Germany’s documenta exhibition presents new perspectives on Arab art

Germany’s documenta exhibition presents new perspectives on Arab art
Members of Ruangrupa and the documenta 15 artistic team, including Lara Khaldi (left) and Mirwan Andan (center, in checked shirt) in Kassel, Germany in 2021. (Supplied)
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Updated 17 June 2022

Germany’s documenta exhibition presents new perspectives on Arab art

Germany’s documenta exhibition presents new perspectives on Arab art
  • ‘We wanted to avoid getting stuck in identity politics. We are about the idea of the collective,’ says member of Palestinian collective exhibiting at the show

BERLIN: This year’s documenta — the contemporary art exhibition that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany — eschews the idea of the individual artist working in isolation and embraces the collective. The show, which runs from June 18 until September 22, explores the intersections between art and life, less object-driven and more process-driven; artistic practice as social structure.

Mirwan Andan, a member of this year’s artistic directors, the Jakarta-based collective ruangrupa, tells Arab News: “We realized from the beginning that involving people from different backgrounds will enrich the idea of the collective. It’s not enough to involve artists.”

Ruangrupa have conceived documenta 15 around the idea of the “lumbung” — an Indonesian term for a communal rice barn. In this case, conceptually and in practice, it is similar to the Islamic notion of the jam’iyah, in which participants pool resources and redistribute them.

The Question of Funding, how to work together, 2019. (Supplied)

In fact, many of the organizing principles of documenta 15 are driven by aspects of Muslim culture, such as working groups forming a majlis, and the public program, entitled Meydan. “We don’t separate daily life from our practices, so lumbung is not a theme, it’s more (like) a software that can run on any hardware,” says Andan. “We want to experiment with this practice, which takes place in the Southern Hemisphere, rather than hijack the art world as curators.”

Ruangrupa are perhaps better known for the convivial spaces they open up in an urban context than the art that they make. For example, at the Sharjah Biennial in 2019, they staged “Gudskul” (pronounced “good school”), a public learning space established with two other collectives that provided a toolkit for knowledge sharing. Here, the roles of the teacher and the students were interchangeable.

“Many of the aspects of the ruangrupa space in Jakarta — a house, an exhibition space and a library of pirated books — which I came across in 2015 on a visit with the De Appel Curatorial Program, resonates with the informal artistic scene in Ramallah,” says Palestinian cultural worker Lara Khaldi, a member of documenta’s artistic team. “And what ruangrupa call ‘ekosistem’ — a set of relations you cannot define — are like the conversations that happen at home, in the garden and cafés.

Yazan Khalili. (Supplied)

“The curator has become very much about the auteur, which isn’t an honest way of defining the role, since it is always about collective authorship,” Khaldi continues. “It’s interesting to look at the lumbung as a pre-colonial Indonesian practice that is also present in our cultural scene in the region.”

In addition to an artistic team, ruangrupa have created an international lumbung network of 14 collectives (whose work together will continue beyond documenta), including Question of Funding, a group of Palestinian cultural producers whose exhibition space in Kassel was recently subject to vandalism and fascist slogans.

Despite the expanded ways of thinking about geographic and political configurations — this year ruangrupa announced the participating artists based on time zones — the organizers still have to deal with Germany’s complex political and cultural climate as a place affected by both anti-Semitism and anti-Palestinian sentiment. It’s ironic because, as Amany Khalifa, formerly a community organizer at Grassroots Jerusalem and now a member of The Question of Funding, tells Arab News: “We wanted to avoid the representation of Palestinian art in documenta and getting stuck in identity politics. We are about the idea of the collective. Since 2016, we’ve met informally in kitchens and gardens, trying to create different economic structures, models that were left out by civil society. It’s the question of who owns the means of production, and this is applicable not just to Palestine.”

SADA, film still, Journey Inside the City, by Sarah Munaf in Sada, 2022. (Supplied)

Drawing from what they call the “NGO-ization” of Palestinian civil society in the 1990s, The Question of Funding was formed in 2019 by NGO workers and institutional representatives of Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center and Popular Art Center, among others.

