Curating as an art form – Art Reoriented interview



Curators Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath of Art Reoriented speak to Art Radar about their practice.

Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath are the co-founders of Art Reoriented - an independent curatorial platform based in Munich and New York. The duo tells Art Radar about their unique curatorial practice focusing on individual artists that challenges exhibitions based on conventional classifications of art history.

Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, co-founders of Art Reoriented. Image courtesy Art Reoriented.

Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, co-founders of Art Reoriented. Image courtesy Art Reoriented.

Bardaouil and Fellrath are known for their groundbreaking approach to curating exhibitions that re-examine the classification system in art through creative new ways of understanding and connecting artworks. They have curated exhibitions internationally, including “Tea with Nefertiti” (2013) and Mona Hatoum’s “Turbulence” (2014) at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar; “Songs of Loss and Songs of Love: Oum Kulthoum and Lee Nan-Young” (2014) at Gwangju Museum in Korea; Akram Zaatari at the Lebanese Pavilion (2013) at the 55th Venice Biennale; and the comprehensive retrospective “Paul Guiragossian: The Human Condition” at the Beirut Exhibition Center.

You have very diverse cultural and academic backgrounds. Could you talk a bit about your respective backgrounds and what inspired you to become a curator?

Sam Bardaouil (SB): I was born in Lebanon during the civil war. For the first fifteen years of my life, I experienced the war on a daily basis. This experience obviously shapes who you are, and gives you a certain insistence on wanting to contribute to change or positivity in the world. I’ve always thought of the arts as a way to express oneself, a way to better understand the world and open up certain questions. I studied art history and theatre, and worked in theatre for a while as a director, writer and performer. I became more immersed in art history, art criticism and teaching art at university. My theatre background was very informative in helping me understand how to approach exhibition-making in a spatial kind of way.

I was teaching at several universities prior to teaching at the Tisch School of Arts at New York University. Till and I met, and we discussed several ideas and projects and worked on a few exhibitions together in 2008 and 2009. We realised that there was something very interesting about our different backgrounds. We decided to start working independently and founded Art Reoriented in order to have the freedom to work without being affiliated or constrained by one institution.

Till Fellrath (TF): I was born in Geneva, I went to school in Switzerland and the United Kingdom. My background is in Economics, and I taught economics in London and then in Singapore, and was in Singapore management. So, I have quite a teaching background. I was also a consultant at the time for nonprofit organisations and museums. Personally, art was always my passion, and I always loved going to museums and reading everything about it. In 2004, I took a gap year and went to Parson’s School of Arts. I then started working in the art field full-time, began making exhibitions, ran a museum in Chelsea, and then met Sam and decided to work with him on curating exhibitions.

Actually, coming to the point we are at right now, curating is not something that one can really study or should really study. I think curation is such a complex field that it’s very important to be able to draw from other disciplines. Whether it’s economics or politics, or you’ve travelled, you’ve lived and experienced things and have seen a lot of art, and so on. I think it’s a blurry kind of a profession that doesn’t really have a particular track to study it. I think there’s also curatorial talent, and there are so many things that you have to incorporate in order to understand the art and the artists. I think it’s quite good to come from different disciplines and merge them.

Installation view of Tea with Nefertiti exhibition. Egyptian Museum, Munich 2014. Image courtesy Art Reoriented.

Installation view of “Tea with Nefertiti” (2014) at the Egyptian Museum, Munich. Image courtesy Art Reoriented.

Art Reoriented was formed in 2009. Has your curatorial vision changed over the years?

TF: I’m hoping that every project that we do builds on the previous ones, so in a sense, the way of putting the exhibitions together every time gets more complex, more comprehensive and more informed because you don’t curate 100 shows a year. It takes so much time to do it. Every time you are going through an exercise of putting a large group show together, you really grow a lot. You give it your best. You give everything you have, all your ideas, everything that you’ve seen comes together. Inevitably, the more you do it, it becomes more comprehensive, and the arguments become more developed over time.

SB: I think more than how your vision changes or grows, it’s about how you become more articulate in making your vision easily communicable and accessible to the audience. It’s like any other art form in a sense. We believe that curation is an art form in storytelling. As you grow in your field and grow in your practice, your vocabulary expands, your terminology expands, and so does your ability to construct sentences. I’m using the metaphor of storytelling to work with narratives, to work with dialogue, to work with characters. If you think of artworks and artists as the tools through which you construct certain narratives, you develop the sensitivity of maintaining the integrity of the identity of those tools. Not by coercing the artists or artworks into narratives, since this takes away from what the individual intended through their works, but by building on that and developing a more complex narrative where both the individual and also the collective questions you are trying to raise or story you are trying to tell are clearly evident.

TF: We are independent curators, and we are lucky enough to be able to do projects all over the world. We are seeing roughly about 200 shows a year, whether Biennales, whether it’s large museum shows, so I think we are in a very unique and special position. We have a pretty good overview of what the scope of curatorial practice is, and what is out there – what we like and what we don’t like. So, I think we are developing more and more clearly what we advocate, and what we stand for. What Sam is saying is that the vision was always there but we feel more strongly about it – to really give artists a true platform for their own sake, to really go back to the basics, that an artist has a vision and has a mission and often gets contrived by political images, by cultural stereotypes, by art history classifications. Whether that’s over time, centuries, I think it’s important to look at the artist’s work, what that stands for, then go broader rather than go the other way around which is often the case.

Installation view of Mona Hatoum's Turbulence, Mathaf, 2014. Image courtesy Art Reoriented.

Installation view of Mona Hatoum’s ‘Turbulence’, Mathaf, 2014. Image courtesy Art Reoriented.

It sounds like there’s a lot of research involved in curating your exhibitions.

TF: Absolutely, there’s no way around that. I think curation is sort of becoming a fashion – and I really don’t understand the fascination for so many people to become curators – it’s really hard work and not particularly well paid. It’s also really complicated and no matter how good the show is, a tonne of people are going to be upset with you because you didn’t put this and that and whatever. It’s really quite tricky and it takes a lot of time, a lot of research, a lot of seeing art, and that is simply not something you can get around. You really need to develop over years.

SB: I think it’s also very important because we tend to see it as two things. First, it’s important to do research because it offers you the context or the framework. So, whatever exhibition you are showing exists in temporal, regional, artistic, art historical, geographical, political, theoretical, philosophical contexts – and this is where the research comes in. The other thing about research is negative – I think when you are putting art in an exhibition, there are so many layers and so many positions, and what we don’t necessarily like to do is when you see a show, and there is only one layer. You go to see the show, and that’s it. I think the more research you do, the more layers you can create. There’s the first layer which is what you see at first sight, then, you discover more when you start looking at more juxtaposed works and reading some of the texts, and then you realise that there are so many layers with which you can appreciate it and understand what you are looking at. That is very important, and it takes a lot of time and work.

TF: To give you an example, there was a relatively small show we did at the Alexander Gray gallery in New York on the Korean Dansaekhwa movement – the artists that work in the monochrome style. There were 20 artworks on view. To understand these artists, you simply had to go to where the artists were working and talk to them and their families. We had friends who we worked with to access primary literature, and we went to a lot of these artists’ studios or estates. If you don’t see the works, and you don’t understand the struggle of the people, economically, politically, and the conditions in which they were working in at the time, you don’t understand the socio-economic context. And then if you don’t actually see those canvases and understand the sort of violence with which artists were treating the canvases and constructing these abstract works, you are simply missing the point of how they were done and why they were done. You just see it as some sort of American abstract expressionism or something when it really had nothing to do with that whatsoever. There isn’t the slightest bit of formalistic or other connection really. I think you end up misreading these from some sort of a perspective of some Asian zen, when it has nothing to do with it. It’s quite the opposite of that.

There is a lot of research, whether academically, talking and travelling. I think all of this somehow filters into how you present any artwork by the way you write the press release, by the way you arrange the objects, and by the way you talk about these works. I think for art history’s sake, it is really a big responsibility to do the research properly and not come to easy conclusions because once it’s out there, it ends up becoming the truth, even though it’s not the truth.

Installation view of Tea with Nefertiti exhibition. Egyptian Museum, Munich, 2014. Image courtesy Art Reoriented.

Installation view of “Tea with Nefertiti” (2014) at the Egyptian Museum, Munich. Image courtesy Art Reoriented.

Do you feel that your curatorial approach is very different from what is currently happening internationally?

TF: I would say, yes. I think we are probably a minority in terms of doing it so vigilantly. It’s hard to criticise other people, and it’s hard to summarise what people are doing globally since there are a lot of museums. But I do think that curating has become a fashion where people easily put up a few things and have extremely complicated concepts in there which don’t really come through in an exhibition or when they write about something. I think we are probably more cautious, and we take more time before we put something together.

The second thing that we like doing that we don’t often see is clarity. You really want to have a clear visual walk-through so you actually feel something, and it’s a beautiful show, and it’s clear, especially in larger exhibitions. Why you are where you are in the narrative so you don’t lose yourself in the show, so you always understand what’s going on. You are being taken on a journey, and you leave with a lot of questions, which is great. You feel somehow enriched when leaving the show rather than feeling like you were bombarded with objects.

Could you describe how you arrive at this clarity? And what is the process behind creating this clarity?

SB: To follow from what Till was saying, obviously, there are many types of curators, many methodologies. For us, it’s about commitment in a sense. You commit to a certain way of doing things. You have a very clear position as to where you stand, what you’d like to show, how you’d like to show in exhibitions, parameters you’d like to work with. So, if we choose to work in a certain way, other curators choose to work in different ways and you know, they will stand for what their commitment is, and we will stand for what our commitment is.

What I think is very important for us in talking about this clarity, is in a sense, we know what we want to say. I think that most of the time, it’s not about saying something that’s close-ended. It’s not about making a final statement. If anything, we’d like to open up a series of questions. I think an exhibition is about questions, and the text is about articulating those questions in a more concrete way or proposing certain answers. There is a very different way in which we approach text and exhibitions. I think they both complement each other.

The clarity for us is first for us to know what is it that we are trying to say. What are the questions we’d like to ask through this particular project or exercise, be it exhibition or the text that it comes with? For this to happen, you have to do your research, we go back to this idea. There is something that we say all the time: if you can’t say it in two or three lines then you have nothing to say.

TF: We were both in academia for several years, and I think when you really don’t understand the abstract of a paper, then there probably is nothing in that paper. I think another thing that’s very important is that for many curators – and you hear it often in discussions – it’s often so much about the curators themselves, their own egos and maybe it’s about their artists. Often, the thing that’s missing is the audience.

At the end of the day, you make a show for the people who come to see it. I think that’s the key element that’s in our projects. We don’t know whether we are always successful but we really strive for people to come to a show and feel something, and to adapt them to a local context, and make sure that they can make an emotional and intellectual connection, of varying degrees, of course, in every show.

I think you can test this out when you go to shows. Can you follow this? Is there a structure? Do you take something away that’s a convoluted mess of objects thrown together? Is there a connection, or is there none? At the end of the day, it’s often forgotten – art is something quite magical, in a simple, guttural way. Great art can do something, and we don’t really know what that is, and I think there is another tendency, the viewers and curators are often almost afraid of that. You have to over-interpret, over-analyse, verbalise and explain everything, and sometimes you cannot and I think that’s something that would be great to embrace. Let’s push that magic, in a sense, and embrace it. Art can do wonders, instead of overkilling it.

Installation view of Songs of Loss Songs of Love exhibition at Gwangju Museum of Art 2014. Image courtesy of Art Reoriented.

Installation view of “Songs of Loss Songs of Love” (2014) at Gwangju Museum of Art 2014. Image courtesy Art Reoriented.

There’s an interesting aspect of fiction and history in both your exhibitions, “Tea with Nefertiti” and “Songs of Loss Songs of Love”. How did you come up with the narrative themes of these exhibitions? And how do you select the artists for these exhibitions?

SB: These are very different types of shows, there are two different story approaches. I think with “Songs of Loss Songs of Love”, it was very important for us to find a way of entering into the local audience. We’ve been travelling in Asia for many years, visiting different places, and we were specifically in Seoul and Gwangju in South Korea. Gwangju Museum of Art asked us to do this exhibition there, and it was very important for us to find a way of connecting to the audience, and we also did not want to do the obvious or the expected, to talk about the uprising in Gwangju in 1980s.

Since the museum was interested in us doing a show of artists that are mostly from the Middle East and the Arab world, we were also equally conscious that we wanted to present the artworks in a framework that preserves the individuality of each artist and does not reduce them to just another way of the expected rhetorical politics vein, the Islam and calligraphy, the images we usually think of when we talk about the East. We spent a lot of time talking to people to find an interesting point that could be the starting point for the show.

We came across this amazing singer from South Korea, Lee Nan-Young (1916-1967). She had this beautiful, heartbreaking song from the 1930s called “The Tears of Mokpo”. Mokpo is very close to Gwangju and also in the south where the Japanese, during the colonial rule, use to take the men to work in plantations and camps in Japan, so the women would stand at the port and cry as they saw their men go away. Over the years, after the war, the song became very emblematic of this kind of identity or connection to home. This was a very strong thing for us. If we were to think of a figure or a song that is from the Arab world that can be the counterpoint of Lee Nan-Young, who would that be? Of course, for us, that is Oum Kulthoum (1904-1975), a very famous Egyptian singer who became emblematic of the whole period in the Arab world where there was a search for national identity. And she has a story similar to Lee Nan-Young. They both start from a very poor, humble background and they both became very famous.

In 1967, they were both in Paris and that was the starting point. What would have happened if the two had met? How would they have collaborated or worked on something together? It was about cultures meeting, artists meeting, and what happens because of that encounter. So the exhibition itself became a fulfilment to a promise that we proposed – Lee Nan-Young and Oum Kulthoum’s promise to each other, to meet and work together. But they had both died and couldn’t fulfil that promise. The artists coming from that world from Oum Kulthoum became a fulfilment to Lee Nan-Young.

All the works were related to the themes of two songs that we chose. Tears of Mokpo by Lee Nan-Young, and Ruins for Oum Kulthoum. Sound was very important for the exhibition, the music was very important. As you walked around, you could hear different pieces, and they all had a different sound quality, and it was a very poetic exhibition. The people connected, and they thought it really happened, and then realised that it was fiction.

TF: The research elements were all there, with the layering of information, to play with this duality in a sense. You have these two cultural backgrounds, two time periods (when they were to have met, and the present time) and then we basically came up with these two chapters, “Songs of Loss” and “Songs of Love”, because in a sense there are two sections, they are two sides of one coin. You lose a lover, you can’t experience one without the other in a sense, and we are playing with that.

The underlying elements you have in there since both of them come from these cities with the ocean, many of the works we chose have a notion of travel in them. And finally, there’s the notion of sound and music, concepts on which many people can connect on in the city of Gwangju. These are probably more interesting departure points than going for the obvious, the Arab Spring with the uprising in Gwangju which is probably beaten to death, and there’s almost something patronising when national people come to the city of Gwangju, and we are trying to teach them their own history. I think it’s a bit ridiculous. I think it’s quite nice to go for something universally relevant, and maybe touches on the history of the city, but they don’t need an international curator to go there and explain it to the locals. I think they are quite educated and aware of where they come from.

Installation view of Songs of Loss and Songs of Love exhibition at Gwangju Museum of Art, 2014. Image courtesy Art Reoriented.

Installation view of “Songs of Loss Songs of Love” (2014) at Gwangju Museum of Art. Image courtesy Art Reoriented.

How was the exhibition received by the local audience?

TF: It seems to have done really well. We were there for the first few days, and we were just back in Gwangju for the Gwangju Biennale opening, and a lot of people were talking about the show from various corners so it seemed to have really resonated and succeeded in terms of connecting people to a group of artists that they weren’t familiar with.

Could you talk a bit about your exhibition for the Lebanese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2013? What was your curatorial vision for the pavilion? And how was it curating for a national pavilion as opposed to a museum?

TF: It is different for many reasons. For a museum, you are bound by spaces, mission, collection. It’s a very different kind of audience so it’s much more of a local context. When you curate a show for Venice, you pretty much have all the variables open to you. There isn’t anyone telling you what you should or shouldn’t do. Even the space, we found the space. As for the audience, it’s a very specific audience, a demanding audience – very experienced, savvy art-goers, so to speak, and of course there’s the local audience. But I think the Venice Biennale is quite particular in that it actually attracts an international art audience, as very few other events do.

In curating for a national pavilion, our vision was driven by the space, by the location, by the events, to find one artist that was very dear to us from the beginning. Aside from finding the right artists, we tried to find the right project that maybe talks about something that is very important in Lebanese society at the moment. I think it helps that Sam is Lebanese, and I’m not Lebanese so we have this two perspectives that come together, which is exactly what you have in Venice in terms of the audience. The idea of one strong artistic project was very clear for us, and hope that the audience would come, engage and spend a lot of time at the pavilion since there is simply so much to see there.

SB: I think that our knowledge of different artists from Lebanon, both living and in and out was not something that started when we were asked to curate the pavilion. We had been doing research for a long time but then several months before, we chose to work with Akram Zaatari. We investigated a lot of artists living in Beirut and Lebanon, but also abroad, and looked at many projects. When Akram proposed this project, we felt that it was the right one because it was very poignant and relevant. The project somehow raised certain questions that could be critical of certain perceptions or political strands within the country, and within the parameters of a national pavilion. In a sense, to inverse the actual equation and use the national pavilion to critique certain national attitudes which was a great opportunity.

It was also great that we could do this through a national pavilion and not an independent project. The commissioner of the pavilion, APEAL – Association for the Promotion and Exhibition of the Arts in Lebanon, were great. There was no censorship, no attempt at curbing any choices that we made as curators, and the artist was doing the work we commissioned him to do.

TF: One important thing to add is that Akram is an artist we had worked with previously on a big commission for the opening of the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar. We had known him for many years, and this project came up, and we had him in the back of our minds and despite all the research we did, found that that is the ideal project for this context.

Venice has this strange thing of these national pavilions, which comes from a time of world fairs where you exhibit other cultures in these international fairs. It’s really from that thinking and it has actually lasted till today in Venice. It’s a very interesting platform in a sense because a lot of artists, and people don’t want to represent a country and you don’t want an artist to tell you everything about a country. On the other hand, in this particular forum, it has this interesting opportunity to enter an international artistic community with something that would be important in the society. So instead of shying away from that, it may also be interesting to go heads on. You choose a project that’s actually talks about the nation, and it does make a statement of sorts. So the choice of Akram is also one of working with an artist that has always been in Lebanon, and has not made his career outside, someone who has contributed to the infrastructure of the country and helped build institutions and make Lebanon and Beirut a great place for artistic production.

SB: And that would in turn send a message to artists based in Beirut, who are not living abroad, that you could have an international career and be recognised in important exhibitions while still being based and practising inside and not so called bigger centres like Paris or New York.

TF: These are considerations that you would not necessarily think about if you were to curate a museum show.

Installation view of Mona Hatoum's Turbulence exhibition. Mathaf, 2014. Image courtesy Art Reoriented.

Installation view of Mona Hatoum’s “Turbulence”, Mathaf, 2014. Image courtesy Art Reoriented.

In a previous interview for ArtAsiaPacific in 2012, you’ve spoken about museums and art spaces still putting on shows entitled “Contemporary Chinese Art” or “Japan Now” or “New from the Middle East.” Could you talk about how you approach your curatorial practice to shift away from these exhibitions with a regional focus, and curate shows focused on individual artists?

SB: I think there are so many ways you can evade reducing a project into these geo-political frameworks. We can give you different examples. One example is the naming of the exhibition, the title. “Tea with Nefertitiwas a show that takes the history of collecting Egyptian art in big museums from the 19th century onwards as a case study, and is an example of how museums can use artworks and artists to create images of other cultures.

When we were looking at naming this exhibition, the first thing we decided was not to use the word ‘Egypt’ in the title, because the moment you put the word Egypt, people will think that it’s a survey show of contemporary Egyptian artists associated with Tahrir Square, the Arab Spring or with the mummies and pyramids. So, it was very important to find a way of connecting the example or core example that we are using to illustrate very important point through this exhibition without reducing it into geographical focus. With Nefertiti, you understand that there’s a connection to Egypt, but then it’s not about Egypt, it’s about the artwork. And “Tea with Nefertiti is like sitting and talking to Nefertiti and listening to her point of view, what she has encountered and what she has to say while being taken around the world, since it was excavated, so on and so forth. So that’s one example of the way we try. And the first thing you read is the title of the exhibition.

TF: Even when you think about the audience – how does it come across? What do you want people to take away from the show? And that often should be one of the starting points. Another way of doing it is when curators look at artists for a show on contemporary Asian artists. If that is your primary way of choosing artists, that becomes problematic and becomes ethnicising [sic]. Even if you do want to present contemporary artists from China, there needs to be another layer, you still need to have another formalistic element.

In “Songs of Loss Songs of Love”, these works connect very strongly in a very visceral way because of what they talk about, rather than artists coming from a very blurry defined region which is the Middle East. I think, whatever project you are working on, it’s important to look at the artists, look at the works, understand and feel the works, and connect them in a strong way. Even if there is an ethnic commonality, this is not what actually pops to the foreground in an exhibition. It’s the same, in fact, when you meet people from all over the world: you remember the person for who they are because they are funny or angry not because of x, y and z. This is the way we are approaching art exhibitions, going away from this East/West thing, and kind of going back to the roots and basics in a sense.

Installation view of Told Untold Retold exhibition at Mathaf Museum, 2010. Image courtesy Art Reoriented.

Installation view of “Told Untold Retold” (2010) at Mathaf. Image courtesy Art Reoriented.

Why do you think this categorising of artists into regions is so prevalent in the arts?

TF: I think there are several reasons. Art history as such is a domain where it’s all about classifying and seeing what has happened. There’s much more of a rigid classification than in music, of schools, places, art styles etc., and you have that in musicology. Secondly, nowadays, there is often a market-driven approach where you sell artworks, and it’s much easier to say “oh we have the new hot Turkish artist” than going a little more in depth and marketing that. And I think people love politics. Somehow, there is a mix of politics and art, where one artist has to explain the whole politics and history of the particular country. This is always impossible, but there is an underlying expectation that when you have an artist from Egypt, they will explain to you how their country works.

SB: I think, in the wake of post-colonial studies, a lot of European museums, institutions and curators that do not come from colonised countries felt it was important to show the places that are not from the canon. Let’s show artists from Seoul, Beirut etc., that’s the lens from which they were initially framed, and the artists jumped at it as this was the only way to show their works. This is how it started.

For us, historically speaking at large, and maybe in the wake of the last century, like in Cairo or Beirut, there was this exchange of ideas and styles that was happening, and people don’t realise that it was happening before and think that this is happening for the first time now since the New Museum is showing it. So for us, it’s important to dig deeper, and excavate historical frameworks and how they can be presented.

How do you see the curatorial practice around the world evolving in the next five years, or how would you like it to evolve?

SB: For us, one of the things we hope to keep on doing and maybe other institutions and curators would do is to distinguish between a curator of contemporary art and a contemporary curator of art. We’d like to think we are contemporary curators of art. There is a big difference between the two. In our exhibitions, we would like to look at artists and artworks from different time periods through a contemporary perspective, and try to find new links and new connections, both formalistically, philosophically, intellectually, socially and so on and not limit ourselves to only look at living artists today.

We are not specialists in every field and every period, and we would like to expand the discussion and include other experts in our research and have interesting dialogue and exchanges that inform our vision and would allow us to present contemporary art within the framework that make references to art historical materials and periods, juxtapositioning works from different times to break these classifications. This is something we are interested in pursuing further in our works.

TF: I think it applies to many disciplines, and in the arts, there is an over-specialisation in many areas. I think you need to have people who really know things in-depth, but you also need more people who are connectors. Within art history, it’s amazing how few branch out. How many curators that specialise in a particular geographic area actually branch out and see works outside their area. You have to see everything and you can make wonderful connections. When you just go against everything and see how people think, how does it connect, and I think it’s far more exciting than looking at a certain document.

It’s quite radical in a sense to throw away all these specifications and working with Islamic art scholars, and urban planners and what not, to really understand a lot of background for a particular show. And then, we also went on connect it to different collections. I hope this kind of exchange is something that happens more in the future.

There is a tendency to have single artist shows, and there is also this tendency to think about visitors and ticket revenues – that is all important. But it’s also important to really try to advance the discipline by asking radically new questions about how you look at and interpret a work of art.

Installation view of Told Untold Retold exhibition. Mathaf Museum, 2010. Image courtesy Art Reoriented.

Installation view of “Told Untold Retold” (2010) at Mathaf. Image courtesy Art Reoriented.

Are there any new projects that you are currently working on?

TF: When we were doing all the research for the Lebanese Pavilion, we identified a younger group of Lebanese artists that are connected to Beirut: a new generation of younger artists who are more individualistic rather than working with collective narratives of the war and so on. A new wave of artists. So we are representing them in a show in several European locations starting from next year.

SB: And the show is titled, “I spy with my little eye”.

TF: We are working on an exhibition that’s about Surrealism in Egypt. We just finished a book on conversation with artists that have a connection with the Middle East, and the book goes against the stereotype, and we really go into everything, their childhoods and very extensive conversations that really show the personality of artists, and why they do what they do.

SB: To give you a little background on the book, it came about while thinking about how Arab artists go about engaging with this Arab Spring. We knew these artists before, and we’ve been talking about how the artists as individuals were responding differently to what’s happening during this particular moment, and their respective backgrounds, trajectories and their personal stories. The book is called Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring: Conversation with Artists from the Arab World, and will be released by SKIRA at the end of 2014.

For 2015, Art Reoriented are preparing an exhibition on young Lebanese artists that will premiere at Mataderos in Madrid and travel to various European cities.

Christine Lee

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Related topics: curatorial practiceAsia expandsinterviews with art curators, curators

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Chair of The Friends Dominica Yang on making art accessible – interview



Art Radar finds out more about the open, dynamic, multicultural organisation that is attracting people to art.

Dominica Yang, Chair of The Friends in Hong Kong, tells Art Radar about the organisation that attempts to bring people to art museums and art museums to people.

Dominica Yang, Chair of The Friends of the Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Image courtesy The Friends of the Art Museum, Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Dominica Yang, Chair of The Friends of the Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Image courtesy The Friends of the Art Museum, Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Dominica Yang is the Founder of the interior design company DYY Ltd., besides having also pursued photography and culinary projects, including two published cookbooks co-authored with Claudia Shaw. She is well-known in Hong Kong circles and has been the Chair of The Friends since 2012. Her involvement with The Friends, however, began over a decade ago.

The Friends of the Art Museum, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) was founded in 1981 to promote the study and appreciation of Chinese art and culture. To that end, The Friends sponsor lectures, study groups and tours to places of interest in Hong Kong and throughout Asia. Through these and other fundraising activities, they provide annual scholarships to art students at The Chinese University and contribute to the acquisition fund of the Art Museum.

Since November 2013, The Friends have sponsored two CUHK students to study Art Radar Institute’s online course Certificate in Art Journalism & Writing 101. For more information on Art Radar’s online courses, visit www.artradarjournal.com/learning.

We spoke to Yang about her involvement with The Friends, and her hopes and vision for its future.

Flyer for an exhibition of Chinese calligraphy on now at the Art Museum CUHK, which is the museum that The Friends supports. Image courtesy The Friends of the Art Museum, Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Flyer for an exhibition of Chinese calligraphy on now at the Art Museum CUHK, which is the museum that The Friends supports. Image courtesy The Friends of the Art Museum, Chinese University of Hong Kong.

It’s November 2014, and you’re wrapping up your second year as Chair of The Friends of the Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. How did your relationship with The Friends begin?

My relationship with The Friends started over ten years ago. I was on the board ten years ago, and I helped the organisation for at least three to five years. After that, I took a break for a few years because of family and work commitments. In the early 2000s, I was taking care of Products and Membership for the society. Hong Kong is a very small community: I was invited to some activities through friends and they encouraged me to become a member. If you like art, you like meeting people, you like being able to give and you like working hard, it really is a lovely group and you meet really nice people through it. Even when I wasn’t involved for ten years, I was still helping to design new products, and a lot of my friends are members so I’ve always stayed in touch. Two years ago, a member approached me and asked, now that my children are much older, whether I’d be free to help. So, here I am again.

The art world can feel a little intimidating at times, especially for people who are new to art. Is the idea of accessible art important to The Friends?

Yes, and the access to art that we offer is guided, it’s warm. We operate in a very relaxed way. We also don’t charge a lot of money for our events. Occasionally the fee is a little higher because of the speaker, venue and the catering, but generally, it’s all very relaxed.

The Friends is very prolific in terms of the events that you hold. Why does the organisation keep such a busy schedule?

We run all these events with the help of volunteers, and sometimes we stretch ourselves a bit too thin. We often have to slow things down a bit. We come across really interesting projects or ideas and you don’t want to lose an opportunity to organise an interesting event, but sometimes we have to spread the activities out a bit more. We have to try to balance the schedule and our resources.

How big is The Friends’ organisational team?

At the moment, we have thirteen board members and each member has specific duties. The Chair will oversee activities, but will also try to network and take care of the relationship between the museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, look for sponsors and maintain good communication with scholars.

We recently started a new group called Young Friends, which is something I initiated when I first started in the role of Chair. I’ve always wanted to engage new generations. I find, especially in Hong Kong, our local young talents are very shy. They often haven’t been abroad, and they find it very hard to step up and try to sell themselves. As an artist, that’s what you need to do. I want to create opportunities for them to meet other people, to be able to ask questions, or to just take those first steps outward. As part of this new programme, we took on on a Young Friends volunteer two years ago – Alexandra Choa. Now, our Young Friends Group has expanded. We’ve held events to help Young people network through art. We create opportunities for young artists.

Last June, we were very proud to co-host, with HongKong Land, an exhibition of artwork by five young local emerging artists at the Rotunda at Exchange Square in Hong Kong. It was an amazing achievement for us. We’ve now invited Alexandra to join The Friends’ board. Young Friends is a very important branch of our organisation. We believe in building network and opportunities for our future generation.

You mentioned earlier that you have a volunteer programme. Could you tell me more about how this part of the organisation works?

Apart from the ten board members, we also have a group of volunteers. The group is always in flux: sometimes volunteers stay with us for many years, some leave for a while because they’re travelling. When they come back to Hong Kong, they come back to us. Volunteers help us to run certain activities: some people run one-off events, some will manage our booth at art fairs and other events. They aren’t required to come to board meetings.

Could you give me an example of a typical event that The Friends would run?

There isn’t a typical Friends event as such, but we’re always looking for something unique and of interest to our members. For example, I started the Chair’s Series when I became Chair. The Chair’s Series features talks on personal and family experiences from Old Hong Kong, Old Shanghai, Old Macau – true, personal stories relating to history in the region. It has become one of the most popular series. I’m always open to suggestions; I think it’s important to offer a variety of activities.

A group of travellers on a The Friends-organised art and culture trip pose for a photograph at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pasargadee, in Iran. Image courtesy The Friends of the Art Museum, Chinese University of Hong Kong.

A group of travellers on a The Friends-organised art and culture trip pose for a photograph at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pasargadee, in Iran. Image courtesy The Friends of the Art Museum, Chinese University of Hong Kong.

How do you tie this kind of activity back to the art museum and the original aims of the organisation?

Originally, the organisational aim of The Friends was to try to bring people to the art museum and bring the art museum to the people. Since then, our mission has broadened, and we want to promote art awareness and also art educational support through the scholarships we make available to CUHK art students. We arrange art and cultural tours for our members. In the beginning, we only organised tours within the region, but we have expanded in recent years. Now we go to anywhere in the world: we’ve been to Ethiopia, countries in the Middle East and South America… We really go everywhere. We have members who join us only for the travel opportunities that we offer. We also have members who only come to the talks, we have members who only want to buy our products, and some members are not very active all, but occasionally, when they see an event or talk that interests them, they’ll attend. We have about 550 members at this time.

Are many of your members Chinese or from Hong Kong, or does The Friends’ membership mostly consist of expats?

I would say a big percentage, maybe seventy percent, are non-Chinese, but some of these members, while they could be called expats, have actually been living in Hong Kong for many years. These people call Hong Kong their home, but they may have originally come from anywhere in the world: South Africa, England, the United States, Australia, Europe… Among our membership volunteers, we have someone from Lebanon, from England, the States, India. Our former Chair was originally from Japan. It’s a very multicultural group, which makes the organisation very dynamic, because everyone brings their own culture and their own contacts to the group. It’s this multiculturalism that allows us to offer so many different kinds of activities.

You seem to attract dynamic people to The Friends: Young Friends coordinator Alexandra Choa is a good example. Why do you think The Friends attracts this kind of person?

We’re very open. We’re not restricted to the Art Museum [CUHK]. We’re very open to new ideas, and we’re very flexible. Maybe that’s it? You have to have an open mind. We always tell people why we’re holding our events, that we’re raising funds for the art museum, but we also make it clear that we’re working to raise awareness of art in general.

It seems that The Friends also taps into the international community in a positive, useful way. Would you agree?

Yes, we tend to attract expats. That could be because we don’t normally offer our activities in Chinese. Hong Kong is a very bilingual community. We wanted our activities to be accessible for most people and English is still the universal language.

Will The Friends offer more Chinese-language activities in the future?

I think, for now, we’ll continue to hold predominantly English-language events. We will consider holding translated events, but I don’t think we’d do a completely Chinese-language event. We have many loyal, long-time members and we can’t offer something that they can’t come to.

How do you connect the non-art focused events the organisation runs – the historical events, the food events, the international tours – with your role as a supporting society for the Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong [Art Museum CUHK]?

Well, art is a very big field, and the ways in which our organisation tries to engage people has evolved through the years. We still need to raise funds for the museum, so we’ve had to expand our offerings to keep people engaged. If we only focused on the art museum itself – if The Friends was limited to what the museum offers, which is just a few exhibitions each year – then we would be limited in what we could offer our members.

The museum is located in the New Territories. Hong Kong is small, but it’s still difficult for people to get out to that part of the city. If we were holding our activities only at the museum – at home, so to speak – it would be very hard to draw people out there, especially during the week. On the weekends, people have family commitments. So we tend to do things in Central, which is much more accessible for our volunteers and members. We try to hold our events from 6:30PM to 8:30PM, and we offer wine, non-alcoholic drinks and small eats. Attendees don’t have to worry about dinner because we always provide food, but the events finish early enough for them to eat dinner should they wish to do so.

