Five Female Art Curators From The Middle East You Should Know

The glitz and glam of exclusive parties, record-breaking sales, and provocative performances came to an end as curtains fell on Art Basel Miami last week. However, all the hype in the United State’s seaport city can be a poignant reminder for many art-lovers of yet another aesthete region that is oftentimes synonymous with instability, repression, and at times “anti-western” sentiments. 

In the Middle East region today—for many, especially young women—art appears as a bullet-proof mask, an escape valve, or at points, a liberating window of opportunity. While it may come as a shock, many Middle Eastern women are an integral part to and often on the forefront of some of the most innovative art that emerges from the region. This is while the majority of art organizations, institutions, commercial galleries and residency programs are formed and run by women.

In this centuries-old region, while political turmoil and social confinements often dominate news headlines, fresh female voices continue to emerge from countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. These are women whose artistic instincts act as a fresh breath of air into the stagnant narrative that often emerges from their politicized societies—among the most powerful and creative of these women are the curators whose vision has the power to frame the industry’s hungry appetite . Featured here are five emerging female curators from Saudi Arabia, Iran, UAE, Turkey, and Palestine who expand on the meaning of art in their country and what’s its like to be an art-industry professional in this region. 

 

Raneen Bukhari
Lives and works between Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Bukhari grew up in what she calls “a business/art environment” with an artist mother and a self-made successful businessman father. In 1990, her parents opened Desert Designs. Upon graduation Bukhari opened up a cafe in the Desert Designs store named Cafea Arab and also manages the Desert Designs art gallery with her team. In addition to her involvement in the family business, Bukhari is the creator and curator of LOUD Art, a Saudi initiative and brainchild of Desert Designs Art Gallery and a co-organizer of Huna Art, a platform for casual art talks. She is now expanding to go beyond the confines of the gallery walls and create pop up art shows in all kinds of locations. 

TK: Define Saudi Arabia’s art scene.
RB: It’s still in the beginning and in our country we only have 50 years of art with the giant 30 years of gap where nothing happened during the Islamic revolution. We have a lot to learn and explore, and very few artistic expressions are devoid of Western influence.

TK: How does your curatorial practice shed light on the socio-cultural and political issues facing your country and the region?
I try to give space to artists that might be exploring the gray area of artistic freedoms in Saudi Arabia. There is a fear of what the government and society will accept; so in that way I think giving them the freedom to create sociocultural and political work is shedding light on the topics. 

TK: What are some of the challenges of working in your country? 
RB: Little or no formal education for artists can be a disadvantage. There is very limited public funding and awareness of the importance of art in private and public spaces. Also, there is high restriction on creative freedom; for example, sculpture is still looked on as a provocative medium as it relates to idolatry. 

TK: If you could curate an art show for the US president-elect Donald Trump, what theme would you choose?
RB: A Kara Walker-esque art show about American People of color and minority groups whose traditions and cultures have become a major part of American history. To use artists from each community to highlight what being American really is, and continue the conversation about why the white majority seems to find it so hard to accept and embrace them.

TK: Tell us about your upcoming project.
RB: LoudArt’s fifth edition and also a show with a collective that I am a part of where the British Council has trained to increase their capabilities as curators. LoudArt will be next May and the graduation project of the BC training will be October 2017.

 

Lila Nazemian
Lives and works between Tehran and New York.

Nazemian is the Curatorial and Special Projects Associate at Leila Heller Gallery in New York. Her independent projects include curating Spheres of Influence, the first group show of Arab contemporary art in Iran, at Tehran’s Mohsen Gallery in April 2016 and two co-curated shows in collaboration with Culturunners at the Redbull House of Art, Detroit in June 2015. 
 
