Ibraaz Talks: Global Art Forum 8
Shumon Basar: in conversation with Stephanie Bailey
In March 2014, Ibraaz and the Kamel Lazaar Foundation launched an online media partnership with Art Dubai 2014 for the eighth iteration of the Global Art Forum.
In this exclusive interview from Art Dubai, Ibraaz Managing Editor Stephanie Bailey asks Shumon Basar, commissioner of Global Art Forum 8, to reflect on the event and what it means to attempt to reconstruct accepted historical narratives.
Stephanie Bailey: Here we are with Shumon Basar; we've just concluded the eighth edition of the Global Art Forum, of which Shumon is the commissioner. Shumon, I wanted to ask you, after all that has been said and done, what we have learned from the gaps in history.
Shumon Basar: I think we've learned one thing that is important, which is that our natural desire is to want to remember, but I think what comes more naturally is our capacity to forget. In that sense, we often cited Eric Hobsbawm's urge to protest against forgetting. There's something endemic about forgetting, whether it's in politics or even simply on a personal level, but one doesn't simply want to be nostalgic. One needs to dwell in the present but, as I said in the beginning, I think that it's a misnomer to think that history is about the past; I think that it's a portrait of the present and a manifesto for the future.
Of course, one can only learn new things by forgetting certain things; our phones fill up, our hard-drives fill up – there's a kind of technology to our minds, to our memory, and I understand that. But I think that in order to understand where we are either geographically, historically, temporally, or even geologically, of course we have to understand where we've come from. I have a very simple agenda in doing these events, which is to try and elide the gaps in my own knowledge, so the most interesting things for me have been presentations and discussions around topics I really know very little about.
One of those, for example, was a discussion we had remembering Ibn Khaldun, the fourteenth-century Islamic historian and scholar. I think something Justin Stearns said was interesting; he said that maybe sometimes we also need to forget Ibn Khaldun, because he's one of these characters that becomes over-fetishized. It's as though after Ibn Khaldun there's nothing in Islamic historiography or Islamic academic culture. Justin enumerated a number of names from the 1600s–1800s, and these are names I'd never heard before, and they are the names I want to revisit.
I think the presentation by The State on the notion of 'pancafarism' and 'Ajami-ism' was also one of these illuminating instances, and I think for me these were some of the really great moments, the moment where we encounter things that we simply do not know anything about, but that are so instrumental in the main frame either epistemologically or historically.
SB: It's funny because I was talking to Rahel Aima and Ahmad Makia about their paper, and it was really interesting how they had produced this cartography between South Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, and, actually, when Oscar Guardiola-Rivera stood up and made the connection to Colombia, the cartography continued or expanded.
I wanted to think a little bit about Farah Al-Nakib's presentation as well, because this can lead us into my next question, which is: what have the 70s taught us? I wanted to think about that and something Farah said, which is that we build through demolition – or at least, the Gulf builds through demolition, but this is sort of a cycle of modernity that is in fact universal.
ShB: Yes, absolutely. I think this is where we have to be very precise about language; I'm not so interested in what the 70s taught us, because I think that puts it in the framework of pedagogy or didacticism, and I don't think that's necessarily what we need to take from it. I think one of the provocative things Farah said in her presentation (which I'm glad she did say) is applicable to the session we had about architecture and urbanism in the UAE from 1971–9; she said that the forms – these very bold, modern forms – were not some kind of colonialist, western imposition –
SB: Imported modernity…
ShB: Yes, imported modernity – she said very clearly: this is what Kuwaitis wanted at the time.
SB: Yes, I thought that was really interesting.
ShB: I was interested in her point about historical renewal and cycles of renewal, and how those cycles of renewal have to come with a certain project of iconoclasm, where the new cycle has to disavow the previous cycle, ethically, politically, intellectually. I thought it was very interesting in both of the discussions about Kuwait how we saw those things very clearly, how we saw the political, intellectual, even theological, agendas manifest through aesthetics.
This is maybe the link to Michael C. Vazquez's presentation on magazines, and the funding of certain of these African and Middle Eastern magazines by the CIA. Oscar made a really great comment, which is that there's a way in which you can construct a history of twentieth-century modernity not only through the content of magazines – whether they're little magazines or manifestos or so on – but through their whole structuring, through their funding, through the ghost infrastructure that they're situated in. I like that very much.
In that sense, for us to look at buildings, for us to look at, of course, art – we're at an art fair – as opposed to magazines, what we are really doing is looking at history with a small 'h' (I know Oscar asked us not to use history with a capital 'h'). But these seemingly small histories are avenues or portals through which we can fully understand what was going on, because often the official histories (with a capital 'h') are so curtailed, so refined, to the point where they are actually not very useful. So one has to go through almost indirect routes, I think, to discover things that have been forgotten.
SB: I think the key word really here is 'construction', on multiple levels. That relates to what Marina Warner said about how history is also really a story, or how, in some languages, that it means 'story', or that history is a narrative – which essentially it is, it's a reconstruction – all of these things that have been raised during the forum.
I wanted to end with the badges that you have been distributing and the key words that you have been using to frame the Global Art Forum, or, at least, to give us some food for thought. I'm going to read them aloud and I want you to give me your immediate response – we're doing a bit of a glossary here I guess. So: 'Meanwhile art fair'.
ShB: Too many of them in the world.
SB: 'Meanwhile zombies.'
ShB: They're the new vampires.
SB: 'Meanwhile herstory?'
ShB: Deeply overdue.
SB: 'Meanwhile crisis.'
ShB: Not another one…
SB: Meanwhile Anthropocene?
ShB: It wasn't me.
SB: Meanwhile, meanwhile?
ShB: Meanwhile, meanwhile, meanwhile, meanwhile – until the end of the Anthropocene.
ShB: Ellipses. Full stop.
SB: Thank you very much.