We want to make our events very accessible. We’ve found that we need to offer a wide range of events, anything to do with art and culture, and because of this we’ve become a good station for people who want to explore art and culture in Hong Kong. At the same time, we make it quite clear that we’re helping the Art Museum [CUHK].

Cards are among the many products The Friends produce to raise funds for their organisation and the Art Museum CUHK. The artwork on this card is by local artist David Hu. Image courtesy The Friends of the Art Museum, Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Cards are among the many products The Friends produce to raise funds for their organisation and the Art Museum CUHK. The artwork on this card is by local artist David Hu. Image courtesy The Friends of the Art Museum, Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Aside from events, you hold other fundraising activities including auctions, and you also develop and sell products. Could you give me a little bit more information about these additional activities? For example, what sorts of products do you develop?

Traditionally, we’ve always created stationery products: charity cards, wrapping paper, plastic folders, tote bags, fans. We always use Asian art and culture influences in the designs: artwork by CUHK students or one of our speakers, or artwork from the museum’s collection. We sell these products at our events, at the museum shop, and at holiday and Christmas fairs. We normally give the participating artist credit on the back of the product, along with the sponsor’s and the artist’s information. We’ll also include a piece of paper that gives more information on the artist – their biography – in the packaging. We try to get sponsors to cover the production costs, which is good promotion for the companies that help us.

The money that the organisation makes is fed back into your activities. Does it also go directly to the Art Museum CUHK? For example, do you support artwork acquisition and, if you do, do you have any say in what is collected by the museum?

Yes, we do. Of course, we have to make sure the art that we buy is something the museum wants. It’s quite hard to buy something for the museum now. The artworks we would consider are usually very expensive. In March 2013, the Friends are very proud to have been able to present Zen Lotus, a painting by Lui Shou Kwan, to the Art Museum. This gift was made possible by funds from the Friends Collectors Circle together with The Friends reserve funds. We hope we can give the museum a large gift in 2016 when The Friends celebrate their 35th Anniversary.

We also have a range of student scholarships that we give every year; the partnership with Art Radar Institute is a good example of this kind of support. Finally, we help the museum when they have special events, such as an anniversary or a special exhibition. The museum comes to us with their funding requests and we have a board meeting to decide how much we want to give and for what purposes.

Click here to find out more about Art Radar’s Certificate in Art Journalism & Writing.

In terms of the CUHK student scholarships that you offer, how do you decide who you should offer the scholarship to, how much the scholarship will be worth and what the scholarship will be used for?

It really depends on the nature of the project, but it’s always a board decision. As the Chair, I would recommend the scholarship offer. In instances where we don’t agree on the offer or the conditions of the offer, we take a vote.

We’ve been giving out around nine scholarships a year. Sometimes they are for travel, sometimes for internships, sometimes it helps a student fund their thesis year. There’s a variety of scholarships on offer and we’re always open for suggestions from the university’s Fine Arts Department.

Dominica Yang, Chair of The Friends of the Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong (right), presenting CUHK student On Ki Angel Choi (left) with her Art Radar Institute art writing scholarship award.

Dominica Yang, Chair of The Friends of the Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong (right), presenting CUHK student On Ki Angel Choi (left) with her Art Radar Institute art writing scholarship award.

To date, you’ve offered two CUHK students a scholarship to study the Certificate in Art Journalism & Writing at the online art journalism school, Art Radar Institute. Has The Friends been involved with art journalism or art writing in the past?

We often ask our graduates, award recipients, and our speakers and academics to write an article for our membership newsletter. We really like to involve our students in our newsletter and have them write for us, even after they’ve left the university and have established themselves in the art world. We’ve asked past recipients to write articles for us for our newsletters. Some of them have moved on in the art world and it is good to hear what they’ve been doing and how they’ve benefitted from the Friends sponsorship.

Click here to find out more about Art Radar’s Certificate in Art Journalism & Writing.

You will stay in your position as Chair for a maximum of three years. How do you envision The Friends developing during your time as Chair?

Yes, I’m now in my third year as Chair. I’m very happy to see that we’ve nurtured a wonderful relationship with the new Directors at the Art Museum [CUHK], and all the staff at the Art Museum, in the [CUHK] Fine Arts Department, as well as with our Vice-Chancellor and Mrs Sung, our Patron. Our programmes have really expanded and subsequently we are also reaching out to a bigger community and making more friends. I hope that the Friends’ love of art and culture, of learning and giving will help bring the community closer together.

To wrap up, could you tell us what resources you access to find out more about contemporary art or culture in Hong Kong? Also, what advice would you give to someone considering studying art in Asia?

I think it’s all about networking. The beauty of Hong Kong is that it’s a very small community. Everything happens, you know, within a small area. You need to be out there meeting people, and Hong Kong is a great place to do that. In terms of The Friends, we create those opportunities. Our friends meet new friends, those friends bring another friend, and that brings members in. It’s like one big family. Who knows who you’ll sit next to at the next talk or tour?

Kate Nicholson

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Related Topics: art courses, promoting art, Art Radar Institute, Certificate in Art Journalism & Writing 101, interviews, art and the community, art in Hong Kong

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6 Azerbaijani artists to know



Azeri artists explore their historical heritage through cutting-edge contemporary practices.

Art Radar profiles 6 contemporary artists from Azerbaijan, who examine a variety of issues within their country’s socio-political environment, inspired by their historical and cultural heritage.

Farid Rasulov, from the 'Architectural Dichotomy' series, 2013, simulated concrete, fibreglass, plywood, wood and glass, 100 x 140 x 132 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and YARAT.

Farid Rasulov, from the ‘Architectural Dichotomy’ series, 2013, simulated concrete, fibreglass, plywood, wood and glass, 100 x 140 x 132 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and YARAT.

Azerbaijan’s art scene has been growing at a rapid pace in recent years. Through the participation of Azeri artists in international biennial events and exhibitions, the global art world has come to have a better understanding of the art that is emerging from the small Central Asian country.

A young generation of artists – eager to express their views on the contradictions of contemporary life in Azerbaijan – is developing fresh and innovative perspectives and practices. Born in the late 1970s and the 1980s, this generation has experienced their national independence from the Soviets in 1991 and an opening up of the country to globalising influences.

Baku, the capital, is now home to a thriving and evolving art scene – “an energetic community” as Aida Mahmudova calls it – with many new spaces opening as platforms for promoting, exhibiting and developing contemporary art. YARAT (meaning ‘create’) is the foremost nonprofit contemporary art organisation in Azerbaijan, representing and promoting Azeri artists within and outside their own country. Dedicated to the understanding of contemporary art and the development of a vibrant art scene at home, the platform has a roster that includes some of the most important names in the Azeri art landscape.

Since its inception, the art scene in Azerbaijan has gained more and more international attention, especially since one of the most ambitious projects at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013. “Love Me Love Me Not” was a collateral exhibition of artists from Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia, Turkey and Georgia in the Central Asian Pavilion.

Art Radar profiles 6 exciting artists from Azerbaijan, represented by YARAT.

Watch ‘Keelkoushe’ on YouTube.com

Ali Hasanov

An artist, musician and filmmaker, Ali Hasanov creates works that merge a variety of media, including performance, music, film and installation. Hasanov is recognised as a pivotal figure in the development of performance in Azerbaijan and his oeuvre ranges from visual and performance art to video and sound installations.

In 2007, Hasanov was among the twelve artists who represented Azerbaijan at the 52nd Venice Biennale in the exhibition “OMNIA MEA“. Hasanov presented an early work entitled Keelcoushe (2000), an installation that featured a video documentation of his performance and the leather costume and strings he used for it. Keelcoushe was one of Hasanov’s invented personas, whose character essentially went beyond human logic. He wore a black raincoat and was desperate to extricate himself from the bondage of threads, demonstrating a certain likeness to invincible superheroes.

Watch the ‘Arsenium’ trailer on YouTube.com

Hasanov’s work Arsenium (2012) amalgamates video animation, music and performance. Inspired by the 1923 performance of “Symphony of Sirens” by the Soviet avant-garde composer Arseni Avraamov in Azerbaijan, the commemorative work took place on the docks, with a full choir and brass orchestra.

Born in 1976 in Baku, Hasanov graduated from the Azerbaijani State University of Culture and the Arts and received a degree in Filmmaking from Baku International Film School. He has exhibited widely at home and abroad at important events and institutions, including at the 55th Venice Biennale. He is also the founder and leading figure of the musical collective PG Large Used Project.

Watch ‘Inertia’ on YouTube.com

Farid Rasulov

Working in a diverse range of media, including installation, sculpture, photography and painting, Farid Rasulov plays with modernity and tradition to comment on the rapid modernisation taking place in Azerbaijan. Rasulov denies any symbolic meaning of his work, but his oeuvre is laden with traditional, ornamental Azeri patterns and elements presented with a humorous approach that suggest his engagement with social and cultural commentary.

Although he trained as a doctor, graduating in 2006 from the Azerbaijan State Medical University, in 2007 he decided to leave medicine and dedicated himself to developing an artistic practice. That same year he participated in the Venice Biennale with his first video Inertia, filmed on Gurban Bayram – an Islamic holiday where sheep are sacrificed, cut up into seven pieces and given to neighbours, friends and people who need food.

Farid Rasulov, 'Donkey in the bedroom', digital print on aluminium, plastification, 150 x 100 cm. Image courtesy the artist and YARAT.

Farid Rasulov, ‘Donkey in the bedroom’, digital print on aluminium, plastification, 150 x 100 cm. Image courtesy the artist and YARAT.

Rasulov has since developed a unique practice that makes use of traditional Azeri tapestry: he covers entire rooms, including furniture, with carpets. Recently, he has been adding solid white sculptures of animals to these rooms. In an interview with AMA, he says:

The carpet forms such a large part of the Azerbaijan community; the interiors, street sellers — you see it everyday. It is so ingrained within our culture, it’s so interesting.

His carpeted rooms have appeared at the Azerbaijan Pavilion “Ornamentaion” at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, and most recently, in his first solo show in France at Galerie Rabouan Moussion “Dogs in The Living Room” (2014). In this show, he comments on the relationship between East and West, past and present, tradition and modernity, local and global.

Faig Ahmed, 'Flood of Yellow Weigh', 2007, woolen handmade carpet, 150 x 100 cm. Image courtesy the artist and YARAT.

Faig Ahmed, ‘Flood of Yellow Weigh’, 2007, woolen handmade carpet, 150 x 100 cm. Image courtesy the artist and YARAT.

Faig Ahmed

Exploring the art of rug weaving in Azerbaijan, Faig Ahmed creates carpet paintings and installations that transform the two-dimensional decorative craft into contemporary three-dimensional sculptural works of art, such as Carpet Equalizer (2012). Ahmed says that “the carpet is a symbol of invincible tradition of the East, it’s a visualisation of an undestroyable [sic] icon.”

His work is a reflection on modern life, through the mutation of a traditional cultural element ­– the carpet – into a modern shape that merges Azeri heritage with western and global imagery. Ahmed claims that he is not interested “any kind of merging between the past and present”, but just “in the past because it’s just the most stable conception of our lives.” He says:

The main things that interest me are the old traditions, ancient cultures and standard canons, stereotypes that end up being broken by me.

Faig Ahmed, 'Oiling', 2012, woolen handmade carpet, 150 x 100 cm. Image courtesy the artist and YARAT.

Faig Ahmed, ‘Oiling’, 2012, woolen handmade carpet, 150 x 100 cm. Image courtesy the artist and YARAT.

