Sharjah's March Meeting: talking to itself or the wider community?

The 2016 March meeting kicks off tomorrow and will discuss education, participation and engagement in the Middle East and beyond

The ninth edition of the Sharjah arts conference, March Meeting, is about education, engagement and participation. The panels will include discussions on the development of arts institutions and programming, particularly in places lacking in arts infrastructure or support such as those in much of the wider Middle East. Speakers therefore hail from a range of international institutions but are predominantly from Middle Eastern, Asian and African countries, including Christine Tohmé, the founding director of Ashkal Alwan, The Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, Lebanon; Susanna Chung, the head of learning and participation at Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong; and Patrick Mudekereza, the director of Waza, Centre d’art de Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo.

The March Meeting 2016 also includes the exhibition The Time is Out of Joint, curated by Tarek Abou El Fetouh, the director of the Young Arab Theatre Fund and Meeting Points Festival. At first sight, El Fetouh’s show appears to connect thematically with the Global Art Forum in neighbouring Dubai, with its focus on regional experiences of time and the future. However, closer examination reveals that the exhibition stages an internal debate—the art world speaking to itself—using the first Arab Biennial in Baghdad (1974), the China/Avant-Garde exhibition in Beijing (1989) and the future Jogja Equator Conference (2022) to “question constraints of time and place”. This self-referential international art world discourse has become increasingly characteristic of the programming of the Sharjah Art Foundation, evident in the more recent editions of the Sharjah Biennial and the March Meetings.

The March Meetings began in 2008 with a manifesto to address institutions and art production in the Arab world, and facilitate regional networking. The meetings have always been about and for the art world, not the broader audience, with the Arab art world the central concern during its formative years. More recently, the March Meetings and Sharjah Biennials have become more international and rarified, with the numbing artspeak that David Levine and Alix Rule call “international art English”. For example, the 11th Sharjah Biennial (2013), curated by Yuko Hasegawa, focused on the traditional courtyards of old Sharjah as spaces of exchange, but she described the project opaquely as “a re-orientation of knowledge that acknowledges the complexity and porosity of cultures [considering] how these legacies are successively negotiated”. The politics of migration, diversity and inequality that characterise Gulf cities make such a thesis relevant, but this obscure language is a form of intellectual colonialism that excludes the communities being debated—and others—from participation. The Sharjah Arts and Heritage Area is by the old port, in a part of town dominated by the South Asian community, and there have been labels in South Asian languages, but this will remain a token gesture if the programming is so conceptually inaccessible. The question is whether this year’s March Meeting will use the theme of education, engagement and participation to involve both the Emiratis and the foreign workers and if it will go beyond a performance of, and for, itself.

March Meeting 2016, 12-13 March 2016, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates