Palestinian dance troupe Badke head to the UAE

Ahead of dance troupe Badke’s UAE premiere at the NYUAD Arts Centre on 9 September 2016, here’s a re-post of my interview with dramaturg and choreographer Hildegard De Vuyst. We caught up when Badke were invited to perform at the Southbank Centre in London for the Shubbak Festival 2015.

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Badke © DannyWillems

Aimee Dawson: Badke is a take on the traditional Palestinian dance dabke but it is fused with contemporary elements. The performance itself is not an outright assertion of Palestinian identity but is rather trying to find a sense of Palestinian belonging, both nationally and internationally. Was bringing a contemporary side to the traditional dance an important element in getting across that message?

Hildegard De Vuyst: Dabke has been built over years and is the result of an ongoing dialogue with a variety of Palestinian performance artists, whatever their background. We were regularly visiting Palestine and having all of these exchanges in the form of workshops. The three co-creators, Koen Augustijnen, Rosalba Torres Guerrero and myself, had worked with a group of ten Palestinian dancers in 2009 and it was then that we understood that bringing in contemporary dance was not an easy thing to do or to cope with – you come across a lot of big issues that are related to politics, colonialism, aesthetics and values. Everything in this piece has been negotiated with the dancers – the material is theirs. This was important so that the dancers could really defend it – the dance is made up of their own proposals and they know exactly why it is there and what it means. We started with the dabke dance for this reason but also because this is what the Palestinians have to offer the world of dance – it’s not contemporary but it’s theirs. This is what they all have as a starting point, this collective dance that is connected to the soul. So for us, to start from dabke meant starting with their strength and what they have to offer and not from what they are supposedly lacking.

AD: The ten Palestinian dancers come from a variety of dance backgrounds. Was it important for you to showcase these differences?

HDV: Yes, the other thing that was important for us was working with non-professionally trained dabke dancers. There are lots of trained dabke companies in Palestine that really know what they are doing but we wanted to work with individuals, not an already-established group. We also wanted to work with people who were from a variety of different backgrounds in terms of training, socio-economic position, and geographic location. Two come from the Palestinian Circus School; two have come from Israel and have had training at Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company; three come from Serreyet Ramallah Dance Company; one from El-Funoun Popular Dance Troupe; and three are completely self-taught – two are from a refugee camp near Nablus and one is the Palestinian kickboxing champion! And so the element of ‘contemporary’ comes from each dancer bringing their own experience to the performances and sharing with one another. It is a very diverse group of people with different things to offer. What was a triumph for me was that the piece was actually embraced by the traditional dance companies.

AD: There is always the concern when you are reinterpreting a traditional dance of national significance that it will be in some way offensive. But I read that, at a show you did in Palestine, a very traditionally dressed woman came up afterwards and said, “When my girls grow up I want them to be like that”. The audience for that show was also huge despite concerns that this type of dance wouldn’t be accepted. It must be really great to get such a positive reaction, particularly in Palestine where this performance has extra significance and resonance.

HDV: Yes, they somehow really felt like we respected the tradition and that at the same time found a way to deal with something that was contemporary. I think it is mostly in the composition of the piece that you find the contemporary, through the use of space; the use of the group versus the individual and then the re-emersion of the individual back into the group again. It is almost a reflection of Palestinian society on an existential level.

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Behind the scenes: Badke working with the Congolese dance company Ballet Arumbaya Ndendeli in Kinshasa. Photo courtesy of Samaa Wakeem.

AD: One of the things that stands out in the videos and reviews for Badke are the comments on the overwhelming energy and positivity of the piece. Do you think that this is just part of the nature of the dabke dance or is it something that you really wanted to portray?

HDV: Part of it is in the nature of the dance because it’s very affirmative, with a lot of stamping and shoulder shakes. There is an affirmation of “I belong here” and creating a connection with the ground is a very joyful thing. But we were particularly interested in dabke as a social dance rather than the way that it is often portrayed on stage where it’s often used as a representation of Palestinian suffering. For us, the piece is a feast – a wedding but without a bride and a groom! It has this energy that Palestinian weddings parties often have, this wild energy which is also a way to release tension and energy that can’t go anywhere else. So the energy and the vitality of it is one part. But for me, it should also be read as a party that goes on for too long. It’s exhausting itself and emptying itself. For us in the end it’s like the people in this party cannot stop dancing but just have to continue. They turn in rounds and they keep turning – they cannot go anywhere, they cannot stop. It becomes painful. For us it’s a reflection of what is going on right now in Palestine. They are stuck and they cannot stop resisting. They have to go on but it’s not going anywhere. So it ends in a section that is both dream-like and nightmarish, of both joy and pain. That’s what we aim for. Sometimes it’s clearer than others – over time, as the dancers have improved their stamina, it has become more acted whereas before they were genuinely feeling this emotion of pain!

