I should warn you, art has never really been my thing. I have never felt comfortable contemplating art pieces, analyzing them or describing what I feel when I look at them — partly because I feel nothing. As you might imagine, then, attending the Abu Dhabi Talking Art Series was a novel experience for me. The Talking Art Series is an ongoing series of discussions — usually conducted under different contexts and diverse methods of presentation — that examine the development of museums and cultural life in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and the future of the Saadiyat Cultural District.
Organized by Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, Agency France-Muséums and the École du Louvre, the Talking Art Series, was introduced in 2011. The panel discussions are leading towards the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, slated for November 2015. The series examines some of the ideas that go into creating a museum collection, such as universality, discovery, education, cross-cultural engagement, rituals, faith and religion, issues that the museum also includes in its mission statement. Exhibitions and discussions are organized with the idea of raising the awareness of people on such issues. The collection will explore the aesthetic beauty of ancient and contemporary art pieces created by artists from all over the world. The Louvre’s placement in Abu Dhabi specifically is significant as it is built in one of the most cosmopolitan and international cities in the Middle East. In a way, the museum will create a linkage between different cultures, an idea that was emphasized at the beginning of this panel.
Vincent Pomarède, former Director of the Painting Department at the Louvre Museum in Paris and current Director of Mediation and Cultural Programming, spoke about some of these ideas. In very fast-paced French, he eloquently described the life and career of Leonardo da Vinci, along with a discussion of one of Da Vinci’s paintings, La Belle Ferronnière, which will be presented at the opening of the Louvre in 2015. The speaker dove into the history of Ferronnière, its placement in Abu Dhabi, and its significance as one of Da Vinci’s works, along with an explanation of the process of its restoration.
What struck me as I listened was the discovery of how little I knew about Da Vinci. Pomarède defines Da Vinci as a sculptor, an architect, and an engineer, as well as many Renaissance qualities. He also explained that the intricate details of Da Vinci’s paintings exemplify the artist’s rich and versatile talents. Da Vinci is considered, by Pomarède (and perhaps a large portion of the art world), the embodiment of creativity, whose innovative artistic techniques signify that he was not easily intimidated by the possibility of failure. Pomarède even states that one of Da Vinci’s most famous works, The Last Supper, was considered a failure at the time. Though I’ll admit I had no idea that The Last Supper was even a piece by Da Vinci, what Pomarède mentioned so casually shocked me, given the modern view of the greatness of the piece and its representation of religion in a different and, to some people, spiritual way. Da Vinci is also famous for his realistic conveying of beautiful women in works such as the Portrait De Ginevra De’ Benci or the Portrait of Beatrice D’Este.
This brings us to La Belle Ferronnière, the portrait of an unknown woman, with soft facial features and a beautiful design. In Pomarède’s words, the painting presents emotions and sensuality in Da Vinci’s unique yet realistic way. Pomarède hypothesized that the piece exemplifies details of Da Vinci’s personal life, perhaps inspired by the quest of his artistic self, in terms of how he wanted to create art and with what methods. Pomarède explained that art historians still do not understand the woman behind the painting, though they have (according to Pomarède) misinterpreted the artwork several times, trying to compare the woman to Da Vinci’s previous and future portraits but failing to find evidence that she is the same woman from any other portrait.
La Belle Ferronnière (1490–1496)
Oil on wood; 24 in. × 17 in.; The Louvre, Paris
Image source: Wikipedia
The portrait, which has recently undergone restoration in Paris, will be part of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s opening collection, which currently consists of over 300 objects. Looking at La Belle Ferronière, I felt the magnificence of the women behind the portrait. Many people consider Leonardo da Vinci to be a master of art, and I believe that a master is defined by the look of people upon his work and their perceptions of it. That is, in the end, what Da Vinci is trying to achieve in La Belle Ferronnière and in the rest of his work, which is I think what Pomarède was trying to convey. In the famous artist’s words, quoted by Pomaréde, “I am seeking that my works vibrate like musical tones in the eyes of the viewers.”
[Photo credit: Hadeel Marzouq]
Sue Coe is an artist-activist. Her paintings are striking, haunting, and incredibly powerful. Coe sneaks into slaughterhouses, and documents the horrors she sees there through her brushstrokes. In her work, bleeding lambs collapse beneath the bold title ‘CRUEL’, their slit throats bleeding into a corporate’s open money bag. Pigs scream in agony, encased in gas chambers, collapsing on top of one another in a slew of twisted bodies. Cold machines grind hopeless living bodies into a sick concoction of limbs and parts. Coe leaves nothing to the imagination, each image imbued with a meaning that goes far beyond aesthetic beauty; her work makes a pointed statement about corporate corruption. These works force the viewer to confront their meat consumption in a very real way.
