Sharjah Biennial 13: An unpredictable expression of human potential at Beirut Art Center

Katharine Gordon
Staff Writer

“Sharjah Biennial 13”, curated by Christine Tohme, is entitled “Tamawuj”, which translates from Arabic into “the rise and fall of waves”. However, in the context of the biennial, the term implies “a flowing, swelling, surging fluctuation or a wavy undulating appearance, outline, or form”, which takes the form of transnational collaborations, and a diverse program spread across multiple physical localities. The curators strove to subvert stagnant contexts or limitations, reaching a multiplicity of locations and environments via current conditions under which more fluid and informal networks exist and operate.

The biennial is constituted of five parts, including an online database for research material, projects curated in Dakar, Ramallah, Istanbul, and Beirut, a year-long education program in Sharjah, and a year-long publishing platform. It featured two “Acts”, one held in Sharjah from March to June 2017, and one which took place in Beirut in October 2017.

As part of Act II, Beirut Art Center has kept an ongoing exhibition of contemporary art which deals with questions of frustration of youth in the present global moment. With contributions from a multinational group of artists, the show “An Unpredictable Expression of Human Potential” interrogates the socio-political conditions that youths face across national boundaries, grappling with the legacy of older generations, while seeking to assert their own positions in society. Curated by Hicham Khalidi and Natasha Hoare, the exhibition features works of diverse mediums including film, sculpture, and audio experiences.

The curators have divided the gallery space into interactive rooms, interspersed with standalone works, installation pieces, and films. There is a tactile element to many of the projects, and a variety of textures that play on one another. While some of the main rooms lack cohesiveness, there are more separate displays that accurately capture a kind of deranged youthfulness.

One work by Pedro Barateiro and Quinn Latimer, entitled “Live from the West”, combines sound and structure to create multiple dimensions of sensory involvement, which examines ideas of terrorism, ecological and economic violence, militarism, and the existence of a Western “imaginary” in the context of real and physical locations. Latimer’s poetry is recorded and played through standing speakers, which are placed around large, freestanding prints of Barateiro’s photographs, which he created by applying white paint to a black linoleum floor. The result is that the viewer, or viewer-listener, becomes immersed in both the spatial configuration of the photographs as well as the temporal rhythm of Latimer’s poems.

The textural quality of Sabrina Belouaar’s video “Malaxe”, is striking as well. Her hands knead at a thick yet slippery glop of “henna”, a mud like paste used to dye hair, skins, and clothes. Connected to the female body and ritual practices, the “henna” seems to symbolize an elusiveness of form. She continuously attempts to gather and control the material, but is unable to do so. This work symbolizes a kind of inability to have full control over one’s body, or even one’s identity.

In one of the film screening rooms, one can see Laura Henno’s first film “Koropa”, which tells the story of Patron, an orphan sailing at night in the Comoros. An older man instructs him as he silently sails through the dark, on his way to smuggle his first set of passengers to the island Mayotte. The film begins with a jarring, very loud, and intense close up of Patron’s face, and one is convinced that this boy has been kidnapped or trapped in the back of some kind of moving vehicle. The terror in his eyes seems so real, until the camera moves down and you realize he is the one driving the boat, in control, as it bumps across the water, towards a future he did not choose, but was brought into. It is visually quite visceral and discomforting, and yet plays with the notion of the camera, such as the distance it can get away from the subject, and its presence at a “witness” at a moment in time.

All the works in the show display both the disjointedness of finding an identity as a youth today, and the confusion that arises for most when attempting to assert a subjectivity in today’s globally expanding and interconnected world.

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