AD: This is the first time that Badke has been to the UK but it has travelled to other places, too. Can you tell us about the tour?

HDV: Yes, it is a tour with a great deal of contrast. Recently we took it to Salzburg and after that we went to Kinshasa. The Koninklijke Vlaamse Schouwburg (KVS, The Royal Flemish Theatre) put on a festival in Kinshasa called Connexion Kin and so we included Badke. For the Congolese dancers there is a lot of traditional material still there but it is sometimes translated rather problematically into the contemporary world of dance – you would never find a traditional Congolese dance company at a contemporary dance festival and we wondered why.

While Dabke were in Kinshasa they met with a traditional Congolese dance company called Ballet Arumbaya Ndendeli and it was an incredible experience. The dancers worked together, like an exchange, for two days. They each taught the other a phrase from their own choreography. The Palestinians were really inspired by the Congolese body movements – in dabke there is no movement between the chest and the knees – and suddenly in Kinshasa they discovered their pelvis! It’s incredible how it changed their relationship to their bodies and I’m sure now Badke will look different than before!

Book tickets to see Badke’s at NYUAD Arts Centre, 9 September 2016, here.

Read this interview on the Shubbak Festival blog here.

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Qatar to stage largest-ever solo exhibition of works by an Arab artist

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Dia Al-­Azzawi (Image: © Anthony Dawten)

Qatar Museums (QM) is due to stage a major retrospective of the Iraqi Modernist artist Dia Al-Azzawi in October. The exhibition is believed to be the largest-ever solo exhibition of works by an Arab artist. Spanning two venues in Doha, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art and QM Gallery Al Riwaq, the exhibition will cover 9,000 sq. m and include 400 works.

Curated by Catherine David, the deputy director of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the show includes works in a variety of media, including painting, sculpture, drawing, print and artist books, as well as original and limited editions of works on view for the first time. The two venues, across the city from one another, will highlight two different narratives in Al-Azzawi’s work. The first will focus on the artist’s use of image and text, and the other will trace the artist’s engagement with the political history of Iraq and the Arab world.

 

Dia Al-Azzawi, Mission of Destruction (2004-07)
Dia Al-Azzawi, Homage to Baghdad VI (1982)
Dia Al-Azzawi, Untitled IX (1975)
Dia Al-Azzawi, Majnun Layla no.2 (Temptation, 1995)

 

Al-Azzawi, who was born in Baghdad in 1939, has been a central figure in Iraq’s art scene. Before moving to London in 1976, where he continues to live and work today, Al-Azzawi was the director of the Iraqi Antiquities Department in Baghdad and an active member of the country’s emerging art groups at the time. “Al-Azzawi is considered one of the most important artists of the Arab world and for the first time a major retrospective will allow visitors to study the evolution of his practice and themes,” says Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, the founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, whose collection features many works by the artist.

Alongside 90 works from the QM collection, the exhibition will feature loans from 17 private collections and four institutions, including the Barjeel Foundation, Sharjah; Centro de Arte Moderna Fundação Calouste, Lisbon; Kinda Foundation, Riyadh; and Tate Modern, London. The Tate is lending one of Al-Azzawi’s most renowned works, the vast mural Sabra and Shatila Massacre (1982-85). Often likened to Picasso’s seminal painting Guernica (1937), Al-Azzawi’s painting depicts the massacre of Palestinian refugees in 1982 during the civil war in Lebanon.

• I am the cry, who will give voice to me? Dia Al-Azzawi: a Retrospective (from 1963 until tomorrow),  Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art and QM Gallery Al Riwaq, Doha, Qatar, 16 October-16 April 2017

Originally published on The Art Newspaper.

What About the Art? The State of Art in Qatar

In this report on the ‘Art for Tomorrow’ conference in Doha in March 2016 I ask the crucial question facing the state of arts in Qatar today: if we focus on the commercial then what about the art?

 

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STARGATE by Pia MYrvoLD at Level 29 ‘Art Lab’ for the NYT Art For Tomorrow Conference 2016, Doha

The question of the future is pervasive in the Gulf, almost to the point of becoming a cliché. Nevertheless, the ‘Art for Tomorrow’ conference, a joint project between New York Times Conferences and Qatar Museums, opened up the floor for predictive debate at its second edition ‘Technology, Creativity and the City’. This year’s programme included three days of panel discussions from leading art world professionals, guided visits to local art spaces, and a number of ‘art salons’. According to Achilles Tsaltas, vice president of New York Times Conferences, the premise of the conference was to consider ‘the role of art as a catalyst for economic growth and development, the role of art as a driver for tourism, and also as a mechanism for nation, city, and even corporate branding’, for which he considers Doha ‘a living showcase’.

 

National Museum of Qatar under construction, 14 March 2016.
National Museum of Qatar under construction, 14 March 2016.