“We are using this dilemma as a framework to think of communal practices, and not just theoretically,” says artist and Question of Funding member Yazan Khalili. “The Question of Funding is a historical question. It attempts to move away from a critique of the donor’s economy to rethink what funding can be, and learn from other economic models.”

Khalili, became the chairman of the storied Sakakini Cultural Center, the first cultural NGO in Palestine, in 2015, after his MFA in Amsterdam. “Our approach was to take the economic crisis and flip it into a cultural one. We call this the total work of the cultural institution. It can be argued that the main tool for cultural practices in Palestine is an institution which is not only a means of production but also an ideological structure. So how do we practice institutionalism without recreating an institution? How do we form structures of production through the critique of the cultural institution as such? We are interested in creating artworks that look like they are of an institution, while producing structures in which the critique of the cultural institution can be practiced.”

Borrowed Faces installation, Fehras Publishing Practices. (Supplied)

While, as a whole, the exhibition does emerge from a position of critique — of institutions, the art industry, and of exhibition-making itself — Khalili says that it’s an affirmative one. While the world is unstable — with pro-Palestinian, anti-apartheid thinkers and artists subject to smear campaigns — spaces in the art world are being created for alternative ways of thinking outside the political arena.

“What scares us the most is this buildup of McCarthyism and mass fear,” says Khalili. “But we’ve had support from German artists, academics, and collectives in Kassel. There is a lot of space to fight back.”

For documenta, The Question of Funding is organizing exhibitions and communal spaces with other collectives, including the Eltiqa Group for Contemporary Art in Gaza. With the help of writers and illustrators, they will also create a children’s book about the economy and a new economic medium called Dayra, a form of money-less exchange using blockchain technologies.

El-Warcha Courtyard project, Hafsia, 2019. (Supplied)

“Eltiqa is a unique example of a collective in Palestine,” Khalili says. “They produce paintings, sculpture and photography in a collective space that also supports young artists from Gaza. And they managed to do this without becoming an NGO. During the last May 2021 war on Gaza, a member of the group, Mohammed Hawajri, posted a comment on Facebook on what it means to show solidarity. He proposed going beyond the level of funding by showing the work of artists from Gaza. There needs to be support on an intellectual and artistic level, not just sending money. And so how do we use documenta as a resource to support another group that is also trying to produce something outside given structures of cultural production?”

With Berlin-based Syrian art collective Fehras Publishing Practices presenting “Borrowed Faces” — a hybrid archival research project on Arab globalization and political agency, as well as a fictional story on the female figures of Afro-Asian Solidarity Movement in Tashkent, Cairo and Beirut; Tunis-based El Warcha bringing their idea of the workshop to Kassel with a library and public art installation; and Sada curating an exhibition of commissioned video works from Baghdad, there’s a great deal of collective action and alliances from the Arab world at documenta 15.

It remains to be seen what artists as researchers, collaborators and thinkers can propose in a non-hierarchical format but this feels like a decisive shift in the way practices, and artists, from the region are presented on the global circuit — non-essentialized, transdisciplinary and more collaborative.

Andra Day stuns in Lebanese label at ceremony awarding Black excellence

Andra Day stuns in Lebanese label at ceremony awarding Black excellence
Updated 56 min 26 sec ago

Andra Day stuns in Lebanese label at ceremony awarding Black excellence

Andra Day stuns in Lebanese label at ceremony awarding Black excellence

DUBAI: Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter and actress Andra Day stunned audiences at the Critics Choice Association’s fifth annual Celebration of Black Cinema and Television on Tuesday when she arrived on the red-carpet wearing Lebanese label Zuhair Murad.

In an off-shoulder metallic gown with billowing sleeves, the Oscar-nominated star’s look gave off festive vibes while remaining chic and stylish.

Meanwhile, the celebration culminated in the evening’s most anticipated honor — the presentation of the Career Achievement Award to Oscar-nominated actress Angela Bassett.

