Our three weeks in Doha, Qatar, were both productive and hugely enjoyable. Being held at the ever popular and busy Katara Culture Village on the banks of the Gulf at the northern end of the Doha Corniche, over the three week period the comprehensive range of events, installations and performances, which made up the Qatar Arts and Disability Festival, attracted substantial daytime and evening audiences from all over the Gulf region - and indeed the world.
Rachel’s exhibition of paintings achieved record audiences – thanks in no small part to the active on-site publicity generated by an army of British Council staff (including the resourceful and tireless Bahaa Sanjad). So impressed were some by Mark Brew’s innovative contemporary dance performance that they returned the following evening for the second showing.
Rachel’s outreach programmes too were significantly better attended than we at first envisaged might be likely. A full and comprehensive range of educational institutions operates in Qatar (and Bahrain) to meet those having special educational needs, and those with visual and hearing impairment; and our experience of all of the institutions that we came into contact with was just how actively outward-looking and innovative they can be – only too happy to embrace and take advantage of the programme of art workshops which, as part of her British Council commission, Rachel came to the Gulf also to deliver.
At last the Festival has drawn to a close; and on Monday 1 April, in our absence, the exhibition was de-installed and shipped home. Likewise all of the other exhibitions and installations.
However, as we understand it, this is far from being the end. Quite the contrary, the closing of this Festival in fact marks just the very beginning of a planned extended period of cultural outreach, focusing upon issues associated with disability, to be spearheaded by the British Council in partnership with the Qatar Ministry of Culture and other Middle Eastern agencies, in the Gulf region.
Now Rachel is considering how it may be possible to collaborate with artists from the region: where opportunities may exist to develop more profound and extended art-related relationships.
So perhaps the work has also only just begun.
We are coming to the end of our stay in Qatar. And as the temperature here creeps higher – up around the mid-thirties most of the time by now – in the UK, we know, in sharp contrast it is languishing at around zero!
We have a second opening event – to provide an opportunity for the public to meet and have an in-conversation with the newly arrived dance performer and choreographer, Mark Brew, and animator Joel Simon.
Rachel is called upon to create a second live artwork and Carol McFadden, British Council Unlimited co-ordinator chairs. Lana Kayed, British Council Qatar, opens proceedings. Interestingly, with news of the Festival having now spread, the in-conversation seems to engage at a more profound and constructive level, and the discussion centres upon the future ambitions for further outreach and development of this work around the Gulf states.
We undertook the last of our art workshops yesterday morning at Katara Cultural Village; given to three different groups of young people: a school for hearing impaired girls, an integrated school of mainstream and special needs girls, and a school for special needs boys. Interestingly, with the older students, there comes a request to keep the young men and women seperate.
Word has spread about the art workshops taking place at Katara Village; and despite all the careful planning we actually run out of fresh paper and have to improvise – and at just this same moment another large group of younger disabled children arrive unexpectedly – on the off-chance of being able to take part. It is with great regret that by now we simply do not have the space to accommodate any more in the courtyard, and so instead – while our small army of helpers from British Council keep the momentum going within the groups already painting – Rachel takes this group and the many members of staff off for an extensive interactive tour of her exhibition, where there is an opportunity to disuss, compare and contrast much about the UK education system and the education structure for disabled young people in the Gulf.
The British Council team are punctuating the end of each workshop with a visit to watch the three film installations which are part of the Arts and Disability Festival: Joel Simon’s Mecropolis, in which two disabled squeaky toys escape from a factory and find themselves lost and alone in an urban world full of over-sized humans; Sue Austin’s film, which documents Austin’s performances in a self-propelled underwater wheelchair; and Chris Tally-Evans film Turning Points, which asks the question: When did your life change?
Katara Culture Village is something of a labyrinth of interconnected pathways and courtyards, and it is with pleasure and interest that visitors to the Centre with their children chance upon the various film instalations which play in the open-air and in entranceways. As the sun sets the flickering movie screens serve as a powerful magnet.