Ahmed’s stretched, distorted and reinvented carpets are “destroying the stereotypes of tradition to create new modern boundaries.” His work is thus suggestive of the restructuring of physical and political boundaries in the Middle East.

Ahmed was among the artists who represented Azerbaijan at its first appearance at the Venice Biennale in 2007 and was featured in YARAT’s exhibition at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013. His work has been part of important events and institutions worldwide, including the Sharjah Islamic Art Festival and National Center for Contemporary Art, Moscow. In 2014, he was shortlisted for the V&A’s Jameel Prize 3.

Fakhriyya Mammadova, 'Breakfast', 2006,  Baku,  Azerbaijan. Image courtesy the artist and YARAT.

Fakhriyya Mammadova, ‘Breakfast’, 2006, Baku, Azerbaijan. Image courtesy the artist and YARAT.

Fakhriyya Mammadova

An artist, designer and photographer, Fakhriyya Mammadova graduated from the Design Faculty of the Azer­baijan State Academy of Fine Art in Baku in 2005. She is a professional restorer of ceramics and sculpture, and in her artistic practice she also experiments with macro-photography.

Her first photographic installation was presented in “Wings of Time” (2000) in Baku, an exhibition of post-Soviet new media and photography. In recent years, Mammadova has focused on developing a conceptual photographic practice that aims to capture the transitory moments of life.

Fakhriyya Mammadova, 'Time for walking', 2006, Azerbaijan, digital print. Image courtesy the artist and YARAT.

Fakhriyya Mammadova, ‘Time for walking’, 2006, Azerbaijan, digital print. Image courtesy the artist and YARAT.

At the Venice Biennale in 2013, she presented a photographic installation comprising two opposite walls laden with round-framed images of an Azeri wedding, and music and sound from the festivities coming from hidden speakers. Entitled Wedding: Girlish Dreams, the work presented a ceremony reflective of the state of contemporary society and culture in Azerbaijan – a mixture of tradition and modernity. The work sits between a documentary and an intimate account, between the anthropological and the personal.

Aida Mahmudova, 'Untitled', 2014, wood, stainless steel, iron, 695 x 105 x 266 cm. Image courtesy the artist and YARAT.

Aida Mahmudova, ‘Untitled’, 2014, wood, stainless steel, iron, 695 x 105 x 266 cm. Image courtesy the artist and YARAT.

Aida Mahmudova

Aida Mahmudova is the founder and director of YARAT. Deeply engaged with the expansion of the art scene in Azerbaijan, she is also a leading figure in the development of contemporary artistic practices. A multimedia artist, working in sculpture, painting and installation, Mahmudova is concerned with the rapid modernisation of Azerbaijan since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Her work engages with concepts of memory and nostalgia, often recalling the memory of specific places or a sense of place. The artist considers how memory is deeply tied to the debris, the ruins and the materials of the past, as seen in Recycled (2012-2013), an installation presented at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013 and now standing by the site of an old puppet theatre in Baku.

Aida Mahmudova 'Recycled', 2012-2013, metal window grates, stainless steel, 310 x 270 cm. Image courtesy the artist and YAY Gallery, Baku.

Aida Mahmudova ‘Recycled’, 2012-2013, metal window grates, stainless steel, 310 x 270 cm. Image courtesy the artist and YAY Gallery, Baku.

The work repurposes fragments of window grates from old buildings in Baku prior to their renovation. Stainless steel silhouettes conceal the lattice work below, rising on metal rods above it and creating a three-dimensional effect – a ‘shadow’ of the past transposed into contemporary life. Mahmudova alludes to the effects of modernisation and the yearning for the preservation of material traces of the past, which contribute to the shaping of contemporary identity.

Mahmudova graduated in Fine Art from Central Saint Martins, London, in 2006, and has exhibited internationally, including at MAXXI (Rome) and a 2013 solo exhibition “Internal Peace” (2013) in Zurich.

Sitara Ibrahimova, 'Early Marriage', 2011-2013, digital print. Image courtesy the artist and YARAT.

Sitara Ibrahimova, ‘Early Marriage’, 2011-2013, digital print. Image courtesy the artist and YARAT.

Sitara Ibrahimova

A trained psychologist born in 1984, with a degree from Baku State University, Sitara Ibrahimova turned to art and graduated from Prague’s FAMU University in 2010 with a degree in Still Photography. Her works capture the everyday, revealed through the emotions of an individual’s expression or pose, a fragment or an absence.

Ibrahimova’s photographs record the human experience beyond political or geographical borders, and her compositions often allude to forms of historical and collective memory, such as in The Edge (2012), presented at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013. The project comprises scenes of a now abandoned town that exists on the border of multiple political, cultural and social groups in the Karabakh region. Glimpses of life slipping away from law and order appear in images of a street or a building without its urban context.

Sitara Ibrahimova, 'Lost in Karabakh' series, 2014. Image courtesy the artist and YARAT.

Sitara Ibrahimova, ‘Lost in Karabakh’ series, 2014. Image courtesy the artist and YARAT.

The series Molokans (2014) documents the life of the Molokans, dissenters banished to the edge of the Russian empire following an edict published by Tzar Nicholaj in 1830. Ridiculed as “milk drinkers” (in Russian, molokane), the Molokans, who did not observe fasting on Orthodox saint’s days, were exiled as heretics and settled in the village of Ivanovka, now a rural community of 1,000 homes and over 3,000 people, functioning as a collective farm.

Ibrahimova is especially interested in social documentary through her photographic work, and among her projects are stories from mental hospitals and women in prison.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related Topics: Azerbaijani artists, photography, painting, sculpture, installation, performance, video, animation, sound, textiles

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Sindika Dokolo on ‘Africanity’ and the crisis of African contemporary art – video



Prominent Congolese collector Sindika Dokolo talks about his collecting philosophy and shares unique insights on the state of African contemporary art.

Sindika Dokolo, entrepreneur and distinguished art collector, spoke in London during the second edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in October 2014. Art Radar summarises the talk by the passionate promoter of contemporary African art.

"Luanda, Encyclopedic City", Pavilion of Angola, 55th Venice Biennale, installation view. Photo by Paolo Utimpergher. Image courtesy Beyond Entropy.

“Luanda, Encyclopedic City”, Pavilion of Angola, 55th Venice Biennale, installation view. Photo by Paolo Utimpergher. Image courtesy Beyond Entropy.

The second edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair took place in London from 16 to 19 October 2014. Sindika Dokolo, young entrepreneur, ‘rockstar’ collector of African art and Founder of the Sindika Dokolo Foundation, was invited to speak about the philosophy behind his work in collecting and promoting contemporary African art.

In conversation with writer and curator Simon Njami, Dokolo shared important insights about the current status and future of African art. Art Radar summarises the illuminating discussion.

A rockstar collector’s story

Sindika Dokolo (b. 1972, Kinshasa, Zaire) grew up surrounded by his banker father’s collection of classical Congolese art. It was only after coming across Jean-Michel Basquiat‘s Pharynx at a private collector’s home that Dokolo fell in love with contemporary African art. An article by Sue Williamson (PDF download) quotes him as saying that the experience was

like an electric shock, exposing me forcefully to the strength of contemporary African art, to an energy that seemed to transcend time and space and to explode off the canvas.

Dokolo went on to establish the Sindika Dokolo African Collection of Contemporary Art in Luanda, Angola in April 2004. He bought the entire Hans Bogatzke collection in 2005, which included a substantial collection of contemporary African art. The works were exhibited in the first ever Luanda Triennale in 2006, which the collector spearheaded along with Angolan artist, curator and publisher Fernando Alvim. Dokolo also played a key role in the design and execution of the first African Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007.

Over the next few years, what began as a personal project, had become a much lauded blueprint for building the African collection of contemporary art it is today. But Dokolo’s ambitions go beyond mere collecting: he hopes to promote African art at home and abroad and drive cultural development on the continent. With grand plans to establish a new museum, the collector has the double-edged aim of introducing contemporary art to a still artistically-immature African audience, as well as building and securing Africa’s status on the international art stage.

Click here to view the Sindika Dokolo talk at 1:54 in London on youtube.com

The problem of ‘Africanity’ 

The discussion begins with the distinction between a ‘collection of African contemporary art’ and an ‘African collection of contemporary art’. Dokolo stresses that it is the latter that is his project. He declares at the outset of the discussion:

The category of saying ‘African art’ is a bit problematic, [...] it sort of confiscates the debate. I prefer generally to think in terms of ‘Africanity’, which is [...] the contribution of our continent to the global aesthetics.

The question of what constitutes ‘Africanity’ seems to be a matter of ongoing creative self-exploration. According to Dokolo, the dynamics of Africanity go beyond nationality and skin color. Recalling the criticisms he received for exhibiting non-black artists at the first African Pavilion in Venice, including Andy Warhol, the charismatic art collector says:

What interests me is not if an artist is black or white, [...] what interests me is something that is much more sensible and sensitive. It’s like the sonority. It’s like the pace. Africa has to be more than a passport and the existence of a visa. [...] We really have to [...] go back a few steps to redefine Africanity, to redefine the way we relate to our own culture, the way we look at our own history and the way we look upon ourselves. [...] It’s a very political dynamic.

Paul Ndema, 'Wings Spread', acrylics and ink on watercolour paper, 38 x 55 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Kampala Art Biennale.

Paul Ndema, ‘Wings Spread’, acrylics and ink on watercolour paper, 38 x 55 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Kampala Art Biennale.

From collecting to a search for identity

Such an ambitious search for Africanity stretches Dokolo’s collecting philosophy beyond the mere preservation of work by African artists. The problem that occupies the collector is

the fundamental problem of [...] exposing Africa to its contemporary creation.

He stresses the need for Africa to exert itself and project itself onto the world, but more importantly, onto itself – to its own African audience. According to him, contemporary arts and culture is a crucial medium through which such self-expression and self-assertion are achieved. He says:

The projects, the artists, the exhibitions [...] is what is fundamental. [...] The collection is just a trace of these moments that have happened.

In addition to merely collecting, therefore, the passionate art lover generously supports and sponsors numerous arts and culture initiatives through his Sindika Dokolo Foundation. He declares emphatically:

We urgently need to, as Africans, understand that there are problems with the way we relate to our culture. [...] We’re not yet the center of gravity of our own thinking. We’re looking at the world and at ourselves through lenses. [...] There’s still a fight that needs to take place.

Rotimi Fani-Kayode, 'Cargo of Middle Passage', 1989. Image courtesy Autograph ABP and Tiwani Contemporary, London.

Rotimi Fani-Kayode, ‘Cargo of Middle Passage’, 1989. Image courtesy Autograph ABP and Tiwani Contemporary, London.

Curating an ‘African Renaissance’

According to Dokolo, this fight – or the internal, introspective search for Africanity – is what is at stake for the future of African art and Africa itself. He makes a bold statement: Africa is on the verge of an African Renaissance. As long as artists, curators and cultural workers continue to dig deeper, there is great potential for a revolutionary ‘explosion’ in Africa’s culture, identity and global status.

The bold assertions are matched with grand ambitions. Dokolo is planning a new museum to address the problem of Africanity and, more importantly, to expose the African audience to it. He dreams of a groundbreaking, radical exhibition that, in a unique and defining way, combines the classical and the contemporary, unites varying media and art forms, and fuses cultures from different African regions:

Some people have tried [to curate expansive exhibitions] either by region [or medium, or chronological order], and it’s not pertinent. It doesn’t work. The thing you have to do [...] is you have to find a thread that is intellectually much more pertinent, [...] maybe the sonority of it, or the pace, or the rhythm, or the heat [...] that would enable you to put all these works together [and] have [a] coherence [...] beauty and [...] strength [...] that has never been done before. [...] If you manage to nail it, I would like the museum to be like that. I would like the museum to be a celebration of Africanity.