The actress most recently starred in Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” and is known for her roles in movies including “Boyz n the Hood” and the Tina Turner biopic “What’s Love Got to Do with It."

“My representation of you on screen put me on a path as a little Black girl — a high school student that lived in the Jordan Park housing project in St. Petersburg, Fla. — that I only dreamed of because of you,” Bassett said in her acceptance speech, addressing the packed room, according to a report in Variety.

“My dreams were not only fulfilled, but your stories have been immortalized — some of them for future generations to discover and enjoy.”

Another “Black Panther” star, Michael B. Jordan, was also in attendance. The actor received the Melvin Van Peebles Trailblazer Award in recognition of his seasoned career and upcoming directorial debut with “Creed III.”

The 35-year-old looked dapper in a purple jacket over a black button-down shirt and black loafers. He was joined by his parents, Michael A. Jordan and Donna Jordan, and his sister Jamila Jordan.

“The Bear” star Ayo Edebiri was also awarded the Rising Star Award, presented by IMDbPro for her work on the lauded FX series.

Other talent in attendance included “Abbott Elementary” creator and star Quinta Brunson; Quincy Isaiah, who plays Magic Johnson in HBO’s “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty;” “Devotion” lead and Marvel star Jonathan Majors; and the ensemble cast of ABC’s “The Wonder Years” revival.

This year’s ceremony took place Dec. 5 at the Fairmont Century Plaza Hotel and was hosted by actor-comedian Bill Bellamy. The event serves to recognize Black performers and filmmakers who are making stellar contributions to the film and television industry.

Netflix celebrates iconic Arab women filmmakers at RSIFF

Netflix celebrates iconic Arab women filmmakers at RSIFF
Updated 06 December 2022

Netflix celebrates iconic Arab women filmmakers at RSIFF

Netflix celebrates iconic Arab women filmmakers at RSIFF
  • Netflix hosted a creative space at Red Sea Souk to celebrate the pioneering spirit of four Arab filmmakers, Hana Al-Omair, Hend Sabri, Kaouther Ben Hania and Tima Shomali
  • Hana Al-Omair: I am so happy with the new change that the Saudi film industry is experiencing, especially with more females behind cameras and on-screen, and actresses

JEDDAH: Global video streaming giant Netflix recently released a specially curated collection of 21 Arab films in 2022 by women filmmakers spanning various genres, including documentaries, drama, and romance, as part of a dedicated collection titled “Because She Created.”

During the first six days of the Red Sea International Film Festival, Netflix hosted a creative space at Red Sea Souk to celebrate the pioneering spirit of four iconic women filmmakers from the Arab world, including Hana Al-Omair from Saudi Arabia, Hend Sabri and Kaouther Ben Hania from Tunisia, and Jordan’s Tima Shomali.


A post shared by هند صبري (@hendsabri)

The space aims to amplify women filmmakers’ voices to an international audience of esteemed industry professionals and future generations of female storytellers throughout the “Because She Created” platform so that more stories from the Arab world can be loved globally.

Al-Omair and Shomali showed up on the fifth day of the RSIFF for media junkets.

Al-Omair told Arab News that she likes to add a female element to her working crew because it adds balance.

Hana Al-Omair is from Saudi Arabia. (Supplied)

“I personally think that in front and behind of the camera, the more female characters, the better, because it is always about the stories by nature, which are always revolving around untold female stories.”

Al-Omair is an award-winning director and the woman behind the first Saudi thriller drama series on Netflix, “Whispers.”

She said that “Whispers” reflects on-the-ground women’s empowerment through screen.

“There are so many women working in a different field that we haven’t heard of on the screen,” she said: adding: “Netflix was the perfect platform for displaying my series as it helped to narrate the story of Saudi women in an unusual way.

“I am so happy with the new change that the Saudi film industry is experiencing, especially with more females behind cameras and on-screen, and actresses. All this would support more content and female stories to rise.”

