Abu Dhabi Art 2023: Interview with Morad Montazami

Could you please share your initial experiences and first conversation with the Abu Dhabi Art team when you were approached to curate the Beyond Emerging Artists (BEA) section?

It is a pleasure and honour to be appointed as the curator for the groundbreaking programme Beyond Emerging Artists 2023. Thanks to Dyala Nusseibeh’s invitation and the great work she is undertaking to support the next generation of artists through the Gulf region. From the very beginning, our conversation was driven by the necessary balance between economic sustainability (including ecological concerns) and artistic ambition. It’s a sensitive balance, especially when it comes to emerging artists (for some of them having their first international solo show): as we need to make them feel comfortable for giving shape to their ideas and at the same time to challenge that “comfort zone” in which an artist risks to forget his conceptual roots and think only in terms of material outcome. To put it bluntly, the form should materialize an idea or experience without erasing it. Artists should remain providers of ideas as much as they provide us with forms.

BEA is known for providing emerging artists with a platform to develop and showcase ambitious projects. What were the criteria or qualities that led to the selection of Almaha Jaralla, Samo Shalaby, and Latifa Saeed as the appointed artists for BEA 2023?

The three artists I am delighted to be collaborating with all impressed me by their technical skills, and interdisciplinary approach but also their mindset and vision. The three of them deal with a variety of mediums, taking a sharp stance in “installation art”, demonstrating a real expertise in space building, beyond the artwork itself. Their approach is extremely different – going from minimalistic to luxuriant set-up – but they all share a specific concern for the viewer’s experience and his/her position within the space; almost like a stage designer who aims at replacing the actors by the audience, welcomed on stage.

Eventually, the three artists were also selected in appreciation of the momentum in their personal trajectory: you can feel that they are on the edge of taking a meaningful and ambitious step in their career, to produce an innovative installation for BEA 2023.

As the curator for BEA 2023, you’ve had the opportunity to work closely with these artists. What can visitors expect to see at the Fair from these talented emerging artists, and how do they navigate the intersection of private and public space in their works?

Although each artist presents new work that is unique and distinct, all three explore a new dialectics of daylight and nocturnal spaces. In a world where global warming brings us to reconsider our normal schedules and to invent new extensions of our lives, their installations propose a kind of third space, beyond day and night, seeking for a speculative realism.

Abu Dhabi-based Emirati artist (b. 1996), Almaha Jaralla’s installation Crude Memory will present a fictional reenactment of the emblematic Al-Ruwais location near Abu Dhabi. An invitation to reflect upon petro-modernity and its ghostly traces in the present through painting, photography and sculpture.

Dubai-based Emirati artist (b. 1985), Latifa Saeed’s installation Dust Devils will offer a never seen before technological experience based on a fundamental cosmogonic narrative and poetics of UAE’s desert landscape. Using smoke machine, hologram and electro-magnetic devices, she creates a minimalistic choreography of natural elements.

Dubai-based Egyptian-Palestinian artist (b. 1999), Samo Shalaby’s installation What Lies Beneath will unveil a theatrical and extravagant labyrinth of surreal visions – inspired by various art historical movements from the Renaissance and Baroque art to Symbolism, through painting, photography and jewellery.

You’ve mentioned that these artists share concerns that connect them. Could you elaborate on these shared concerns and how they manifest in the works of Almaha Jaralla, Samo Shalaby, and Latifa Saeed?

Beyond their clear differences, much appreciated in order to create a diverse exhibition, all of them seem to be moving on an interesting line between private and public space, the subjective and the collective look, historical issues and contemporary matters. They also embody a compelling and cosmopolitan vision of the Gulf region, in which cosmogonic phenomenon and ecological concerns exceed national borders. It can be manifested in Almaha Jaralla’s attempt to question how nature survives through vernacular architecture; in Latifa Saeed’s proposal to revive natural landscape through high- technology; or in Samo Shalaby’s serendipitous and mythological ways to elaborate visual ecosystems.

As a curator with an impressive background, what are the key elements or themes you seek to emphasise in your role as the curator for BEA 2023? How do you envision contributing to the artistic development of these emerging artists?

I would like, in my modest role, for the viewer to have a proper physical and conceptual experience, not so much tied to individual artworks and artifacts, but more to an atmospheric dimension, including unexpected visions; for him/her to feel part of a whole and become an actor of these ambitious installations. Beyond the ideologies, the political or social concerns forging each individual, we all share a specific relation to space, to nature and to technology. These are not abstract concerns at all, they are indeed all political issues but requiring to put our sensibility and subjectivity first, before mass media and ideologies. That is the general approach to which I would like to invite the three “emerging” artists. But to be honest it would be incorrect to think that I can teach them anything. First of all, because I’m not so much older than them, but also because we live in an age of accelerated accessibility to knowledge and global artistic data. My aim is to be a seismograph or a needle who can react accordingly with their respective impulses and energies, but also doubts or inner conflicts; to help them make the right decisions, and give them confidence.

You have explored modernities in Arab, African, and Asian contexts through your platform, Zamân Books & Curating. How does your experience in these regions inform your approach to curating and mentoring young artists in the UAE?

I have indeed seen and experienced so many different pedagogic contexts, from a national or grassroots perspective (from the Tetouan Fine Art School in Morocco to the Baghdad Academy of Arts in Iraq or the unofficial art talks and workshops in Tehran…). I’m too much aware of each place’s specificity and challenges, to try to replicate these different experiences in another place such as the UAE. I’m particularly struck by how emerging artists from the UAE all have a kind of self-taught background or at least didn’t have the opportunity to spend years in a proper “art school” beyond universities and private workshops – the art school model not so much implemented yet in the social infrastructures of the country. It actually gives them a more pragmatic and down-to-earth relation to the act of making art, alongside with a fearless energy.

Can you share your thoughts on the significance of contemporary art in bridging the gap between different cultures and promoting cross-cultural dialogue, as exemplified by the Beyond Emerging Artists programme?

The three appointed artists for Beyond Emerging Artists 2023 have each been shaped differently, through the individual roots that ground them and the multiple routes that have brought them to where they now stand. Even when born and raised in the UAE, they were confronted to a highly multicultural background and social life. Our globalized and interconnected art world cannot survive or evolve through older patterns of national art and borders. If you look carefully, you will even notice that the exhibition model based on a national art scene, is less active or valid than before. There is a natural need to push away the admitted or official borders, in favor of expanded landscapes and transnational networks, in line with current ecological concerns and migration crisis. Thanks to artistic research and experimentation, we shall be able to invent a new cosmopolitanism and world citizenship, in the face of the current wars and conflict tormenting our region dramatically.



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