When attempting to foster an engagement with the arts, it is important not only to exhibit work for an audience to observe from a distance, but to encourage the creative process itself by providing people with the opportunity to produce their own art.
On Saturday, the Sharjah Art Foundation hosted Make Your Mark, a one-day event that offered members of the community the chance to be inspired by the art on display and to create something uniquely their own out of an engagement with a stimulating artistic environment mediated by creative professionals. The event included a little something for everyone: from toddlers to university students, aspiring painters to amateur poets.
It was particularly interesting to observe the stark differences between the Storytelling Workshop – geared towards children and facilitated by filmmaker Reem Falaknaz and artist Nasir Nasrallah – and the Creative Writing Workshop led by Nicolas Karavatos, with an audience primarily made up of college students. Despite operating within the same artistic genre, these two workshops employed significantly disparate techniques, highlighting the endless number of ways one can create and perform art.
On the terrace of Bait Al Shamsi, a group of energetic children gathered barefoot around Reem and Nasir on a bamboo mat. Nasir was quick to capture their fleeting attention by demonstrating how to create a makeshift notebook out of coloured paper, staples and an eraser: a simple process to adult eyes but a bona fide magic trick to the perpetually-awed mind of a child. There is something uplifting about the vibrant chaos children seem to engender as they react – unfiltered by the neurotic analyses and careful considerations that plague the adult mind’s journey from thought to speech – to their environment. Oohs, aahs, giggles and squeals abounded as Reem and Nasir explained the logistics of the workshop: they showed the children a random object they had purchased at the nearby Souk – a veritable treasure trove of misfit and forgotten items – and demonstrated how to build a story around it.
The workshop was meant, in part, to be an exercise in hakawati (storyteller in Arabic) style narration. This age-old Arabic tradition of oral storytelling is distinguished by its emphasis on acting and dramatic movement: on performing a story rather than merely communicating it. Children make excellent candidates for this narrative medium, free as they are from the social anxieties and obsessive self-awareness that tends to accompany adulthood. Additionally, by encouraging the children to weave stories around discarded, everyday objects, the workshop also functioned as a sort of massage for the imagination and the senses, inviting the children to absorb the materiality of a given item and let their minds loose on it – allowing them to roam through all the possible and impossible scenarios the object could star in.
From the Souk the children brought back items as random as candles and yarn, ribbons and sewing kits, toy guns and clay pots, adaptors and jagged scissors. Sitting with them and listening to the bizarre tales their young minds had spun out of a quick interaction with banal objects revealed the spectacular flexibility of children’s imaginations: unfettered by logic and unconcerned with criticism, they were free to play with an infinity of narrative possibilities.
One enthusiastic boy spoke about a pair of magic scissors that had fallen from the heavens to cut the mischievous hair of Egyptians. Their characteristically curly hair sometimes gets in their face, he explained, impeding them from carrying out everyday tasks. Another boy, with a slightly more serious demeanour, intensely recounted the adventures of his special adaptor. Wide-eyed and animated with passionate gestures, he told of a boy who had plugged this unique adaptor into his body, transforming his environment into a video game. He started punching his friend, thinking it was part of the game, until his friend unplugged him and they went back to playing ordinary games together. A young girl, who had purchased a sewing kit from the Souk, constructed a more conventional fairytale about a lonely Queen falling in love with her tailor. Another dreamy child wrote about a set of magic candles that, when lit, transformed the house of an impoverished family into a palace.
Away from the sun-soaked terrace vibrating with the laughter of children and the wild patter of their tiny feet, in a room in Bait Al Serkal blanketed by the hair-raising blast of the air conditioning, a small gathering of college students and older participants sat quietly on the cushioned floor, listening to Nicolas Karavatos – poet and Professor of writing at the American University of Sharjah – jovially teach them about ekphrasis: a literary description of a visual work of art. By encouraging them to produce their own work of literary art in conversation with the display in Bait Al Serkal, Karavatos was not merely asking his audience to describe the exhibition. Rather, he was suggesting that they engross themselves in their sensory environment, opening eyes and ears and extending flesh (where appropriate) to everything from street signs and litter to art installations and subtle sounds, and to then translate this visceral experience provoked by the intermingling of art and the everyday backdrop of life, into poetry. “Translation is an act of interpretation,” he says. “A written text is a sensory experience. The ‘truth’ of a text can’t be removed from its environment. Forced upon these environments – objects and observations – participants are made to interpret language, culture and ideas against what they thought they knew. I want participants to become interpreters of their own tongues.”
Karavatos told his audience not to bother with flow - to forget about order, sense and meaning and to simply piece together experiences. He asked them to create a collage of sensory stimuli and to mimic the chaos of the human mind, which absorbs in bulk the layers and textures of its environment without necessarily abstracting or philosophizing, without singling out an epiphany or a revelation at every corner. Interesting poetry, he elaborated, communicates an experience. To delve into someone’s worded experience, as random or nonsensical as it might be, is more gripping than to be faced with yet another boring insight or failed attempt at profundity. Experience is often fragmented and anarchic, he continued, and there is no reason why poetry shouldn’t reflect that. He encouraged participants to set aside their mental filters and just write whatever came to mind as they walked around the Souk picking up dusty items and inhaling the interlacing streams of scent emanating from the various stores; as they weaved through the different rooms of the exhibition, stood in the warmth of the Sharjah sunset, caught strands of conversations surfing the wind and watched parents dragging their children home. “The stereotype of the distraught writer,” he explained, “who can only write in the shadows of a dark, dark room explodes into a new arena – a space where objects and life take precedence over (precede) the writer. Participants and students realize that their observations – their pin-point focus – are more ‘important’ than them. Objects create the writer, not the other way around.”
The children involved in the storytelling workshop excitedly shared their stories with anyone curious enough to ask. Children seem to possess a bravery which comes with not having been fully disciplined in a social sense – a bravery conductive to the unrestrained production of art that springs from the gut, body and viscera. Conversely, adults normally like to hide under layers of inhabited social norms, memorized facial expressions and gestures, rehearsed turns of phrase and embodied emotional restraints. While initially most of the participants in Karavatos’ workshop were quite shy and hesitant to share their work, after some casual chit chat and friendly nudging a few lovely poems were exchanged. Practices like ekphrasis encourage individuals to be less cerebral; to let their art seep from an affective space rather than from organized thought, planning and analysis; and to return to that innocent insanity that makes childhood so magical.