Rachel’s exhibition and her outreach programme have generated an unprecedented amount of interest here in Qatar; and as a result, towards the end of the morning, Qatar TV arrives to film, once more, this time bringing with them a well-known presenter/anchor; and Rachel is filmed and interviewed for a prime-time magazine slot. British Council have done a fabulous job of alerting all of the media to the Arts and Disability Festival; and, in turn, across the board the media has responded brilliantly; and turned the spotlight on.
This evening we attend the reception and first performance in Qatar of Mark Brew’s contemporary dance and music performance, Fusional Fragments, with Evelyn Glennie, which received its first outing, as many of you will know, at the opening event of the Unlimited Festival on the South Bank in the summer of 2012 as part of the Cultural Olympiad. We see the performance this time around from the front row, and despite our excitment and appreciation of the magic of the work, it has undoubtedly developed further with time.
This new work for five dancers, created by Marc Brew in collaboration with composer Philip Sheppard and Dame Evelyn Glennie combines classical ballet and contemporary dance. Fusional Fragments questions whether such elements can be fused or whether they should remain as fragments in isolation. Dame Evelyn and all of the dancers are on top form and, even though as a culture the Qatari audience are less used to contemporary dance, the performance is very well received.
Evelyn Glennie’s percussive (and dance) element, woven through and through, must strike a chord with a nation which has its own rich ‘rythmic’ musical heritage; and clearly here is a common cultural link to be explored. Another bonus this evening for the audience and particularly us is to see Mark perform one of his intimate solo works, where his beautiful sense of the body in articulated movement and motion is breathtaking.
We have one day off before flying home very early tomorrow morning, so unfortunately we do not have time to arrange the desert adventure we had planned. Anyhow, we are tired. So instead of this we clear out our courtyard studio and drive back to the fantastic Villagio shopping mall, next door to the hotel; and we settle for an ice-cream instead and we put our feet up, and watch the motorized gondolas plying the Venecian canal which runs all the way along the central walkway of Villagio – beneath a painted Venecian sky. Only in Qatar!
We have now undertaken two more art workhops here at Katara Culture Village, outside the Artists Studio area of the village. They were attended by young disability and non-disabled students, attending local schools here in Doha. This morning we visit the largest and newly built Al Noor Institute for the Blind (Shafallah Centre) outside the city, organised as a result of a meeting with the determined and personable headmistress Ms Abeer at the festival launch three nights earlier. The institution is grand, well-run and well equipped.
We have now engaged with many students here, as in Bahrain. So it is worthwhile now considering any differences, perceived or otherwise, here in Qatar (over our experiences in the UK). Well, the first, and most obvious, is one is that here the fathers seem to be far more prepared to make the effort to take the day off work and come with their son or daughter – to a school or outdoor workshop.
Since returning here to Qattar we have been at pains to adhere to tried and tested structures in running the workshops, based sometimes on a ‘body-mapping’ process, and in the case of young people with visual impairment, the creation of a procession-style of painting structured around a series of movement excerises emulating the paralympic sports.
A high degree of supervision is paramount with the blind and visually impaired students. We bring with us a group of enthusiastic volunteers from the ranks of the British Council itself and also students from Doha University to assist with this side of things. We rely also upon teachers at any particular institution to help out too.
The female staff find it more difficult sometimes to engage in a spontaneous workshop of this type or perhaps to embrace its relevance – or sometimes just to paint a picture with the young people for the fun of doing so. Understandably it is more difficult to involve oneself in a painting workshop on the floor when wearing a black abaya robe – and it is easy to underestimate the degree to which the presence of men at the workshops is in itself intimidating.
If we are to continue we must consider from our own point of view the introduction of some form of induction workshops for the teachers too (which in fact had been anticipated here but was unable to be implemented unfortunately), and Rachel certainly hopes to develop a series of all female adult workshops, if at all possible, in the near future, where women would have the opportunity to feel less inhibited in keeping with their social traditions. These objectives had all been considered at the outset, but as this Festival was highlighting family engagement, it was ultimately decided that a broader approach would be engaged in the first instance.