TK: Define Iran’s art scene.
LN: Although Iran has a rich centuries-old art history and has even had a prolific modern artistic movement (the Saqqa-khaneh) in the 1960s, the contemporary art scene has been relatively isolated from the global arts community due a variety of factors such as revolution, Iran-Iraq war, and crippling sanctions. Despite such challenges in the past three decades, new private galleries regularly open in various established commercial spaces. The local Tehran Auction has organized several auctions since 2012 and the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMOCA) has contributed and taken initiative by launching a dynamic international program alongside displays of its infamous collection of Postwar and Modern Western Art. Private residencies such as KOOSHK in Tehran and Va in Isfahan host international artists and provide a collaborative exchange between local and international creatives. As the country is slowly reintegrating into the globalized world and opening its doors to foreigners, the scope of the arts community will undoubtedly continue to expand and evolve.

TK: How does your curatorial practice shed light on the socio-cultural and political issues facing your country and the region?
LN: Within every society, artists, curators, and critics often observe and respond to particular moments in history. With each project, I strive to connect themes, historical moments, and people by raising—at times— uncomfortable truths. In the Middle East there are multiple layers of competitive, controversial, and contextually specific relationships both on the macro level such as countries, religious groups, ethnic groups as well as micro level like: laws, environmental initiatives, and nation building. I strongly believe that where there is conflict there is room to learn about one’s self and others. I look to bring together groups of artists whose works not only have a dialogue with one another, but also constitute various pieces of a puzzle, which ultimately can address a contentious topic,place, and situation—hopefully with a bit of irony. 

TK: What are some of the challenges of working in your country? 
LN: One of the main challenges in this part of the world is censorship. I do believe however, that obstacles and censorship compel the artistic community to be more creative. The artists’ criticisms and messages are ultimately revealed not in an obvious manner, but in a much more cryptic and complex fashion. In some ways, censorship ends up being both a curse and a blessing; while artists are not permitted to speak freely, once they find their way to voice their opinions, their messages are richer and more profound. 

TK: If you could curate an art show for the US president-elect Donald Trump, what theme would you choose?
LN: I would commission a group of artists around the world to create video works around the theme of Trump Towers in cities in different countries like Azerbaijan, Argentina, Russia, the Philippines and of course, the United States. Central to this project would be the medium of video art, and furthermore the voices of artists from around the world describing, questioning and challenging the impact of such real estate developments in their local cities and communities. 

TK: Tell us about your upcoming project.
LN: I am currently working on a show around the theme of mainstream media and the ways in which narratives shape opinions by ignoring or accentuating certain facts. In my upcoming show, Emphasis and Omission: Accounts of a Hospital Airstrike, five Yemeni new-media artists are invited to weigh in on the current war taking place in Yemen and to create new work based on the conflicting news media reports on an airstrike attack on a hospital in Yemen’s northwestern region on August 15, 2016. As expected, by comparing reports from various international media outlets, inconsistencies in the accounts are evident, which will ultimately reveal various underlying global political allegiances.

 

Munira Al Sayegh 
Lives and works in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.

Al Sayegh holds an undergraduate degree in History of Art and Archaeology from University of London’s School of African and Oriental Studies with a focus on the Middle East. She has worked at NYU Abu Dhabi as an assistant producer on the FIND project and was the co-curator of Art Dubai Projects 2014 as well as assistant curator of Emirati Expressions in 2015. She is currently working on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project as a Programs Officer. Al Sayegh sits on the advisory council board of the NYUAD gallery and has published various articles on the contemporary art scene in the region. She is curating the 2017 edition of UAE Unlimited Exhibition hosted in Abu Dhabi titled Bayn.
 
TK: Define the Emirates’ art scene.
MAS: Unlike what many think, the art scene in the UAE is not a recent phenomena, but has been around since the 1970’s. In the present, Sharjah leads with its grassroots initiatives, always integrating the art scene within the already existing community spaces. In the early 2000’s Dubai proved itself to be the commercial hub for the Arts—in the present day we have spaces such as Al-Serkal Avenue, which is home to local and international galleries and creative spaces in the heart of the industrial neighborhood.
In the capital, Abu Dhabi, an entire island known as Saadiyat is being built and will be home the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and the Zayed National museum. So in a nutshell, I would say that the ecosystem in the UAE is in constant evolution and that evolution has become a part of the identity of the country’s art scene. 

