Talk Therapy

Claudia Pagès, Talk Trouble, 2017. Performance view, Sharjah Art Museum, Sharjah, March 16, 2018. (Photo: Gökcan Demirkazik)

I’VE DECIDED THAT MY FAVORITE FORM OF TIME TRAVEL is going to the Emirates. From remote-controlled taxi trunks to my astonishingly steep learning curve around identifying objects in the hotel room, the sun-kissed futurity of the Emirates feels like an overexposed Instagram filter with washed-out colors—save for the deep and vibrant blue of the sky. Indeed, visions of luxe, calme, et volupté are to be had on the highway rather than under the scorching sun. You move through Happiness Street in Dubai in order to reach the Abu Dhabi Highway, where you can tune into thirty-second blurbs about world masterpieces—mostly by men—on your car radio as you whiz by pictures of said masterpieces emblazoned across giant roadside billboards. Only 150 kilometers away from the airport, you encounter the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the first encyclopedic museum in the Middle East. It is a magnificent thing, a lattice-domed spaceship. The future rarely gets better than that.

Left: Alper Turan, DAS Art Project cofounder; Hoor al Qasimi, president and director of Sharjah Art Foundation; Solange O. Farkas, director of Associação Cultural Videobrasil; and Christine Tohmé, director of Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts. (Photo: Gökcan Demirkazik)

But an Emirate further north had another solid offering, the Sharjah Art Foundation’s (or SAF) eighth edition of the March Meeting. Titled “Active Forms,” this medley of conversations, lectures, panels, and performances centered on “resistance as not only a practice of ‘standing against’ but also one of ongoing exchange and future planning,” according to SAF deputy director Reem Shadid. The participant roster boasted a rather exemplary and diverse balance of representatives from grassroots art initiatives, mostly from the global South, along with emerging artists and international biennial circuit habitués.

Left: March Meeting 2018 organizers Ryan Inouye, curator, and Reem Shadid, deputy director of the Sharjah Art Foundation. (Photo: Gökcan Demirkazik)

Having recovered from the blasphemous sight of an Ai Weiwei chandelier-cum-Monument to the Third International at the UFO and an excruciating three-hour bus drive back from Abu Dhabi, I managed to spend a whole day (and a few coffee breaks in the days to come) going to solo shows of four artists from the MENA region.

Left: Judith Greer, director of Sharjah Art Foundation’s international programs; artist Anna Boghiguian, and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev; and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, director of Castello di Rivoli and Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Turin. (Photo: Gökcan Demirkazik)

The largest and the most impressive exhibition was the Anna Boghiguian survey at Bait Al Serkal—a coproduction with the Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, which was presented earlier in Turin. Curated by Hoor Al Qasimi and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the Sharjah iteration of the show gracefully unfolded in the historic Bait Al Serkal’s unwieldy, maze-like succession of oddly proportioned rooms and narrow corridors, highlighting the artist’s historicizing impulse with her expressionistic and brutally poetic disfiguring of bodies, objects, and spaces. (During the opening lecture, Christov-Bakargiev noted that Boghiguian was more of a “history-teller” than a storyteller). Across the street at the Sharjah Art Museum, which looked rather more ancient with its quirky 1990s architecture, sculptor Mona Saudi told the press corps: “See my sculptures before me, because I am inside them.” Her modestly sized, irreducibly modernist love letters to Jordanian and Lebanese stones could not have been further away from Zineb Sedira’s context-driven, multimedia exploration of travel and boundaries in the Al Mureijah Square galleries. Next door, the display of Iraqi photographer Latif Al Ani’s work—all made before the Iraq-Iran War broke out in 1980—proved to be a monotonous, underwhelming affair, as there were no original prints and little variation in how the different series of photographs were exhibited. Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, an artist who had participated in the groundbreaking “Five Artists Exhibition” at the Emirates Fine Art Society in 1994 (alongside the recently canonized Hassan Sharif), was the wild card in the group. Ibrahim’s colors gently slipped through layers of black and white paint in grid paintings inspired by the light of the artist’s native village, Khorfakkan. But his hues looked feverish, even lascivious, in his joyfully erect sculptures made of cardboard, paper, glue, and plastic bottles.

