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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 13 November 2019

'Internalised colonialism': politics and culture merge in work by Middle Eastern artists at Videobrasil

The Sao Paulo arts festival acts as a cultural crossroads amid global political turbulence
Dana Awartani's 'I went away and forgot you. A while ago I remembered. I remembered I'd forgotten you. I was dreaming' (2017). Divulgacao, Videobrasil  

“When I see art by all these different communities, you can recognise they were made within similar political situations.” The Lebanese filmmaker Ahmad Ghossein is at the packed opening day of the 21st Videobrasil in Sao Paulo, an art festival that exclusively features artists from the “global south”, a term to cover countries within the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America. Rather than a geographic term, it often refers to a “post-colonial” grouping of countries.

The organisers of this festival, which was founded by curator Solange Farkas in 1983, take advantage of the slipperiness of the term to also include artists from indigenous communities in North America. “Before the global south was established as an idea, I wanted to bring artists from abroad to Brazil whom had a common colonial past,” Farkas says. “I wanted to map that history through art.”

Ghossein’s The Fourth Stage is being shown during a series of cinema screenings, which accompany the exhibition at SESC 24 de Maio, a vast arts and sports complex in downtown Sao Paulo. His film, which was originally commissioned by the Sharjah Art Foundation in 2015, tells the story of a travelling magician who disappears just as a series of aggressively monumental public sculptures appear across the south Lebanese landscape. Mixing fantasy with documentary, the work describes a society in which magic and nuance is replaced by political dogma.

Hrair Sarkissian took photos of public squares in Aleppo, Latakia and Damascus in 2008. Each was the site of a public execution. Videobrasil

“A lot of the work here deals with fraught histories because the artists are from countries that have to live with these stories always in the background,” Ghossein says. “Even if the art is not directly political, it’s there as an atmosphere, something you can almost smell as a visitor.”

Sometimes this feels almost literal. Playing nearby is Iraqi artist Hiwa K’s The Lemon Tastes of Apple, the title being a reference to the smell of the chemical weapons used against the Kurds by Saddam Hussein in 1988.

A backdrop of instability in Brazil

The festival opens as Brazil is experiencing its own political turbulence, with the arts community under pressure from the policies of the country’s new far-right president. Jair Bolsonaro won a tempestuous election last year amid a culture war orchestrated by his campaign to garner support among the country’s powerful conservatives. Bolsonaro secured 55.7 per cent of votes in the election’s second round.

Within this atmosphere, artists have proved to be an easy target, and several exhibitions and theatre productions have been subject of violent pickets. In July, Bolsonaro moved Ancine, Brazil’s film agency, under the direct control of his office so as to exert greater influence on the funding body. It was, he said, to ensure taxpayers’ cash would not be spent on “activism”.

At a news conference to mark the opening of Videobrasil, Danilo Santos de Miranda, director of SESC Sao Paulo – an organisation funded through contributions by private companies, and whose arts venues have long hosted the festival – condemned the “criminalisation of the arts today”.

“We are not activists, but as an institution we must put everything on the table,” he declared from the stage to applause.

'This violence will stay with you'

Foreign artists operating within this political situation say their work is being read differently. Hrair Sarkissian is a Syrian artist exhibiting a series of large-format photographs he took of public squares in Aleppo, Latakia and Damascus in 2008. Each square was the site of a public execution. “I’ve shown this work many times, all around the world, but I think there is a particular relevance to bringing the photographs to Brazil right now, where there have also been state killings,” he says. “Not hangings, but police shootings; you see it on the news daily.”

Last month there were waves of protests after an eight-year-old girl was killed – allegedly by a stray police bullet – during a security operation in a slum in Rio de Janeiro. Agatha Vitoria Sales Felix is among the 1,249 people killed by police in the city in the first seven months of this year. “This violence will stay with you, especially if you’re young. I remember seeing a body on my way to school. I can never forget that,” Sarkissian says.

Building bridges

“The festival is primarily about building relationships,” Farkas explains. “That’s why we invite all the artists to be here for the festival, to meet each other.”

Ghossein agrees. “We need to influence each other more. All our theoretical tools come from Europe and that needs to change. We need to create bridges between the regions,” he says.

One way Videobrasil aims to do this is through a series of residency programmes operated with partners globally. Last week, artist Dana Awartani from Jeddah was announced as a winner of a funded stay at an arts centre in Salvador, in the north of Brazil. Likewise, Lebanese artist Omar Mismar was awarded a residency in Chengdong, north-west China, and Congolese artist Nelson Makengo will be hosted by the Sharjah Arts Foundation next year. At SESC 24 de Maio, Awartani has laid a mosaic floor, in the Islamic style.

It is made up of coloured sand meticulously arranged in a geometric pattern. In an accompanying video the artist is seen sweeping away a similar installation, this time in a house in Jeddah, revealing the western-style tiling underneath.

There was a perception that emulating western culture made you more civilised

Dana Awartani, artist

Awartani says her work concerns the disregarding of Saudi design, in favour of an international style of architecture. “Saudi Arabia was never colonised, but we colonised ourselves,” she says. “We had such a strong tradition of Hejazi design, a mixture of Egyptian, Indian and local heritage, but in the 1960s and ’70s all the elite families wanted European-style homes. There was a perception that emulating western culture made you more civilised.”

Jonathas de Andrade, one of Brazil’s most prominent young artists is also showing a work in which the historic cultural dominance of the west comes under scrutiny. In 2014, he visited Amman. Walking the city’s streets, he asked people to describe what they thought Jesus looked like. Their responses recorded in the exhibition alongside 20 photographs of young Jordanian men, taken at the same time. The images are “possible candidates for a new image of Jesus,” the artist says, faces that do not conform to the pale-skinned figure de Andrade grew up with at school and church.

An installation shot that show's Dana Awartani's work on display. Divulgacao, Videobrasil

“I was very interested in how much alike people in the Middle East looked to people from where I’m from in the northeast of Brazil,” he says. The responses to his question on Amman’s streets, he says, uncovered “so many layers of prejudice, of internalised colonialism”.

It is countering this that makes Videobrasil so important, the artist explains. “Having an institution in Brazil dedicated to making the southern worlds closer is really very special. We really need this.”

Videobrasil runs until Sunday, February 2, 2020

Updated: October 19, 2019 05:48 PM