Growing up in a refugee camp in Damascus, Ahmad Joudeh loved only to dance. His father would routinely beat him up and burn his dance clothes, but Joudeh continued — in defiance of his father, and later of the Islamic State group. Then, a Dutch filmmaker happened to meet Joudeh, and arranged for him to travel to Amsterdam in 2016 — where Joudeh became the only Arab dancer in the Dutch National Ballet company. His story, told through the form of a video titled 'Dance or Die' (it's the same phrase Joudeh has tattooed on the back of his neck, in Arabic), by the Fusion Media Group, is part of a new exhibition called 'Art For Peace', currently on display at the National Art Gallery in Islamabad, Pakistan.
Works by 22 other artists — primarily encompassing photography and video — are also part of the exhibition, which marks a collaboration between the Asia Peace Film Festival and the Conexus Project. The artist roster includes names like Yoko Ono ('War Is Over — If You Want It', posters), India's Cop Shiva ('Spring is Warmer than the Sea', about the refugee influx in Sweden), among others.
The work of each of these artists, selected from all over Asia, responded to a seemingly simple question: 'What is peace?'
"By definition, peace is related to freedom from disturbance; (it signifies) quiet, tranquility, equanimity, harmony, calm, restfulness. Among all the possibilities and interpretations of peace, one may wonder: how do we sense it? Is it a way, a question? An answer? A need? A desire or a dream?" reads the curatorial note for Art For Peace.
"Art For Peace, promoted by the Asia Peace Film Festival, invites Asian artists to reflect on their perceptions of the theme through contemporary art pieces. The participant artists share an interest in personal, political, historical and cultural conversations, in a complex web of inter-connections and subjective dialogues. Throughout their artworks, they debate the effects and consequences of local, international, present and past conflicts, proposing a space of reflexion on themes of peace, harmony and balance in different levels. These pieces do so by bringing a situation to the spotlight or stimulating dialogue and human connections, proposing answers or leaving a space for questions to come," it states.
The theme of 'peace' may seem straightforward enough, but Sheila Zago, founder of the Conexus Project, had a monumental task on hand as she began the process of curating the Art For Peace exhibition.
"This project was an invitation from the Asia Peace Film Festival to Conexus, which is the project that I coordinate," Sheila explained to Firstpost. "I work a lot with projects that have to do with peace, with art and education, how art can actually change people's lives, its therapeutic qualities, including a lot of work with refugees. When the APFF approached us and said, 'We want a project about peace' — at first, it seemed easy. But as you research more, you find that there's very little in art that's directly about peace. You find a lot about conflict...asking people to go back to peace. I was also tasked with finding only Asian artists. It was very important to have as many artists from different countries and sub-continents of Asia, because it was important for us to have diversity in point of view...and you can see the diversity in the places where they come from too."
That diversity is seen in the range of themes tackled by the artists whose works were chosen to be showcased. Sheila says, "Some pieces talk about the new realities of the world we live in, such as refugees; we have a Russian artist talking about war in the region (Ilyas Hajji, 'Between War and Peace', 2016); a Japanese artist (Kensuke Koike, 'What Matters Most', 2017) tackling the perceptions we have in the images we see... He uses a video of Hitler and erases his moustache — as a symbol of erasing something bad to create something new. There are really a variety of points of view towards peace. There is an artist from Saudi Arabia (Ibrahim Abumsmar, 'Al-Mabkhara - Premium Incense', 2010) who took a piece of a bomb and turned it into an incense burner — suggesting that we can turn something that represents war into something peaceful. There are different mediums too — most of the work at the exhibition is either photography or video, but some of the photographs are of previous installations/sculptures, so it's also a conversation between different types of art."
Among the artists chosen is Murad Subay from Yemen, who couldn't make it to Islamabad for the exhibition because of the situation in his home country. Subay's Street Art for Peace, an ongoing photo series that dates back to 2012, shows his community work as a street artist painting for peace.
Like Subay, there were other artists whose work Sheila hoped to bring down to Islamabad for Art For Peace, but couldn't because of budgetary and other constraints. She hopes to continue the project on a larger scale, and also take it to different countries, including India. It would be one way of having the dialogue started in Islamabad heard in other places around Asia, and the world.
This is especially important in these troubled times, when art can offer a way to connect people. Sheila believes in the power of art to bring about positive change, and that is what the Conexus project aims to highlight as well.
"In a conflict situation, art has the power to bring people together, to make us think about our situation, to unify, to build something better together," Sheila says. And this power can be felt in a very tangible way. Sheila talks of projects in Syria, Lebanon over the past eight years, where she has seen how art changes people and communities. "Art brings (to these communities) colours and a space of dialogue — where people can talk about their sufferings, their expectations, their lives... Art is therapeutic, it changes the places where it's done — physically, with the colour, and in the way it brings people together, which is a very, strong powerful way to work on, into the direction of peace."
What an exhibition like Art For Peace can achieve, ultimately, is reminding us of how much we have in common — no matter where we come from.
"I honestly believe we are all the same," says Sheila. "We feel layers of cultural differences here and there, but we're all seeking happiness, and we're afraid of suffering. If we could only see that, through different perspectives, we would not let war or the disturbance of peace of any kind to continue, and art is a tool that can make this happen — that can make this connection."
Full list of participating artists:
Cop Shiva, India; Fusion Media Group, Syria/The Netherlands; Helen Zugheib + Amy Joseph, Lebanon; Ibrahim Abumsmar, Saudi Arabia; Ilyas Hajji, Russia; Kensuke Koike, Japan; Kubra Khademi, Afghanistan; Manal Deep, Palestine; Murad Subay, Yemen; Saks Afridi + Co-Artists, Pakistan; Salma Prithi, Bangladesh; What Took You So Long + MakeSense, Lebanon; Yael Riva Efrati, Israel; Yoko Ono, Japan/USA
Art For Peace, until 28 September 2017. At National Art Gallery — Islamabad, Pakistan
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Published Date: Sep 24, 2017 12:25 PM | Updated Date: Sep 26, 2017 12:35 PM