How art from half of Asia has been missed – interview Leeza Ahmady ACAW director

 ASIAN CONTEMPORARY ART WEEK 2009

Leeza Ahmady talks to Art Radar about her involvement in the Asian Contemporary Art Week (ACAW) in New York. She discusses her two missions: first to broaden the definition of Asian art – yes, she tells us, the Middle East is part of the Asian continent  – and second, to connect Asians with one another.

 

This is the first part of a 3 part interview.

 

AR: You have an interesting story tell us about how you got involved with the Asian Contemporary Art Week. What happened?

LA: Some time ago I was studying arts and cultural management at Pratt Institute in New York and writing my thesis on Central Asia. One of my classes was about leadership and we were given the assignment to choose a leader in the arts field and have a daring interview with them.

Well I really took that on. Who do I want to do this with, I asked myself. I remember choosing Vishakha Desai who is now the president of the Asia Society but at the time was the Museum Director.  I hounded her assistants and emailed them until I got an interview. And we had a wonderful very pleasant interview. I asked her standard questions about how she started and what she envisioned for her role. I asked her how much of that she had managed to accomplish and questioned her about her leadership style.  

Then I took a deep breath and  I dared to ask the real question I wanted to ask. How did the Asia Society justify calling itself the Asia Society when half of the Asian continent is missing from its programming. She was amazing and answered me carefully and diplomatically.

AR: It is a provocative question! What did she say?

LA: Very matter-of-factly she explained to me that everyone has to narrow their mission and the Asia Society was supported by the Rockefellers in the early days and their original mission focused on East Asia. She explained that of course other regions are now being integrated.

Then she looked at me and said 10 years ago when I came on the scene, there was no such thing as India particularly from a contemporary art perspective. Then it was only about antiquities so what I had to do was make it my mission to change that and I did that. She didn’t say it in so many words but I got this really wonderful answer which was if you want to make something happen don’t complain about it. You have to take it on and make it happen yourself.  It was as provocative as my question to her.

AR: And then?

LA: Well we kept in touch and I kept her up-to-date about my research in Central Asia. A few months later she wrote to me: “Leeza I have a wonderful project for you. Talk with Melissa Chiu and get involved in the Asian Contemporary Art Week” and that was 4 years ago – the end of 2004.

 

Mohsen Ahmadvand, Wrestlers, 2008, mixed media, courtesy of artist, Thomas Erben and XVA galleries

Mohsen Ahmadvand, Wrestlers, 2008, mixed media, courtesy of artist, Thomas Erben and XVA galleries

 

 

AR: So can you tell us more about the ACAW? What is it?

LA: The Asia Contemporary Art Week is an initiative started by a group of independent curators, museum directors, collectors and seminal people interested in creating awareness about Asian art primarily in New York, but also elsewhere. They formed a consortium, the Asian Contemporary Art Consortium, in 2001 to create public educational programs.

Rather than doing things in isolation, they felt it would be more effective to join forces once a year or so and make this one big loud noise together. When I came in it was small and limited to galleries and museums already focused on Asian art. But I was interested in encouraging others to jump on the wagon. I wanted to motivate those who were thinking of showing a couple of Asian artists but who were, perhaps, a little reluctant because they did not have the backing or voice.

AR: Vishakha Desai helped to raise the profile of India in the Asia Society. What has been your mission and your contribution to Asian Contemporary Art Week?

LA: My contribution has been based on my strong desire to expand participation not just by the galleries and museums but also by the artists. 

We now have featured artists from all over Asia, not only from the traditional participants of China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. We have gradually moved West and we now include more artists  from, amongst others, Vietnam Thailand Pakistan Indonesia Iran Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Now over the last 2 years I have been trying to really broaden the notion of what constitutes Asia by bringing in the Middle East. Lebanese, Turkish, Palestinian and Israeli artists have been represented in 2008 and 2009.

AR: That sounds like an enormous undertaking. Asia is a huge continent.

LA: My specialty is Central Asia so of course I have had to learn a lot.  If you want to be involved in something I believe that you really need to know the players and what is going on with everyone. And by being involved in Asia Contemporary Art Week I am lucky enough to be at the centre of a lot of networks.

AR: What has been the response?

LA: I have spent a lot of time figuring who would be interested in opening their doors  to help broaden frontiers. Fortunately people have been very open because of the success of artists in the international arena from Central Asia. And people are curious, they do want to know what else is out there.

AR: How much do people know about the Asian continent in New York?

LA: Well there is a lot of confusion. For example take the Middle East. Iran is somehow there and not there at the same time. Afghanistan? There is also a lot of confusion about where it is and whether it is in the Middle East, Central Asia or South Asia.

AR: In the past you have talked passionately about opening up Asia to the Asians. We often hear people talk about connecting East and West but why do you feel there is a need for connection within Asia?

LA: Well the fact that the Middle East is a vast territory within Asia surprises people. In the US, Asia represents China Korea and Japan and only very recently has it been expanded to include India and Pakistan.

There is tremendous ignorance about Central Asia and when I tell someone from Korea or Japan that I too am from Asia, they look perplexed and ask well where are you from? When I say, “I am from Afghanistan” they look confused. Afghanistan shares a 76 kilometer border with China. To me it is simply incredible that in such an interconnected world, people on the same continent can still be so disconnected from eachother. There were years of Soviet rule which kept Central Asia out of reach but at the same time it is now 20 years since the Soviet rule ended.

AR: Why do you feel promoting connections within Asia is so important?

LA: I remember learning so much about all the countries around the world when I was at school in Kabul in Afghanistan. Why do I feel its important ? There is something wise about knowing yourself well. Asians share so may linguistic, spiritual and cultural ties which have broken down as a result of politics.

Historically Iran and Afghanistan were regarded as part of Central Asia. This changed for Iran after the Shah was deposed in 1979. With the dissolution of Soviet rule, 5 states from the USSR became independent including Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. These 5 states are now more commonly referred to as Central Asia.

Meanwhile Afghanistan was left hanging in limbo until the events of September 11 shot it directly back into the Middle East. Recently Afghanistan has been referred to as part of South Asia.

AR: Why have these connections within Asia broken down?

Economic and political policies create disconnections and I feel the best way to make things whole is through art. At least that is what artists do. They try to break things down and put them back together. The idea of deconstructing and constructing, I see art as something beyond aesthetics and intellectual mumbo jumbo. I see it as a  tool for people to become more aware, spiritual and connected to themselves and others.

Leeza Ahmady was born in Afghanistan and lives in New York. Her specialist area is Central Asia.

This is the first part of a 3 part interview:

Related links: Asian Contemporary Art Week website

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