Exciting cultural developments in Turkey and UAE set the trend for the future.

Two new initiatives in the field of culture, one in the UAE and one in Turkey, are setting a trend that is bound to be followed in many other countries. Dennis Sammut writes on why he thinks this is so exciting.

In the Emirate of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates a new art gallery opened last month with an exhibition entitled “Alienation” which the organisers describe as “a new season of debate and cultural endeavour in the Gulf”. The exhibition is an initiative of Sultan Saud al Qassemi and his Barjeel Art Foundation. Sultan Saud al Qassemi is emerging as one of the most progressive and forward-looking young thinkers in the Gulf. His blogs have thousands of followers in the region and beyond, and he is much in demand as a speaker on the international conference circuit.

The themes of the exhibition are challenging, and in the context of the Gulf, as well as current trends in the Arab world, they are very much thought-provoking. According to the exhibition website:

“Alienation, a state of being detached or estranged, can refer to how people are excluded or marginalised due to barriers in language, culture, religion, social disposition, sexuality or political views. That which is familiar to a mainstream of a society is valued while elements regarded as foreign or “alien” are treated with suspicion.

The consequences of these barriers take shape in various contexts, including ties between nations and ideological clashes between individuals. As authorities make decisions to draw borders and stipulate regulations and rights in the foreground, alienation seeps into the background and can be viewed in the individual stories of people affected by it.

Works in this exhibition highlight how alienation is manifested in scenarios as diverse as geopolitical relations and personal daily experiences. The works investigate the banalities of immigration processes, as well as ideas of national identity, urbanisation and the human condition.”

Perhaps the most unusual exhibit is that of Melbourne based Rafaat Ishak. His “Responses to an immigration request from one hundred and ninety four governments” tells in art the story of how 194 governments responded when he contacted them saying that he was an Egyptian bord Australian and wanted to emigrate to their country. As Antonia Carver, Director of Art Dubai states in an introduction to the exhibition catalogue “it is reflective of an endurance test known only too well by those who spend their travelling lives seeking visas and shengens, and dealing with border politics”.

When I visited the exhibition last month I could not help feel that it had encapsulated in art a lot of the emotions that one often encounters when travelling within the contemporary Arab world, and that somehow have not been able to find a way of expressing themselves to a wider audience.

The second piece of news comes from Turkey, and is equally exciting. World famous author and Nobel peace price winner Orhan Pamuk will shortly open a Museum of Innocence in the city of Istanbul that he loves so much and that he encapsulates so brilliantly in many of his novels.

Pamuk has issued a “manifesto” to explain and accompany his Museum of Innocence, a visual manifestation of aspects of his novel of the same name. The manifesto was published in the Turkish daily Taraf before being released to the international media, and was summarised in Hurriyet Daily News. According to the paper in the “manifesto” Pamuk  says that he is against the idea big museums like the Louvre or the Metropolitan should be the models for future museums. “Museums should represent humanity… but state-supported museums aim to represent the state, not individuals. This is not a good or an innocent goal,” Pamuk’s manifesto reads.

The Museum of Innocence attempts to represent life in Istanbul between 1950 and 2000, and  will open at the end of April in an old building in Çukurcuma, a traditional area of central Istanbul. Having been a Pamuk fan for a while, and having tried to visualise what he describes in novels such as My Name is Red or Snow, I have to say I cannot wait  to visit it.

Pamuk says in his manifesto,

“We are fed up with museums that attempt to tell the story of a group, a nation, a company, a state and so on. We all know that the ordinary story of individuals is more humanistic and pleasing.” “Museums should be smaller, more individual and cheaper. This is the only way they can express the stories of individuals. We are called upon to remember the state in big museums. This is why millions of people are afraid of going to museums.”

“The money spent for large, monumental museums should instead be spent on small museums telling the stories of individuals. Funding sources should encourage and support people in turning their small houses into museums.”

Neither Sultan Saud al Qassemi or Orhan Pamuk can be described as being your average joe, and both have possibilities that may not be available to others to put their ideas in reality. Yet these two initiatives are both extremely commendable and are bound to be followed by others.

In the meantime I strongly recommend to visitors in either Sharjah or Istanbul to visit these new places of culture. 

Alienation open on 24 March and  will be open until 28 September 2012 at the Maraya Art Centre, level two in Al Qasba, Sharjah. The Museum of Innocence will open at the end April in Istanbul.

Dennis Sammut is the Director of LINKS and is based in Oxford. He can be contacted at dennis@links-dar.org.

photo credit: The exhibition Alienation at the Maraya Art Gallery in Sharjah. (picture courtesy of the Barjeel Art Foundation)