Michele Chan

553

Related Topics: African art, collectors, curatorial practice, promoting art, art fairs, events in London

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ArtPrize 2014 winner Anila Quayyum Agha explores hybridity through art



Anila Quayyum Agha explores cultural hybridity and socio-political issues through her multimedia practice.

Pakistani-born Anila Quayyum Agha, who recently won both Grand Prizes at ArtPrize 2014 in the United States, explores a variety of socio-political issues experienced through her multicultural upbringing. From installation to embroidered drawings, her conceptual work exposes the commonalities and contradictions of the contemporary human condition.

Anila Quayyum Agha, 'Intersections', completed in 2013, laser-cut wood, single light bulb, 6.5 inches square cube. Installation view at Grand Rapids Art Museum. Image courtesy the artist.

Anila Quayyum Agha, ‘Intersections’, completed in 2013, laser-cut wood, single light bulb, 6.5 inches square cube. Installation view at Grand Rapids Art Museum, 2014. Image courtesy the artist.

Anila Quayyum Agha’s cross-disciplinary practice engages with issues of global politics, cultural multiplicity, mass media, and social and gender roles in the contemporary cultural and global landscape. Born in Lahore, Pakistan, Agha creates conceptual artworks that are influenced by her rich cultural heritage and Islamic origins.

Agha holds a BFA in Textile Arts from the National College of Arts in Lahore and an MFA in Fiber Arts from the University of North Texas. In 2008, she relocated to Indianapolis where she currently teaches Drawing at the Herron School of Art. This year, Agha received the Creative Renewal Fellowship awarded by the Indianapolis Arts Council.

A double award

On 10 October 2014, the ArtPrize Award at the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) in Michigan, United States, announced the winners of its sixth edition. Agha won the Grand Prize in both the Public Vote and Juried Awards sections. She gained 398,714 votes from 41,109 individuals, winning the USD200,000 Public Vote Grand Prize for her work Intersections (2013). 

Agha was also the recipient of the Juried Grand Prize, also USD200,000, which the jury decided to split equally between Agha and African-American Sonya Clark. Agha has been in the media spotlight since her double award, which marks the first time in the history of ArtPrize that a single artist has won the favour of both the public and the jury alike.

Anila Quayyum Agha, 'Intersections', completed in 2013, laser-cut wood, single light bulb, 6.5 inches square cube. Installation view at Grand Rapids Art Museum. Image courtesy the artist.

Anila Quayyum Agha, ‘Intersections’, completed in 2013, laser-cut wood, single light bulb, 6.5 inches square cube. Installation view at Grand Rapids Art Museum, 2014. Image courtesy the artist.

Boundaries and intersections

Her winning artwork Intersections is a room-sized immersive installation, on show at GRAM’s third-floor Wege Gallery until the end of January 2015. It comprises a laser-cut wooden cube with a light source at its centre, which projects shadows of the cube’s patterns onto the ceiling, walls and floor of the gallery. According to Hyperallergic,

A play between the nature of public and private space, the work also challenges viewers by blurring the traditional boundaries of what constitutes an artwork by placing attention as much on the shadows as the sculpted object itself.

Agha, in her statement about the artwork, explains:

In the ‘Intersections’ project, the geometrical patterning in Islamic sacred spaces, associated with certitude is explored in a way that reveals its fluidity. The viewer is invited to confront the contradictory nature of all intersections, while simultaneously exploring boundaries.

Agha aims to give substance to mutualism and explore the dichotomies – or coexisting binaries – of public and private, light and shadow, and static and dynamic. She does this by relying on the “purity and inner symmetry” of the cube and its latticework, as well as on the interpretation of the cast shadows and the viewer’s presence within the public space.

The work was first shown in Indianapolis and its design and its layered, multidimensional variations change with the space in which it is installed and the movement of individuals experiencing the installation.

Anila Quayyum Agha, 'Intersections', (detail view), completed in 2013, laser-cut wood, single light bulb, 6.5 inches square cube. Image courtesy the artist.

Anila Quayyum Agha, ‘Intersections’, (detail view), completed in 2013, laser-cut wood, single light bulb, 6.5 inches square cube. Image courtesy the artist.

A woman’s experience of exclusion 

Agha’s Intersections draws from her experience as a woman in an Islamic society:

The ‘Intersections’ project takes the seminal experience of exclusion as a woman from a space of community and creativity such as a Mosque and translates the complex expressions of both wonder and exclusion that have been my experience while growing up in Pakistan.

The wooden frieze is inspired by the Alhambra in Granada, Spain: an 889 AD fortress re-adapted into a palace in the mid-eleventh century by the Moorish emir Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar of the Emirate of Granada, and later converted into a royal palace in 1333 by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada. Like the Alhambra, in which distinctive Islamic architectural elements are juxtaposed with mid-sixteenth century and later Christian interventions, Intersections brings into coexistence elements from the East and West. It is inspired by Agha’s own experience and perception of her dual upbringing in Pakistan and the United States.

Anila Quayyum Agha, 'Intersections', completed in 2013, laser-cut wood, single light bulb, 6.5 inches square cube. Installation view at Dedee Shattuck Gallery, Massachussetts. Image courtesy the artist.

Anila Quayyum Agha, ‘Intersections’, completed in 2013, laser-cut wood, single light bulb, 6.5 inches square cube. Installation view at Dedee Shattuck Gallery, Massachusetts. Image courtesy the artist.

As Agha explains in her statement,

the Alhambra […] was poised at the intersection of history, culture and art and was a place where Islamic and Western discourses, met and co-existed in harmony and served as a testament to the symbiosis of difference. For me, the familiarity of the space visited at the Alhambra Palace and the memories of another time and place from my past, coalesced in creating this project.

Agha extends her exploration to the question that lies at the basis of Islamic art: “the assumptions of geometric design as a form opposite to representational or figurative art.” Islamic art used geometric forms as examples of the pure and the transcendent, as opposed to the organic and human.

Anila Quayyum Agha, 'Intersections', (detail view), completed in 2013, laser-cut wood, single light bulb, 6.5 inches square cube. Image courtesy the artist.

Anila Quayyum Agha, ‘Intersections’, (detail view), completed in 2013, laser-cut wood, single light bulb, 6.5 inches square cube. Image courtesy the artist.

The changing and interactive nature of this work questions the rigidity of geometry and its interpretation according to Islamic art. In a contextual milieu where difference and divergence dominate most conversations about the intersection of civilisation, this piece explores the presence of harmonies that do not ignore the shadows, ambiguities and dark spaces between them. Rather, it explores them in novel and unexpected ways.

Anila Quayyum Agha, 'Regeneration III', 2012, mixed media drawing. Image courtesy the artist.

Anila Quayyum Agha, ‘Regeneration III’, 2012, mixed media drawing. Image courtesy the artist.

Agha draws from her life experience on the boundaries of different faiths – Islam and Christianity – and cultures. She explains in an interview with Islamic Art Magazine:

my art is deeply influenced by the simultaneous sense of alienation and transience that informs the migrant experience. […] I explore the deeply entwined political relationships between gender, culture, religion, labor and social codes.

Anila Quayyum Agha, 'Imagined City - After The Deluge I', 2012, mixed media on paper (includes cutting, ink, graphite, charcoal powder, and wax), 40 x 29.5 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Anila Quayyum Agha, ‘Imagined City – After The Deluge I’, 2012, mixed media on paper (includes cutting, ink, graphite, charcoal powder, and wax), 40 x 29.5 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Traditional Islamic craftsmanship

Agha’s oeuvre relies on traditional craftsmanship inspired by Islamic ornamentation. Traditional craft skills were, in Pakistan, the domain of women and provided them with a small degree of independence and recognition. She has used a combination of textile processes – embroidery, wax, dyes, silkscreen printing and sculptural methodologies – to question the gendering of textile work, traditionally a domesticated practice, not considered an art form.

Using craft skills was, therefore, a natural choice for Agha and craft became an inextricable part of her practice, from her installations to her embroidered drawings.

Anila Quayyum Agha, 'Intersections - Black', 2013, cut paper and encaustic, 15 x 15 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Anila Quayyum Agha, ‘Intersections – Black’, 2013, cut paper and encaustic, 15 x 15 in. Image courtesy the artist.

In her statement, she explains:

My experiences in my native country and as an immigrant here in the United States are woven into my work of redefining and rewriting women’s handiwork as a poignant form of creative expression. Using embroidery as a drawing medium, I reveal the multiple layers resulting from the interaction of concept and process and to bridge the gap between modern materials and historical patterns of traditional oppression and domestic servitude. The conceptual ambiguity of the resulting patterns, create an interactive experience in which the onlooker’s subjective experiences of alienation and belonging become part of the piece and its identity.

Anila Quayyum Agha, 'My Forked Tongue', 2010, paper, metallic thread, beads, wax, dyes, 30 x 14 x 15 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Anila Quayyum Agha, ‘My Forked Tongue’, (detail), 2010, paper, metallic thread, beads, wax, dyes, 30 x 14 x 15 in. Installation view at Swope Art Museum. Image courtesy the artist.

Exploring duality

Agha’s show “Anila Quayyum Agha: My Forked Tongue” at Swope Art Museum (until 13 December 2014) features My Forked Tongue, an installation that deals with cultural multiplicity and crossing barriers. The work comprises uniformly shaped, waxed alphabets – English, Hindi and Urdu – made of hand-cut paper, strung on metallic threads interspersed by glass beads. The artwork references Agha’s multilingual abilities and the stratification of power and class systems, as well as residues of British colonialism in Pakistan’s social interactions.

The artist grew up speaking Urdu, Hindi and English, and also a hybrid of the three, referred to as Pidgin English. Living in Pakistan, as a hybrid of Pakistan and India, and then in the United States, Agha says:

Duality is a fact of life for me. In the Sub-continent, duality between Pakistan and India goes back generations due to their entwined histories.

Anila Quayyum Agha, 'My Forked Tongue II', (detail view), 2010, mixed media - paper, metallic thread, beads, wax and dyes, 7 in. radius x 12 in. height. Installation view at Bohemian National Hall, Manhattan, New York. Image courtesy the artist.

Anila Quayyum Agha, ‘My Forked Tongue II’, (detail view), 2010, mixed media – paper, metallic thread, beads, wax and dyes, 7 in. radius x 12 in. height. Installation view at Bohemian National Hall, Manhattan, New York. Image courtesy the artist.

The installation invites audiences to ponder issues of literacy, cultures and class systems, while its labour intensive nature addresses ideas of craft versus high art, gender roles and the physicality of human presence.

As with all Agha’s installations, this work also places the audience in dialogue with the artwork and the space it occupies. The alphabet strings create a barrier within the space, hampering navigation and “suggesting the difficulty and restrictions faced in crossing boundaries between cultures globally.”

Anila Quayyum Agha, 'Rights of Passage', (detail view), 2011, mixed media. Image courtesy the artist.

Anila Quayyum Agha, ‘Rights of Passage’, (detail view), 2011, mixed media. Image courtesy the artist.

The silence of the female condition

For “Sacred Silence” (2014) at the Harrison Center for the Arts, Indianapolis, along with a version of Intersections, Agha presented an installation of mixed media drawings, entitled Rights of Passage. The series of square mixed media pieces incorporates a variety of repeating radial patterns and images that reflect designs on the graves of women at the Makli necropolis near the Indus River Delta in Pakistan and are derived from garment decorations and jewellery.

