• ‘Actions and Urgencies in Different Contexts’ | United Arab Emirates

    Emergent Art Space artist Asmaa Youssef Elmongi, attended the March Meeting of the Sharjah Art Foundationin Sharjah, UAE. Her report highlights talks and projects presented at the meeting from artists and curators from around the world. We will publish it here in three parts over the next few weeks.      

    March Meeting 2018: 'Active Forms' (Part 1)

    Courtesy of the Sharjah Art Foundation


    One of the leading contemporary art and cultural foundations in United Arab Emirates, Sharjah Art Foundation held the 11th edition of its March Meeting program, providing the opportunity to collectively examine actions and urgencies in different contexts through practices in art, writing, film, music, performance, and architecture.


    'Public Work' - Beirut
    Abir Saksouk, Co-Founder 

    Abir Saksouk is one of the co-founders of 'Public Work', a studio of multidisciplinary design and research of public issues in Beirut. It began in 2012, when they started a collective of architects, designers, and urbanists. Saksouk explained that one of their main aims was to enable particular ways of "looking at the city" and urban processes, tackling urban inequalities, and examining how their professional practice could be merged with active engagement as individuals or as a collective.

    They started their research and design interventions within three social spaces; the first is the disciplinary space of the studio or the office where they make drawings and designs; the second is the site of the intervention itself, could be the city, the neighborhood or the street; and the third is the space of the self - the designer’s position and positionality - for creating spaces of differentiation and inclusion.

    Map of the city of Beirut, Lebanon

    Saksouk presented a project that is concerned with a new rent law in Lebanon, which led to the eviction of most of the tenants in the neighborhood. The law was issued without being based on any data, and was merely a political tool serving the interests of private estates and a very specific class of politicians and development investors.

    They worked on a research project that looked at six neighborhoods in Beirut, and conducted workshops with tenants and students to produce data that emerge out of neighborhoods and give actual numbers and statistics about what it means to live and to be a tenant in Beirut. The findings that came out were multilayered, showing actual statistics, the number of tenants, how people access housing, and the challenges.

    An important part of the investigation was also looking at transferred ownership, which referred to the future of the city that is being drawn and traced by real estate companies that are using incentives offered by the state to buy up properties in the city.

    They were also tracing stories and narratives, as a large number of Beirut's residents were consistently evicted. Saksouk indicated that most of the projects, which started as research, carried through to a dissemination phase that was presented in Arabic, relevant to the local context. The presentations were in different forms: articles, videos, and/or neighborhood meetings. "We organized ideas of what we can demand for the neighborhood and discussed future policy changes and political demands", said the architect.

    Mar Elias neighbourhood, Beirut

    While the previous project was tackling housing in Beirut, another project tackled public space, and how to look at the rights everyone has to the space. This project, called 'Play at The City: Communal Making of Informal Football Fields', was started in 2014, with a very simple question: Where do children and young people play in Beirut?

    On an aerial photo of the city, dated back to 2004, they started spotting empty fields  made out of sand. When they visited ten of these fields, they discovered that almost 85% of them - communal outdoor play spaces - had been replaced by parking lots, new buildings, or demolition sites. They drew up a narrative timeline for each of them, investigating the history of their emergence, and how neighborhood youth organized, collected money, and put their own efforts into returning these sites into their own play spaces.

    They decided to work on one of these fields with the neighborhood youth in order to affirm their claims and also rehabilitate them and preserve them from being lost. The project, in the Mar Elias Palestinian Camp in Beirut, was called  “اللعب في المخيم “, or 'Play in the Camp'.

    Organizing is one of the most important outcomes of the network that we do, so these interventions - whether in the form of neighborhood meetings, or creating local community representatives that are able to manage specific ways of everyday life in the camp - are the most important outcomes of our research, design, and the city", said Saksouk.


    Sharmini Pereira during her presentation at the Sharjaj March Meeting, UAE, 2018

    'Raking Leaves' - Sri Lanka

    Sharmini Pereira, Founder 

    Moving from Western Asia to its South, where 'Raking Leaves' - a nonprofit independent publishing organization – is based in Sri Lanka. Sharmini Pereira is an independent curator, publisher, and the director of 'Raking Leaves', which she founded back in 2008, when Sharmini wanted to find a way to present contemporary art that did not require a gallery, museum, or a space.

