I Will Never Get Used To Wait
We speak to Syrian-born curator Abir Boukhari, co-founder and director of the boundary pushing AllArtNow; Syria’s first independent platform for contemporary art. Abir speaks about her work in Damascus before the war and about a most memorable show she curated this fall in Stockholm at Hangmen Projects about the notion of involuntarily waiting for a pivotal moment to arrive.
C-P: You recently did a one month long curatorial residency at The Nordic Guest Studio in Stockholm invited by the CRIS programme (Curatorial Residency in Sweden) which led to a solo presentation of Syrian-born artist Muhammed Ali. Your stay as I know has been marked by concerns regarding legal documents which I hope will all sort out well. Tell me about your experience of the recent residency in town. A.B: I was invited by CRIS to do the residency and since I was also planning to do a show with Hangmen Projects we thought we could build a link between the two activities with the residency being a first step; an introduction into Syrian art and Syrian artists. So the idea was to do a solo presentation through the residency with one Syrian artist and a public talk with the principal of Konstfack, Maria Lantz. The second step was going to be Hangmen Projects but initially they were two different things. What I enjoyed about the residency was that it was very casual and not so formal and I shared a good relationship with everyone involved. The organizers were very open to discussing ideas and collaborating with other partners, like was the case when I brought up the planned show with Hangmen Projects. Sometimes in these situations when you say you have more than one thing going on you are told to choose between the things. The solo presentation was done with artist Muhammed Ali who since 2012 has been working with drawings about the daily life of the people in Syria and Damascus. So he works around a relationship between people, the city and himself.
C-P: The lead-in of Muhammed Ali’s solo presentation leads us to “I will never get used to wait” curated by you earlier this fall at Hangmen Projects, joining Muhammed Ali’s work together with six more Syrian artists, among whom were also your sister Nisrine who is doing a residency of her own at IASPIS. I loved the show and was especially drawn to a textile work by Diana Jabi hung down from the ceiling; a knitted scarf where each row marks a day in the ongoing war in Syria. I felt very drawn by the theme of the show, the notion of involuntary waiting and postponing your life while waiting for a pivotal moment to arrive. A.B: When the war started in Syria you’d wait one week, one month and another month for things to get back to normal, for your life to go on as usual. After a while you realized the situation would go on for a long time and that you would be postponing not only your plans for tomorrow but in fact your life. I was asking the artists about the waiting during the war as a period where you had this feeling that you did not exactly know where you are and without a real vision about the future. So I asked about this lost time and asked them whether they had hopes for a better future or if they thought they’d be stuck in this endless circle of just waiting and waiting. I had a conversation with one of the artists who are Palestinian and who is living in Syria and addressed the long wait he’s had his entire life. And he noted that other than the waiting of something to change in Palestine he was now also losing his temporary home in Syria. The discussion inspired him to do a work called “The Suspended”. I think this is a good word that summarizes the situation well. You feel that everything in your life is put on hold. You can’t really have a plan for tomorrow. I began with him and then started a dialogue with artists that I used to work with before. What I like about the work of Diana whom you mention is that it is so simple and you can really feel the quiet and sad waiting behind it. She said; I’m doing something which is really nothing. I can’t really cover myself in it, it’s not going to give me warmth. For me it’s kind of a calendar and in a way it’s an act to calculate time without really calculating time. For each day she would stitch a new row and in the beginning she was making numbered marks on the work for each week that passed and as more time passed in waiting she would do it only for each year. Just as life continues and goes on, the work is not finished yet and I will have to give it back to her so that she can continue. It’s a work that she says has no particular reason, it just keeps floating through.
C-P: It’s a brilliant work and stitching in itself as an activity is something for me so symbolic of waiting; something you would normally not do unless you had time to spare. Your show was so immediate and one that gave me so much perspective, without being overtly political and I tend to think that we need to be exposed to these themes and events in the world more than we are through arts and not just the news on television and in the daily papers. We’re increasingly so little used to waiting in these parts of the West, in a time where everything is fast and accessible with little efforts. We adopt the mindset that we are entirely in control of our lives, putting things into motion as we want. Sweden in particular is a country that has been sheltered for so long without being subjected to widespread turmoil. In theory a lot of the world events today are relatable but still I imagine appear very abstract to most of us. I’m sure for me the show will stand out as one the truly memorable ones of the year. A.B: I can of course also relate to what the artists are telling in the show about waiting. When in a way I lost the physical space I was working with in Damascus and lost the possibility to do something there, I also got a bit lost for a while, wondering if I should stay in Damascus or move like most artists. I stayed three months in Berlin and thought of maybe opening a space there and then I thought to myself that I worked hard for the space in Damascus and reminded myself that the initial idea was to do something for the local artistic community. These artists are so strong and they need to have possibilities to continue to carry out their work. My sister at the time was doing her MA in Vienna and found it very difficult to integrate in society the art world there and as I thought about it, it felt like the platform created in Damascus should continue but in a mobile and nomadic form.