Katara Culture Village is a magnet for holidaymakers and locals, being located at one end of the Corniche on the banks of the Gulf, having a raft of good shops and restaurants and having as a centrepiece of a beautiful Romanesque amphitheatre constructed almost entirely of Travertine marble. Rachel’s exhibition ‘This Breathing World’ is visited each day by up to two hundred people, western visitors and people from all over the Gulf: from Bahrain to Saudi, with almost no-one as far as we know deterred by the expressionist imagery.
This morning, Rachel shows a group of teenage girls who are visually impaired around the show. They are a chatty and happy group. And this surprisingly gives us our first cause to be taken aback; having overheard one of the young girls quite cheerfully voicing the opinion in English that ‘there is no hope for people like us’. Bear in mind, at once, that cliches and shifts of emphasis occur routinely when any non-native speaker engages with a language. And this, I am fairly certain, accounts for the ‘throw-away’ remark.
And Rachel is nothing if not motivational under these circumstances, being significantly visually impaired herself; and rallies the students. Perhaps in this case, too, the slip is a blessing in disguise. The student’s statement serves as a warning; and the message is a clear one. Any culture or society addressing the issue of disability must confront openly, and head-on, the processes of inclusivity: of overt acceptance and of offering equal opportunity.
On the evening of our third day in Bahrain, Rachel creates a live and interactive painting outside the Al Riwak art gallery. At intervals Rachel pauses to talk directly to the audience about her artistic motivations and practice. The event is a huge success, with many attending; and people also stopping in their cars in the road outside the gallery to see what the fuss is all about; and many people from both the local and the ex-pat communities wishing to contribute to the four large 5 foot by 4 foot canvases which Rachel covers with her depictition of a paralympic and dance interaction.
We have a short but late flight back to Qatar, and the following day attend the formal opening of the Arts and Disability Festival at Katara Culture Village. The opening is marked on the evening of 20th March by a speech from Martin Hope director of British Council Qatar, preceded by an expressionistic and energetic live-painting by Rachel for the invited audience, and followed by a lively discussion and debate chaired by Carol McFadden, British Council Unlimited co-ordinator UK, and with panel members made up of Rachel, Claire Cunningham and Sheikha Hissa Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Thani (Qatar) who was appointed the Special Rapporteur on Disability by the United Nations (2003 -2005).
It becomes much more apparent to us now that the issue of disability is in sharp and extended focus here in Qatar, with not only Sheikha Hissa, but other substantial organisations actively addressing the perennial issues of accessibility and inclusivity. Several of the TV networks attend the event and subsequently it is covered on Qatar TV. The opening event was tremendously rewarding in terms of cross-fertilization; and the reassuring realization that Qatar is keen to share its experiences in the field of disability. The opening event makes the pages of The Gulf Times and Rachel’s exhibition, this Breathing World, whose themes reflect the subject at a contemplative level, is explored as the subject of a magazine programme by Qatar TV. It is a comprehensive interview with Lana Kayed, project manager for British Council, Qatar, about the Festival. Most of the programme takes place in Rachel’s exhibition and also includes other elements of the Festival at Katara Cultural Village.
We are back now in Katara for the rest of our stay in the Middle East, and on the evening of 21st March conduct a family learning art workshop beneath the portico of the small square where the various artists studios are located. From 4.30pm onwards a steady stream of families from all walks of life stop by to create their own version of a body-map. Katara is in a beautiful location on the edge of the Gulf and attracts locals and holiday-makers alike. It was wonderful to see so many families all wanting to work together to create a painting. Contrary to what we had imagined from our experience of running body-map workshops in the UK, it was surprising that invariably the fathers wished to be an active part of the process.
On the evening of the Friday 22nd March we attend the first performance of Claire Cunningham’s Menage-a-Trois, renamed Three, which is shown at the thoroughly beautiful deco-influenced Katar Culture Village theatre space. The performance takes place as a result of the collaboration between British Council and the National Theatre of Scotland. There were some hold-ups with the set at customs, but we hear that this has not unduly effected the pre-show preparations; and having seen Three last summer at the Southbank Centre it is evident that the high quality of the performance is just as expected.
