5th March Meeting, Sharjah

The ticklish relationship between art and its public. Reflections about the event, organized by the Sharjah Art Foundation.
By Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt | Apr 2012

The great interest in this year’s March Meeting probably surprised even the organizers. Apparently many more guests accepted the invitation from the Sharjah Art Foundation than it anticipated, considering last year’s call for a boycott. About 80 art specialists, artists, and representatives of institutions took an active part in the events. That is about twice as many as last year, and so the 2012 program was extremely dense.

These symposia and workshops on practical aspects of the production and distribution of art primarily in the MENASA region (Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia) have been held annually in Sharjah since 2008. For three days, projects, activities, organizations, and institutions are presented, experience exchanged, problems discussed, and personal contacts made. The aim is not so much theoretical discourse as the concrete conditions of artistic creation and its mediation, as well as regional and international cooperation.

When the Sharjah Biennial 2003 was fundamentally reoriented on the initiative and under the direction of Hoor Al Qasimi, Antonia Carver (since 2010 Director of the Art Dubai) wrote in the Special published by Universes in Universe: "Perhaps spring 2003 will be remembered as the launch of a new era in contemporary art in the Gulf." [1] Just a few years later, this has already been impressively confirmed. This means that, although Sharjah is considered the most conservative of the seven Emirates in the federation, a new understanding of art spread from here throughout the entire region. Sharjah became a driving force of communication and cooperation between the Gulf region and what goes on in art in other parts of the world. Without the internationally marveled success and openness of the Sharjah Biennial, visual art in Dubai and Abu Dhabi would hardly have gained such significance, at least not within just a few years.

Anyone who has followed the editions of the Biennial since 2003 can judge how much the area of freedom for art has expanded there. The Sharjah Art Foundation has massively fueled this progress since 2009, with a large-scale production program. Its documentation lists for the year 2011 alone about 60 projects and works whose creation was made possible by this support.

Among them is still the installation Maportaliche / It Has No Importance by Mustapha Benfodil [2]. The Sharjah Art Foundation thus stands by the work it funds, despite last year’s scandal. Three weeks after the opening of the Biennial 2011, protests from the population were heard. Despite the installation’s extremely ticklish content, it had been set up in public space close to a mosque – and without any contextualization whatsoever. The ruler of the Emirate held the Artistic Director of the Biennial, Jack Persekian, responsible for it and ordered his immediate firing. This decision – and censorship per se – were sharply condemned a few days later in an anonymous protest resolution that included a call to boycott the Sharjah Art Foundation. Some of the signatories may not have been entirely conscious of the call’s consequences. [3] In an emotionally heated situation, various aspects of the problem were conflated and no objective, openly conducted debate came about.

With the knowledge of last year’s conflict, one was in suspense to see the degree to which the topic would be taken up again at this year’s March Meeting, the next major international event in Sharjah. At any rate, the title was Working with Artists and Audiences on Commissions and Residencies; and in her foreword Hoor Al Qasimi underscored the urgent necessity to think about "both the role of the artist and the importance of understanding and engaging our audiences".

And indeed Judith Greer, the Sharjah Art Foundation’s Associate Director for its International Program, worked in a second roundtable discussion to find explanations and understanding: "As most of you are aware, in the last biennial the installation project by Mustafa Benfodil was removed from the biennial – this work had been situated in one of the very public squares in the Heritage area where we are today. This is an area that is popular with families and children, particularly during the Heritage Day celebrations that occur every April. It was also just behind Sharjah’s most important Iranian mosque. The work contained very graphic language and sexual references that would be difficult in any public setting, anywhere in the world. The removal of this work resulted in a broad international debate that focused on issues of censorship and artistic freedom. As you can all imagine, this was an extremely difficult time for us as an organisation and it has forced us to reflect on a broad range of issues – related to how institutions should work with artists and how they should consider their audience. And it was, in fact, in part a result of this process that the idea arose to consider some of these questions in the context of the March Meeting."

