dubai diaries

assorted notes from the dubai leg of my journey:

– first impressions

prevalence of head cover for men and women is nowhere more intriguing than in customs. to see a row of attractive men and women in the roles of power, wearing the very pieces that create the most racist responses in the u.s., was thrilling.

everyone is brown. as i always feel when that happens – maybe i could feel at home here.

i got hit on twice before getting to my shuttle and had a moment of concern for how i was dressed, in a casual off the shoulder shirt, sports bra straps showing. i hadn’t thought about dress code for this precise moment, 26 hours into my journey, feeling travel dirty and it’s steamy. i hope i am not being disrespectful to the local culture, then wonder if that fits my systems of belief…what are the gender dynamics here?

– one day in (facebook musing)

landed into the loving arms of Amal Khalaf and Joe Namy today for a first go at #dubai. this is my first impression of dubai:

wtf?!?!

grateful to be taking it in with their analysis of this strange, capitalist colonialist explosion (as a novice to dubai coming from the penultimate exporter of capitalist colonial values, the us of a).

it’s all roundabouts, construction, tall buildings that feel in no way sustainable or connected to the desert that lies in every direction, and then the beaches on the gulf, which yields to the indian ocean, full of divers and kiters.

i was told there is like a 5% local population, everyone else is transplant.

the city is jaw dropping in its excess, like vegas or tokyo x times square x disney x…money. it becomes clearer daily what the options for the future are – short term archi-techno-capitalist fantasy places like this, deteriorating infrastructures and city ruins like much of the u.s., with cycles of disconnected development, or off grid family style hyper local life.

i am still seeking middle ground for the radical earthist humanist tech loving nomad.

the convergence of cultures is exciting. it feels like everyone is here. the arts and food scenes i am about to learn more of, and i’m going to check out a hammam with my old friend Larisa Sharifi tonight. more soon!

– architecture

a lot of the buildings seem to be empty, rejected developments, brand new and quite shiny ruins. the sea is calm, the clouds are slow. i watched a documentary a while ago about the slaves of dubai (which someone reposted on my site when i mentioned visiting here, i guess wanting to make sure i knew that i was traveling from one nation built by slaves to another) so the connection between development and injustice here feels familiar, home grown. but this place feels more removed from desperation, more constructed for an elite body from it’s inception. i want to touch something real, i can’t tell if anything here is real, it’s all innovation.

then there is the burj kalifa, the most beautiful new building i have ever seen. she catches my eye the way mountains do – i keep looking to see if i can see her and i always find her. she seems to emerge, slender, down from the sky, and open up as she drops. larisa pointed out that the tube structure means she looks like a lotus flower from above. at a certain moment of sunset, she looks like a torn out crevice in a sheet of white paper. at night her light is subtle. no picture does justice to how delicate she is. i can’t remember a time in recent history where i felt this kind of a thrill at a modern building.

– facebook post after my global art forum talk/moment

during today’s talk at #artdubai we conjured octavia butler.
i:
– made a naughty joke about sitting on her face (how pleasure activists respond to pillows with their whole-being-crush’s face on them – i am praying i get that pillow without stealing it [[apparently many people want this pillow, i will keep y’all updated on it]])
– talked octavia’s brood and collaborative ideation and pleasure activism
– then made the audience of artists, curators and art buyers turn and recognize each other’s divinty until they felt something (ranged from awkward to beautiful tears and laughter and new friendships)
– met an artist named Abdullah who spent months working with my sister Autumn Brown
– reconnected with the elegant and gifted Kamrooz Aram whose art I have followed for years via Dani McClain!!
– saw art that moved me to tears and met people like Mohamed Elshahed doing powerful socially woke art in cairo!
– met a man named Reza who stumbled into my talk and found part of his soul in the work.

just so grateful to:
– Amal Khalaf for being a unicorn and for finding me in my home
– Joe Namy for consistent brilliance and for connecting us
– Uzma Z. Rizvi for being a glorious human and
– Larisa Sharifi for being my soul sister after all this time and helping me navigate the deep shallows of crowds to find sustenance both food and spiritual!!!

