If societies are given the chance to curate culture themselves based on their experiences, narratives and memories, what would the picture look like? How different would it be from an ‘officially’ curated version?
(Re)creating Culture explored the shifting role of the curator within a transnational context and in light of the demands of a globalised post-colonial world.
With a particular focus on the Gulf region, which has recently witnessed a rapid expansion in its cultural and museum initiatives, the project focused on the challenges of curating in a transcultural milieu and on issues of audience engagement and inclusion. The project included an experiment which revealed how different people from societies in the Gulf region think and feel about the culture and the identity of their region.
'DXB - Dubai Streets' (one of series), Jan Lemitz
Curating (in) the Gulf
The workshop 'Curating (in) the Gulf' on 18 November 2013 brought together several King's academics and associates as well as cultural practitioners from UK art institutions in order to critically explore questions of transnationalism, orality and audiences in the Middle East within the context of curatorial practices and museum processes.
Museums play a significant role in constructing a sense of collective identity and cementing the notion of nationhood. In a country where censorship exists and the class structure is heavily demarcated and racialised, the notion of identity is both complex and political. As a result of the selective nature of museums and curatorial practice, a common narrative or understanding of objects and history is often reinforced through the presentation of what is supposedly the authority on the subject. It is essential to consider this legitimising power and the impact it can have on accepted notions of truth, identity, order and nation. The need to rethink appropriate museum models, from museum format and curatorial practices, such as the over-‐privileging of (Western) convention, to narrative devices and architectural design, was discussed in detail.
Much of the workshop discussion revolved around issues of inclusion and audience engagement. A series of related questions were asked: to what extent is the role of the curator an enabler or an obstacle for achieving wider inclusion of different audiences? For whom are the cultural developments in the Gulf envisioned? Can they reach the majority (mostly migrant workers) as well as the local population?
Read the full report of the workshop here.
A digital platform has been created as a space to test ideas put forward by the project. Autopoiesis, from the Greek αὐτo- (auto-), meaning ‘self’ and ποίησις (poiesis), meaning ‘creation’, was designed in partnership with the London-based studio M/A. As the project website, it acts as both a submission portal and a platform for a subsequent online exhibition. Submission of material is solicited from people (not necessarily artists) who are from, living in or transiting through the UAE.
This material is intended to be a symbolic representation and manifestation of how people from different backgrounds relate to and experience life in the UAE.
Read testimonies from two artists about the project below:
Istabraq Emad Al Naiar
Istabraq Emad Al Naiar was born and grew up in the United Arab Emirates in the city Sharjah. His photographic work focuses primarily on architectural photography, and the documentation of architectural buildings, which has led him into film and the documentation of social issues.
"This project was a new opportunity for me to meet and know more about the people around me, and I was happy that some of these people opened up to me, and shared parts of their life with me. I would have never expected that people living so close to where I live would have similar thoughts and feelings, and so this project was definitely an eye opener on what is going on around me."
Reem Saeed is a photographer based in Dubai. Her work usually captures aspects of visual story telling, such as documentary photography, and she has grown a passion for street photography as well.
"Autopoiesis was a platform to introduce and present a variety of cultures, the analysis of cross interaction of cultures and the implications it produced. I loved the idea of presenting that visually because I simply related to it. It appealed to me very much as I strive to tell a story through my work. I try to shed a light on various cultures who live together in a country as small as the UAE, specially Dubai. Small in size but a big city in its accomplishments.
Are we really aware of all the cultures? I am talking about a city where the locals are considered to be a minority. It is amazing to see that it took a while to really know or think about how others live within this small busy city. That's what I look for when I walk in alleys within old souqs or neighborhoods. The lifestyle intrigues me, the food, the behavior etc. That's why I try to expose it visually for others. Its almost like traveling without actually crossing the borders.
For the audiences, it is the instant accessibility factor; the opportunity to get exposed to a variety of visual series can create an immediate impact which could probably generate a certain feedback about the cultures presented. Feedback being so valuable to the purpose of the whole project.
For the artist, it is the communication factor, it enabled me to expose a part of Dubai that few people knew about, and the hope that I have conveyed the right message; there can be a place where all cultures and faiths can live in harmony and with respect to one another.
There is nothing more satisfying for me than being able to present a message through my photography. I am always in search of a story that I can curate. This is the sole purpose of me being out there."
Alongside the construction of the website, the exhibition Autopoiesis 2.0 was held at the Arts and Humanities Festival at King’s College London in 2014. It was curated by Btihaj Ajana and showcased a selection of multimedia artwork received from members of the UAE public. The aim of the exhibition was to provide the viewer with a window into the personal and communal aspects of the region as experienced by its own residents and visitors.
'Sky', Sami Alamoudi
To accompany the exhibition, Btihaj Ajana gave a talk about the Autopoiesis project titled Digital Poiesis and the Everyday. The talk, which was part of the CHArt 2014 conference, discussed the background and inception of the project and how it emerged from a marked need to provide ordinary people in the UAE with a platform for intimate and artistic self-expression. It linked this to wider issues of digital (sub)cultures and identities, public art and the role of digital media and technologies in creating spaces for meaningful and alternative cultural interventions and creations.
In addition, Btihaj Ajana attended the Sharjah March Meeting 2014, whose theme was 'Coming Together', to participate in relevant discussions on cultural development and curatorial processes.
A video of the project is available below:
Ajana, B. (2017) ‘Curating Public Art 2.0: The Case of Autopoiesis’, Journal of Arts and International Affairs, vol.2, no.1, pp. 57-83.
Ajana, B (2015) ‘Branding, Legitimation and the Power of Museums: The Case of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’, Museum and Society, vol.13, no.3, pp. 316-335.
About the team
The project was led by Dr Btihaj Ajana, Department of Culture, Media & Creative Industries. Btihaj’s research interests are concerned with the intersection between technology, biopolitics, identity/identification, aesthetics and ethics. Her recent book Governing through Biometrics: The Biopolitics of Identity (Palgrave Macmillan) provides a critical, timely and multilayered analysis of the socio-political and ethical implications of current developments in biometric identity systems.
Based on a series of discussions with various UK and Gulf institutions including the Tate, Sharjah Art Foundation, Art Dubai, Sharjah Museums Department, Abu Dhabi Tourism Development and Investment Company, The Third Line and other galleries, the project sought to find innovative responses to the challenges presented by cross‐cultural dynamics and encounters in the field of cultural production and mediation.