Quarantined militants, metal flowers

DUBAI: Surrounded by trees and birdsong, two 20-something adults stare at one another, expressionless. “Bite and flee ... like a fly harassing a lion,” says the woman in a black leather jacket and Moroccan-accented Arabic. “But the future is ours.”

“Our struggle has given our people a pride,” recites the hoody-clad man in Iraqi-accented Arabic, “and a hope, a self-confidence.”

The premise of Bouchra Khalili’s 16-minute video “Garden Conversation” is a conversation between two 20th-century revolutionary leaders – Ernesto Che Guevara and Abdelkarim al-Khattabi.

The Argentine revolutionary should be familiar for helping Fidel Castro overthrow America’s mafia clients in Havana. Khattabi, however, has been relatively overlooked by history. He was a guerrilla warfare pioneer and a leader of the Rif War (1921-26) before eventually being pushed into exile.

It seems Guevara and Khattabi met in Cairo and had an undocumented conversation in 1959. The Berlin-based Moroccan artist assembled their dialogue from the revolutionary texts they left behind.

“Garden Conversation” is a thoughtful study of cultural and political alienation that lives in its actors and context.

This is apparent in the actors’ Iraqi- and Moroccan-accented Arabic but even more in the utter lack of engagement or chemistry between them – she channeling Guevara, he Khattabi – as they recite words that are meant to be at once analytical and incendiary.

The work was shot in the forest-cum-garden of Los Pinos de Rostrogordo, in Spain’s Moroccan enclave of Melilla. Khattabi was imprisoned, tortured and politically radicalized there.

Equally significant, as a colonial outpost Melilla has been heavily securitized in order to prevent entry by African migrants seeking passage to Europe.

Los Pinos provides a quarantine where 20th-century militancy can be recalled and contained. Here the rhetoric of revolutionary internationalism is remembered by a generation of young Arabs whose political idealism has been manipulated in the past few years, then throttled.

Khalili’s is one of five works on display in “Garden and Spring,” an exhibition of new work curated by London-based Nada Raza.

Abbas Akhavan’s “Study for a Hanging Garden” (cast bronze, cotton fabric) is an “act of commemoration” that archives plants endemic in regions around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the habitats of which were damaged first by Saddam’s destruction of salt marshes, then by the effects of war.

Anup Mathew Thomas’ “Nurses” (C-print, Diasec, 60 x 80 cm each) consists of 48 portraits of nurses of Keralan origin employed in hospitals and care facilities around the world – nurses being the single largest group of professional female migrants from that region.

Kamrooz Aram’s wall installation “Ancient Through Modern: A Collection of Uncertain Objects, Part 1” (mixed media, approximately 244 x 434 x 56 cm) consists of painting, ceramics and collage arranged to echo the displays in popular museums such as the Paris Louvre. The aim is to investigate how museums serve a longing for mythical pasts.

Basim Magdy’s “The Dent” (19 min) is a loving application of Super 16mm film to a reflection upon collective failure and hopefulness. The film component weaves through a montage of images shot in Paris, New York, Brussels, Quebec City, Basel, Madeira, Prague and Venice. It concludes with the demise of a circus elephant, an end reached via the description of an odd public event in an anonymous town dreaming of international recognition.

“Garden and Spring” had an ephemeral life last week at Art Dubai. Each year the fair exhibits the works emerging from the Abraaj Group Prize (née Abraaj Capital Art Prize). The Dubai-based private equity firm invests a pot of money in a number of professionally vetted project proposals from young artists from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia (MENASA).

A mutable thing since its inception six years ago, the prize has always been lucrative. With each artist receiving $100,000 to realize a piece, the AGP has afforded emerging artists a chance to create more ambitious work than usually possible in a region where both state support and private patronage of the arts are rare as hens’ teeth.

The prize’s recent editions have assembled winning works as curated exhibitions before they revert to the firm’s private collection – where they’ve been made available to exhibitors and curators.

“Garden and Spring” will be the last such show. During Art Dubai Abraaj Group managing director Fred Sicre announced that in future the prize will be awarded to only one artist-curator team – not five, as has been the case most recently. Henceforward, the winning artist’s new work will be shown in the context of selected older pieces.

Complementing this retrenchment was the announcement of the Abraaj Group Innovation Award, a two-year postgraduate scholarship program for five students – presumably MENASA artists – at London’s Royal College of Art.

The intention, Sicre said, is to make the Abraaj Group Art Prize more “competitive.”

Raza decided not to publish a catalogue or booklet series to accompany her exhibition, opting instead for a digital publication.

Here the public can find the artists’ and curator’s thoughts on, and documentation of, their works complemented by further writing by five authors commissioned to respond to each artist’s project proposal. The curator can thus be seen to embrace the transience inherent in “Garden and Spring.”

The online catalog accompanying ‘Garden and Spring’ can be found at

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 25, 2014, on page 16.




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