– notes from twitter

art is the light in the darkness of times like this, and also the fire we can use to burn shit down. – @laurenbeukes

(can’t access twitter here so i will add more later)

– confession:

when i was invited to dubai i said yes because of who was asking, and why. amal stayed at my home while i was away and came to deeply understand my work in my absence. she emailed to ask me to dubai and i thought 1) yes and then 2) that’s near my sister. so i said yes right away.

i thought i was saying yes to a local gathering called our dubai, with a global arts forum component. instead it was art dubai, a major art fair, overall a different thing than i expected. to her credit, amal was clear, i just heard what i could comprehend. so that is how i ended up at a beautiful big strange gathering where everyone was very fabulous and talked very fast.

as with most insular worlds, some of this way of being goes over or around my head, some of it feels so purely conceptual, or unnecessarily controversial, or unaware of itself. overall there was this expressed longing for hope and optimism without much rooting in the justice work it takes to create a realistic foundation for such things. the premise of my work is that there is nothing in life that is neutral. not art, not spending, not attention, not desire – everything is interconnected, growing justice or injustice, growing prisons or liberation. and we are complex, imperfect beings who have to work together to achieve something pleasurable and honorable and dignified with our lives.

i was grateful to be part of the global art forum because in the midst of some very dynamic, stylish, artistic, willowy and apparently wealthy people, there was a series of conversations that were oriented around equity, feminism, collectivism, and using art to foment revolution and resistance to capitalism and colonialism. this is a global conversation, because we are one species on one planet. and it is a local conversation, because we are all operating inside of cultural and economic contexts that cannot be ignored.

– day 2:

tonight I spoke with a lovely kuwaiti artist named aziz (part of an incredible collective of artists, all of whom excited me throughout the gathering). he asked why americans are so concerned with categories. it got me thinking…it is because we are so clearly and daily oppressed based on someone else’s categories.

it’s actually something i struggle against, to not let myself, ourselves be defined by what someone else hates about me, or is ignorant of, to stop centering whiteness or maleness, for instance, in our work. i wanted to talk about that complexity, how do we decolonize and uncategorize the self while still being in relationship to the socialized differences, particularly those that need attention and transformation?

but its hard to reach moments of depth at an art fair, so much champagne. so instead i get to ruminate and reflect on this difference, and notice how many artists in the fair were speaking in some way about not being/having race, not wanting to be labeled.

– outsider

my last day there i saw the director of moma speak with an artist named el seed who is tunisian and did a massive mural in cairo. i was moved by the video about making it, and it was really cool looking. then i got curious about his words on how an outsider can help shift the perspective of a place, like he did in this community inhabited by people called (by others) ‘the people of the garbage’ – people who live by gathering and organizing the waste of cairo.

living in detroit for six years has really given me a particular perspective on outsiders – being an outsider, understanding how a community will benefit long-term from what you have to offer, noticing when you take attention and how. what happens when you leave (often or forever) and the community is still there…does the art give anything back? change anything? he said the people were happy and that also made me curious. i have also experienced this joy in spaces that seem to have scarcity, lack. and i don’t doubt the sincerity of it, but i wonder where agency enters.

we can make the choice to make art because there are a lot of people who don’t have the choice to do so, as individuals or communities. or don’t feel they have permission – to tell stories, to draw beautiful things, to have a vision. i wanted to sit and talk with el seed, but then i wanted to sit and talk with roughly one thousand people there.

– global art forum

i enjoyed so many of the talks organized by amal and uzma, all under the theme ‘the future was‘…mine was ‘the future was collective’.

a market expert named elie offered ‘the future was the market’, and made the case that the market is an entity as massive as the future, and as such, no algorithm can replace human decision in a realm of infinite possibilities.

hito offered ‘the future was the future’, with a video presentation about a game that cannot be played, that plays you. i developed a hard art brain crush watching her video, hearing her quiet ferocious talk.

lauren and sophia shared that ‘the future was the desert’, speaking of the ways that the future often happens in the desert in our projections (from tattoine of star wars to the wild desert roads of mad max), and in both of their works. we got to experience sophia’s incredible film work, and a reading of the draft first chapter of lauren’s next book – swoon swoon swoon!

joao made the case that ‘the future was the cloud’, and built a conceptual bridge between the atomic cloud and the information cloud, and the places we hold as sublime.

perhaps my favorite presentation was ‘the future was two semicircles away from the face’, christine’s presentation, which came right after mine. she was presenting in sign language with an interpreter, about sign language, about interpretation, about art pieces she has made about the american sign language ways of speaking of time and the future using the body. she was so captivating, and her interpreter, beth, was perfect, dynamic and expressive, being a voice.

so – my talk flew by. 30 minutes is nothing when there are major things to discuss – octavia’s brood, pleasure activism, emergent strategy. so i touched on things, but mostly gave time to exercises of embodiment, feeling collectivity, things i think of as recognizing the divinity of the other.

here are some notes:

let us conjure octavia. please stand, feet shoulder width apart, relax shoulders, soft hips. repeat after me -> all that you touch you change, all that you change changes you, the only lasting truth is change, god is change.

all organizing is science fiction – we are imagining what doesn’t exist, shaping the future. walidah imarisha and i came together around this idea. i was obsessing over octavia butler, she was cultivating visionary fiction.