    Sharmini presented a photo for the National Art Gallery in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where she curated her first exhibition, 'New Approaches in Contemporary Sri Lankan Art'.  Sharmini is quite interested in the idea of reaching out to people, and to make it possible for those who are living in other countries to communicate with art practices from Sri Lanka. “Publishing was a way of reaching an audience,” said Pereira. She believes that there is a distinct relationship between books and public. She cited a quotation by Stephen Bury, a well-known writer:

    'The One Year Drawing Project' presented by Pereira. Preparation of the project exhibition at Art Dubai, UAE

    “Artists books are books or book-like objects, the final appearance of which an artist has a high degree of control; where the book is intended as a work of art in itself”

    'Raking Leaves' commissions artists who are making work in the form of a book. Sharmini mentioned the 1960s and 1970s when artist books began to take part in social-political activism in antiwar demonstrations by Fluxus. However, her objectives for artist books are different from those that were produced by Fluxus.

    "All the projects that are produced by 'Raking Leaves' are mass produced" she said, "using a  standard process that never costs more than 35 dollars."

    Images of artists' books from 'The One Year Drawing Project'

    The 'One Year Drawing Project' is a project begun by four artists in an attempt to understand the relationship between time, practice, collaboration, and dialogue within the context of contract. In 2005, the artists started to take part in an experiment that took them back to the idea of the exchange, which lasted up to 72 weeks and involved 52 exchanges of drawings. It took 18 months to be finish as they decided to correspond once a week. In 2008, the installation of the project was shown at Art Dubai, in the UAE.

    To get the book to the UAE, we had to get through the censorship channels that required not having any nudity, so, we blacked out all the areas that carry nudity.” said Pereira.

    Another project, by Pakistani artist Bani Abidi, is 'The Speech Writer', done in 2012. The work consisted of ten small flipbooks.

    'The Speech Writer' project by Bani Abidi, presented by Sharmini Pereira

    The text in the book is a little transcript that interviews a man in an old region who is involved in a daily activity which has him sitting everyday in front of a microphone speaking to it. “It is a kind of silence cinema” said Pereira.

    The full description of the project is published on the website of “Asia Art Archive in America”, through an interview that was held by Jane DeBevoise and transcribed by Hilary Chassé, titled “We Do What We Do: A Conversation between Bani Abidi and Sharmini Pereira”.


    To be continued. Stay tuned!

  • ‘Through the Artist Lens: Breaking Barriers in Communication’ | San Francisco, California

    Forty-three Master of Fine Arts students of the California College of the Arts presented their theses (paintings, photographs, illustrations, installations, and sculpture), at the Minnesota Project in San Francisco.

    “I think artists can save the world” -- Jennifer Brandel says in response to
    “Why art as medium for communication?”


    Unlike typical gallery showings, where one artist’s work fills an entire room, the CCA theses were presented six to eight pieces per space. As a result, the experience of the viewers is not limited to their intake of one artist’s creation, perspective, and portrayal. Each piece had an individual purpose, question, or presence, but the most interesting part of the show was their cohesive interaction.

    CCA thesis student Beatriz Escobar’s piece extends beyond the vibrant floral backdrop, the table lit with projected marquee phrases, and the rolling metal cart of food, books, and other supplies. The whole of the piece is set up for the  interaction of the audiences within the space she has created to facilitate communication.

    Across the table, Beatriz then has a one-on-one conversation with visitors about how they relate and interact with other cultures. Her analysis originates in the concept of “anthropophagy”, a familiar concept in the Brazilian tradition, which refers to cultural creations as a result of appropriation, consumption and remixing of the creations and inspirations from other cultures, as in a kind of metaphorical cannibalism.

    Beatriz Escobar as a part of her showcased work, presenting an acai bowl to an audience.

    Beatriz explores this idea in reference to the actual consumption of food, as well as of cultural products which are often redefined and marketed. She explores the “consumption of the exotic other,”[2] through acai, Brazilian native berries categorized as a 'superfood', but containing the same amount of antioxidants as blueberries.

    The setting itself and prompts of “acai bowls” encourage the initial connection with the viewer. 

    As part of the piece, Beatriz uses her insights, acknowledging her own bias as a Brazilian woman living in the Bay Area, California, to create an acai bowl to appeal to the palette of her participant, while he or she reads a passage detailing anthropophagy out loud. Here, the viewer becomes a less passive member of a wider audience, he or she becomes a contributor to the art. The reactions and responses throughout the entire process cycle back to Beatriz and she too is part of the growing and developing conversation.

