The Art Show Using Email to Overcome Geographical Borders

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Younes Mohammad, Yezidi Refugee, 2014. Photograph.
Yezidi Refugee, 2014© Younes Mohammad

The YSP’s innovative new exhibition transcends restrictive visa requirements by inviting artists from the Middle East and North Africa to send their work online

Long renowned for innovation, this month sees Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) take boundary-pushing to a new level with its latest opening, Beyond Boundaries: Art By Email. The groundbreaking exhibition features digitally submitted, original works by 18 artists from the Middle East and North Africa who cannot come to the UK. It is resounding proof that halting the movement of humans needn’t stem the exchange of art and ideas – of humanity, essentially. 

The unique premise was borne of frustration with restrictive visa requirements, which are increasingly preventing artists, curators and many others with invitations to exhibit, speak and take part in residencies from being able to cross the UK’s borders. It’s also the culmination of a decade-long relationship between YSP, Europe’s largest centre for sculpture, and ArtRole, an arts organisation based in Iraqi Kurdistan which facilitates an ongoing cultural dialogue between the Middle East and wider world; an artistic lifeline for volatile times. 

The pieces to be displayed, performed, virtually transmitted and 3-D printed were selected by YSP senior curator Dr. Helen Pheby, and ArtRole chief executive Adalet R. Garmiany from responses to an open call, also shared by the Caspian Arts Foundation. But don’t expect clichéd reportage or conflict-porn, for the curators were careful to emphasise that as well as providing sociopolitical commentary, the works reflected quotidian reality. As Dr. Pheby says: “Obviously there are political works, in the sense of documenting what’s happening, but we also wanted [the show] to be quite hopeful and share the fact that people are just trying to have ordinary lives amongst all this chaos.” And, in this way, Art By Email is primed to open minds to scenes of the everyday across the MENA.

On why the show is so important...
“We’re not political in that we side with any party, it’s about humanity really, and sharing the best of international art. That’s what inspired Art By Email, that there were these amazing artists, and art being made, that we weren’t able to give a platform to. The more we understand about other countries and people, the more familiar they are, the more empathy we have for their circumstances. It brings the realisation that we’ve a lot in common, which can’t be a bad thing.”

On the works which reflect the notion of everyday life carrying on despite challenging circumstances...
“Looking at The Garden of Eden is Likely to Disappear [by Iraqi artist and documentary photographer, Bnar Sadar], that could be a kid anywhere. That’s a human response to that cow licking her face. And the backstory is quite optimistic actually, in the sense that the marshlands, for millennia the home of the marsh Arabs which Saddam Hussein tried to eliminate by draining those lands, are slowly being restored. Life is slowly returning to those places. It’s not all horror story. There are positive reflections as well.”

On the work of Azar Othman...
“In 2013, Azar did a performance in Sulaymaniyah, his home city in Iraq, where he put questions on a city wall and people responded. Basic things like, ‘Are you happy with the roads in your city?’, ‘Are you happy with the infrastructure?’ We’re asking our visitors those same questions to add to a growing wall of answers, and they will probably be the same; the roads around here are pretty poor. We’re asking the questions in English and in Kurdish, as there’s a big Kurdish community locally, and we have visitors from it. And we’re going to do a Skype talk, hopefully on January 21, with Azar in Kurdistan, and we’re hoping that people from the Kurdish community here will come to that, and that maybe their friends or family will be in the audience on the other side — all different ways we can reconnect.”

On the piece which conjured a deep personal resonance... 
“Younes Mohammed’s photograph of the Yazidi refugee. I wasn't aware of his work. He sent through around eight different options, and some of the other photographs were more literal, for example, of a refugee family being given water by a soldier. Whereas with this one, we can all put ourselves in that position, of only having a cushion and that’s your only belonging, and wherever you put it you sleep. It just kind of brought it home to me: the individual lives within this mass crisis. It’s quite overwhelming, just to witness one person and their situation, it really did bring it down to a human level. And it’s a beautiful photograph in the way he's looking away from the camera, there’s a huge dignity to it.”

Beyond Boundaries: Art by Email is at Yorkshire Sculpture Park from January 7 until March 5 2017.