Netflix has a special collection of Saudi content. For women filmmakers, it started with “Wadjda,” the work of iconic Saudi film director Haifaa Al-Mansour.

Shomali is director of “AlRawabi School for Girls,” a first-of-its-kind young adult series in the Arab region.

The six-episode series tells the story of a bullied high school girl who gathers together a group of outcasts to plot the perfect revenge on their tormentors.

Shomali is also a producer and scriptwriter. She told Arab News: “I am so happy to take part in this initiative that supports young Arab filmmakers, which is something I personally advocate for as it represents my work in terms of women empowering women in the industry.”

She added: “I feel like it is my responsibility to support female emerging talents in filmmaking because I did not have an easy journey, and a lot of people on the way gave me an opportunity to rise, and now I am interested to give back an opportunity for those young females passionate about the film industry.”

Netflix launched the “Because She Created” platform last year as a virtual panel talk hosting Arab women filmmakers discussing the evolving role of women in the industry.

Nuha El-Tayeb, director of Netflix content acquisitions in the Middle East, North Africa, and Turkey was also present at this year’s event.

She told Arab News: “What’s important for us is bringing Arabic stories from our region targeting the local market and at the same time for them to have that option to travel across the world … one and foremost is our support for female filmmakers, whether they are in front of the screen or behind the screen.”

The Netflix collection aims to give more people the chance to see their lives reflected on screen and entice new audiences to discover the work of women storytellers from the Arab world.

El-Tayeb added: “Yes, we want to support women. We want to bring these amazing movies to one place where people can watch it and enjoy the movies, and it’s a start to many more coming down the line with what we have created now.”

The collection celebrates the creativity of the Arab world’s greatest women storytellers, including the works of brilliant directors from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and Tunisia.

First Saudi film shot in NEOM to debut at Red Sea International Film Festival

First Saudi film shot in NEOM to debut at Red Sea International Film Festival
“Within Sand” is the first Saudi film shot in NEOM. (Supplied)
Updated 06 December 2022

First Saudi film shot in NEOM to debut at Red Sea International Film Festival

First Saudi film shot in NEOM to debut at Red Sea International Film Festival

RIYADH: “Within Sand,” the first Saudi film shot in NEOM, will premier at the 2022 Red Sea International Film Festival on Dec. 6.

The film’s director, Mohammed Al-Atawi, spoke to Arab News about the process and challenges of making the film. 

“Within Sand” follows Snam, a 23-year-old tobacco-merchant who breaks away from his trading convoy to reach his village quickly as his wife is about to give birth to their first child.

During his travels, Snam is ambushed by thieves who steal his tools and leave him for dead. In a quest to survive, Snam travels with a wolf trailing him while he struggles on his journey to keep his sanity as memories and the difficulties of loneliness torment him.

“In the film, I wanted to capture a genuine and organic relationship between a man and a wolf. I also focused on presenting the desert of north Saudi in a way that champions its mysterious beauty, not only the harsh nature of a desert,” said Al-Atawi. 

Behind the scenes on the set of ‘Within Sands.’ (Supplied)

The director shed some light on the inspiration behind the film’s name.

“Without spoiling a critical element in the story that inspired the name, the whole narrative takes place in the desert, and we witness Snam’s journey with the wolf, so the environment where the story takes place is significant to the story, and I wanted that to be reflected in the title,” Al-Atawi said.

Discussing the inspiration behind the film, Al-Atawi said: “The story of ‘the wolf companion’ is almost like a folkloric tale in Saudi culture, but it doesn’t have a lot of details about it. Hence, I took creative liberty and tried to approach it with complete creative control but also remain faithful to the original material.”

“During the development phase in The Red Sea Lodge, I had many meetings with director Mohammed Atteia, who was incredibly insightful in film craft and contributed a lot to how I approached some scenes,” the director said.

Behind the scenes on the set of ‘Within Sands.’ (Supplied)

The Red Sea Lodge is a program Al-Atawi was part of that aims to empower cinematic talents by equipping them with the knowledge and resources to launch a successful career in cinema.

