WALID RAAD, I Think It Would Be Better If I Could Weep, 2004, video still, video: 6 min 30 sec. Courtesy the artist and the Atlas Group Archives.

Touring Festival Provides Meeting Point for West Asian Artists

Jordan Palestine Lebanon Syria

West Asian artists working in new media received a boost in recent months at the fifth installment of the traveling contemporary arts festival Meeting Points. Premiering in November in Minya, the festival first toured North Africa with stops in Cairo and Rabat, then traveled to Amman, Beirut, Damascus and Ramallah before closing in Berlin and Brussels in January. Curated by Belgian Frie Leysen with assistance from Egyptian artist Maha Maamoun, Meeting Points 5 (MP5) presented nearly 200 performances, exhibitions and film screenings during week-long programs hosted by galleries, non-profits and theaters in each city.

Unprecedented in North Africa and Western Asia—where official censorship and a lack of government and private funding often pose challenges for contemporary art events—MP5 was backed by the Brussels-based non-profit Young Arab Theatre Fund, which is supported by the Ford Foundation and Open Society to foster contemporary art in the Arab world. Festival organizers collaborated with important regional institutions such as the International Academy of Art Palestine in Ramallah, Makkan Gallery and Darat el Funun in Amman, and Ashkal Alwan in Beirut.

Eschewing an overarching theme, Leysen and Maamoun presented a selection of works from West Asia and Northern Africa that explore “varied social, political and cultural contexts.” Along with headliners Walid Raad and Khalid Rabah, standout contributions were Rabih Mroue’s controversial political play How Nancy Wished that Everything Was an April Fool’s Joke (2007), originally banned in Lebanon and then later allowed to take the stage after public protest, and Sharif Waked’s video satire about what clothing to wear through a checkpoint, Chic Points (2003).

Visitor responses were mixed, as some attendees lauded the festival for its selection of works. Prominent Egyptian critic Nehad Selaiha hailed it as “a rare inspiring event…a concerted campaign in defense of political artistic freedom” in Al Ahram Weekly. Others complained that the festival brought the usual artists and artworks to different cities without tapping into the talent of each locale.

Intending to address this gap, MP5 launched “Unclassified,” a new small-scale initiative that invited six local curators to organize projects in their respective cities to supplement the main programming. In Damascus, video artist Joude Gorani collaborated with poet-playwright Fares el-Thahabi and scenographer Bissan al-Sharif on the interactive video installation Killing Time Café (2007), a look at Damascene café culture exhibited in several cafés. 

MP5’s other new venture was “DVtheque,” a traveling DVD-archive of cutting-edge videos and films. The initial 50 works were selected by four artists, including Lebanese new media artist Akram Zaatari, and featured Mona Hatoum’s Measures of Distances (1988) and Rabih Mroue’s Face A/Face B (2003).