    Orange slated backing of Jennifer Brandel's installation containing 25 booklets of hand selected written observations.

    Beatriz pushes the audience to confront their privilege, judgement, and understanding of others within an enclosed gallery space. In a similar space upstairs, MFA student Jennifer Brandel challenges the walls of the gallery through a different personal journey.

    Jennifer exhibited a mixed media installation called Nimesiscape. A wooden frame--planked orange backing for twenty-five square papers--rises over viewers’ heads. While the physical creation is a collection of samples from nature, square perforated papers, vertically mapping a recreation of the outdoor space, with a compilation of observations, along with the process and methodology of getting it there, completes the art.

    Inspired by her love for nature and curiosity about environmental impact, Jennifer buried perforated paper in a protected National Park. The park serves hikers and thriving livestock alike, “a sanctuary and a commodity.”[3]

     After a period of time, she dug up the paper, taking care to preserve the samples of earth that had collected, and recreated the terrain in the vertical piece that is presented in the gallery.

    Front view of Jennifer Brandel's collection of 25 perforated paper samples inserted and then removed from the ground in a California National Park.

    Importantly, Jennifer maintained a one-to-one scale in her twenty-five square unit, displaced terrain installation and created a corresponding map. In order to further the audience’s immersion, Jennifer also catalogued her chosen observations and experiences in the booklets placed on the back of the vertical piece.

    The process of choosing what content to capture in writing for the piece was also very intentional. She compiled voice recordings from each site visit which she then broke down, categorized, and copied by hand.

    Writing and mapping, along with the visual and physical presence of the large sculptural piece, collaborate to appeal to each of the senses. Acknowledging that one cannot know something without being there, Jennifer sought to recreate her outdoor experience for the gallery audience. By means of these components, the original space within the national state park which Jennifer catalogued, organized, and restored, presents questions about human nature--the desire to create structure and to preserve, as well as what comprises a commodity.

    Frequently asked what the piece means, Jennifer says, “I didn’t want to give all the answers because I didn’t have all the answers, and I wanted to leave space for inquiry.”[4]

    Keith Secola, black and white misrepresentation of the savage native contrasted with collection of visual artifacts from his own family history.

    While creating her piece, Jennifer was analyzing the living cycles of consumption and destruction. By presenting a tangible and proximate interaction, she encourages viewers to do the same as participants of the work.

    Across the room, Keith Secola’s exhibit beautifully contrasts black and white outlined misrepresentations of Native Americans with a pieced together colorful history of printed books and family photographs. He juxtaposes common portrayals assumed by the Western world with his own experience and collection, “questioning the power of text, image, and persuasion.”[5]

    Keith found his natural path for communication through his art from exposure to Native American artists at a young age when his family traveled with his musician father. He explains the dual nature of his identity, his Northern Ute blood colliding with his urban upbringing, “When I’m outside of my community, even at a young age I would face racism and ignorance from non-native people. So finding a way to represent myself was always difficult. Speaking visually through art became a way for me to do this.”

    Close up of Keith Secola's collage of family photos and reclaimed book covers.

    He explores the representations of Native Americans today as “native people who are either misrepresented or not represented at all.” And “it became important to question this issue more in his work and projects.” [6]

    Once again, the audience is presented with an external and internal view, the external being the Western stereotype that is marketed, and the internal being the real facts and stories of the people.

    All three artists--much like the other forty CCA students who presented their MFA theses at the Minnesota Street Project--extend their creativity, passion, and curiosity to their audience. Jennifer’s faith in the open mindedness and design thinking capacity that artists often possess is exactly why “artists can save the world” in collaboration with experts from other fields. By opening conversations, these students demonstrate art’s potential to inspire discussion, redefine misconceptions, and analyze within as well as outside oneself.


    [1] The Minnesota Street Project is situated in the Dogpatch district of San Francisco. 
    It houses galleries and studio spaces for local artists, seeking to create an international art 
    community destination in synergy with the Silicon Valley technology hub central to the region.
    [2] In conversation with Beatriz Escobar
    [3] Artist Statement, Jennifer Brandel
    [4] In conversation with Jennifer Brandel
    [5] Artist Statement, Keith Secola
    [6] In conversation with Keith Secola