© 2012 TransGlobe Publishing Limited
`History is a nightmare from which I'm trying to awake'
Stephen Dedalus, in James Joyce, Ulysses
This Summit has been a long time in the making. Not just in its formulation and planning – that took a year from decision to execution. More in the concept, the idea behind the idea.
For the past five years I have been searching out the roots, causes and effects of creativity in general, particularly in regard to the lands and countries normally (and incorrectly) termed the Middle East. Encompassing Iran, Turkey and the twenty-two Arab nations scattered across the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant and North Africa, these (mostly recently established) nation states constitute one of the world's important areas of economic power (oil) and political conflict (Islam, failed nationalism, state-ism and nascent socialism). Add the State of Israel into this historical stew (the elephant in the room), and you have a volatile mix destined to continue to focus strategic debate for the foreseeable future.
But what of the greater region's creative pulse? Has anybody attempted a reasoned debate about how cultural change and civil society might be introduced into the frame as a means of inspiring real progress and positive, indigenous cultural renewal? The region has been more or less culturally moribund for hundreds of years, lingering in decline, mired in traditional garb, and fearful of change to the extent of fighting anything that springs from the West. Hiding beneath the comfort blanket of failed religious, social and historical models.
When was the last important scientific, social or cultural breakthrough achieved in these lands (leaving Israel to one side)? It may sound treasonous to say so, but the facts are there for anyone with honest eyes to see. Perhaps we should ask ourselves why it is that we're so far behind in so many areas of human endeavour and progress other than the export of oil and blind fundamentalism? Burying the past, as represented by bad practice and inconsequential debate that simmers uselessly around negative cultural habits, is what I hope this Summit (and ones to follow) will begin to do, thus paving the way for our own Renaissance.
I first came to the idea for a creative forum some four years ago. Having attempted a world-circuit in pursuit of idea-generators to bring to the table, I quickly discovered that fearless, open, independent objectivity and agenda-free discourse regarding the Middle East did not go down well in most quarters.
Not that this was a surprise, well versed as I was in the region's history, politics and economics. But the sheer depth of the hypocrisy I encountered sent me into a depressive fug. Packing my bags, I retired to the American Library in Paris to nurse my wounds, wallowing in research and the scholarship of others around creativity. Then one day a wild hawk flew into our apartment, setting me on an unexpected chase to make a book about that phenomenal and proud bird. A process that involved revisiting lands of splendour abandoned to historical languor. How could we in the region have once been so great, so accomplished, only to find ourselves so poor in ideas and intellectual practice in the present day?
The wild hawk led me on to the arts (go figure!) and to art books, as I hopped from country to country, region to region, to foreground and backlight the area's creative energies, to platform young talent and show the world that we were not as monomaniacal as the Western media would have their readers believe. One after another, these books have made an impact beyond my wildest expectations, leading me to think that there are many like-minded people out there wishing to bring change and different perspectives to the common table. Then came Art & Patronage: The Middle East, a book that I had not initially thought would measure up under international scrutiny, but which surprisingly took the cake. It was an easy-hard step from that project to today. Easy in the sense of gathering together spirited folk with an eye for change and willing to contribute their time, effort and resources to the battle for creative renewal in the Middle East. Hard in the sense of bringing all the necessary resources together in such a brief period while avoiding established narratives and striking out for new perspectives.
Current narratives need changing; taboo subjects cry out for redress. That is what we're hoping to achieve here. It will be up to you to decide during these two days whether we have succeeded or not, but one thing is certain: we will have done something significant and, in doing so, opened a path that others may follow.
It has also been hard to make an idea whose time is overdue come alive. Every person involved in the Art & Patronage Summit deserves praise, from secretaries and assistants to the many patrons who have cleared our path, as well as the numerous curators, experts, academics, institutional leaders and art-centric practitioners without whose assistance none of this could have come about. The real heroes of the Summit are the members of the Invitee Committee, those whom I insisted on calling `Committeds', thus eliciting a quip or two along the way. They represent people power, activism in motion.
Then there is the Curatorial Committee, whose guidance and input have been exemplary; the Advisory Committee, a few of whose members have been aces in the pack; and myriad other helpers, some of whom have been Shanghaied along the way, too many to mention here. Of course our key Summit supporters deserve mention, last but not least the critically important Executive Committee (Maria Sukkar, Maryam Homayoun Eisler, Maya Rasamny, Nazy Vassegh), a small group of dedicated people whose time has also come. Two of my principal counselors deserve particular mention: Aaron Cezar and Livia Alexander.
`Tis the season to call things by their proper names. Enough of platitudes bought with greasy money or art engendered for national publicity. We're gathered here today to bury the albatross of fear, to embrace creative change, to imbue the system with new ideas and enthuse the younger generation with the power of art. Humans have a proven inbred capacity for self-delusion. We are content in our own beliefs, happy that constants become defences against threats posed by change. This sclerotic condition is most emphatically embodied in social and cultural constraints representative of religion and tradition, regardless of tribal origins or historical species.
Creativity, on the other hand, is a game-changer, with the visual arts leading the way. It has been thus for centuries; one has only to hark back to the European Renaissance to appreciate the significant role the arts have always played in the context of social, political and economic change. The greater Middle East and North African regions are well overdue for their own Renaissance in the visual arts and culture.
Easy to criticise, some might say, sitting atop a pole like Saint Simeon mediating between madness and sainthood. But this is a Summit of ideas and great thinkers, not Simeon's airy perch. It's high time to climb down to earth and try to kick-start this truly essential debate.
Founder and Director
Art & Patronage Summit