Coe grew up next to a slaughterhouse and in a recent lecture at NYU Abu Dhabi, sponsored by the NYUAD Institute and the NYUAD Film/Media program, Coe credited her career to the horrors contained within the walls of that slaughterhouse. As she speaks her words rush; she sounds as if she’s constantly on the verge of tears. Seemingly without noticing, she flits from point to point in a way that often is not entirely harmonious. It is as if the horror of her subject material has detached her from the room and its occupants, as if her connection with living beings is tainted. Every so often during the presentation she hits us with a fact that is as shocking as a physical blow: the living conditions of sheep when they are shipped from country to country, the horrific way in which pigs are gassed to death simply to save manpower and therefore money, and the heavy metal music that factory workers play in the slaughterhouses to drown out the screams of the dying animals and prevent the workers from going insane within the nightmare that is their daily existence.
Coe uses only a pencil and sketchbook, saying that anything more than that gets her too involved in the technical side of things. As long as you have a pencil and paper, she says, you can take things down – there’s an immediacy to the act. Technique is a test of sincerity in the sense that before art becomes a weapon, it has to be art. There is no content without form, even content as powerful and self-sufficient as hers. So she learned how to create the form, fast.
“[The maiming, the meat industry, the killing] goes on whether I’m there or not, “ she says, “and I prefer it if I’m there.” What is the interplay between empathy and disconnect? How does she balance her own sense of humanity with the resistance to the plight of others? Making her living from observing and documenting death, there must surely be a danger of getting too involved, a danger of succumbing to insanity, just like the subjects of her art. Coe seems to have lost faith in a lot of things already; she’s politically disillusioned, casually mentioning that “all politicians become corrupt eventually.” At one point Coe asks us whether we prioritize life or profit; and when we scoff that of course life matters more, she points out that prioritizing life over profit is exactly what the meat industry does NOT do.
Coe’s presentation encouraged the audience to consider this contradiction between disconnect and empathy that her work often embodies. On one hand, I cannot help but think of Coe as completely disengaged; she’s disengaged from the audience, as if she has a set number of words she’s trying to get through and can’t wait to be finished with her talk. She’s disengaged, too, from the galleries that purchase and exhibit her work; “they hate me,” she says casually, “but I win them awards.” She must be disengaged from the slaughtered animals she works next to; it would be otherwise impossible to stay sane in the living hell of the meat industry. On the other hand, it was empathy that initiated her career and her identity as an artist, and it is empathy that drives her work. It is by creating a sense of (sometimes painful) empathy that she hopes to facilitate social change.
Coe classes her work as “graphic journalism,” and somehow her artistic representation packs more of an emotional punch than the factuality of photojournalism. We cannot hide from the brutality of Coe’s images: pigs being gassed, machines grinding twisted bodies, endless streams of blood. And yet her images are not always precisely “true” in that they are not necessarily mimetic. The painting of lambs bleeding into corporate money bags, for instance, does not capture something that has actually happened but nevertheless captures a truth about the meat industry: its corruption and its insistence on profit at the expense of everything else.The medium of art, and its inherent ability to be fictional, digs at the viewer’s conscience in a way that photojournalism cannot. At the same time, however, because Coe does not romanticize or aestheticize her images, the work has a gritty realism that we frequently associate with reportage or journalism.
Coe’s art emerges from fact but her representations of fact are imbued with her own disillusionment, her sorrow and hopelessness in the face of capitalist greed and the impossible power of the corporation and lure of the profit motive. Coe makes it clear that she will continue fighting, despite her sense that nothing she is working towards will be achieved in her lifetime. She concluded her talk with a gut-wrenching final fact, any semblance of hope long buried within layers of this clearly evident disillusionment: “We don’t see our victories because the bad is so overwhelming.”
Turning the woolly marine creations around in her hands, Margaret Wertheim, one of the founders of the Crochet Coral Reef Project and co-director of the Institute for Figuring, spoke to a small, but diverse collection of people from the New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) community. Students, faculty members, Global Academic Fellows, administrative staff, and members of the Abu Dhabi community were in attendance for the workshop, each person closely listening—with a ball of yarn in one hand and a crochet hook in the other.
