkal Alwan founder and artistic director of the upcoming Sharjah Biennial 13 Christine Tohmè admitted, “I don’t think we can say we have won the battle,” referring to the fight against neoliberal forces opposing the agenda of arts institutions. While the myriad questions and issues raised over two days remain largely unanswered, there was definitely an uplifting energy coursing through the event, as artists and arts practitioners came together to generate strategies for change, in hopes of safeguarding the future path for education.