The March Meeting in Sharjah

How this year's event had something to tell us about the formation and narration of art’s histories

By Esther Lu

If the Sharjah Biennial serves as a vantage point from which to observe the latest developments in the contemporary art and culture of the Arabic world, then this year’s March Meeting in Sharjah was conceived as a departure point from which to contextualise the work-in-progress of the 12th biennial, curated by Eungie Joo, and scheduled to open in March 2015. Attended by a hundred or so art professionals from around the world, the meeting reflected on the current status of diverse artistic investigations and historiography in the region in order to establish the gravity of its cartography and worldview. While it may not have provided any details of what to expect at next year’s biennial, it did shed light on the process of political and cultural transformation through local experiences of modernisation (in many forms of organisation and operation). In this, presentations on and discussions about the role of artist initiatives and institutions in shaping identity and future visions proved key.

The programme was described by one of the participants as a review of previous biennials, and indeed, with much reflection on the local history of cultural production, the meeting featured a few artists from those biennials discussing their long-term engagement with Sharjah residents. Egyptian artist Wael Shawky explained how his intervention within the press conference of the 2011 biennial generated a series of transformations over a year of workshops: taking the curator’s speech on that occasion as his raw material, it was first translated into Urdu, interpreted and revised by the Sharjah Art Foundation’s Pakistani technical team, then edited into a poem and then a qawwali song, which turned eventually into an installation in his solo exhibition Horsemen Adore Perfumes and Other Stories, which opened at the foundation concurrently with this year’s meeting.

Continuing the retrospective perspective, Beirut-based curators Kristine Khouri and Rasha Salti addressed in one session their research into and reenactment of exhibition histories, including The International Art Exhibition in Solidarity with Palestine. Inaugurated in Beirut in 1978, the exhibition was organised by the Unified Information Office of the Palestine Liberation Organization and included some 194 works by 197 international artists from approximately 29 countries. The idea was to establish, in exile, a museum of international modern and contemporary art in solidarity with Palestine until the liberation of the country. The fragments of this forgotten history and archival materials have been collected and reenacted, and will be shown in their exhibition The Ghost Archive at MACBA, Barcelona, next year.

Various artist initiatives and institutions from Istanbul, Johannesburg, Cairo, Jeddah, Sharjah and Brumadinho, in Brazil, shared their aspirations of building up local infrastructures or collections. Diverse reference systems were contoured in the symposium to comment critically on tensions of multiple narratives on modernities and histories, and orchestrated to project an engaging zone where art, as a series of intentions and actions, vibrates with forms of life. Such concerns were charged with reviving the oral tradition of history – highlighting the potential of body and songs to enchant an audience and permit the interactive formation of imagery.

It was fitting, then, that the four-day marathon ended with a screening of a documentary film, Revisiting Tarab (2013), by Fouad Elkoury and discussion of its subject, a sound project by Tarek Atoui that had been shown in the previous Sharjah Biennial as a night -long performance with over 20 international musicians interpreting elements from Kamal Kassar’s collection of classical Arabic music – the largest such archive in the world. Tarab refers to the audience’s state of mind – somewhere between trance and ecstasy – during performances of traditional Arab music. It is the emotional effect that performers aim to achieve and communicate to their audience – a higher or collective consciousness beyond a personal experience in music, but for which music is a trigger. There is no translation of tarab in Western languages, but the word magically describes my understanding of the Arabic aesthetic tradition throughout the programme.

The article was originally published in the Spring/Summer issue of ArtReview Asia