Global Art Forum 8 at Katara Art Center
The Global Art Forum (GAF) of 2014 was an exercise in collapsing space and time. It was a multi-dimensional presentation on the region it took place in. This, the eighth edition of GAF, started in the airy sun-lit foyer of Doha’s Katara Art Center before moving to the velvet majliss of Dubai’s Madinat Jumeirah.
Looking back at future possibilities and highlighting the veins of migration that have formed people and customs, the Forum dissected the Gulf’s nether-histories, pre-current post-post-oil boom. The three talks over the first two days ran from the 1970’s development of Doha’s urban masterplan, to the influence of 1910’s trade routes on pearling in the Gulf and then jumping to migration through video via Sao Paulo’s ever-growing Video Brazil.
The GAF’s inaugural session recollected the building of Doha’s iconic Sheraton hotel, a slightly off-white modernist ziggurat with gilded interiors and elevators that shoot up and down in glass tubes. This building, once the focal point of the skyline, now stands dwarfed by the shiny contemporary ‘starchitect’-built skyscrapers lined up behind it. For people who saw the landscape’s transformation, it remains a source of supernatural imaginings. Qatari/American writer and filmmaker, Sophia Al-Maria, opened the session with a GAF-commissioned story. She told the tale of a woman caught between dimensions, in a land where the end is nearing; the surrounding deserts are green, acid rains and animals are able to see the future. In this place, this building, her mothership, is a source of comfort and dazzle amidst the confusion of still shadows and imagined whispers. This story, introducing the discussion on architecture and city planning, also opened up to the anachronistic mindset that would continue for the entire week. The woman of the story was a time traveler, caught in a dimension where time has folded into a pause, an eternal end and a dead-end beginning at the same moment. And so begins the Forum of 2014 titled, by Al-Maria herself, ‘History…Meanwhile.’
The true surreal and otherworldly story of the Sheraton, referred to as ‘Spaceship’ in the title of this session, marks the beginning of Doha's urban boom. The man responsible for the conception of this futuristic building, architect Hisham Qaddumi, recounted his memory of the flagship project. It started with an invitation to the American modernist architect and Oscar-winning Hollywood set-designer William Perreira. A week after a brief telephone conversation, Perreira left Los Angeles for Doha to start designing the desert coast city. Conversations between Sheikh Khalifa and Sheikh Hamad, the Emir and Crown Prince at the time respectively, Qaddumi and Perreira lead to an amalgamation of Art Deco shapes and Islamic patterns of repetition, eventually creating the 'starship' Sheraton with familiar elements of a courtyard surrounded by rhythm and balance.
Describing the building as ‘futurist’, Qaddumi recalls Doha of the 1970’s as having a ‘laboratory spirit’. The outlook of the time manifested in other architectural projects that brought in Kenzo Tange from Japan and James Stirling from the UK offering an experimental development of a city being reborn. So ‘starchitecture’ in Doha (nor in the Gulf as the session on Kuwait later that week informed us) is nothing new, and slick modernist examples of this era of architectural innovation can be spotted around the city.
The Sheraton marked a shift from the more organic and localized development of the village to a structured urban plan foreseeing more a globalized future interaction. At the moment, the Sheraton’s lights are turned off while it is being renovated. Doha’s skyline now has a blacked-out spot in the shape of a flat-topped ziggurat against the fully LED-lit background. The iconic building is noticeably invisible.
The first of two sessions on pearling (the second to take place in Dubai), chaired by myself, as someone independently researching labour conditions of the pearling industry, looked to dispel some of the romance around the era. It started with Hubert Bari, Director of Doha’s upcoming Jewelry and Pearl Museum demonstrating, using two plates, a chili pepper and a Nescafe pod, that pearls are made of a tapeworm’s excrements, and not morning dew drops as many still believe.
Other myths include the role of the Japanese cultured pearl in the decline of the industry; this popular story, taught even in schools, is misleading as the Gulf pearl industry was already on a decline when it entered the global market. The question here remains why certain narratives have received such prominence. The romantacization surrounding the life of the pearl diver, always in debt, was discussed as having parallels to the kafala systems of today. Throughout the session, Rolf Killius, Curator of Sound at the British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership, laid out a soundtrack to the stories by sharing his music and performance research videos, showing a form of pair dance clearly influence by the Austrian waltz performed in Oman where Swahili is still spoken, a result of the sea trade that formed the region’s people and cities.
Early global trade shifted to a contemporary global artists network from Sao Paulo to the world and back via the discussion between director of Video Brazil, Solange Farcas, and artist and curator, and GAF co-director, Ala Younis. Since its inception in 1983, a time of political hardship under dictatorship there, Video Brazil has expanded productively. Farkas explains how turning around national artists’ inability to connect with the international scene by bringing in artists, works and curators to the country changed the landscape immensely. By the 1990’s, the festival became a portal as well as a platform and program for exchange among people of the geopolitical south, bringing in artists such as Ali Cherri, Buchra Khalili, Akraam Zaatari and others whose works show regional similarities to Brazil: multi-ethnic, post-colonial countries that also endure limitations in their creative production. The collection, expanding from video to other mediums such as paintings and sculpture, invited curators to conceptualize exhibitions in other places, including New York City and Beirut and artists to work on video monographs about artists from other regions. This exchange has opened up the arts landscape of Sao Paulo and the rest of the country into a wider view, presenting the array of existences in the world and in the huge country of Brazil.
Stressing the ‘Global’ part of the Forum’s title, the GAF’s two Doha days mapped migrations of cultures and know-how, attaching it to flowing moments of influences that have lead to what we see today. As Forum commissioner Shumon Basar mentioned in his commencing comments on Day 1, ‘History is about the past, the way an eyelash is about the day you are having.’ These first three sessions collapsed time, but also collapsed space. It merged the here and now with the there and then, a world that is shrinking and has been doing so since the beginning of time, shuffling dimensions that will forever be layering one over the other.