TK: How does your curatorial practice shed light on the socio-cultural and political issues facing your country and the region?
MAS: Being from the UAE I grew up in a multi-national society. So my curiosity as to how we are looking at ‘change’ from an anthropological and sociological way is very important when it comes to my work. The end result of an exhibition is always a reflection of the current issues as well as the ideas discussed in the UAE and the Gulf. With the rapid change that this young country has gone through in addition to the consistent shifts that continue to take place around us, questions of identity, social hierarchies, and the rearranging sense of language are all major factors reflected in the art scene.

TK: What are some of the challenges of working in your country? 
MAS: One of the main challenges is the way that each country works as a separate entity. There needs to be a bridge that combines the Gulf as a whole in order for the multiplicity of voices to be heard from a grassroots perspective. This brings up a second point that addresses the need for non-formal institutions to also rise alongside the large-scale international institutions in order to satisfy that which does not trickle down from the top. I would say once the challenges are satisfied, only then we can have what could be considered as a more holistic art scene.

TK: If you could curate an art show for the US president-elect Donald Trump, what theme would you choose?
MAS: I would look at the theme of separation in order to get the point of unity across by blurring boundaries of borders by engaging artists in producing works that look at division. Furthermore, I would open up the conversation to look at the insensitivities that are derived from hate in order to discuss the perspectives found in the lack of understanding of what unifies us as a global population. 

TK: Tell us about your upcoming project.
MAS: It’s a project under the patronage of His Highness, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan’s foundation, UAE Unlimited in collaboration with Sheikha Salama Foundation, New York University Abu Dhabi, and Marayah Arts Center. The upcoming exhibition, “Bayn”; looks to deconstruct and reconstruct labels, boundaries, and identities assigned, defining this constant state of transformation as a part of the present genetic make up of the UAE shedding light on personal, social, and environmental changes currently taking place.

 

Ulya Soley
Lives and works in Istanbul.

Upon her graduation from Robert College, Ulya studied art history and psychology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. She spent a year at the University of Glasgow as an exchange student focusing on art history and comparative literature. In Berlin she participated in a round table discussion on historicizing video art as a speaker at the Moving Image fair, Istanbul. Currently she works at Pera Museum in Istanbul and writes for Sanatatak and Istanbul Art News. She is a co-founder and curator at Maybe Art Projects. 
 
TK: Define Turkey’s art scene.
US: Turkey’s art scene is changing and evolving rapidly. It is definitely exciting to watch it expand in all dimensions, but quite hard to explain the complexities that define it. Private museums and investors that are key players to the development of the art scene have only been around for the past 10-15 years. Unfortunately the state support to contemporary art is minimum. The Istanbul Biennial is another very influential international event that has a 30 years long history. Although in its short history, Turkey’s art scene has grown to become an interesting case due to the country’s complex geographical and political situation.

TK: How does your curatorial practice shed light on the socio-cultural and political issues facing your country and the region?
US: I’m hoping to develop and work on projects that focus on contemporary thoughts and concerns at a global level. I’m interested in introducing, developing or contributing to these ideas and raising awareness in our present-day context. 

TK: What are some of the challenges of working in your country? 
US: Freedom of expression is problematic, and insufficient funding is challenging. Instability of the political environment makes art a privilege. However, international perception about the area makes it difficult to collaborate with international partners. 

TK: If you could curate an art show for the US president-elect Donald Trump, what theme would you choose?
US: I choose not to do a show for one specific person and have no answer for this question.

TK: Tell us about your upcoming project.
US: I’m part of Maybe Art Projects, a curatorial duo and we are currently working on a screening and talk program that brings together visual artists who engage with intersections of video art and film in their work.

 

Lara Khaldi
Lives and works in Jerusalem

Khalidi is an independent Palestinian curator. She currently teaches art history and theory at the International Academy of Art, Palestine, Ramallah and at Dar Al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture, Bethlehem and is the interlocutor for the upcoming Sharjah Biennial 13 project in Ramallah. 
 
