Meeting in the Middle

Omar Kholeif at Meeting Points 7 in Antwerp

Right: Members of WHW (What, How & for Whom). (Except where noted, all photos: Omar Kholeif) Right: Meeting Points director Tarek Abou El Fetouh. (Photo: Danwen Xin)

“WILL YOU COME to Meeting Points 7 in Belgium?” implored Tarek Abou El Fetouh, the director of the roving biennial festival, via a Facebook message earlier this month. “I’ll send you a catalogue fresh from the oven to whet your appetite.” How could I resist? In a blink of an eye I had rescheduled flights and was on a Eurostar from London bound for Antwerp and the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst, the second stop for Meeting Points (Gallery Nova in Zagreb was the first), which this year proposed to make an urgent “statement” about revolutionary and postrevolutionary society.

Meeting Points is an independent initiative of the Young Arab Theatre Fund (YATF), an organization that, despite its name, mostly supports visual artists with a connection to the Arab world. The event, one of YATF’s most significant projects, moves from city to city every two years—think of it as the New Museum’s Museum as Hub, but in a festival format. The latest edition was curated by WHW (What, How & for Whom) and titled “Ten Thousand Wiles & A Hundred Thousand Tricks” after a line in Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, and brings together new commissions alongside works from MuHKA’s collection to posit a reconsideration of social and political change in both Europe and the Arab world. “This exhibition is very much against representation in almost every sense,” I had been told by a member of WHW, a tall order for any event with region-specific origins.

Left: Artists Jumana Manna and Maha Maamoun. Right: Artist Marwa Arsanios during her performance.

As I lugged my suitcase from Antwerp’s central station last Tuesday evening, I was struck by the absence of people on the streets. How could this sleepy bourgeois city, best known in recent decades for the fashion designers comprising the Antwerp Six, play host to a major survey of revolutionary society? Was the city looking for a little more color? If corporate forces have taught us anything, protest—from the Occupy movement to the Arab uprisings—can be easily instrumentalized to deliver cool credibility to a place.

Disorientation continued in my hotel, where I was greeted by its handsome Moroccan owner who whispered that the “Arabs” were out next door, gossiping and downing warm whiskeys to beat the cold. I followed his directions to find artists Maha Maamoun, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Marwa Arsanios, and Runo Lagomarsino (not an Arab, FYI), who were debating whether Antwerp was attempting to crib some of Beirut’s “avant-garde,” noting the fact that Phaidon had recently dubbed the Lebanese capital one of the eight new art cities of the future.

The next morning, we all enjoyed breakfast at the hotel, speaking in several different dialects of Arabic interspersed with Spanish, Italian, German, and English. The dynamics of the exhibition already seemed to be in evidence. Our little group walked to MuHKA, arriving twenty minutes before the press preview to find the technicians still deep in the midst of installation. Thankfully, some elements had been completed, and Abu Hamdan pulled me into a long, dark room where his new audiovisual documentary, Language Gulf in the Shouting Valley, assaulted me with its sonic representation of violence in the Golan Heights.

Left: Scene from Karpo Godina’s Litany of Happy People. Right: Artist Maryam Jafari.

“These shows tend to be very didactic,” whispered a journalist as the curators toured us around what seemed like an insurmountable number of lengthy sound and video installations. “But there is a spirit and humor,” he assured me. A light touch was certainly evident in Slovene filmmaker Karpo Godina’s striking 1971 short film Litany of Happy People. Residents of the village Vojvodina in former Yugoslavia are portrayed in static shots, their deadpan expressions disconcerting. The villagers stand before colored houses, each hue representing a national group (i.e., Serbs, Croats, Hungarians, Slovaks, Romanians, Roma, Germans, Russians). This ethnic categorization is juxtaposed against an ebullient sound track evocative of a propaganda film. Apparently Gondina’s film was banned locally, because censors suspected it bore hidden messages that they could not discern. (This paranoia might also point to a constitutive dilemma of contemporary art criticism.)

Artist Jumana Manna and I left the installation and quickly worked our way through MuHKA’s comparatively tame exhibition by Kerry James Marshall and into the quiet streets before returning for a buffet-style dinner in MuHKA’s staff offices. “Where is the beer in this office block?” someone asked, and we dug through boxes in the staff kitchen until we found a few bottles and headed down for Abu Hamdan’s opening performance. There, the artist slyly worked the audience’s attention, engaging in dialogue with invisible, prerecorded interlocutors. He ended his presentation “talking with” an American hipster, who, it transpired through Abu Hamdan’s questioning, had never once set foot in the US, but had appropriated the vernacular from afar.

The audience clearly struggled. “Are you making art about Druze people because you are Druze?” someone asked at one point, reminding us how enduring these simple colonial binaries really are, and indeed how trapped we continue to be in the echo chamber of “representation.”

Left: Meeting Points installation. Right: Curator Vivian Ziherl.

“We didn’t want to make a sad exhibition,” said WHW; rather, they wanted to question how the postcolonial body could inhabit and rework a space, expanding from a region-specific exhibition to a “platform” for interdisciplinary conversations irreducible to ethnic and geographic binarisms. The sonic bleed of installations seemed a visceral example of this strategy. At times, echoes from Sharon Hayes’s work overlapped Abu Hamdan’s overlapping Marta Popivoda’s, which gave the sense of being thrust into the middle of a prickling revolutionary moment.

But the most beguiling work for me might have been Maha Maamoun’s Shooting Stars Remind Me of Eavesdroppers, a short, pensive video that explores the politics of listening as opposed to talking. Rather than battering our senses, Maamoun weaves her story through the hushed whispers of two lovers who we never see, reminding us of the power of the voice in developing relationships.

Maamoun continued to engage during and after the opening, where a group of us, including Maamoun, took over the hotel bar and the mixing deck and began to play classic Arab songs. As two Belgian women began belly dancing, my friends turned to me and giggled, “Are we self-Orientalizing here?” One could say that self-critique and self-parody go hand in hand, but by that point in the night most of us, including the iconic Lebanese artist Simone Fattal (the night’s most enthusiastic dancer), had traded our political hats for dancing shoes. This was a completely different kind of revolutionary zone for Antwerp.

Left: Artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan. Right: Artist Simone Fattal.