Eungie Joo New Museum Photo G Mannes-Abbott
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A consequence of trying to write about the MM while presenting at it as well as attending panels, films and exhibitions [to say nothing about the barely glimpsed wonders of downtown Sharjah itself!] was that I missed some sessions. It would be invidious to select any that I particularly regret missing, especially as the quality of presenters and presentations was so high this year, so I will resist.
My Meeting day began with an in-conversation between Eungie Joo from the New Museum and William Wells from the Townhouse in which they talked about their Museum as Hub initiative. Joo first described the Art Spaces Directory which contextualises this specific project; 405 independent art spaces from 96 countries are represented and share information to build networks amongst themselves.
The Hub as such links galleries/institutions in Seoul, New York, Cairo, Mexico City and Eindhoven. Joo spoke of the long, slow gestation of the project, months and years spent on research and authentically personal network building. It’s premised on the notion she has that NY is at the centre from NY’s viewpoint but “at the periphery for the rest of the world.” She spoke of it as a “quiet project… similar to everything that we’ve done… using this valuable [very sexy] piece of real estate to communicate to a huge audience.”
William Wells emphasised how personal it has been in its development, as long visits for research purposes went on, relationships formed, individuals left and took those networks into new pastures, and people have begun curating together; “all as a result of the relationships being built up in the hub itself [which] is unique.” Both insisted on long term investment and Joo said that the NM’s current Triennial, the Ungovernables, was “really influenced by the museum as Hub.” The discursive activities fostered have, she said, have become part of the main curatorial programme; “one of the things you can do in a Triennial in a Museum.”
There followed a panel on Cultural Policy which had a more regional focus. Salwa Mikdadi described it as a “critical time for us … many have lost their lives for these changes to be actually observed by artists here.” She said that NGOs have become the avant garde in the region, especially Egypt. She pointed out that “few have been applying for residencies in [or from] the region” something she’s actively working on to encourage more Emiratis to apply. Changes require new models and modes of policy.
Mikdadi said that the most practical change which governments in the Arab region could make would be to facilitate travel by issuing visas so that Arab artists could travel internally and externally [a complaint I’ve heard in private conversation, and applies most obviously to Palestinian artists, especially those besieged in Gaza]. “I think this is essential, otherwise what we are getting here is second hand kind of work… artists go to Europe and come back here… not the way it should be done in my belief.” She advocated an Arts Council paid for by a tax on cigarettes!
Sultan Sooud al Qassemi, founder of Al Barjeel gallery and collection spoke from a different generation and more feverishly. His complaint was one of policy inconsistency, of its application on the ground where there are no clear rules about what can be bought or shown to the public. “You never know really what you can show until it is actually shown,” instancing “a piece stuck in Egypt now … worried about exporting it from Egypt and about bringing it in to the UAE” because of its politically sensitive nature.
He was speaking from the working face of these issues but I couldn’t help thinking that this kind of ambiguity on the ground can be productive. Would it really be better to have very clearly set parametres? I write from a location where imprisoning distinctions are far more insidious and perhaps surprising to outsiders, at least or especially in terms of public discourse.
These last issues related for me to the words Dr Youssef Aidabi used to describe the immediate future. He spoke slightly rhapsodically about oases of beauty, culture and a new humanism but bitingly about the need to “get rid of the dust of colonialism and neo-colonialism.” I’m an optimist and detected from this Meeting not obeisance to US and European models, but a very different relationship of researching, relaying, even pick-’n-mixing in preparation for a future already underway. It has involved founding a new ground from which to leap into a future that may well be as golden as Aidabi’s “new civilisation”…
And so to the celebration represented in Tarek Atoui’s great band of musicians gathered in Calligraphy Square to perform Revisiting Tarab to an eager crowd well into the early hours of the morning…