The Crochet Coral Reef Project was co-created in 2005 by Margaret Wertheim and Christine Wertheim, inspired by their mutual concern for the devastating effects the rising of temperature and pollution have had on the coral reefs. Ms. Wertheim and her sister, Christine, grew up in Queensland in Australia, where the Great Barrier Reef has been ravaged by the warming of the water. “[The project] has exceeded our expectations in any possible way,” said Ms. Wertheim, while starting to crochet a simple green coral reef structure. “When my sister and I started this project in 2005, we honestly thought that maybe 20 or 30 people would be interested in doing this project with us, and now there are well over 7000 people who have made models for the exhibitions themselves, and 3 million people have seen the exhibitions- we never imagined it would become a world-wide phenomenon.”
Ms. Wertheim showed the participants the different hyperbolic structures that could be made with a simple knowledge of crochet techniques, from a tight, dense hyperbolic pane made with red yarn, to a more elaborate kelp-like structure made from a special material called Jelly Yarn. The coral reef can be crocheted with any material, even with strips of disposed plastic bags, a bold statement in itself that protests against the immeasurable amount garbage present in the ocean today.
The most significant achievement of the Crochet Coral Reef Project is that in bringing the various levels of community together, the end result reflects the overarching culture of the region in which the project is executed. Together, participants create a rich composition of textures that represent the various customs, attitudes, and lifestyle of their community. Each city that has participated in creating a Satellite Reef has exhibited a different theme—and message—to its viewers. I suspect that the NYUAD Satellite Reef will be a veritable conglomeration of shapes, sizes, and colours, owing to the spectacular diversity of backgrounds present in the community body. “Abu Dhabi is a very unique place to be doing this project for various reasons,” said Ms. Wertheim, continuing on to expound on the logistical challenges the location has already presented – “This is the first time that we have done [the Reef project] in the Middle East, which is exciting in its own right, but [New York University Abu Dhabi] is very eager to involve people from all sectors of society as much as possible, which presents many logistical challenges because there is a [severe] separation of communities here…[one must] do outreach to individual communities…there is the student community, the Emirati community, the guest workers who work at NYU, the academic staff, and each of these populations have to be targeted in a different way.” Although NYUAD students fully embrace the cosmopolitan nature of the university, they have also experienced much difficulty in connecting with the different populations that exist within the university. Communal projects like the Crochet Coral Reef Project are important because they present great opportunities for collaboration across the community that might otherwise have difficulty establishing connections.
An important aspect of the project is its connection to feminism. Crochet as a handicraft has traditionally been passed down from mother to daughter, and remains to this day a female-dominated activity. It is not surprising, then, that the participants in the Crochet Coral Reef Project are almost all female. In fact, the project has met with disapproval from some women, who consider the project to be propagating the stereotype that women must take care of domestic responsibilities, and engage in feminine activity in their free time. The tradition of a mother teaching her daughter “hand work” has suffered over the past half-century, in part due to the idea that these skills are “old-fashioned,” or limiting. The word ‘feminist’ has developed negative connotations precisely because of those who call themselves active feminists and challenge the traditional separation of roles and hobbies to advocate sexual prejudices, mistaking cultural gender differences to indicate sexual discrimination; in this way of taking issue with everything, people have ceased to take their concerns seriously because the resolution of such matters does not advance the agenda for equality. It is altogether too easy to forget that feminism is the advocacy of woman’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men- the abolition of a traditional handicraft will never achieve this feat, and will more compromise the rich history and significance of female history.
Lamenting that gender feminism has overwhelmed what was coined as equity feminism by Christina Hoff Sommers in her book, Who Stole Feminism, Ms. Wentheim declared that crochet is a distinctly feminine activity that empowers women and men alike, a technical skill of artistry that must be mastered like any other skill or craft. The Crochet Coral Reef Project is a feminist project that unites women and men from all walks of life, allowing them to collaborate on making stunning models of marine structures through the beautiful feminine tradition of crochet. Personally, I felt joy in learning how to crochet again, because my mother had been increasingly reluctant to teach me the technique as I grew older.
The opening statement on the Crochet Coral Reef website is the perfect distillation of the project: “The Crochet Coral Reef is a woolly celebration of the intersection of higher geometry and feminine handicraft, and a testimony to the disappearing wonders of the marine world.” The people who attended the workshop held at NYUAD had varying levels of experience with crochet, but all were present because they had taken advantage of the communal space and time that the project created for the community. Bringing the Crochet Coral Reef Project to NYUAD is the beginning of a powerful series of conversations across the many layers of community extant in the university, one that will gain momentum as the project progresses.
