Sharjah Art Foundation's first head of performance on the significance of his new role

Tarek Abou El Fetouh, who curated Expo 2020 Dubai's public art programme, takes the lead on commissioning and directing productions

A handout photo of Tarek Abou El Fetouh (Courtesy: Abu Dhabi Art) *** Local Caption ***  BLOG15jl-abudhabi-art05.JPG
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Sharjah Art Foundation has created its first performance department, selecting Tarek Abou El Fetouh as director of performance and senior curator across the visual arts.

The organisation has a long history of commissioning and hosting performance, but has never had a medium-specific department dedicated to it. This new focus will enable the foundation to better highlight the importance of performance, whether through commissions, co-productions, touring projects and residencies, or hosted events.

"Performance has always been integral to the foundation's programming," says Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, president and founder of Sharjah Art Foundation.

"Over the years, our use of unconventional and public performance spaces has demonstrated how this medium can create memorable experiences that engage the communities of Sharjah and the UAE. We are delighted to welcome Tarek Abou El Fetouh as the director of this new dedicated department that formalises and expands our commitment to the dynamic medium."

Abou El Fetouh, who has already started at the foundation, says he wants to curate performance events across the high season, roughly from October to March, and host performances to accompany his curated exhibitions.

His plans are still under wraps, but his long-standing interest in multidisciplinary forms of performance in the public space suggests how he will approach his brief: working with artists who draw on several styles and engaging new audiences across a range of platforms.

“I'm always fascinated by the magic the stage can create,” Abou El Fetouh tells The National. “And how artists are moving from the stage to experiment with music, or how a choreographer can deconstruct hip-hop music and make it so precise and intense. Especially here in Sharjah, you can also think of practices in India or Pakistan and the Arab world, so it’s a good position from which to investigate the medium.”

Abou El Fetouh found his way into theatre via architecture, which he studied in Egypt. In the 1990s he worked as a scenographer for theatrical productions, creating tents in public spaces, which were used to host performances in Egypt and abroad.

He also helped to create some key commissioning bodies for theatre, such as the Young Arab Theatre Fund in Brussels, which supported artists and actors from the Middle East — and has since expanded its activities and scope, morphing into the organisation Mophradat — and the multidisciplinary touring festival Meeting Points, from which the Dream City festival in Tunis developed.

He is also already a familiar face at the Sharjah Art Foundation — he was a curator on Sharjah Biennial 9 in 2009, and he has participated in numerous March Meeting events. Currently, he is on the working committee that is supporting Al Qasimi on her curation of next year's Sharjah Biennial 15.

As the foundation's director of performance, he says he plans to think of the new department’s commissions as site-specific first of all, whether in the city’s public squares, its heritage houses, or the theatre venues with which the foundation collaborates, such as the Sharjah Performing Arts Academy.

One of the main benefits of having a dedicated focus on performance, Abou El Fetouh says, is being able to move beyond the exhibition space and to potentially garner new audiences for the foundation.

“Sharjah has the theatre crowds, as well as is the new Performing Arts Academy that opened three years ago,” he explains. “The audience of Sharjah Art Foundation expects a visual language or exhibition-making, and I feel the performances can be in between all these factors as well as more into the public space.”

Abou El Fetouh's work draws on his prodigious reading of the European and Arab intellectual traditions, and he is particularly fascinated by the idea of cosmopolitanism — or how we sit as global citizens in a connected world.

That idea, developed via the Arab philosopher Ibn Al Haytham, animated his programme for the public art commissions at Expo 2020 Dubai, for which he worked with artists including Monira Al Qadiri, Abdullah Al Saadi, and Yinka Shonibare to consider ideas of representing the world.

For his long-running performance art programme Durub Al Tawaya for Abu Dhabi Art, he imagined the city as a theatre in itself, with artists using it as a backdrop and even participant in their works.

For the foundation programme, he says he will be looking at artists who, like himself, use art and performance as tools of investigation.

For example, Abou El Fetouh is interested in the work of the Moroccan dancer and choreographer Radouan Mriziga, who has recently been looking into the depiction of movement in cave paintings to explore what has been lost in the Amazigh indigenous North African culture. His choreographies, he hopes, can bring these forms back to life, in the shared moment between audience and dancer.

“Performance is a live thing,” says Abou El Fetouh. “Every single moment of performance is a unique moment, because it depends on the attention of the audience.

"It’s a moment that we cannot see any other place."

Scroll through images below of Sharjah Art Foundation's Pop South Asia exhibition

Updated: September 26, 2022, 1:14 PM