Anila Quayyum Agha, 'Rights of Passage', (detail view), 2011, mixed media. Image courtesy the artist.

Anila Quayyum Agha, ‘Rights of Passage’, (detail view), 2011, mixed media. Image courtesy the artist.

The work addresses the condition of women in Pakistan, whose lives are essentially ‘silent’, as Agha says: “Their lives are light and ephemeral. They come silently and leave silently.” As she tells Islamic Arts Magazine,

This piece is homage to those women, the patterns paying tribute to their existence in both reality and memory. The pieces in the installation evoke a memoriam for women and their personal narratives, thus creating beautiful but silent stories within the very essence of the work.

Anila Quayyum Agha, 'Silence', 2014, mixed media drawing. Image courtesy the artist.

Anila Quayyum Agha, ‘Silence’, 2014, mixed media drawing. Image courtesy the artist.

In “Quicksand: Landscape of the Feminine” (2014) at Gallery 924, Indianapolis, there was also a series of drawings – such as Sand Dunes, Delta and Silence – made from dyes, wax, coffee and tea stains, which invoke the history and residual memory of the feminine and domestic. The works explore how social and gender-based issues result from the concepts constructed by history, traditions and contemporary society.

Anila Quayyum Agha, 'Sand Dune III', 2014, mixed media drawing. Image courtesy the artist.

Anila Quayyum Agha, ‘Sand Dune III’, 2014, mixed media drawing. Image courtesy the artist.

Anila Quayyum Agha, 'Murmuration', 2014, site-specific installation, honey locust thorns, T-pins, white paint, 28 x 10 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Anila Quayyum Agha, ‘Murmuration’, 2014, site-specific installation, honey locust thorns, T-pins, white paint, 28 x 10 in. Installation view at Dedee Shattuck Gallery, Massachusetts. Image courtesy the artist.

Suffering in human history

Murmuration I (2014), also shown at Gallery 924, is a site-specific installation made of honey locust thorns and T-pins that form a landscape-like design on a white wall. Agha draws from her personal memories of the wild berries thorny bushes in Lahore, as well as the collective experience of war and natural disasters in human history, as she expresses in the artwork statement:

We have witnessed the erosion to our planet in the form of human displacement causing poverty and strife on a global scale via television and other media. In positioning the onlooker in a space of confrontation, I want to evoke a surfeit of visual sound proposing the low and keening hum of suffering associated with human history.

Anila Quayyum Agha, 'Murmuration', (detail), 2014, site-specific installation, honey locust thorns, T-pins, white paint, 28 x 10 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Anila Quayyum Agha, ‘Murmuration’, (detail), 2014, site-specific installation, honey locust thorns, T-pins, white paint, 28 x 10 in. Image courtesy the artist.

Addressing the issue of manmade disasters and the inability of the majority to realise and acknowledge their proximity, the work relies on the exploration of threat and touch:

The viewer is confronted by the dichotomy of a swarm of thorns reminiscent of the bomb-laden drones as well as the murmuration of birds. The contrast is at once threatening and benign, encompassing and open, soft and jagged.

There is a play between proximity and distance, danger and safety, and the installation aims to question the mixed feelings that confront us as we experience disaster on television and the Internet.

[…] this piece is provocation to consider the new demands placed on our consciousness by the witnessing of danger that almost touches us, and yet does not quite penetrate our consciousness.

 C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

552

Related Topics: Pakistani artists, installation, mixed media, drawing, textile art, wood, prizes, artist profiles, art and migrationart in the United States

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Storytelling with flora: Artist Alexander Lee’s “The Botanist” – in pictures



Hakka-Tahitian artist Alexander Lee’s poetic floral compositions stimulate the imagination and evoke powerful cultural narratives.

Turning from fauna to flora, Alexander Lee’s newest exhibition weaves the plant motif with personal memory and postcolonial cultural heritage to stimulate rich visual narratives.  

Alexander Lee, 'Rua-ta'ata (The Transformation) I-V', 2013, ink on polypropylene, 5 panels, overall dimensions 310.5 x 650 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Alexander Lee, ‘Rua-ta’ata (The Transformation) I-V’, 2013, ink on polypropylene, 5 panels, overall dimensions 310.5 x 650 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Alexander Lee’s new solo exhibition is entitled “The Botanist” and runs until 17 December 2014 at Collectors Contemporary in Singapore. Employing the unique motif of the Polynesian breadfruit plant uru, the multi-talented artist breaks new ground in an already multi-faceted and diverse practice.

A versatile storyteller

Born in Stockton, California, to Hakka parents, Alexander Lee (b. 1974) grew up in Tahiti, French Polynesia, before studying fashion design in Paris and then art in New York. After earning his MFA from Columbia University, Lee steadily gained recognition for an original, diverse practice. Based in New York and Tahiti, the artist’s projects take on innovative and distinctive forms, such as multimedia performance art, stage pieces that are likened to ‘modern operas’, large scale paintings, sculptures, and detailed drawings series that trace the design and development of his sculptures.

One of Lee’s first defining works, The Departure of the Fish (2006), is a stunning sculptural installation that alludes to the Tahitian legend of a fish transformed from a volcanic island and, simultaneously, to the tragic 1973 Pan Am plane crash. The work is a powerful combination of ancient mythology, social commentary, the artist’s childhood memories and the audience’s own experiences of spectacles of war and destruction – a piece that tells multiple stories at once. The artist’s biography on the website of Collectors Contemporary reads:

A storyteller, Lee amalgamates personal memory, popular culture and history into a rich symbolic visual language.

Installation view of The Botanist (2014). Image courtesy Alexander Lee.

Installation view of “The Botanist” (2014). Image courtesy Alexander Lee.

After The Departure of the Fish (2006), Lee’s subsequent projects continued to employ animal motifs as fascinating metaphors for social and cultural narratives, such as Recitations from The Great Fish Changing Skies (2008) and Expanding-Eel-Devourer (2009). Recently, Lee turned from fauna to flora, finding equally potent inspirations from the Polynesian breadfruit plant uru.

Tahitian history and legends

The breadfruit plant is an essential component of Polynesian culture and postcolonial history. According to the exhibition press release, uru is symbolic in a number of dimensions:

In the Tahitian legend of Rua-ta’ata, a man transforms his body into a breadfruit tree in order to feed his starving family. Breadfruit also appears in colonial narratives of exploration and discovery. The botanist Joseph Banks took part in James Cook’s first Voyage of Discovery (1768-1771) and in 1789 fostered the HMS Bounty’s expedition to gather breadfruit plants to cultivate in the Caribbean.

Alexander Lee, 'Maiore I', 2013, ink on polypropylene, 126.5 x 174 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Alexander Lee, ‘Maiore I’, 2013, ink on polypropylene, 126.5 x 174 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Alexander Lee, 'Matari'i', 2014, ink on polypropylene, 306.07 x 256.86 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Alexander Lee, ‘Matari’i’, 2014, ink on polypropylene, 306.07 x 256.86 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

The plant is therefore significant for Lee’s personal and intellectual explorations into Tahitian cultural and postcolonial history. The press release explains that:

In [Lee's] eyes, the journeys taken by the breadfruit through history, myth and popular culture form a navigational map: documenting and charting the meeting of civilisations through exchange, discovery and conquest.

Installation view of The Botanist (2014). Image courtesy Alexander Lee.

Installation view of “The Botanist” (2014). Image courtesy Alexander Lee.

Installation view of The Botanist (2014). Image courtesy Alexander Lee.

Installation view of “The Botanist” (2014). Image courtesy Alexander Lee.

A personal yet organic heritage

To create the works, the artist collects uru leaves from the neighborhood he grew up in as a child. He then dips them in ink and hand-presses them into graceful, entrancing compositions. The press release explains that Lee

employs different hand-printing and transfer processes reminiscent of the monotypes of Gauguin, creating hauntingly ethereal images that have the quality of a weathered artifact.

Installation view of The Botanist (2014). Image courtesy Alexander Lee.

Installation view of “The Botanist” (2014). Image courtesy Alexander Lee.

To some, the patterns resemble tapa, a traditional Tahitian barkcloth. To others, the prints just as readily evoke associations of Chinese ink paintings, Polynesian head ornaments, celestial maps, traditional tattooing practices and botanical drawings.

So, although Lee is compiling his own “herbarium of postcolonial cultural motifs”, the evocative, organic works encourage the viewer to “read their own narratives” and create new cultural meanings.

Installation view of The Botanist (2014). Image courtesy Alexander Lee.

Installation view of “The Botanist” (2014). Image courtesy Alexander Lee.

Installation view of The Botanist (2014). Image courtesy Alexander Lee.

Installation view of “The Botanist” (2014). Image courtesy Alexander Lee.

The press release for The Departure of the Fish declares that the piece “inhabits the ‘poetic gap’ of the imagination – a magical space in which we can connect to history and humanity through something as simple as a shade of baby blue paint or a trail of black sand.” (PDF download) Whether he aestheticises flora or fauna, it is evident that Lee’s unique visual vocabulary helps us discover new ways to look at the world.

Michele Chan

556

Related Topics: artists from Oceania, art and plants, printmaking, gallery shows, events in Singapore

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Turkey’s art market highlight of the year: Contemporary Istanbul 2014



Contemporary Istanbul 2014 successfully contributes to Istanbul’s status of “art capital of the future”.

The 9-year-old art fair in Turkey’s art hub closed on Sunday, 16 November 2014, once again bringing art from around the globe with inspiring, innovative and experimental sectors that set it apart. Art Radar rounds up the key points of its success this year.

View of Rampa Istanbul's booth at Contemporary Istanbul 2014. Image courtesy Rampa Istanbul.

View of Rampa Istanbul’s booth at Contemporary Istanbul 2014. Image courtesy Rampa Istanbul.

The ninth edition of Contemporary Istanbul (CI) was launched on 12 November 2014 with 108 galleries and 520 artists from 23 different countries. The fair took place during one of the most important contemporary art events of the year, the week-long Art Istanbul. This year’s fair drew an average of 75,000 visitors over the weekend, with sales at around 70 percent and received positive feedback from participants, collectors and the media alike.

Participating galleries from home this year were evenly matched in number with those from abroad, and included names like Galerie Lelong (Paris), Kashya Hildebrand and Marlborough Gallery (London), Opera Gallery (Dubai), Rampa Istanbul, C24 Gallery (New York), Galleria Russo (Rome), Mark Hachem Gallery (Beirut/Paris), Schultz Berlin and Yavuz Gallery (Singapore), among others. The fair also featured an emerging galleries section with 12 exhibiting art spaces, of which eleven were from Turkey.

Hale Tenger, 'Mirror Mirror on the Wall / Tell Me Who is Fairest of Them All', 1992, chromed copper, gear-shift, each 40 x 23 x 50 cm. Image courtesy Galeri Nev Istanbul.

Hale Tenger, ‘Mirror Mirror on the Wall / Tell Me Who is Fairest of Them All’, 1992, chromed copper, gear-shift, each 40 x 23 x 50 cm. Image courtesy Galeri Nev Istanbul.

In a press release preceding the fair, CI Director Ali Güreli was quoted as saying:

CI stands truly behind the new and contemporary Turkish Art: We are not for yesterday, not even for today – but for tomorrow. That is also why we have opened the door for the other countries of the region – and when I say region, I mean a very large one: the Middle East, the Balkans, Caucasus and East Mediterranean as well as Europe.

Jesse Fleming, 'Apart / Together', 2009, single channel video, 5 min. 12 sec., colour, sound, edition of 5 + 2 AP. Image courtesy Art ON Istanbul.