For more information about the NYUAD Crochet Coral Reef project, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
We are delighted to announce that American author Lauren Groff, author of several novels, including Arcadia (listed as one of the best books of 2012 by The Globe and Mail, Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times). Ms. Groff will be reading on Tuesday, February 26th, at 6:30 in the NYU Abu Dhabi campus garden. (Click here for a map to campus, and here for The National‘s review of her novel.) The reading is free and open to the public. We hope to see you there!
[Illustration by Darya Soroko]
“Why do you want to make films?” Shyam Benegal peers curiously around the ethnically diverse group of NYUAD film students, who have woken early on a Saturday to attend a master class with the renowned director. Benegal has made 24 features, 42 documentaries, and 4 television series, garnered awards and nominations at the largest international film festivals, and received the highest accolades given to artists by the Republic of India. “Don’t be shy,” he chuckles. It seems almost a reversal of roles, but the ever-curious Benegal is intent on provoking us to reflect on our personal histories– an attitude that permeates his day-to-day attitude as much as his filmmaking.
Part of a three-day retrospective organized in collaboration with the Indian Embassy and Indian Film Society of the UAE, this class is structured more like a round table forum than a formal lecture. The director leads an intimate Q&A about his life, his culture, and, in particular, his views on filmmaking.
Benegal’s work focuses largely on how religious and cultural influences shape the individual and pushes viewers to think about concepts of universality and identification in an increasingly globalized world. This message seems particularly relevant given the demographics of today’s class – a group of young, expatriated students at an expatriated university, in an ever-expanding global city.
A soft-spoken Emirati girl pauses, then speaks: “Why I want to make films? Sometimes I struggle to express myself with words…it makes more sense on screen.” Another student steps in: “From where I am from in Mexico, we are in search of an identity, and believe film will be a way of exploring it in the future. I really hope to be a part of this process.” The 77-year-old director nods thoughtfully, then proceeds to ask each student about their respective backgrounds and local film cultures.
For a man who is widely regarded as legendary trailblazer in the New Indian Cinema and cultural ambassador at home and abroad, what is most striking about Shyam Benegal is the unpretentious way he discusses his art. “I began making films in an advertising agency!” he exclaims, describing his early love for the moving image, which began with watching his father’s old home movies. Later, as a publicity guy, Benegal produced more than 900 advertisements. Benegal’s engaging, truthful style of storytelling can be credited to these modest cinematic beginnings.
“There was no such thing as film school,” he says, reflecting upon his entry into the film industry in the 1950s. What there was, however, was new generation of highly educated, socially conscious Indians in a search of an authentic sense of national connection following nearly a century of British rule. Benegal connected with this new market by combining the underground Indian film style known as ‘parallel cinema’, which told homegrown stories and real human experiences, with the national Hindi language. (Parallel cinema had previously only been produced in local dialects.) Conveying intimate messages in a universal language is how Benegal believes the filmmaker can share “the essence of human experience.”
Benegal’s films connect with his audience on a deep emotional level, while at the same time reveal a strong social agenda. As with creating an advertisement, he wants his films to make you think about an issue or, better yet, do something about it. His first feature, Ankur (1974), was a local, gritty story set in his hometown of Hyderabad and tackled issues of domestic violence and sexual abuse. The film was awarded more than 45 international festival prizes, and presented a sharp turn from the melodramatic Bollywood style that still characterizes mainstream Indian cinema today. In contrast to many directors today, his candid approach is refreshing. “The key to making a good film is essentially to portray a good story,” he admits. However, there must be a message: “A film that has no take-away is not worth it.”
The ageing director today mourns the loss of emphasis on regional stories in contemporary mass media. Benegal has resisted the urge to make more commercially oriented features, and one of his recent projects includes a 53-part television series on the history of India. And yet, forever young, Benegal is still in search of new cultures, new mediums, and new stories to explore. It isn’t clear when – if ever – Shyam Benegal will tire of learning and growing as a filmmaker.
“I still don’t know anything!” he says, laughing, at the end of his talk, before we head for lunch. Our group leaves the class feeling humbled and quite inspired. NYUAD sophomore Hasan Nabulsi reflects: “The special thing about Benegal’s talk was the simplicity that he conveyed…I want to remind myself that simplicity is beautiful. I want to remind myself that truthful art will be well received, at least eventually.”
