Murtaza Vali 2017-11-30 21:29:01
After two decades of helping to build Beirut’s art scene with Ashkal Alwan, Christine Tohmé spreads her institutional wisdom across the region with an expanded 13th Sharjah Biennial. Approaching its 25th anniversary, Ashkal Alwan: The Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts remains at the heart of Beirut’s sophisticated art scene. Much of its success can be attributed to the tireless efforts of its tenacious director, Christine Tohmé, a passionate, outspoken advocate for art and culture in Lebanon and across the Middle East. Tohmé co-founded Ashkal Alwan in 1993, and through the rest of that decade, this itinerant institution presented exhibitions and events at sites across Beirut, from its public gardens to the Corniche, its famous seaside promenade. “The urban fabric of postwar Beirut was fractured and frail and full of possibilities,” she recalls. “There was no infrastructure, no foundations. The city was a tabula rasa for desires and discourses around cultural and civic issues.” As politicians hurried to restore Beirut to its former cosmopolitan glory, erasing all signs of the protracted civil war, Ashkal Alwan’s often-controversial interventions deployed art as a civic tool, to reclaim public space and initiate critical dialogue in a still-divided city. In 2002, Tohmé inaugurated Home Works: A Forum on Cultural Practices, a biennial multidisciplinary showcase— encompassing commissioned lectures, screenings, performances, exhibitions and publications—that quickly attracted international curators interested in the region’s burgeoning cultural scene. Nine years later, Tohmé capitalized on the organization’s success to establish the Home Workspace Program, a rigorous, tuition-free yearlong study program for young artists, addressing a need for criticality within arts education. “Beirut, like all cities, is a constantly changing organism to which we need to respond and push against,” she says. “Ashkal Alwan’s dedication to facilitating art production, education and research means that no year is the same. Though much has changed since its formation, the precarity of artistic production and institutions still informs the work we do.” This year’s Sharjah Biennial was the first such event that Tohmé has curated. It was titled “Tamawuj”—an Arabic word meaning “a rising and falling in waves”—and Tohmé transformed it from a discrete localized event into a transnational source of infrastructure, collaborating with long-standing interlocutors on multidisciplinary events presented throughout 2017—in Dakar, Istanbul and Ramallah—and closing in mid-October with a Home Works-style event in Beirut. TAO Dance Theater, 4, 2017, shown as part of Sharjah Biennial 13, “Tamawuj,” at Al Madina Theater in Beirut.
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