As if saving the best for last, among the highlights of EXPO Chicago’s 2017 “/Dialogues” program were Sunday’s final discussions, both involving curators and artists whose work concerns the contemporary art and politics of the Middle East. Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi, president and director of the Sharjah Art Foundation and a practicing artist, spoke on the topic of “Global Art Geographies,” a title well-suited to her work connecting the art of the Middle East to global audiences, as well as bringing diaspora Arab artists and others to the region to exhibit, make new work and share ideas with practitioners and cultural workers from around the world.
From the astounding array of exhibitions, commissions, platforms and conferences that have sprung forth from the desert since Sharjah’s first biennial in 1993, a few stand out as especially responsive to the needs of artists and institutions seeking to develop meaningful work in and about the Middle East. Two commissioning programs, one timed with the Foundation’s annual March Meeting and the other presenting works on biennial off-years, commit essential resources to artists so that they can realize ambitious new projects with built-in audiences at Sharjah and in global forums, such as this year’s documenta 14, which saw two new works supported by the foundation debut in Athens. Less thrilling but arguably providing more impact for the region’s cultural development is Sharjah’s annual March Meeting, which convenes cultural workers from the world over for a few days of conversations in the city, affording them a chance to cross-pollinate with regional and international colleagues.
In her remarks at EXPO, Al-Qasimi did not shy away from the difficult questions concerning the fraught politics that challenge her work, noting that, out of concern for political repercussions, she could not herself travel to Ramallah, Palestine and Beirut, Lebanon this year, despite Sharjah staging major portions of the 13th Biennial’s exhibitions and programs in these cities. As for what precisely defines the “region” of the Middle East, Al-Qasimi offered the unconventional answer provided by a recent collaboration with Air Arabia, a regional budget airline headquartered in the Sharjah emirate. A new curator-in-residence program will draw on any destination served by Air Arabia, a territory that includes expected spots like Baghdad, Cairo, Doha and Dubai, as well as further flung destinations like Cologne, Delhi, and Sarajevo. For Al-Qasimi, the Middle East is truly a global region.
Bringing the conversations home, Omar Kholeif, senior curator and Director of Global Initiatives at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, spoke with Chicago-based artist Michael Rakowitz about his newly-opened retrospective at the MCA. Curated by Kholeif, the exhibition is structured “like a city” that unfolds with projects dispersed like diverse but interrelated neighborhoods within the gallery. Two decades of Rakowitz’s work is represented in the show, much of which unfolds his complicated relationship with his Iraqi-Jewish heritage and his American life, put at odds more dramatically than ever during recent decades of American military intervention in the region. Rakowitz, a gifted storyteller, unfurled tales of coincidence and conspiracy behind several of his elaborate projects, connecting things as far-reaching as the looting of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad with the Iraqi recipes passed down through his family being cooked by Iraq War veterans in a food truck called “Enemy Kitchen” parked outside the MCA for the duration of the exhibition. Rakowitz, a longtime Chicagoan, and Kholeif, a relative newcomer who has brought much-needed global perspective to Chicago’s view on contemporary art, spoke like old friends recounting shared memories. Perhaps more than anything this is what one can take away from conversations about the global art world in an international fair perched at the edge of Chicago—the shared history of our times, which draws us together in war, in peace and even in art. (Elliot J. Reichert)