From the UAE to the world: looking for new ways to include performance in art

It’s good to see local arts centres collaborating on issues that might advance thinking and practice about the arts in the region. Three of them – Alserkal Arts Foundation from Dubai, 421 and NYUAD from Abu Dhabi – are responsible for the upcoming Stepping Forward: Performance Research and Practice, Here. It’s a symposium that will bring together somewhere around three dozen artists, curators, academics, and practitioners over the weekend of 18-19 February to think about performance practice in the MENASA region.

There’s a public programme of talks, panel discussions, and performances that aim to “unpack, extend, and liberate contemporary performance practice” with a view to proposing new (or adapted) frameworks that may better serve the regional context – “beyond the hegemonic vocabulary of canon/outsider, centre/periphery, or the ‘decolonial’ as a blanket term”.

That all sounds dangerously akin to artspeak, but there’s so much experience (and opinion) among the participants that the convwersations will surely have a practical bent.

This symposium builds on an inaugural Stepping Away in November 2021, produced collaboratively by 421 and Alserkal with the subtitle ‘Performance as Practice in the Non-West’. The aim was to try to unpack the colonial baggage in concepts such as ‘pedagogy’, ‘archive’, ‘practice’, and ‘support’.

These 2023 edition is looking to take things a bit further, where the conversations around performance practice will no longer be defined by antagonism to the west. Instead the intention is show what’s happening here and how that can radiate outwards across the region – hence the title, and hence the emphasis on actual experience and ways of progressing. And this time around, 421 and Alserkal Arts Foundation have linked with NYUAD to expand institutional support for practice-led research fellowships that will potentially culminate in a publication.

Faisal Al Hassan, Head of 421, is eloquent on the starting point for this exercise: “Performance is truly transformative for social engagement and has the potential to take art-making beyond the confines of the exhibition space and into the public sphere … We should take a step back and give young and emerging practitioners the space, tools, and vocabulary to critically engage with performance as a mode of inquiry.”

Alserkal Arts Foundation has a good track record for supporting experimental practices – an approach specifically designed to enable it to listen to and learn from practitioners. Said Nada Raza, director of the Foundation: “We look forward to seeing how future artists might be inspired and learn from past experiences, and what it means to collect, preserve and display a medium that inherently resists easy commodification.”

And for NYUAD, Joanna Settle, artist and Arts Professor of Theater at NYU Abu Dhabi, promised that the three institutions would think expansively. “We seek to create exchange, provoke the field, and grow together. Together, we wonder what might be next for performance, and how we might help. As a practicing artist myself, I find this beautiful and essential.”

The first half of the symposium involves closed sessions at NYUAD; but that’s followed by two very full days of open-to-all talks, panel discussions and performances – at 421 on Saturday 18 February 18, moving to Alserkal Avenue for the Sunday (register here for day one and here for day two).

The intention doesn’t seem to be the production of formal conclusions like a ‘how to do it’ report; instead the sessions appear to focus more on ‘how we do it’ – for example, with UAE-based artists Nujoom Alghanem, Mohammed Kazem, and Ammar Al Attar talking about their experience live and performance-led art in the UAE; and a panel on the role of the archivist and art historian and comparative approaches to documenting performance and exhibitions.

There’s also practical input in the form of performances – a three-hour live drawing performance by Nikhil Chopra, whose practice interweaves drawing, photography, sculpture, installations, and live art; a satirical Passport Blessing Ceremony by Venuri Perera; Ho Rui An’s video The Oil in the Tankers, the Wind in the Trees, a commentary on Singapore’s dependance on oil and its public image as a city repopulated by greenery.

And towards the end of day two, there are a couple of panels that get to the meat of the matter: what does it mean to teach performance here? What are the appropriate tools and methods for research and critique?How do we step over disciplinary boundaries and create a pool of shared knowledge for future practitioners? And what kind of institutional infrastructure do we need to supports a performer? What do commissioners, curators and host institutions need to consider when developing a performance programme?

The full programme is here.

Contributors …

  • Ammar Al Attar (artist, UAE)
  • Mays Albaik (Programs and Community Initiatives Manager, 421)
  • Lawrence Abu Hamdan (artist and researcher, Jordan/Lebanon/UAE)
  • Nujoom Al Ghanem (artist and filmmaker, UAE)
  • Katia Arfara (Assistant Professor of Theatre & Performance Studies at NYUAD)
  • Eva Bentcheva (art historian, Associate Lecturer at the Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies, India)
  • Nikhil Chopra (artist, India)
  • Reem Fadda (Director, Cultural Foundation, Abu Dhabi)
  • Alia Hamdan (artist and researcher, Lebanon)
  • Mohammed Kazem (artist, UAE)
  • Abhishek Majumdar (playwright, UAE)
  • Rabbya Naseer (artist, Pakistan)
  • Venuri Periera (artist, choreographer, and curator, Sri Lanka)
  • Ugoran Prasad (researcher, Indonesia)
  • Ho Rui-An (artist, Singapore)
  • Pushpamala N. (artist, India)
  • Sofiane Ouissi (artist, Tunis)
  • Nada Raza (Director, Alserkal Arts Foundation)
  • Tina Sherwell (Director, MFA Arts and Media, NYUAD)
  • Joanna Settle (Professor of Theater and Associate Dean of Faculty Affairs and Social Impact, NYUAD)
  • Rattanamol Singh Johal (researcher, India/USA)
  • Tanzim Wahab (curator, Bangladesh)

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