What is March Meeting for? After meeting ArtAsiaPacific’s long time UAE desk editor, Kevin Jones, yesterday for a brief chat, I began to ponder on the value of the annual symposium in Sharjah, a city cross-roaded by the commerce of Dubai and the forthcoming museum island being constructed in Abu Dhabi. Digging into our online archives, I found a recap by Jones of the 2015 March Meeting, in which he already expressed a sense of nostalgia for a previous format of the event. He wrote fondly: “At the time the format had already evolved from the Meeting’s inaugural year (2008), when a single table sufficed for regional artists and institutions . . . to huddle together under the banner of connectivity, and participants shared projects, hurdles and plans, and then jointly explored potential future collaborations.”
A decade later, the Meeting’s purpose seems to have shifted to a more pedagogical leaning, rather than spontaneous, collaborative one. It is an arena for those unfamiliar with certain practices—I had not heard of many of these organizations, such as Beirut’s Public Works or Tentative Collective—to study and perhaps learn from these examples by way of listening. While still necessary and vital, some presentations—such as a gentle play-by-play of an individual artist’s career better suited to a museum or gallery opening—were sometimes droll in this context, leaving one yearning for a more radical, aggressive approach to conversation.
After yesterday’s exploration of the possibilities of resistance through moving image and video work, the first half of Monday’s sessions moved into text-based strategies. There was no one better to kick off this topic than British-Pakistani artist, writer and activist Rasheed Araeen, founder of Black Phoenix and Third Text. In a slow rhythm, Araeen gave an impassioned speech on the idea of art and resistance in post-colonial societies, touching upon the complex practice and career of South African artist Ernest Mancoba to describe the individuals and communities that have confronted the colonial order and demanded independence. Saira Ansari, researcher at the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF), then probed Araeen’s own past activist work, the roles that various members in his publications play in protesting colonial order, and his uses of terminologies such as “blackness” in his writings. “There is no such thing as ‘white’; even in Europe,” Araeen responded. “There are just shades of color. ‘Black’ is a colonial construction placed upon those people who were colonized.” He repeated that in the 1970s, there was no representation of African, Asian or Latin American artists in international art events. When the talk opened to the floor, I felt the urge to ask Araeen about more present examples, in biennials, fairs and exhibitions where artists of color are represented, but in some cases the framing of these artists can be contentious. How can we continue a line of resistance against this, in art writing, publishing and art practice? Araeen replied with the idea that the world in 2018 presents a difficult situation: now, there are laws against racism yet the issues persists in the form of new imperialism rather than colonial order, whereas before, in the ‘70s, racism was transparent. “We have to go to the root of the problem. Unless we talk at that level, we can’t talk about art,” he concluded. “Of course there are artists that do so, but they do so in conflict with their own national culture. So if you are Pakistani, speak about your culture. If you are Chinese, write something about China.” I wished we had time to discuss this more, but unfortunately the session’s time was up.
Researcher and curator Daniel Blanga Gubbay then presented “Dance Under Cover of a Fictional Rhythm,” a talk accompanied by short video clips that suggested fiction as a vehicle to discuss political movements, particularly science fiction when “nature has nothing to offer us.”
Examinations of opacity, the idea of return to one’s home or a place of significance in one’s childhood, and the assimilation of culture through image and text—topics that had surfaced in yesterday’s sessions continued in the next panel, which featured artist and graphic novelist Sarnath Banarjee and Abu Dhabi-based author Deepak Unnikrishnan, whose anthology Temporary People (2017) scooped up the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing last year. The discussion began with a warning from the moderator, Uza Rizvi, who primed the audience for the meandering format of the talk. This freed the speakers from dry PowerPoint-aided recaps of their work, instead allowing for fluid discussion of a wide range of subjects: from the smells of India, carried by clothing to a new, foreign home; to Edouard Glissant’s idea of hating cauliflower and broccoli but not needing to understand why as a metaphor for opacity, which was brought up in Manthia Diawara’s film, screened the previous day (ironically, cauliflower and broccoli was served at most meals throughout the symposium); and the “devouring” of people of color, as suggested by Unnikrishnan in one of his short stories inspired by the tale of young Krishna and the universe in his mouth, and by Rizvi as an act by those absorbing cultures not of their own and claiming “wokeness.”
After lunch, we traipsed back to the hall, which was quickly sealed and darkened in anticipation of Hajra Waheed’s performance. A large crumpled piece of paper—appearing like the shadowed visage of a Grecian Adonis, or a rock, at first—sat on top of a slide projector, its image enlarged on the screen behind. Waheed entered the stage and a recording began to play, accompanied by the artist’s gentle caressing of the paper sculpture. As the voice began to ponder on the idea of return and of a yearning to return home, Waheed expanded and contracted the paper’s form, eventually flattening it to reveal pinhole punctures across its surface: a sea of stars, illuminated by the lightbox beneath.
The next panel shifted quite suddenly to the topic of infrastructure and architecture. Introduced by Aram Moshayedi, the talk consisted of two separate presentations by Shilpa Gupta and Saba Innab, both of whom interrogate territorial demarcations and places of living when there is no longer a country, city or land that one can associate oneself with. (Artist Antonia Vega Macotel, who was also meant to be a part of the panel, was not present.) After a brief discussion mediated by Moshayedi, there were no questions from the audience; perhaps because the room was half empty, or those who had attended almost all the sessions prior were feeling drained by the rigidity of the structure.
The very last panel was introduced by Hoor Al Qasimi, director of SAF. Three architects discussed their individual practices separately, starting with Mona el-Mousfy, who spoke of SpaceContinuum’s endeavours, particularly in designing past Sharjah Biennials. This was followed by Atelier Bow-Wow’s Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, who broke down the architecture of Japan into various types of buildings, one being the house, which, currently has an average life span of 30 years in the country. First generation houses, he explained, were generous and family-oriented; however, as the land is passed on and inherited through younger generations, it is split into houses that are more and more narrow, creating cramped, closed spaces. He asked: how can we create a fourth-generation of houses in Japan that are generous and tolerant to friends and family?
Manuel de Rivero, of architecture collective Supersudaca, stepped up to the podium next, and pointed out that people were rapidly leaving the room. “Because it’s cold,” he suggested. “It’s actually very cold.” Breaking the ice by requesting to borrow Tsukamoto’s jacket, and then asking to borrow his brain also, Rivero spoke of the struggles of being an architect and being socially relevant. His projects function on large scales, such as with the construction of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellin in Colombo, as well as on a smaller, yet no less impactive scale, such as managing a notoriously congested market in Lima, Peru, that had previously taken cars around four hours to traverse due to the messy structure of the market stalls, visitors, cars and trucks. Typically, de Rivero pointed out, architecture firms would create aggressive, heavy structures or overhead bridges to force traffic in a specific direction, but he proposed a simple method to solve this: a yellow line. Painting boxes on the streets of the market area magically led the market sellers to respect their spaces on the margins and cars were, for the first time, free to use the central passages.
As March Meeting 2018 came to a close, I wondered again about its purpose and what kind of role the symposium plays in the region as well as in the context of the international art world. There were no answers. But as I packed my things up, I considered that in the days, weeks, and months to come, I might delve into my archive of memories or notes from these sessions and come to understand them in a new light, just as the participants had continued to learn from their work through dissemination and sharing, and through sheer persistance, elongating visibility in the face of adversity.