The IETM in Beirut was an interesting meeting point between art professionals from the MENA (Middle East and North African) region and beyond. I really enjoyed sharing these days and learning more about cultural similarities and differences. In the context of the meeting it felt refreshing to discuss the international art field from a non-western perspective. I feel it is important to consider the role and possibilities of the arts and artists in local and globalised contexts. I personally believe that art has the ability to question and redefine our world. I feel that sharing artistic experiences can bring us closer to each other as human beings and closer to the essence of what it is to be alive. Art and education encourage critical thinking and when different cultures come together we support each other by broadening our daily life perspectives. At IETM I felt inspired and motivated by the energy and passion that was present among the participants.
The MENA region is large and the distances are far. The art scene is incredibly rich and diverse, but the creative opportunities and possibilities vary a lot between the different countries. The social and political situation in each place affects the situation of the art scene strongly and directly. The artists are constantly negotiating and renegotiating both their intellectual and physical space of expression. In some places the artists have become experts on communicating their content through subtext or in so-called underground contexts. They are the masters of expressing their thoughts and ideas in unconventional ways. Although this has mostly grown out of pure necessity in order to share their work and reflections, I also sense a common identity there which is very creative, to say the least.
This creativity is one of the aspects which strongly attracts me personally towards the art scene of the MENA region. There seem to be so many layers of thoughts linked to every experience, and a certain mysticism. The scene is challenging and brave, exciting and very much alive. I wish there were a lot more dialogue between the cultures in the MENA region and the rest of the world. It was interesting to hear how many exciting initiatives are emerging and how many already exist. I feel there is an energy present in the art scene there which feels very much needed for surviving the global crisis caused by capitalism which we are currently in the midst of. The participants at IETM described diverse experiences of how art has opened up important discourses in their societies which help connecting people. Many are working on artistic projects in public spaces. Art needs to be available to everybody, irrelevant of social or economical conditions.
From what I understood from IETM, there is an issue of a major lack of financial support from local governments towards the art scene in the MENA region. It can be more accessible for artists to get an opportunity in Europe or America rather than within the region. To have financial support from abroad is currently important and has advantages, but as discussed it can contain certain disadvantages as well. As somebody at IETM phrased it: “what is good arabic art” could be decided from the perspective of a different cultural context. The dialogue is necessary and important, but it was underlined that a certain autonomy towards the local scene in each country needs to be kept in order to not repeat colonialist approaches. People spoke of how many subsidies nowadays have an agenda which limits the creative frame. If, for example, artists in the region can only get subsidised from abroad when they research about refugees or warfare-related subjects, their creativity is restricted. It is very important to aim for creating conditions for the development of a diverse scene with many different voices.
As it is important to keep developing networks between different countries and cultures, it is also important to keep improving the work situation in each specific context. There is a lot of knowledge in our world which is not being shared. I personally advocate to look closer to ourselves and see what our individual impact can be, not only on a personal level but also on a community level. I wonder how artists can be more supportive and solitary of each other’s creative practices. I think it is something that we need to keep reflecting upon and asking ourselves. It feels essential to keep learning about the different conditions people are living and creating within in order to have a dialogue based on respect and mutual understanding. It feels necessary to support each other in this development, not only in the art field but also on a human level. To share information and opportunities.
I believe that art and culture are needed more than ever for dialogue, mutual respect and peace. It is important to not label artists because of where they come from, but to recognise each individual for who they are and what they do. From the west, east, south or north ‒ we are different but the same. In order to gain a better understanding of each other it feels important to meet in person, to speak, to reflect, to experience, to share and to listen. To seek to understand. And then to share, again. To join the discourse of circulating information and knowledge, not only through the internet and media but also in person. Art plays an important role of bringing different communities and cultures together and opening up a dialogue. I really believe it is necessary to listen to the experience of others when trying to understand different contexts as, evidently, this experience is theirs and not yours. As an artist I find it important to personally get to know the different conditions people are working and living in around the world. I feel that as a global community we tend to focus much more on our differences than on our similarities. People fight for their own interests and, as a result, we have become very disconnected. I believe that culture and art can be a catalyst in changing this relation. Sharing an artistic experience helps to connect people and motivates reflective dialogues. I am looking forward to keep my artistic exchange, collaborations and dialogues going with artists, organisations and audience in the MENA region. In the end we are all small pieces of the same enormous puzzle which makes up humanity. Through the combination of our similarities and differences we make up a colourful and resourceful globalised community ‒ an interconnected whole.
About the author
Bára Sigfúsdóttir is an Icelandic choreographer and dancer living and working in Brussels.
By means of an open call, Kunstenpunt/Flanders Arts Institute invited arts professionals to apply for participation in the Satellite Meeting IETM 2016. From the submitted applications, five participants were selected, among whom choreographer-dancer Bára Sigfúsdóttir. They wrote down their impressions in a travel report.