Curated by Hoor Al Qasimi and Julia Morandeira Arrizabalaga, A Convening of Civic Poets at KADIST Paris explores the transformative power of art in redefining civic engagement, with a particular focus on the Palestinian cause.
The exhibition marks a collaboration between KADIST, a 20-year-old non-profit contemporary art organisation founded by Vincent Worms and Sandra Terdjman, and the Sharjah Art Foundation, led by Hoor Al Qasimi since its establishment in 2009. In this inaugural instalment in the French capital, the focus is on the enduring legacies of renowned artists recognised for their influential political engagements and activism expressed through art and writing.
With A Convening of Civic Poets opening a few days before the Gaza crisis began to unfold, its section dedicated to Palestine has drawn significant attention. Concurrently, What Palestine brings to the world (Ce que la Palestine apporte au monde), an art exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) in Paris, ran until the end of 2023 as a collaboration with the Palestinian Museum. Although unrelated, the KADIST and IMA exhibitions are connected in the form of the French writer Jean Genet.
At KADIST, Bouchra Khalili – who was one of the three winners of the Sharjah Biennial 15 Prize last year – reexamines Genet’s legacy as a ‘civic poet’ through Twenty-Two Hours (2018), a 43-minute video investigating the writer’s groundbreaking visit to the United States in 1970 at the invitation of the Black Panther Party (BPP). The short video The Typographer (2019) and the mural poster The Radical Ally (2019) add a visual and textual exploration of Genet’s writing through typography, an interest persisting from his early training as a typographer.
Meanwhile, IMA showcased Jean Genet’s Suitcases (Les Valises de Jean Genet), exhibiting preserved notes and manuscripts from Genet’s personal suitcases carried during his final years. This section emphasises his solidarity with the Palestinians, notably inspiring Prisoner of Love (Un Captif Amoureux), his final – and posthumously published – book (1986). Intertwining literature and politics, this ‘epic poem’ documents his passionate commitment to the Palestinian cause and the Black Panthers.
Interestingly, KADIST also sheds light on Black Panther activism with Angela Davis: A World of Greater Freedom (2023), a video by Manthia Diawara. Commissioned by the Sharjah Art Foundation, the piece features Angela Davis, a prominent figure in the BPP, and who shared a close association with Genet from the early 1970s. Conceived as “a poetic compendium of Davis’s critical thinking”, the 77-minute video footage alternates between recent sequences of her speaking to the camera and relevant archival material.
In addition, Learning Palestine_Until Liberation (2023) is a mixtape created by Radio Alhara, an online radio station launched in March 2020 during the pandemic lockdown, and The Learning Palestine Group, a collective formed by artists, academics and activists. This 12-hour sound programme explores “the ongoing struggle for justice and liberation for Palestine”. Sound material also takes center stage in Barbès Blues (2020), a podcast series by Hajer Ben Boubaker, focusing on the challenges faced by North African migrants in France. The title pays homage to Barbès, a bustling boulevard and district in Paris that is home to the KADIST space and is known for its multiculturalism and long-standing community of French-Maghrebis. Honoured with the 19th UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture in June 2023, Ben Boubaker delivers timely and location-specific content at a time when the French parliament has passed a new immigration law that tightens the conditions for new migrants entering the country.
The collective and immersive scenography of A Convening of Civic Poets creates an ambiance reminiscent of a community centre. Visitors are encouraged to engage by sitting on mats on the floor, to engage with the audio content and explore a curated collection of books by various writers and artists featured in the exhibition: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Kated Yacine, David Wojnarowicz and Cecilia Vicuña, as well as Jean Genet, Angela Davis and Bouchra Khalili. Departing from the typical white cube setting, this unassuming yet welcoming environment is enhanced by effective cultural mediation and a diverse lineup of events that includes screenings and discussion panels. Since its inception, KADIST has striven to distance itself from the art market, prioritising contemporary art’s role in societal discourse and fostering cross-cultural connections. This exhibition does just that, while also underlining KADIST’s dedication to video art, a medium that it has actively supported through numerous acquisitions for its permanent art collection, initiated over two decades ago.