Arab curator in South Korea Biennale

Sara Elkamel, Wednesday 5 Sep 2012

Iraqi co-artistic director of the 9th Gwangju Biennale, Wassan Al-Khudhairi, talks to Ahram Online about the South Korean art extravaganza and Arab work therein

Maha Maamoun_Video still from Domestic Tourism II_2009

South Korea's 9th Gwangju Biennale (7 September-9 November) features Arab contributions to the painting, video, installation, sculpture, performance and photography on show. But perhaps it is more interesting to note that among the curators responsible for the massive project, named ROUNDTABLE, is the former director of the Qatari Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Wassan Al-Khudhairi. Bringing together over 92 artists and six curators, the event is designed as a dynamic series of collaborations on a number of themes: Logging In and Out of the Collective; Transient Encounters; Intimacy; Autonomy and Anonymity; Back to the Individual Experience; Impact of Mobility on Space and Time; and – Al-Khudhairi’s prerogative – Revisiting History. In an email interview Al-Khudhairi reveals the challenges and thrills of working in a cross-cultural curatorial team from diverse backgrounds to create the exhibition.

Ahram Online (AO): What are the genres represented in ROUNDTABLE, and what is the dominant theme of the work displayed?

Al-Khudhairi (AK): The exhibition includes a wide variety of media. Beyond metaphor, ROUNDTABLE simultaneously describes the working relationship of the 2012 Gwangju Biennale’s six Co-Artistic Directors, the conversational interaction of its six sub-themes, and its non-linear structure. Within the overarching framework of the ROUNDTABLE, they invite us to rethink history as a series of malleable junctures, to consider the tension between belonging and anonymity, and the affects that temporality, spatiality and mobility have on the collective.

Historically, the roundtable is associated with the political summit, where various agendas are brought together for group consideration. It could also evoke the traditional Korean image of a round table, the duriban, around which people eat communally. In this vein the six of us chose to engage with the practice of the collective as a non-hierarchical organisational alternative.

My particular subtheme, which is reflected in the framework of the roundtable, explores questions like: How is history used or re-used? What is our relationship with history? And how do we remember?  Each of the works that will be included throughout the exhibition engages with these questions – and through the practice of the artists the they invite the audience to make their own conclusions.

AO: How do you see Arab art at the 9th Gwangju Biennale?

AK: The Gwangju Biennale selected six co-curators for this year’s biennale. We have all been working in different parts of Asia: India, Japan, Korea, China, Indonesia, and (in my case) Qatar. My contributions to the curatorial discussions are clearly rooted in my experiences working in the Arab world, and while not all the artists I have selected are Arab, many of them are. 

Collaborating with a group of curators from multiple backgrounds across different cities has challenged us to think about how to make connections between works of art that will not usually be exhibited together and how to offer new connections between them.

AO: Was the process of selecting the art challenging and what were the criteria? Was the curatorial process fruitful because of the diversity of the team?

AK: Working in a group with five other curators has been challenging, but it has also been a great learning experience for all of us. As we each approach our curatorial practice from a different point of view, informed by our diverse backgrounds, our discussions are often lively and engaging. 

At the beginning of the process we attempted to develop a single refined theme that we could centre our discussions on; however, after many conversations it became apparent that one theme could not contain the multiplicity of our voices. We agreed to reflect upon our experiences working as a collective across time zones, countries, and languages under the overarching theme of Roundtable. This gave us the flexibility to incorporate our individual ideas and practices within a multi-layered, multi-pronged framework. We selected artists both individually and as a group; while each curator worked independently with artists within her particular focus, we would also often discuss the inclusion of specific artists together.

AO: Tell me about the Egyptian artists featured in ROUNDTABLE and your reasons for choosing to feature them.

AK: I worked with ten artists for the Biennale, many of whom are from countries in the Middle East, as well as a collective based in the UK. My goal was not to select artists from specific countries, but rather to consider which artists are thinking about ideas of history and memory in their ongoing practice.  One of the first works I knew I wanted to include in the exhibition was the video Telematch Sadat by Wael Shawky. Shawky often refers to history in his work, at times recreating specific moments of history; this work in particular resonated with me because it gives a new perspective on the assassination of Anwar El Sadat. In the video, Shawky directs a group of children to re-enact the assassination of Sadat.

The video is part of the artist’s larger Telematch Project, a series of video installations and drawings that also includes Telematch Upper Egypt, Telematch Market, and Telematch Suburb. Referencing a similarly named German television competition showcase that was broadcast during the 1970s and 1980s, this project examines relations across gender and social class, contesting cultural, economic and political models, and generations in Egypt from the 1970s to present day.

The other Egyptian artist I would like to mention is Malak Helmy, who’s project, Records from the Excited State, is a chaptered work with ongoing iterations. The first chapter takes the shape of a lexicon and archive; the second, a kinetic sculpture and a sound piece; and the third chapter, commissioned by the Gwangju Biennale, is a single channel video.

The chapter, titled Records, explores a site (what the artist refers to as the “excited state”) that exists both as physical geography and as consciousness, between memory and its projection into the future, like an atom that rises to excitation before falling to a ground state. In this third iteration, the work recalls an earlier state in its own formation and an earlier stage of the development of the physical “site” by returning to an image of the Excited State. The process of reimagining and remembering a place through projected, “remembered” images serves to create a surreal dreamscape, converting cinematic memory into a visual document.

AO: How is the event structured? Are there supplementary activities such talks?

AK: During our public opening we will host a day-long programme called Roundtable: Where Do We Sit? which comprises a series of conversations, artist interventions, and performances. The programme is curated by three of ROUNDTABLE’s Co-Artistic Directors, Carol Yinghua Lu, Alia Swastika, and myself. It will feature 14 of the Biennale’s participating artists and invites audiences to engage directly with the exhibition.

Within the conversational framework of the roundtable, artists, curators and audiences each play critical yet very different roles. The programme features opportunities for the Biennale’s visitors to complete the circle by asserting their role within its structure. Discussions will centre on ideas of self-definition, group process and interdisciplinary connections. Participants will explore the working relationship between artists and curators, unpack the role archives assert in memory making, and experience performances. 


7 September– 11 November 2012
Biennale Hall and other venues, Gwangju (Jeolla Province, South Korea)
Opening hours: Monday – Sunday, 9am - 6pm

For more info visit the Biennale link here

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