The performance is attended by Stephen Stenning, British Council Arts Regional Director, Middle East, who is based in Cairo; Martin Hope, Director British Council, Qatar; Rayyah Fathalla, Arts Project Manager British Council, who has flown in from the Bahrain office; any number of representatives from local Qatari organisations and activists concerning thmselves with disability; and is also well-attended by a family oriented audience.
We are curious to ascertain whether a Qatari audience accepts the subject-matter of Three as a theatre/movement piece in any way differently from our own peculiarly British perceptions; but it appears to raise no eyebrows – and why should it – other than perhaps that naturally enough this sort of theatre performance is less commonly seen here in the middle east.
Apart from the obvious benefits of airing this subject-matter to a wider audience, perhaps another important result is that Three leads the way for more to be done.
Rachel is looking forward now to Sunday, the beginning of the week here in Qatar, when she embarks on the last of her outreach programmes, a series of four painting workshops specifically targetted at young disabled people and their families. Bearing in mind the seeming willingness of Qatari families as a whole to involve themselves, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers alike, the workshops should turn out to be a pleasure.
Our stay in Qatar is punctuated temporarily after the Royal opening of This Breathing World exhibition, by a trip to Bahrain, which is a half hour plane-ride away, along the Gulf.
We are here for five days for Rachel to deliver four bodymapping visual art workshops to disabled and non-disabled young people on behalf of British Council Bahrain; and subsequently to conduct a live painting event outside the Al Riwaq art gallery in one of the many busy restaurant districts of the island kingdom.
Our main contact in Bahrain is the resourceful Rayyah Fathalla who is the arts project manager for British Council and delivers programmes of art engagement and cultural activity here in Bahrain. Two of the schools we visit rely mainly or solely upon private fees and sponsorship and two are part of the state system (for want of a better description), and therefore represent a fair cross-section, you could say.
In terms of per capita GDP, Bahrain (I understand) is the fourth wealthiest of the Gulf States, and since the Bahraini Government has a stated remit to provide support in the field of disability it comes as no surprise that the schools we visit are well resourced.
Schools such as these are relatively demanding environments to work within, and tend generally to be run by visionary and dedicated staff. The first centre we visit is RIA, founded by Dr. Emad Al Attar and his wife Christine Gordon (originally from London) in response to the needs of their autistic son; and which has now evolved into an inclusive educational environment - recognising the need to work toward the goal of inclusivity. (It is located in a converted Bahraini villa – which unfortunately is likely soon to be repossessed by its owner.) The last, at the opposite end of the spectrum, is the Saudi-Bahraini Institute for the Blind, catering for children with a range of visual impairment – but who may in addition have physical or learning disabilities.
In the context of these establishments, Rachel is delivering a two to three hour session, and her starting-point naturally enough in the timescale provided is to assess the needs and likely abilities of the children taking part and choose from a range of devised exercises and artistic activities, but particularly without preconceptions as to the limitations of the young people.
She is conscious of the fact that in providing a ‘fresh eye’ to any educational establishment this is something that is in some senses can be easier to achieve: to judge without preconceptions the reactions and responses of the young people; and to offer opportunities to participate without preconceptions as to ability. To an extent also, it is also true to say that the programmes she devises are by definition intensive and requiring a high level of supervision - something that tends to be much more difficult to achieve by full-time staff on a continuing daily basis.
All four of the establishments we visit are conscious of the obvious benefits that can manifest from the fresh and intensive approach; and give Rachel free rein – despite the fact that a side-effect tends to be paint getting everywhere on the walls, floor, clothes and young people themselves.
Particularly affecting to me, is the group of partially-sighted and blind young people whom we work with at the Institute, whose ages range from five to fifteen, who need a high level of support. Rachel has devised a workshop, which includes a guessing game with small obscure objects hidden inside small silk pouches – and therefore not initially visible to teachers or students alike, and moves on to a running race and introduction to paralympic sports, and concludes with a ‘supervised’ painting free-for-all based around body-mapping processes.