Shyam Benegal Timeline:
1934 – born in Trimulgherry, a British Cantonment
1959 – begins career as a copywriter at a Bombay-based advertising agency
1973-77 – release of four seminal films of the Indian alternative cinema: Ankur (1973), Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976) and Bhumika (1977)
1974 – Ankur nominated for Golden Berlin Bear
1976 – Nishant nominated for Cannes Palme d’Or
1980 – begins role as Director of the Indian National Film Development Corporation
1988 – directs the 53-episode television serial Bharat Ek Khoj, one of India’s largest television projects in history
1995-2001 – begins trilogy on Indian Muslim women: Mammo (1995), Sardari Begum (1996) and Zubeidaa (2001)
1999 – critiques the Indian caste system in his film Samar – the film goes on to be awarded the National Film Award for Best Feature Film
The crowd at Abu Dhabi’s Indian Embassy fidgeted in their seats during the introductory remarks. After several speeches, profuse thanks, and an unexpected break for refreshment, the lights dimmed. A red handkerchief fell from the sky: the opening scene of Shyam Benegal’s film Zubeidaa.
The narrative is structured as a story within a story. As journalist Riyaz researches his mother Zubeidaa’s life, her story is narrated through a series of flashbacks triggered by the different people he meets. Through this complex telling of Zubeidaa’s story, Benegal portrays many of the issues in Indian society in the late 20th century: gender inequality, the constraint imposed upon women by societal expectations, the social status of Muslims in a Hindu society, and the political struggles in India as democracy emerged and disempowered aristocratic ruling families. Despite describing his cinematic style as alternative, however, Zubeidaa was certainly the most “Bollywood” of Benegal’s films. Not only did it incorporate song and dance, but Zubeidaa is also, at heart, a love story.
In a master class held with NYU Abu Dhabi students, Benegal was asked why he included these elements in Zubeidaa despite his rejection of the traditional mechanisms of Bollywood cinema. His answer not only resonated with Zubeidaa’s story, but also underlined what he thinks is important in cinema in itself.
“The story itself was like a little fairy tale. Zubeidaa was a kind of fairy tale princess, but she came to a tragic end. I wanted to give it a slightly larger-than-life element of fantasy.” The contrast between the idea of fantasy and the fact that Zubeidaa is based on a true story illustrates the multi-layered nature of Benegal’s cinema. He asserts that watching one of his films is not about blind acceptance of what is happening, but should be a “discerning experience” in which viewers should consider cinematic elements as they enhance the message of the story. While watching Zubeidaa, I was entertained by the dancing scenes and intrigued by the narrative structure. However, as a viewer I was unable to discern how the presence of storytelling and the ethereal dancing scenes turned Zubeidaa into a fairy tale princess. As a modern viewer, I failed to discern Benegal’s message.
Audience discernment, especially about modern Hollywood cinema is eroding, mostly through lack of practice Throughout the master class, Benegal made a distinction between individually created work and films churned out by a “mass machine.” Benegal’s films strive to tell stories that have personal resonance; for example, the three films screened during the weekend were based on the screenwriter’s family.
This personalization is getting harder to accomplish each day. Sophomore Hasan Nabulsi noted the growing disconnect between people and films and how difficult it is to immerse the modern audience in a film. It is difficult for the audience to transcend the surface of the film to see that every element is used to reinforce a meaning; while watching Zubeidaa, I was swept up by what was going on in the surface and dismissed it as Bollywood entertainment.
In response to his critique of the disconnect between modern audiences and film, Nikolai Kozak asked Benegal what he thinks about the role of new technology in shaping the voice of our younger generation. Benegal responded, “Often, we become subservient to technology. Instead of becoming masters of technology, we become slaves to it. The technology itself seduces you in so many ways.” As Benegal stated this, I thought back to the film screening and found myself guilty of checking my phone for every text or email while the story was unfolding. Benegal asserted that it is necessary to clear our minds, to “constantly unclutter ourselves,” not only while watching movies but also while producing them. Mass media plays a role in disseminating the work of a modern artist, but it also presents a challenge; it is the role of the modern artist and filmmaker to go back, relearn, and adapt in order to continue being relevant not only to others, but also to oneself. The process of learning is important to a modern artist and a modern audience. As I took in Benegal’s conversation about Zubeidaa, I went back and reevaluated my experience of the film. It was, in itself, an educational experience.
As the master class came to a close, students stayed behind to thank Shyam Benegal and seize whatever minutes they had left for conversation. In a closing remark, Benegal stated, “When you walk on the road, where do you think it will lead? That’s not important. The journey itself is important. You become the road.” By telling stories he considers personally relevant to his life, we are able to reflect on Benegal’s lifetime achievement and see it for what it is: a work of art.