On March 22, the day of the coordinated terrorist attacks in Brussels, plans were well underway for the city’s annual art-fair week — one uneasy month away. This was the first year that the Independent chose the capital of the European Union (if not necessarily the European art world, which is divided between London, Paris, and Berlin, among other places) to expand into, adding its edgier offerings to those of the long-established Art Brussels fair, as it does in New York (where the Independent complements the Armory Show).
The “art world” draws from, in fact, the entire world: It’s international, borderless, cosmopolitan, and often gathers itself in great cities which we have seen have also been targets of terrorists (the November attacks in Paris happened to coincide with Paris Photo.) After it happened, local attendees and organizers I spoke with, said they had to do battle with perceptions from media coverage of the city, a need to defy the terrorists’ motives of disrupting daily life. Independent co-director Olivier Pesret, who, when pressed about the attacks’ impact on the timing of the fair, said, “The events were tough, but we immediately got on the phone with our 72 exhibitors and there were very few who felt uneasy. It’s not a war zone. The media was showing military in front of the courthouse — but they’re there year round! No exhibitors backed out. Two days after the attacks we had a dinner and instead of 80, we had 110 people show up.”
A spirit of defiance was added to a spirit of seriousness about art which already existed. Brussels might not be the flashiest place in Europe, but there are other reasons for the art world to gather there. “Brussels was an obvious city for us,” said Pesret. “More or less 50 percent of our exhibitors come from Europe, and we wanted to be closer to home for them. At the same time we wanted to be able to attract our American audience to Europe outside of a city which they always know — Paris, London, etc. So we chose a city where we could have a positive impact, and Brussels has changed radically in a very good way. A lot of artists do residencies at the art center Wiels and then they stay because it’s inexpensive and central. In two hours you’re in all the major capitals. And you’re in a country that has been supporting the arts for centuries. It’s something that is really deeply ingrained in people here. The mentality goes alongside our core philosophy of supporting artists and galleries. In Brussels, it’s very easygoing and at the same time there’s a high quality of art. The collectors are serious — they really want to know more. It’s not an impulse buy.”
During my stay in Brussels, I visited the the Poppositions fair, known for exhibiting emerging artists and galleries, and I asked this year’s director, Nicolas de Ribou, to discuss the effect of the recent attacks on the fair week — if any. He stated, ‘It’s a bit different now than one month ago, but we were aware that something would happen. We knew since November,” he said referring to Belgium’s lockdown in a manhunt for Paris terrorist-attack organizer Salah Abdeslam. “It’s the strangest feeling but once it happens you feel more comfortable. You know it will happen again — but not for a while. Belgian people are really not scared.”
Others, such as the Iranian-born Brussels-based artist Sanam Khatibi, generally attributed the attacks to a problem in the lack of successful population integration and felt that more security would have little effect. Khatibi asserted, “I think what happened could have happened anywhere. It’s unfortunate that, yes, we have certain areas in Brussels where it turned out the attack planners were from those communities. There has always been integration problems. But unfortunately it’s a community that has difficulties integrating. And of course — the main issue is petrol and money. Our politicians have been bombing and doing all sorts of things in [Islamic] regions and people have been suffering for years. We haven’t been doing anything about it, so now they’re bringing it here. We get shocked about 135 people dying, but people are dying everyday. I had to leave my own country because of the same issues — it’s just different names and different people. Today, it’s here, but tomorrow it will be somewhere else.” Khatibi lives a ten-minute walk from the bombed metro station, Maalbeek — she heard military helicopters leading up to the attacks, which alerted her that an attack was imminent. “We’re all very sad, touched by it. But I’m not going to lock myself up because it happened. I don’t think the more military we put out the safer we are because if someone is willing to die to put off a bomb, it doesn’t matter. I don’t feel safer seeing 20 military guards.”
Brussels is in an unprecedented position. The city’s fair attendees have a well-proven track record for supporting often quite edgy art which coexists with the city’s complicated (and in some ways troubling) political history. Out of this, it is today a polyglot international city which provides an undeniably unique breeding ground for idea exchange because of its accepted coexistence of cultural diversity and lack of ethnic (or even linguistic) dominance. In this sense, New York, London, Paris eclipse one another, at least partially, whereas Brussels’s art identity remains undetermined — allowing today’s multifaceted art worlds (not unlike Belgium’s many cultural populations) to potentially intermingle, freely, in uncharted territory outside of the direct influence of a major international metropolis. Art, in this light, would get its own city.
Below is a three-day photo diary of the artwork and conversations I encountered at the art fairs, local arts institutions, and artist studios.