SAF March Meeting 2012 Photo G Mannes-Abbott
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Salah Hassan, venerable Cornell Professor, followed the UAE’s Minister of Culture in delivering a keynote speech. He began with an apology in Arabic; “as an African Arab” who has been “living in the Frank’s territories for a long time” and familiar with a certain “morphology of fear … please allow me to speak in English.”
I like a barb like that and it makes a point, excepting that we are in Sharjah where the simultaneous translation is excellent and I’d anticipated relying on it myself in 2012. A cusp, especially on a global scale, is always hard to identify [!] but I would suggest this might be an anxiety from before the cusp that, it seems to me, we all occupy. Not easily, not fully, not formally but actually…
Hassan went on to quote Aimé Césaire’s famous remonstrating letter from 1956 which advocated a reformulated blend of the universal and particular. Rightly, he detailed the way in which talk of the global maps over a western notion of the universal which still excludes the global as the particular and/or the [new] local. He made a good point about the “complete failure to account for the West itself, as a construct” to an audience he also characterised as including a “new breed of historically and cultural mixed artists.”
Hassan said he didn’t regard himself as a pessimist, and advocated a construction of
“the global as a particular sum of the local”, describing the influential existence of “Bidoun, ArteEast, Nafas and Third Text [as] welcome additions.” He ended with a motto; “let it be a great beginning.”
Frankly, I’m too too much of an optimist to offer a Saidian inventory in 2012 and in Sharjah. However, while no blame attaches to Hassan’s sobering take on this “beginning”, my sense and one I’m sure is shared by a diverse range of friends and colleagues present in body as well as in spirit here, is that we’ve arrived on the cusp of the global as described. Indeed there is a palpable excitement -despite the strange running-on of Imperial Age habits, and not to minimise those- generated by and present in a solution of emergent and inexorable change.
In that context a following panel on ‘cultural diplomacy’ was characterised by Jude Kelly’s honest appraisal of it; dismissive in substance apart from her necessary engagement -as Director of a major arts institution in London- in what it means to engage and represent it as part of the cultural Olympics 2012. William Wells described the absurdity of a US initiative to bring Arab-American artists to Cairo which revealed only how little any of the visitors knew about Cairo, Egypt ‘now.’ Here we have the old ‘pre-cusp’ world in all its glory, something that raised over-familiar laughter and incredulity but not really much anger in the audience.
Hassan pointed out Sharjah’s special contribution to and on this cusp; its working away from spectacle and dedicated “engagement with artists locally and globally that will benefit… in the long run.” He queried the institutional emphasis on Residencies and Commissions [in general, not specifically related to Sharjah] to advocate an investment in texts as a way to lock-in these new global perspectives, critical and creative.
In that context, he mentioned the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, which reminded me of the attempt by artists to leverage commitments from the Guggenheim, acting as patron/brand rather than government body, to ensure that their cultural beacon will also be a beacon of social justice when it comes to the many hands that will actually create it. This is one of the ways to actualise words about ‘particular sums of the local’; a peculiar nexus of art-making, new global power and a coming ethics.