we believe art is not neutral. you are either upholding the status quo, or subverting it, moving us towards justice. we want fiction that makes room for the future we need. a collective, collaborative future. someone mentioned the martian earlier…we write stories where matt damon couldn’t be cast as the lead. he will be in the future, his place is secured. what about everyone else?

octavia’s brood holds 20 stories from people shaping the future. my story is set in detroit, where the river rises up and sweeps away people who don’t love the city. it was an angrier story than people expected from me, but like sorhab just spoke about, we need to engage our hopelessness, our grief, our current state. there are also two essays, one from horror writer tananarive due, the other from us political prisoner mumia abu jamal, you can listen to him read it on our website. and the book is here, in the art dubai bookstore.

we created workshops for the book, to make it more than a product, more of an experience, to grow the skillset of collaborating the future. we discovered through this process that everyone has worlds inside them, but we don’t know we have permission. so we live in other people’s imaginations – often people who hate us, who are advancing singular visions to serve the elite, with no room for people, planet, memory, grief, healing.

the more people who imagine and shape the future together, the more who will feel their belonging there, who will be cared for, loved, find pleasure and not just survival.

so pleasure activism. i want justice and freedom to be the most pleasurable human experiences. not to organize the future as a NO!, but as an erotic, sensual, collective and liberated yes. pleasure for all, decolonized desire. an irresistible, ecstatic, even orgasmic future. which means we must be able to feel, to be bodies in a natural world, full of data, full of brilliance. that is why we began in our bodies.

((didn’t get to, but still sharing:

emergent strategy! emergence is the way complex patterns and systems arise out of relatively simple interactions. birds in murmuration, mushrooms whispering secrets in underground networks. patterns like the spiral of your fingerprint, your guts, labyrinths, galaxies.

i’ve been studying nature and how those of us shaping change can learn from nature to be adaptive, interdependent, fractal, decentralized and resilient, nonlinear, practicing transformative justice and creating more possibilities. rejecting a system that denies our humanity, and co-creating systems that love us.

art is key to that, making and keeping art collective. we must reclaim the future with our decolonized imaginations.))

now i can tell you things, but i want you to feel it, feel what i mean. so stand up, face each other.

people were feeling so much – resistance, awkwardness, laughter, discomfort, wonder, awe, laughter. there was weeping. there were hugs and exchanges of information. i was very pleased.

….there was also a dance performance that moved me, a display of strength and precision that built to a soundtrack of phillip glass, by yasmina.

oh and i liked noura – an emirati sci fi writer who began writing children’s and YA sci fi to engage young people in reading arabic, and to increase empathy amongst young people overexposed to war and violence. i fangirled her on twitter and she sent me her novel!!

i was really into the future imaginings of mishaal, who read aloud a love story between a man and the person he had coded ten years earlier, after breaking up with a bedouin gender fluid lover. this was one of four postcards from the future, short films, dance, music. such excellent curation.

– and finally, art

i also loved some of the art i got to see. abdullah and sarah built a corrugated tin hut with survivors of violence telling each other’s stories inside. and when the talking became overwhelming, i snuck into the galleries and just got lost in the abundance of wildly diverse pieces. there was a mirror piece that seemed to create a tunnel into the dark of the wal, called plunder. there was a kehinde wiley piece, i am not tired of his work.

my favorite piece by far was from faisal samra, a projection from the ceiling onto a twin bed in a dark room. the projection was a black woman, crying – wailing and gasping – under a white sheet, until she turned into a fetal position and slept/disappeared. i watched it loop a couple of times, moved to tears, ignoring the drunken art fair people who stumbled in and out without experiencing it. i want to find out more about this artist :-). i want to see and collect so much more art.

possibly tmi pleasure activist footnote:

i spoke about sex and pleasure in public, and afterwards several people told me some combination of wow and thank you. i said everyone needs to be able to feel pleasure, in order to turn towards it, to ‘stop settling for suffering’ as audre lorde teaches us.

at the restaurant we went to the last night, the waiter told me i was a sex bomb and brought me a ‘sex on the beach’ – moroccan mint tea in a glass with extra mint. it may have been my lipstick.

there were beautiful men and women everywhere, most in head-to-toe dresses…but i got no sense of beauty for erotic consumption – everything was so manicured. i wanted to make a mess.

no porn sites that i know of worked in the city, when i mentioned weed everyone looked around, spooked. my (plug-in) vibrator turned into a violent jackhammer when i tried it (not really my thing personally, no judgment).

thank god for the handheld water vibrators in every shower!

i didn’t speak of it, but i thought it kind of lovely that the only release in the desert was water.

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