The director began working on the film in 2019 with his producer Reem Al-Atawi. 

“COVID-19 postponed the shoot over three times, and at some point, due to weather issues, the shoot was delayed further. But our belief in the story is persistent, and we focused on making this film,” he said.

He highlighted that the writing process was continuous, with the final draft of the script being completed two and a half years from when he initially began writing.

“Writing a script can be time-consuming and creatively challenging, but it’s an organic process, where even during the shoot, I was writing new scenes as I felt more aware of the narrative and the film’s pacing,” he said.

The director added that the support he received from the Saudi Film Commission allowed him to bring the project to life.

A scene from ‘Within Sands.’ (Supplied)

The film was shot in the deserts of NEOM. “NEOM’s media sector chose it to be the first Saudi film to be shot in NEOM, and their support was vital in making the film in one of the best locations,” the director said.

Al-Atawi highlighted what it means to him to see his film featured in the Red Sea International Film Festival.

“First and foremost, it means we made a film that was appreciated by an international festival like the Red Sea, which is a significant accomplishment.

“It also means much more to me that the film’s first screening will be in Saudi Arabia, which is both an honor and a pressure to satisfy the Saudi audience’s expectations, which is not an easy task.”

To those interested in pursuing a career in the industry, Al-Atawi said that “having a career in film can be overwhelming at first, but it’s vital to have a passion for the craft. As challenging as it is, it’s incredibly satisfying to be able to create and share with an audience around the world.” 

Syrian filmmaker Soudade Kaadan talks ‘Nezouh’ ahead of Red Sea premiere

Syrian filmmaker Soudade Kaadan talks ‘Nezouh’ ahead of Red Sea premiere
The film took home the Armani Beauty Audience Award at this year's Venice Film Festival. (Supplied)
Updated 07 December 2022

Syrian filmmaker Soudade Kaadan talks ‘Nezouh’ ahead of Red Sea premiere

Syrian filmmaker Soudade Kaadan talks ‘Nezouh’ ahead of Red Sea premiere
  • Coming-of-age drama inspired by photo of bombed house
  • The film took home the Armani Beauty Audience Award at this year's Venice Film Festival

DUBAI: Syrian filmmaker Soudade Kaadan, who will showcase her lauded second feature film “Nezouh” at the ongoing Red Sea International Film Festival on Dec. 7, is no stranger to telling stories of conflict. But while other filmmakers may look to the violence and the tragedy, Kaadan turns to hope and the whimsical to bring context to the horrors.

“Because the experience is still so traumatic and so harsh and difficult and clear, (I) only could express my story with magical realism,” said Kaadan in a virtual interview with Arab News.

The filmmaker is excited to attend RSIFF 2022, saying the film festival has supported “Nezouh” from day one. “Antoine Khalife (director of Arab programs and film classics for the RSIFF) loved the film from the first cut. Even Kaleem Aftab (head of international programing) supported the film from the beginning, even before it was picked at the Venice Film Festival. I feel as a program and a festival, Red Sea is appreciating the stories we are telling,” said Kaadan.

Kaadan, who was born in France but moved to Syria as a child, started writing the script of “Nezouh” in 2013. At the time she had just fled the war-torn country with her sisters, and had also wrapped up writing her first feature “The Day I Lost My Shadow.”

Filmmaker Soudade Kaadan. (Supplied)

 For the coming-of-age drama “Nezouh,” she was inspired by a photo of a bomb-damaged house in Syria. In her director’s statement on the Venice Film Festival’s website, Kaadan states that “Nezouh” in Arabic is the “displacement of souls, water and people; it is the displacement of light and darkness.”

A still from the film. (Supplied)

 “It started actually from a real photo of a bombed building, completely dark and destroyed. And there’s light invading the place from a hole in the ceiling. And this real image made me think it’s a metaphor and feel immediately that this is the image of my next film. It’s a metaphor of what happened in the country. It’s a tragic, tragic situation, but we can still find hope and light,” said Kaadan, who now lives in London.

