Arms crossed awkwardly, I shifted my weight from left to right on the blonde cobblestone in Sharjah’s Art Square, waiting for Papy Ebotani’s funeral. The artist himself had not died, but several hundred Sharjah Biennial 12 visitors had come to watch a performance titled Fanfare funérailles (Funeral brass). Old friends air kissed one another on both cheeks and waited. Strangers just stood uncomfortably.
Two men in shiny black suits circled one another in the square, sizing each other and the crowd up as if preparing for a fight. They opened their jackets and pointed to the high street labels.
Suddenly a group of musicians dressed as fishermen began to play makeshift metal drums. A man with an enviable diaphragm blew into a clarinet-like instrument—I could feel the circling, snaking song beating in my chest.
Sapeur Lesasa Jocker appeared with swagger in a fedora and suit appeared with swagger in a fedora and suit, with a sort of red leather apron tied around his waist. One man began to guide his colleague by the head in time to the music. Was it an exorcism or an expression of grief?
The musicians stood and began to move through the crowds. At first we gawked, but then quickly realized we were meant to follow in a procession. I sensed that it was a celebration of life on the imaginary occasion of a friend’s death. Was it the death of the DRC artist’s relative, or the undoing of his country to capitalism, corruption and greed?
As we marched and paused at various busy intersections, cars honked and men in undershirts appeared with cell-phone cameras, crowded onto balconies in gritty apartment buildings. A band of boys mimicked the dancers. One woman in a green sequined abaya with henna painted on her hands followed curiously. With this brilliant performance, the Biennial came to the city and the city came to the Biennial. Visitors were suddenly part of the streets and residents were drawn for a moment into the art world.
We wound our way through the asphalt streets and at last ended up in Calligraphy Square. The music continued. One performer aggressively hovered over a microphone delivering a eulogy in French. The words translated to a prose poem asking each of us to consider how we would spend our last day on earth. Visiting the Eiffel Tower? Riding a bicycle? How would we celebrate our own life before preparing for the ultimate journey into death?
A toddler in a stroller began to hit an empty water bottle loudly against his blue Crocs. He was dancing. It was a natural response to the music and the tension. It made me melancholy to observe that none of the adults were moving so boldly. What happens between childhood and death that commands us to no longer show our joy or emotions through honest movement? Papy Ebotani clearly knows the answer.
Good Ideas: Sharjah Biennial 12 runs at Sharjah Art Foundation through 5 June. Papy Ebotani will be performing Fanfare funérailles [Funeral brass] at Al Majaz Waterfront on March 10, at 8:30 pm as part of Sharjah Biennial 12’s Performance Program.