Unfortunately, this problematic was little discussed in the course of the three-day meeting. Most of the speakers rushed through presentations primarily of their successes, instead of using the opportunity to exchange views on politically charged questions of the collision between art and the sensibilities of the public and of their own dealings with the resulting controversies. Susanne Pfeffer, Curator at the renowned Berlin KW Institute for Contemporary Art and a participant in the same discussion groups as Judith Geer, for example, could have made a contribution. It would have been interesting for all those present to learn how the KW reacted in November 2011, when a short film by Artur Żmijewski, Curator of the Berlin Biennial 2012, which the KW organizes, was removed from an exhibition in Berlin because of protests. [4] Another example to share could have been the controversy over a project that Martin Zet planned for the Berlin Biennial. He wanted to take back and "recycle" 60,000 copies of the book Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany abolishes itself), which sold 1.3 million copies, from people who regretted buying it. Various cultural institutions distanced themselves from this action and refused to support it because of its possible associations with the book burnings of the Nazis. [5]

William Wells, Founding Director of the Townhouse Gallery Cairo, was one of the few to make critical remarks on similar issues. In the panel discussion Art and Cultural Diplomacy, one of whose themes was "the export or output model of countries or organisations sending art and artists to other parts of the world", he used the United States’ contribution to the Cairo Biennial 2010 to elucidate how well-meant efforts could fail if they ignore the concrete conditions on site. On a commission from the US government, the Arab American National Museum brought together the artists of Arab descent who live in the United States in a concept that proudly celebrated their "Arabness". But this is precisely what artists in Egypt have been trying to deconstruct for years. The show met with accordingly devastating criticism and thereby turned out to be completely counterproductive.

But even despite the best knowledge of local circumstances, one can elicit thoroughly unexpected responses from the public precisely with projects in public space. Yazid Anani spoke about this in his report on Birzeit University Museum’s very interesting exhibition series Cities in several cities in Palestine. He had curated the last editions together with Vera Tamari and also took part in them as an artist. [6] In Ramallah in 2010, Emily Jacir and Anani showed joint public interventions addressing the destruction of grown urban structures and its social implications. But an ironically intended advertising panel for the supposed luxury construction of an imaginary Al Riyadh Towers provoked powerful disturbances and indignation in the populace, so it was initially removed. Only with the explicit notation that this was art could it be set up again. [7]

At the March Meeting, one would have liked to hear more of this kind of report on experience, in which problems in the encounter between art and the public are not omitted. But at least many of the almost 40 program points (see the Overview) provided a wealth of glimpses of the work of established institutions in several European countries and the USA, as well as of younger foundations and independent initiatives from the region and from sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America. A few smaller organizations gave the impression that they were able and willing to respond more rapidly and flexibly than large institutional apparatuses to the concrete conditions of the immediate surroundings in which they are located. Daily contact with neighbors clearly helps in judging the effect of certain activities and in actually reaching the targeted groups.

We can look forward with interest to see whether the next Sharjah Biennial 2013 again dares to place new art projects in public space. It is to be hoped that the organizers do not become too cautious.

 

Notes:

  1. Antonia Carver: Between Ebal and Gerzim, 3rd cities exhibition, 2011. Photo tour and curatorial text by Vera Tamari and Yazid Anani, including informations about the project in general. In: Nafas, November 2011.
  2. More about, see: Ramallah - the fairest of them all? Photos and text by the curators Vera Tamari & Yazid Anani. In: Nafas, August 2010.


Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt

Publishers of Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art and of Nafas Art Magazine. Based in Berlin, Germany.

(Translation from German: Mitch Cohen)

5th March Meeting

Working with Artists and Audiences on Commissions and Residencies

17 - 19 March 2012

Sharjah Art Foundation
PO Box 19989
United Arab Emirates
Website Email

Nafas
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