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CounterCurrent opens with interactive art projects, performances

The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center’s CounterCurrent festival features performances and installations in venues all over the city. | File photo/The Cougar

The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts’ fourth annual CounterCurrent festival kicked off its opening night celebration with a sold-out performance and a series of art installations at the Midtown Arts and Theatre Centers H on Tuesday.

Houston’s art community gathered to witness Ghana ThinkTanks’ “Mobile Mosque,” a project inspired by a University of Houston student, and a video installation that follows the lives of four Syrian refugees called “Stories of Refuge.” University of Maryland’s art group Winter Guests closed the evening with “Simulacrum,” a performance that combined Japanese kabuki and Spanish flamenco dances.

The projects’ artists were present at the opening day of the festival to provide insight into the inspiration behind their work.

“We are bringing a lot of artists that other organizations in Houston might not bring,” said program director for the Mitchell Center, Pia Agrawal. “I think we’re trying to find work that seems really relevant to Houston right now, so there’s a lot of shows about identity, politics in Houston and about conversations that we feel like Houstonians are having.”

Ghana ThinkTank is an artist collective that works with an international network of think tanks to find solutions for individuals experiencing personal, global and social problems in first-world countries. The think tank asked around the city, “What is your Houston diversity problem?”

“A young man at the University of Houston central campus said to us: ‘Even though Texas is so religious, I feel like five times a day I have to find a place to hide just to pray,’” said visiting Ghana ThinkTank artist Carmen Montoya.

Montoya said the group presented the collected problem to a group of Syrian women at a refugee center outside of Belgrade and Serbia. The solution they came up with was to build “Mobile Mosque,” which will travel to various areas in Houston during CounterCurrent, hosted by the local Muslim community.

“This is to give people a real idea of the diversity and the talents of the creative voice of young Muslims,” Montoya said.

The “Mobil Mosque” will be traveling to UH campus on Thursday, along with a Syrian women’s pop-up lunch.

“I think one of the themes that we’re really finding is storytelling,” Agarwal said. “We’re finding a lot of projects where we’re allowing people to tell their own stories.”

In “Stories of Refuge,” created by Beirut-based artists the Dictaphone Group, Syrian refugees document their time living in a refugee camp in Munich.

“They are very specific narratives about their experience arriving to Munich and what it was like to be in these temporary camps,” said one of the artists of “Stories of Refuge,” Abir Saksouk.

The installation also uses interactive pieces such as bunk beds, which provides audiences with an improved visual of the videos.

“The audience is invited to lay down on the bunk bed and watch the videos,” said another artist of the project, Tania El Khoury. “At the very end they can also write notes on immigration or about these characters in a note book.”

Saksouk and El Khoury have another project in the festival, “Camp Pause,” which is located at The Brandon, a contemporary art gallery at Brasil restaurant. The project tells the story of a Palestinian refugee camp in South Lebanon.

“It’s the story of the camp itself from different perspectives of characters that live in the camp,” Saksouk said. “They’re from different generations, different genders and different backgrounds.”

Karen Farber, the director of the Mitchell Center, said students have been able to engage with the artists in this year’s festival.

“That’s one of the reasons why a lot of this work is interactive, Farber said. “It’s so that the student audience can connect with the artist and really become a part of the work.”

The CounterCurrent festival opens the art galleries at various locations across Houston noon every day through Sunday. See the full schedule for performances and events for the week here.

“We call it a festival of art installations and ideas because we want the students to feel like they’re a part of it all, so it’s part of their learning experience being a UH student,” Farber said.

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