TK: Define your home country’s art scene.
LK: It’s an art scene continuously in flux because of the political instability. In Ramallah and Bethlehem for example many new institutions are opening and growing because of a relatively more stable political and international and local private funding situation. Possibilities for artists to exhibit and show their work has also been growing with new exhibition spaces like the artist-run space Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center, the Birzeit Museum, and the AM Qattan Foundation. An interesting debate in the Palestinian art scene is taking place now with the opening of many new museums, and many artists have been making art works around lost archives and new museums. 

In Gaza the cultural scene suffers from the general problems of infrastructure caused by the Israeli siege and the many wars waged against them. As for the volatile city of Jerusalem, institutions suffer a lack of funding and a daily challenge in inviting audiences to immerse in public life, as there has been a withdrawal caused by a very tense public sphere. 

Although the fragmented territory and contexts make it difficult for us to collaborate, it is for this very reason we have started Qalandiya International in 2012 which is a bi-annual program of exhibitions and artistic events run by a steering committee of visual arts institutions across Palestine. 

TK: How does your curatorial practice shed light on the socio-cultural and political issues facing your country and the region?
LK: For the past few years I have been very interested in the proliferation of museums in the region and specifically in Palestine. In a paper for the Institute for Palestinian Studies conference I presented notes on artist’s’ work which portray museums in the region as flat and self referential, and where the museum becomes a space for the announcement for the death of a struggle for emancipation, especially in the Palestinian case. I also formed a due with artist Yazan Khalili where we work on lecture performances, some of which have dealt with the history of the conflicted history of the Arab Union (Love Letters to a Union).

TK: What are some of the challenges of working in your country? 
One of the many problems we face here in Palestine in the cultural scene is an isolation and a disconnection from other practices and practitioners in the Arab world and abroad, travel between our neighboring countries (and travel in general) has been near impossible since the Nakba of 1948, and so we have suffered a cultural caesura which is quite incommensurable. However there are advantages in these challenges that could more often be seen in the conceptual questions born out of the complexities of the region. For example, the question around building museums here in Palestine becomes a very interesting one which could subvert and change the question around the museum globally.

TK: If you could curate an art show for the US president-elect Donald Trump, what theme would you choose?
LK: One can either take this question seriously or sarcastically, as I think there is something very sarcastic in the fact that Trump is the president of the United States; or perhaps it is not sarcasm but simply the truth finally revealed, whereby the real leaders of America, capitalists, are now “officially” or “legally” ruling. To answer this question, I will use an anecdote. The Museum on the Seam is a Palestinian house built in 1932 by the Baramki family and was occupied by the Israeli military in 1948. Today it is called Museum on the Seam because it is located on the “1949 armistice line” which divides Jerusalem into West and East. The curators attempt to invite Arab and Palestinian artists along with international artists to reflect on ‘borders’ mostly because the museum is located on the now invisible but very palpable ‘seam’. Of course many artists declined the invitation until one day an artist did express interest and accepted the invitation. After a few months of research on the history of the building, the artist submitted a detailed proposal for the museum. His proposed art work was that the building of the museum be returned back to it’s rightful owners, the Palestinian Baramki family. Naturally the proposal was turned down by the museum curators and staff, and every document pertaining to this proposal was destroyed. I would basically invite this artist for an unconditional solo project for US president-elect Donald Trump at the white House.

TK: Tell us about your upcoming project.
LK: “ékleipsis”, which is a small project within a wider program on Collectives with the AM Qattan Foundation. It is a loose adaptation of two theatrical plays into a combination of artistic forms. The two plays are, A’tma, authored and produced in Palestine in 1972 by the Avant garde theatre group Balaleen, and Victory Over the Sun, produced in Russia in 1913 by a group of Avant garde Russian artists and poets. Both plays address similar revolutionary questions around the notion of collectives, how collective work was poured into making plays about collective participation, the subversion of hierarchies and revolutionary thought and labor. Three groups of students will also be invited to participate in the adaptation, visual art, music and theatre students where they will be invited to collectively think through the adaptation, possibly resulting in an exhibition, and a theatre play or a combination of both.

 

 

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