C-P: That platform is AllArtNow for which you are the director and which you co-founded together with Nisrine, your sister and which marks the first independent platform for contemporary arts in Syria and was initiated in Damascus in 2005. The physical space of AllArtNow as you mentioned has closed down in 2012 to accommodate for Syrian refugee families. AllArtNow seems to have been very successful in pushing boundaries for Syrian artists to interact internationally. What were some of the ideas that prompted the creation of the platform? A.B: To begin with, there were three of us starting AllArtNow together. We also had a financial provider, our older brother who has also been involved in the platform and been very encouraging although he hasn’t been part of the artistic operations. In the very beginning we didn’t really have a very clear vision of how the platform would develop but we had an idea that we really wanted to work supporting contemporary art in Syria. With Nisrine also being a contemporary artist we saw that no one was really focusing on highlighting and showing local contemporary art at the time. We felt we needed to create a space which would allow for work to be made and created, for artists to meet and exchange ideas and which could serve as a link between different spaces. As the organization started coming together we saw more clearly where we wanted to go with it and I started to think that I should work on my skill sets and started to learn things by experience, for example what it means to do cultural management and how to work with financial support. There were commercial galleries in Damascus around this time operating like in the international gallery scene with representation of artists but no independent initiatives focusing primarily on the opportunities of artists. To create cross-cultural exchange most shows at AllArtNow had Syrian artists and artists from other countries. For artists to find room to exchange ideas was always the most important idea.
C-P: I imagine connecting the platform and artists to local audiences must have been quite a challenging objective? A.B: We have good art schools in Syria but they don’t channel art after the 1950’s. So the art taught has had no connection to international contemporary art. People would ask me if I wanted all young artists to head into a contemporary direction and I would say no but that it was important for younger artists to at least have a concept themselves to begin with of what contemporary art is and how they can work with it. There was an idea about introducing contemporary art in Damascus and for this reason using public spaces and merging art and the city; putting for example performance and installation out in the city in this way. Contemporary art in Syria is still in its initial stages. The situation now is of course much more complicated since the war, since a lot of contemporary artists, my sister being one, have moved out of the country. And the same goes for the good professors at art school who have moved. C-P: Let’s have a word about the Living Spaces Festival which is Syria’s first contemporary arts festival for which you were the artistic director. I should say it’s only one in a line of festivals you’ve been a part of organizing in recent years. A.B: We thought to create curiosity for contemporary art, a bigger event in the city using several venues around the city, like public spaces relating to the municipality would be a good idea. That way more people would get involved in contemporary art. The festival had an aim to build an intercultural link on an international level between curators and organizations. When we came up with the name Living Spaces we had no idea that the war would later break out and that it would really literally become living spaces. For us it was a question of giving places life by putting art there and selecting beautiful places where people would enjoy going to see art. We also wanted set the example that if you really want to show art you have to find places to do this. There were two editions of the festivals, and the first took place in 2009. We couldn’t get financial support so we started with video art which is quite low budget to present. We had a great reception and in 2010 the festival was more interdisciplinary. We worked hard for the festival in 2011 but as a result of the war breaking out a third edition did not later take place.
C-P: Should the art world be more involved in what’s going on in areas of crisis around the world? Is the art world as a whole too sheltered and detached? A.B: That’s a very big question to answer and I think I prefer to see it from my own situation and where I am myself. I had a conversation with my sister the other day about and I was saying that art is a way to live your own life and discovering things about it, and sometimes art merges with life, like in the show. Art is something that makes you think more about your own life and what goes on around you and helps you express yourself. For me today art is very much a part of life as I know it. C-P: Lastly, what’s in store for you next year in 2016? A.B: AllArtNow is now operating as a nomadic space and I’m always communicating with other spaces, organizations and institutes to do shows, talks or to send artists for residencies. My work now is very gradual and step-by-step. Now I’m talking about using measures of the Internet and Skype to curate shows at distances in places I can’t go. I’m also in talks of the exhibition at Hangmen Projects being shown again in a new city. The show has such a strong relationship to me, given the artists and my own life and I would love to have that possibility to present it again.
Editor’s note: Since the interview, Abir’s exhibiton has shown again in Copenhagen and will hopefully be exhibited soon again. ‘I Will Never Get Used to Wait’ showed at Hangmen Projectsin Stockholm October 2 – October 17. Exhibited artists: Mahmoud Dayoub, Nisrine Boukhari, Muhammed Ali, Amer Akel, Erfan Khalife, Diana Jabi and Nawar Haidar www. hangmenprojects.com To learn more about AllArtNow, visit: www.allartnow.com Image credits: 1. Portrait of Abir Boukhari. 2. Work by artist Muhammed Ali, featured in the exhibition "I Will Never Get Used to Wait". 3. Work by artist Diana Jabi, featured in the exhibition "I Will Never Get Used to Wait". Image courtesy of Hangmen Projects. 4. Installation by artist Bayan Alsheikh, 2009, AllArtNow 5. Installation by Nisrine Boukhari from the Mosaic project, 2012, one of the last projects of AllArtNow that were carried out in Damascus. 6. Living Spaces Festival, performance by Luciana Lyrio. 7. Installation view, "I Will Never Get Used to Wait" at Hangmen Projects in Stockholm in October. Image courtesy of Hangmen Projects.