The object of every artistic session is fun and the active engagement of teachers and students alike; and the joy of the whole process is uncovering and witnessing the participants’ latent talents emerge. It is a moving experience for all involved.
It is an easy 6 hour flight from London to Qatar; where it is late spring and like a hot English summer.
Qatar, so the brochures tell us, is the only true desert nation; and my first impressions are just so: from the rooftop of our base at the Torch Hotel indeed the desert does surround us. If, conveniently, for the time being, I set aside the rich Bedouin heritage, Qatar, in addition, is almost brand new. New in any case in the sense of the speed with which over say twenty years it has set about coming to terms with vast oil and gas wealth and concurrently developing a relationship with the west.
There is a truly space-age skyline, still under construction (and which has to be seen to be believed); a corniche; a falconry festival. There is a vast village of culture, Katara, where the brand new symphony orchestra play, and in one gallery of which we set up our exhibition of paintings; and here where I sit in a traffic jam at the main road intersection in the newly built Aspire District, the sporting centre of Qatar through which we drive every day, stands a monumental hording advertising… well, I don’t know quite what, because I can't read Arabic…but depicting centre stage a sportsman who is a wheelchair user.
We are here in Qatar at the behest of the British Council to mount an exhibition of Rachel Gadsden’s paintings at Katara Culture Village as part of the first ever Art and Disability Festival in the Middle East which is to include, amongst many other events, performances by Claire Cunningham and Mark Brew (in collaboration with Evelyn Glennie).
Rachel’s own exhibition has the title This Breathing World and sets about addressing her perennial themes of fragility and hope under four main headings, namely: Unlimited Global Alchemy, the work that she made during her residency and collaboration in South Africa in 2012 for the Cultural Olympiad, and focussing upon issues connected with the availability of life-giving medication; In Their Human Gloves, a series of expressionistic paintings which use as their starting point the extremes of the human condition; Power and Glory, images relating to the London 2012 Paralympic Games; You Inhabit My Soul, referencing the influence of Rachel’s early upbringing in the Middle East upon her adult consciousness.
These artworks seemed to have been held up in customs, so we didn’t get them on site till late one afternoon a day and a half before the opening, and so the hang was last minute.
The opening took place on the evening of Thursday 14th March and was marked by a painting workshop which Rachel undertook inside the gallery space for the benefit of fifteen or so local Qatari young disabled people. The show was formally opened by HRH Prince Charles and HRH the Duchess of Cornwall accompanied by HE the Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage, Dr Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kuwari and Katara director general, Dr Khalid al-Sulaiti, all of whom were introduced to the young people and stayed to chat to them about their work.
The opening turned out to be a wonderful event. By the time the Royals arrived, most of the artistic mayhem had subsided, and an impressive array of interwoven bodymap-paintings lay on the floor of the gallery – competing with Rachel’s own paintings on its walls.
It was my very first experience of a royal visit. Charles and Camilla were greeted with a fanfare; an entourage, and an arbitrary timetable; but despite considerable pressure they switched that side of things off completely and devoted all of their energies to the young people.
Then Rachel led the Royals around the exhibition. Few may know that Rachel’s artistic career began with a Princes Youth Business Trust Award twenty five years ago, so Rachel was able to discuss with Charles and Camilla her motivations and achievements and interest in how disability issues have become intrinsic to her practice in the intervening years.
So, first and superficial impressions. Well, simply that in every sphere the Qataris are coming up to speed very quickly. As a nation they are having to ‘travel’ further than most and in an infinitely shorter time. In the field of disability the speed and momentum seems to be no different. There is a clear will to address shortcomings comprehensively and quickly.
Last Thursday we travelled to Bahrain for 5 days for a live drawing commission and to begin the first of a series of workshops at schools for disabled young people. Then it is back to Qatar on the 19th for the fuller opening of the Arts and Disability Festival on the 20th March. Exciting times.