Friends and Benefits


Left: Writer Pankaj Mishra. Right: Curator and Bidoun trustee Dana Farouki, Alia Al-Senussi, collector Mohammed Afkhami, Bidoun contributing editor Shumon Basar (center), and Lord Palumbo (far right). (All photos: Jon Austin)

IT WAS A QUEER CHOICE of venue for a recent benefit for Bidoun Projects. But there we all were, a hundred or so arty misfits and dignitaries gathered on a Thursday evening in the intimate cloisters of the London Sketch Club in Chelsea, an old boys’ club if ever there was one. “It smelled like old men when we first got here,” one guest whispered as we converged on the building’s jaunty salon, where portraits featuring former members of the club (depicted as black silhouettes on unprimed canvases) ran around the upper walls like a frieze. “Talk about postcolonial discourse,” said another.

Bidoun has always gravitated toward ambiguous contexts. It began in 2004 as a magazine focused on art and culture in the Middle East, but has since expanded into curatorial and educational projects. Operating as a nonprofit for the past three years, it has managed to artfully flout the conventional opinions and attitudes surrounding much discourse about its subject. “It’s almost the perfect choice,” artist and Bidoun contributing editor Sophia Al-Maria noted, scanning the room. “Pretty subversive, really.” We had been discussing the framed sketches of (female) nudes slung below the portraits of (male) club members—another salient feature of the space. One dealer, rendered giddy by the evening’s reminiscence of an older London (and perhaps by a gin or two), recalled earlier years when “you paid one pound to sketch naked women.” (“A more innocent time . . . ” he continued.)

Left: Tate Modern curator Stuart Comer. Right: Dealer Rose Issa.

Dealer Rose Issa was the first of seven speakers invited to read excerpts from the Bidoun archive, and she smartly chose from Negar Azimi’s piece “Fluffy Farhad,” on the celebrated Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri. Tate Modern curator (and, lately, Whitney Biennial impresario) Stuart Comer recited “Imprisoned Airs,” an excellent piece on the late, great avant-garde theater director Reza Abdoh cowritten by Reza’s brother, Salar. Gemini Kim accompanied each reading on piano, and the whole evening was a genteel illustration of Bidoun’s light touch, a playfulness they’ve cultivated among new generations of writers, artists, and thinkers on the Middle East. Jon Austin, photographing the night, recalled the Soft Power issue (#26) as his highlight, while “mythographer” Marina Warner, before her reading, mentioned the provocative issue devoted to Egypt (#25), in which page headers featured statements like “Why Egypt is not Tunisia.”

Azimi noted in conversation that though artists and contributors like Jeremy Deller and Lawrence Weiner were not technically from the region, they certainly fit into the Bidoun “universe.” This brand of cultural and social remix suffused the gathering and its eclectic group of guests. By the time contributing editor Shumon Basar stepped in for Deller to read Tom Morton’s “House of Dodi” (Deller was stuck at the airport), the room seemed bathed in a warm glow. Said fuzziness was no doubt encouraged by the soft lighting, Persian buffet, and the general familiarity and rapport among guests who included Alia Al-Senussi, Metropolitan Museum wallah (and Bidoun trustee) Sheena Wagstaff, collectors Vanessa Branson and Maryam Eisler, and dealer Sylvia Kouvali. In a nutshell, the night was, borrowing someone else’s words: “Weird! But warm. In a Chelsea way.”

It must have been around 9:30 PM when Sophia Al-Maria stood up to give the final performance of the night, a reading from her own “Paths of Glory.” “When we talk about our weddings, we are only barely talking about our marriages,” she began, continuing to tell a story about an arrangement Al-Maria evaded with her cousin (referred to as “Godzilla”), and his subsequent betrothal to another cousin, Moza. As her aunt looks over Godzilla and Moza’s wedding photos, she tells Al-Maria that she’ll be next. “Maybe,” Al-Maria says. A pause. “But probably not.” There was laughter—and a split-second of silence—before the room burst into applause.

Stephanie Bailey

Left: Gemini Kim. Right: Sheena Wagstaff, head of the Metropolitan Museum's Modern and Contemporary Art department, and dealer Nicholas Logsdail.

Left: Dealer Sylvia Kouvali. Right: Raven Row's Alex Sainsbury.

Left: Dina Nasser-Khadivi and dealer Martine d'Anglejan-Chatillon. Right: Bidoun contributing editor Sophia Al-Maria.

Left: Marina Warner. Right: Bidoun senior editor Negar Azimi.

Left: Brian Boylan and Vanessa Branson. Right: Architect Muzia Sforza and Bidoun trustee Coco Ferguson.

Left: Susan Hitch. Right: Publisher Hossein Amirsadeghi and Erika Kurihara.