 “Nezouh” sees Syrian actors Samer Al-Masri and Kinda Alloush play a husband and wife who are in conflict over whether to stay in their besieged hometown of Damascus or flee and become refugees. In the meantime, their 14-year-old daughter, played by newcomer Hala Zein, watches her world quite literally open up when a missile rips a hole in the roof and her neighbor, played by fellow newcomer Nizar Alani, throws down a rope.

 Discovering Hala Zein

 While the parents in the film are played by established Syrian actors, finding the 14-year-old protagonist took some time and effort. “She’s the spirit of the film and had to be someone who could carry the film,” said Kaadan.

“So, one week before rehearsals, she was having dinner with her family and someone from casting spotted her and she wasn't thinking at all to be an actress. But when she came to the casting, I immediately knew she could make it. She was strong, she was innocent, she was spontaneous, and she was also brave,” added Kaadan, visibly proud of her young lead star.

A still from the film. (Supplied)

 The filmmaker went on to explain the rigorous exercises Zein had to go through to be able to carry out the scenes where she had to climb a rope to reach the roof. “We had a safety team and a harness standing by in case she couldn’t (climb the rope) but every time she did it. We kept laughing because we were paying all this money for a team of people we didn’t need,” added Kaadan, still chuckling at the memory.

The Red Sea International Film Festival runs until Dec. 10.

Review: Red Sea title ‘Last Film Show’ is a haunting ode to cinema

Review: Red Sea title ‘Last Film Show’ is a haunting ode to cinema
Pan Nalin’s “Last Film Show” is India’s Oscars submission. (Supplied)
Updated 06 December 2022

Review: Red Sea title ‘Last Film Show’ is a haunting ode to cinema

Review: Red Sea title ‘Last Film Show’ is a haunting ode to cinema

JEDDAH: Pan Nalin’s autobiographical sketch “Last Film Show,” which is India’s Oscars submission and is part of the ongoing second edition of the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah, is a heartening look at a young boy’s dreams, made more wonderful by the innocence reflected in the work.

Set in the lush green village of Chalala in the northern Indian state of Gujarat, Nalin takes us on a nostalgic trip to his boyhood. He discovers and understands the power of the movie medium and its ability to transport us to a dream world. After all, cinema is but dream, magical and mystical.

Samay (Bhavin Rabari) is the son of a humble tea seller. When he is not helping his father, he invariably bunks school and whiles away his hours thinking about movies. The father (Dipen Raval) keeps reminding him that they belong to an upper caste and passions like cinema bode ill for them.

“Watching films is not respectable,” he often admonishes the boy, sometimes not sparing the rod. Samay rebels and makes fun of his father and his ideas — “you sell tea... my teacher says that there are only two castes – one who speaks English and one who does not,” he tells his father.

Samay is steadfast in his resolve to find ways of making cinema a part of his life, and lucky for him he finds a single screen theater where he befriends the projectionist, Fazal (Bhavesh Shrimali).

Pan Nalin. (Supplied)

However, Samay is not interested in just watching movies, he wants to learn the art of how they are made and finds ingenious ways of doing so. He and his friends steal film reels and set up their own little show with the help of a variety of unbelievable gadgets, including a sewing machine.

It is fascinating to watch Samay’s inventions, but “Last Film Show” has a deeper meaning. It is an ode to cinema, the kind of cinema we grew up watching in small, single screen theaters. There is a very disturbing scene, when we see Fazal’s theatre being demolished to make way for a multiplex replete with digital equipment. It is telling that Nalin’s work comes at a time when there is a lot of anguish and uncertainty around the future of the big screen as streaming platforms continue their advance.

Beyond this, “Last Film Show” has gorgeous imagery, emotional relationships and offers a powerful take on caste and class. It is also about the need to move with the times — “Last Film Show” poignantly embodies change at an unhurried pace with an excellent performance by its young lead who is a natural star.