 

Therefore, and in spite of its title, art took on a tertiary role in the ‘Art for Tomorrow’ conference. The main motivation for the event seemed rather to act as a venue for high-profile artists and arts professionals to network, and as an opportunity to introduce and present Doha favourably to such individuals, all with a predominantly commercial outlook. To this end, the conference was an enormous success  Qatar Museums and the New York Times collectively attracted big stars such as internationally acclaimed artists Jeff Koons and Marina Abramovic, who gave keynote speeches, as well as participants including art collector Dakis Joannou, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Martin Roth, and global director of Art Basel, Marc Spiegler. The fact that the cost to attend the conference was around $2000USD further emphasised the purposefully exclusive and commercial nature of the event, rendering it inaccessible to much of the audience in what was openly recognized and discussed as an ’emerging art scene’ in Qatar.

Tours of the Museum of Islamic Art and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, as well as trips to Gallery Al Riwaq, and Fire Station Artist in Residence (a residency and gallery space), presented the already well-established arts infrastructure in Doha to the high profile conference guests. A tour of the National Museum of Qatar, currently under construction, was led by French star-architect Jean Nouvel (who designed the museum), presenting an exclusive selection of delegates the ‘tomorrow’ that the conference’s title promised. Those who visited returned impressed, but confused  after five years of construction and an expected completion date of 2016, the museum is far from finished and questions about the opening or approximate costs were shrugged off entirely  clearly, ‘tomorrow’ is not quite tomorrow.

The impression that art was a circumstantial aspect of the conference was predominantly due to the scheduling of the panel discussions. In what Marc Spiegler described as ‘a rather fast and furious format’, each discussion featured two speakers and a moderator and lasted 30 minutes, each tackling an enormous, and often pertinent, subject. For example, a talk on ‘The Digital Museum’ with the general director of the Rijksmuseum, Wim Pijbes, and Giorgia Abeltino from the Google Cultural Institute barely allowed for an overview of the digitization projects taking place in the two institutions, scratching only the surface of a debate that deserved further analysis and discussion. Similarly, the panel ‘Culture Under Attack’ was predominantly discursive, leaving one feeling that the topics had been chosen for their timely, immediate appeal and irrespective of a desire to engage more deeply with the subject matters. While the art salons allowed for more audience interaction and debate, the overall feeling of the conference was mired by many unanswered questions.

 

Jeff Koons speaking at the Art for Tomorrow conference 2016.
Jeff Koons speaking at the Art for Tomorrow conference 2016.

 

The lack of art was a troubling aspect of the conference that ran deep into the fundamentals of the event itself. The conference was hosted by the five-star W Hotel and Residences in Doha  an odd decision considering the array of arts venues that Qatar Museums has at their disposal. There were attempts to assert the missing art elsewhere in the programming  The Lab, a temporary gallery space, was set up on the 29th floor of the hotel and open throughout the conference. Although the starkly un-glitzy aesthetics of the space were refreshing, the curatorial vision of the show  beyond the desire to have some form of art in the conference  was absent. While there were artists speaking during the event, their talks were, again, mere presentations that were not further engaged with.

The highlight of the conference was undoubtedly the opening of What About the Art? Contemporary Art from China (until 16 July), an exhibition at Gallery Al Riwaq curated by artist Cai Guo-Qiang, to which all of the delegates were invited. The show was an enormous production that included 15 Chinese artists and a number of exceptional monumental commissions. This show demonstrated exactly what ‘Art for Tomorrow’ was trying to articulate  that a city like Doha can, and does, use art as an important tool for development. But it also showed that the opposite is equally true  the development of a city can be used to improve art, stage important shows, and inspire local audiences and artists. Leaving the exhibition and returning to the conference, the question persisted: ‘What about the art?’

Originally posted on Ibraaz.

Destruction and Creativity: ISIS, Artefacts and Art in the Middle East

Morehshin Allahyari, Material Speculation: ISIS (2015-ongoing), Lamassu.
Morehshin Allahyari, Material Speculation: ISIS (2015-ongoing), Lamassu.

Widespread outrage. National and international mourning. History redefined. These are the terms used to describe the destruction caused by Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) who, since bursting into the international limelight by capturing Mosul in June 2014, have made acts of iconoclasm – the purposeful destruction and defacement of art and artefacts – key to their strategy of inducing fear, exerting power, and garnering support. The Temple of Baalshamin and the funeral towers in Palmyra, which both date back almost 2,000 years, are the latest targets in ISIS’s increasingly widespread and rapidly growing attack on history that now includes ancient sites in Nimrud, Hatra and Mosul in Iraq and Aleppo and Palmyra in Syria. These acts are constantly discussed in terms of Islamic fundamentalism and the ultimate loss and waste of human history – but is there more to iconoclasm than these reductionist portrayals?

Continue reading on the Mosaic Rooms blog.