Artist Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim. (Photo: Gökcan Demirkazik)

After this marathon of openings, only a handful of people—Catherine David and Christov-Bakargiev among them—managed to sit through Claudia Pagès’s remarkable three-act piece, Talk Trouble, 2018, which was performed entirely in and around a trio of fully reclinable Raidmax chairs (the brand name should give you an idea of how hideous they are). While I expected a tale of millennial angst and ennui to unravel among this décor, à la Anne Imhof, Pagès and her performers refreshingly deconstructed the hierarchies imposed by language through feigned and unfeigned awkwardness, Romanesque music, and the possibility of “consensual telepathy.” (When I cornered Pagès, she admitted, despite having friends who have performed for Imhof, that she felt uneasy about the fetishizing totalitarianism of the artist’s recent work and added: “I would [rather] like to see the Anne Imhof of the global South, of the Mediterranean.”)

Neo Muyanga, Naham—Songs of Light and Weight, 2018. Performance view, Sharjah Art Museum, Sharjah, March 18, 2018. (Photo: Gökcan Demirkazik)

The first day of the March Meeting featured strong and thought-provoking presentations, such as Rheim Alkadhi’s research into Iraq’s secret crematoria and Naeem Mohaiemen’s discussion about the forging of a transnational South Asian solidarity in New York via independent journals and nightclubs in the 1990s. Yet the dialogue between theorist and filmmaker Manthia Diawara and Salah Hassan, the director of Cornell University’s Institute for Comparative Modernities, on the second day set the tone for the rest of the talks. After Hassan’s prelude on global resistance movements among marginalized populations (“Africa is not the Middle East’s backyard: it is the Middle East’s front yard!”), Diawara gave a highly personal account of his intellectual and artistic trajectory—from dissing négritude in favor of nation-building (as per Frantz Fanon and Wole Soyinka) to restoring his faith in the idea with Édouard Glissant. Glissant’s notion of a “right to opacity,” a proposal for a universal exemption from disclosing one’s background, immediately caught fire in the audience. Against the subjugating pull of the Western systems of identification and categorization, Diawara simply asked: “Why must I understand one absolutely, in order to live next to him?”

Left: Artist Tuan Andrew Nguyen; Eungie Joo, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s curator of contemporary art; and artist Wu Tsang. (Photo: Gökcan Demirkazik)

A thread around politicizing representation by withholding images via over-accumulation connected the sessions: In conversation with Eungie Joo and Tuan Andrew Nguyen, the artist Wu Tsang spoke of her desire for “unfixity” and her interest in the “unavailable image.” Curator Daniel Blaga Gubbay, with direction from the Laboria Cuboniks collective’s Xenofeminist Manifesto, proposed using alienation through an excessive layering of fictions as a political tool. This strategy made me appreciate the flashes of brilliance in Wael Shawky’s performance The Song of Roland: The Arabic Version, 2017, an expensive-looking pastiche inspired by medieval Aleppo, Constantinople, and Damascus that reinterprets a racist epic poem about Charlemagne’s troops battling against the Muslims in Spain.

Wael Shawky, The Song of Roland: The Arabic Version, 2017. Performance view, Sharjah Art Museum, Sharjah, March 17, 2018. (Photo: Sharjah Art Foundation)

During what turned out to be the most humorous panel of the March Meeting, the Abu Dhabi–raised writer Deepak Unnikrishnan revealed the politics behind italicizing non-English words. He also explained how he decided not to “other” the language of his community by inserting a glossary in the middle of his book, Temporary People (2017), as a stand-alone chapter.

Just before I headed back to the Dubai airport, with a brief stopover at Alserkal Avenue for openings, I caught Hajra Waheed’s brief but chilling performance Hold Everything Dear, 2017, in which the artist, in a darkened auditorium, interacted with an egg-shaped mass sitting on a light box while a camera livestreamed her movements to a large projection behind her. There was a recording of Waheed reading a letter written by her sister—a scholar of South Asian history—in the aftermath of the 2015 Paris attacks. I then understood that the egg was, in fact, malleable, because it was changing shape with Waheed’s gestures. As the artist “opened” it, I heard: “As you watch the man at your local corner store giving you the eyes while picking up the morning paper, you see the whole world reels in shock, when that other awakens to the horror . . . And there you are buying your bread and eggs, grieving, afraid, and you are forced to say, ‘We are sorry.’” As the blackness gradually covered the entire light box, little pinholes of light began to shine through. All I could see in the projection, however, were stars, twinkling.

Hajra Waheed, Hold Everything Dear, 2017. Performance view, Sharjah Art Museum, Sharjah, March 19, 2018. (Photo: Gökcan Demirkazik)