Art And Culture

China’s New Cultural Agenda Looks to Middle East

A piece by Saudi-Palestinian Dana Awartani, to be featured in the Yinchuan BiennaleA piece by Saudi-Palestinian Dana Awartani, to be featured in the Yinchuan Biennale

China is increasingly engaging with countries with mainly Muslim populations through cultural exchanges as its government champions the creation of a new, economic “Silk Road”.

Two biennials opened this autumn in the country’s far-flung western regions, which are the respective homelands of China’s two largest Muslim minorities, the Turkic Uyghurs and the more assimilated Hui. Meanwhile, the 11th Shanghai Biennale, November 11- March 12, features an unprecedented number of international artists from Muslim countries.

 The third Xinjiang International Art Biennale was organized by the ministry of culture of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in Urumqi (October 8-31). Featuring folk and popular art, which reflect official preferences, it contrasts starkly with the global contemporary approach of the first Yinchuan Biennale (until December 18) at the new, private Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) Yinchuan, in the capital of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, reported.

 Urumqi and Yinchuan are stops on China’s ancient Silk Road, the overland trade route that led to the mostly Muslim countries to China’s west. Their biennials coincide with an increase in China’s cultural engagement with neighboring countries and the Middle East. For example, Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art is currently showing Treasures of China (until January 7), including terracotta warriors from Xi’an—the start of the Silk Road—as part of the official Qatar-China Year.

The cultural exchange with Qatar is part of China’s massive ‘One Belt, One Road Initiative’, championed by President Xi Jinping as a way to counteract slowing domestic growth. The Chinese government aims to develop new markets to China’s west and south.

Official cultural exchanges under One Belt, One Road’s auspices now abound, such as a thematic section of the 18th China Shanghai International Arts Festival (until November 15), featuring projects from Qatar and Egypt. Unofficially, such events may encourage institutions in coastal China to show more work by contemporary artists from Muslim-majority countries.

  Religious and Political Taboo

In the past two decades artists from across Asia, the Middle East and North Africa have rarely been shown in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, partly because politics and religion, major themes in contemporary art from these regions, are major taboos in China.

Meanwhile, negative stereotypes of the Hui, Uyghurs and foreign Muslims remain common among the Chinese. “Chinese art museums are still early in their evolution, and well-known Islamic artists are very few,” says MoCA Yinchuan director Liu Wenjin.

While Chinese institutions and collectors are often uninterested in, or wary of, contemporary art from countries with mainly Muslim populations, the Shanghai Biennale will feature work by artists including Beiruit-based, Iraqi-American Rheim Alkadhi and Indonesia’s Agan Harahap. The show, which is organized by Raqs Media Collective, founded by three New Delhi-based artists, stresses “south-south cooperation”.

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