Jesse Fleming, ‘Apart / Together’, 2009, single channel video, 05m:12s, colour, sound, edition of 5 + 2 AP. Image courtesy Art ON Istanbul.

Showing the way for experimental and new media

CI 2014 had plenty of innovative ideas and included experimental print and new media sections, such as:

  • the newly launched CI Editions – a platform for the production, mediation and sale of art editions
  • Plugin, this year in its second iteration, showcasing new media art and sound and light design
  • CI’s latest curated exhibition project – CI 90 Minute Shows – curated by Dr Marcus Graf, the project featured ninety-minute site-specific solo exhibitions, back to back, and provided an experimental platform for alternative artistic and curatorial practices.
Ozan Turkkan, Curving time', 2012, interactive digital installation at CI Plugin 2013. Image courtesy Contemporary Istanbul.

Ozan Turkkan, ‘Curving time’, 2012, interactive digital installation at CI Plugin 2013. Image courtesy Contemporary Istanbul.

A local affair

CI has been the subject of comparison and discussion about its place in the Istanbul art world and the global stage in relation to ArtInternational, its foreign-run competitor that closed its second edition on 28 September 2014. CI successfully sued ArtInternational in 2013 for breach of copyright, forcing the fair to change its original name, Art International Istanbul, to its present one.

Co-founded by Sandy Angus, who is also co-founder of ART HK (now Art Basel Hong Kong) and Director of India Art Fair, Art International seems to have stolen much of the limelight from CI by attracting blue-chip Western galleries such as Pace, Leila Heller, Lehmann Maupin and Paul Kasmin from New York, Vienna’s Galerie Krinzinger, London’s Lisson Gallery and China’s Pearl Lam Galleries.

Yet, as Artnet News points out, neither CI nor Art Istanbul have so far attracted some of the most influential names in the art market, such as Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner or White Cube.

Dilek Öztürk, 'Monumental', 2014, C-print, 66 x 100 cm. Image courtesy MIXER.

Dilek Öztürk, ‘Monumental’, 2014, C-print, 66 x 100 cm. Image courtesy MIXER.

Even though commentators such as Nafas claimed that, because of the calibre of its participants, Art International had “unmistakably established itself as the more substantive of the city’s two art fairs,” others have come into CI’s defence. Quoted by Artnet News, Co-founder of the Moving Museum Aya Mousawi pointed out:

Contemporary Istanbul is difficult to judge by Western standards, but it caters to a local audience.

Feza Velicangil, Director of the young Istanbul gallery Sanatorium, also told Artnet News:

You have to do it if you want to be a contemporary art gallery here.

Seyit Mehmet Buçukoğlu, 'Undermine The History', 2013, installation, wooden suitcase, axe, 47 x 60 x 43 cm. Image courtesy Cep Gallery.

Seyit Mehmet Buçukoğlu, ‘Undermine The History’, 2013, installation, wooden suitcase, axe, 47 x 60 x 43 cm. Image courtesy Cep Gallery.

On the opening night, the fair welcomed 13,000 visitors. One of the VIP guests, Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism Ömer Çelik, was quoted by Today’s Zaman as commenting:

Thanks to this fair, Istanbul is becoming increasingly shaped by contemporary art. This is operating at a global standard.

Artnet News states:

Now in its ninth year, Contemporary Istanbul remains the contemporary art market highlight of the year in Turkey.

While the Daily Sabah wrote:

With jaw-dropping new editions such as Plugin, 90 Minute Show and CI Editions, the fair was a magnificent event.

Sibel Diker, 'Tower of Babel Or A Lost Case', 2009, sugar, neon, plexiglass, 60 x 60 x 60 cm. Image courtesy artnivo.com.

Sibel Diker, ‘Tower of Babel Or A Lost Case’, 2009, sugar, neon, plexiglass, 60 x 60 x 60 cm. Image courtesy artnivo.com.

Established and emerging collectors

The Turkish art scene is run, fuelled and supported by Istanbul’s elite: wealthy families of collectors who, in the absence of public funding for contemporary art, have dedicated their efforts to the development of both the market and the institutional art scene, and have been collecting contemporary art for decades. CI’s vernissage night saw the attendance of all these powerful families, making it an opening that, although dominated by Turkish VIPs and lacking in international collectors, was nonetheless a success.

Long-time collector Sevda Elgiz, who with her husband founded the Elgiz Museum of Contemporary Art,  the first private museum in Istanbul in 2001 (PDF download), was among the VIPs, alongside the Eczacıbaşı, who are behind both Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV) and Istanbul Modern, as well as the Koçs who support Arter.

Buğra Erol, 'Soul', 2014, lightbox with 238 dias, 49 x 99 cm. Image courtesy Daire Sanat.

Buğra Erol, ‘Soul’, 2014, lightbox with 238 dias, 49 x 99 cm. Image courtesy Daire Sanat.

The fair also benefitted from the presence of a new breed of younger and curious collectors from Turkey’s growing, cosmopolitan middle and upper classes. Being an event with a lower price point compared to Art International, CI is a fair ground for these young collectors.

CI Director Güreli told Artnet News how he wants to ensure the loyalty of these young collectors:

It’s a learning stage. The purpose of CI Editions is to encourage them to buy more art. And we expect, we hope, that they’ll become very strong collectors in the future.

View of Galeri NEV's booth at Contemporary Istanbul 2014. Image courtesy Galeri NEV.

View of Galeri NEV’s booth at Contemporary Istanbul 2014. Image courtesy Galeri NEV.

Sylvain Gaillard, Manager of Opera Gallery’s Dubai branch, the only UAE gallery at the fair, told The National:

The reason for Opera Gallery to be here is that Turkish people are cosmopolitan and they have an eye for quality art that has been well curated.

Haldun Dostoğlu, Founder of Galeri Nev, Istanbul, told Art Radar:

As a 30-year-old gallery in the contemporary art scene of Turkey, since we almost already know the entire scene we did not have special expectations from the fair. But still we had a chance to meet with some new generation collectors.

Lalla Essaydi, 'Harem 1', 2009, chromogenic print, 102 x 229 cm. Image courtesy Kashya Hildebrand Gallery.

Lalla Essaydi, ‘Harem 1′, 2009, chromogenic print, 102 x 229 cm. Image courtesy Kashya Hildebrand Gallery.

Strength in the middle market

Unlike Art International, which aims to attract the international collecting elite and sell high-end, blue-chip art, CI relies on the strength of the middle market, with mid-range prices that suit both established and emerging collectors in Turkey, but favour the latter, which according to Artnet News, constitute promising portion of the art market:

This larger but more modest base is a solid foundation—one which has a realistic potential for growth.

Rampa Istanbul, returning to CI for the fourth time, showed a selection of works by Nilbar Güreş, Güçlü Öztekin, Ergin Çavuşoğlu, Vahap Avşar, Ahmet Oran, Çağdaş Kahriman, Erinç Seymen and Canan. Speaking to Art Radar, Üstüngel Inanç, Rampa’s PR Manger, said that sales were made to local collectors and among the pieces sold were Nilbar Gureş’s collage Imprısoned Ghost and Erinç Seymen’s oil on canvas The Voulenteer, which both went for approximately EUR15,000.

Kerem Ozan Bayraktar, 'Waiting Woman, '2014, computer generated image, 25 x 41 cm. Image courtesy PG Art Gallery.

Kerem Ozan Bayraktar, ‘Waiting Woman, ’2014, computer generated image, 25 x 41 cm. Image courtesy PG Art Gallery.

Asked how 2014 compared to previous editions, in terms of sales, Inanç told Art Radar:

I believe 2014 is generally a hard year for galleries all over the world. There seems to be a drawback as for the middle size collectors [sic]. The bigger blue-chip galleries are doing well, but I believe the market for more concentrated middle size galleries are getting smaller. [...] our sales are not as bright as compared to previous years.

Nevertheless, Rampa will be back at CI next year, which means the fair promises a successful future.

View of C24 Gallery booth at Contemporary Istanbul 2014. Image courtesy C24 Gallery.

View of C24 Gallery booth at Contemporary Istanbul 2014. Image courtesy C24 Gallery.

C24 Gallery from New York had approximately thirty works on view, including Irfan Önürmen’s new works, Katja Loher’s video sculptures, a Robert Montgomery light piece and two prints, a Nick Gentry portrait made of floppy discs and a portrait made of 35 mm film, along with Ryan Perez’s photography and Martin Durazo’s abstract paintings. Gallery Manager Michelle Maigret told Art Radar:

This is our third time participating at Contemporary Istanbul and yes, we will be back again next year. This was the best year yet as far as traffic, art in the booths and sales- wise. We are very happy with sales as we sold over 15 works and made a numerous amount of new contacts.

According to The National, Kashya Hildebrand attracted collectors’ attention with an exquisite triptych from the young Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi, while Anima from Doha offered works by more established Qatari artists Ali Hassan, Yousef Ahmad and the French-Moroccan artist Najia Mehadji.

Ali Hassan, 'Traces', 2014, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 200 cm. Image courtesy Anima Gallery.

Ali Hassan, ‘Traces’, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 200 cm. Image courtesy Anima Gallery.

Galeri Nev told Art Radar that they sold a significant part of the works in their booth and did not notice much difference from previous editions. The highlight of the fair for them was selling two works by one of the young generation artists, Aras Seddigh, whose works went for EUR20,000 on the first day of the fair to Polimeks Collection. The gallery manager further confirmed that they will continue to participate in CI in the future, as they have attended since its beginning.

Artnet News reported one of the highest sales on the first day as coming from Galerie Lelong from Paris: a picture by Ramazan Bayrakoğlu, Wet Leaves (2014) for EUR48,000.

A neon artwork by Fırat Engin, Istanbul 2024, representing the Olympic rings as coffee cups, sold for USD7,346 at Art ON Istanbul, while Georgia’s Project Art Beat rapidly sold young artists Sopho Chkhikvadze, Maka Batiashvili and Irakli Bugiani’s artworks in the EUR1,500 to 5,500 range.

Irakli Bugiani, 'Untitled', 2013, oil on canvas, 130 x 180 cm. Image courtesy Project Art Beat.

Irakli Bugiani, ‘Untitled’, 2013, oil on canvas, 130 x 180 cm. Image courtesy Project Art Beat.

Chinese art in focus

As for opening up to other countries in the “region” as Fair Director Güreli mentioned, CI dedicated its 2014 New Horizons section solely to China, including internationally celebrated artists such as Liu Bolin and Liu Dao. Chinese contemporary art was also at the centre of discussions in CI Dialogues, in talks such as “The Future is Now – Contemporary Art in China” and “Art Scene, Market, Institutions in China”, which featured experts from Christie’s, collectors, curators, artists and other professionals, such as Editor-in-Chief of Randian David Szehin Ho and curator and critic Qilan Shen.

Liu Dao, 'All You Remember', 2014, laser projection, dimensions variable. Image courtesy Island 6.

Liu Dao, ‘All You Remember’, 2014, laser projection, dimensions variable. Image courtesy Island 6.

Additionally, an exhibition entitled “Now You See” featured Chinese contemporary video art, with eighteen artworks by ten young artists, including multi-screen projective installations, animations, single screen projections and monitor works. Selected entirely from the collection of Dr Michael I. Jacobs, who has been collecting these works with in-depth research and knowledge since 2010, the exhibition featured works by Chen Xiaoyun, Jiang Zhi, Liang Yue, Wang Xin, Cheng Ran, Kan Xuan, Liu Shiyuan, Hu Xiaoyuan, Li Ming and Sun Xun.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related Topics: Turkish artists, Chinese artists, new media, video, curatorial practice, emerging artists, promoting art, market watch, art fairs, round ups, events in Istanbul

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