Omar Kholeif, Manilow Senior Curator and Director of Global Initiatives at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, shares his ideas about the future of contemporary art, his work on the 2019 Sharjah Biennial and his aim to transform the MCA into the primary outpost for contemporary art in North America
Q: A year ago, you were named Director of the Global Vision Initiative program at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. The program broadly aims to re-map the history of contemporary art since 1945.
OK: The Global Vision Initiative was initially conceived as a pilot program through discussions with our Director Madeleine Grynsztejn, to think through what it meant to be a 21st-century contemporary art museum. We started our conversations in 2015 when we both asked ourselves what would it take to be the most global contemporary art museum in North America? From there, we came up with a series of questions we needed to answer about what makes a two-way global cultural exchange.
The result was the Global Vision Initiative, which is a multi-pronged program that helps the MCA devise new art historical research, offer global mentorship opportunities and strengthen our acquisitions of works from artists in the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, Latin America and Africa. We, of course, are also using these tools to create ground-breaking, thought-provoking exhibitions that allow us to see contemporary art history in a much more expanded context, where the South and East are not performing their difference, but put on equal ground.
Q: It seems very fitting to be read in the context of your practice as a curator, delving into the subject of “re-mapping” by mounting exhibitions that look at the blind spots created by official art history. As an example, your last exhibition at White Chapel, Barjeel Art Foundation Collection: Imperfect Chronology (2015-17) specifically looked at modern art from an Arab perspective. How has this doctrine of re-mapping, or intervening into, the histories of art been enacted in your practice?
OK: I have always been committed to finding the most urgent artistic voices, which have yet to be recognised, and offering them a contextualised, historical platform by which their work can be viewed. At the Whitechapel Gallery, I mapped out a century of Arab art, attempting to create an art historical through-line that would help viewers understand how Arab art came to be what it is today. At the MCA, I am taking these investigations further with a major group show that I am organizing called Many Tongues: Art, Language and Revolution in the Middle East and South Asia, which looks at art from the Middle East and South Asia from 1947 to the present. It seeks to draw a map of art against the history of decolonisation beginning with the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.
From there, we see art devised through culturally specific historical references developed against a backdrop of great social and political change. Artists are forming their own new language, negotiating their way from abstraction and poetry to representation, presenting complex subjects such as sexuality and women’s rights, and much more. It also seeks to put two regions – the Middle East and South Asia – which have been seen as distinct by some, into direct conversation with each other, tracing movement and shared cultural histories between these two territories.
We will be producing an incredible scholarly catalogue to accompany this show, with contributions from some of the leading lights in the field, including Professor WJT Mitchell, Shanay Jhaveri, Diana Campbell Betancourt, Professor Hannah Feldman, Omar Berrada, Reem Fadda, Rasha Salti and Emma Chubb to name a few. With this exhibition, we want to break new ground, telling histories that have never been articulated before in the West, and creating an art historical opening that will encourage future scholars to re-examine the history of art as we know it today. The show will also travel to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas, thus broadening the scope of the audience and the field.
Q: How do you plan to reflect the politics surrounding revolution within the exhibition and more importantly, also assert the idea that history is not a monolithic event, but a series of heterogeneous happenings that do not cohere?
OK: I see revolution in a very different light. I am looking at a revolution in art. How have tumultuous political events created revolutionary forms that could have not been created otherwise, for example? One of the ways of tackling this is by creating context for the viewer through wall labels, maps, catalogues and reading materials, to help viewers understand that there was not one but many revolutions that have led to the art that we have today.
Q: You will curate the 14th edition of the Sharjah Biennial in 2019 along with Zoe Butt and Claire Tancons. Its title is Leaving the Echo Chamber, which explores how new time is made in a moment where everything feels accelerated to its pinnacle. What brought you to this topic, and what types of artistic practices will you hope to bring to the Sharjah Biennial?
OK: The Sharjah Biennial is anchored around the theme of Leaving the Echo Chamber, thinking through the looping and circuitous nature of the world that we live in today with perpetual news media, conflict and violence. We wanted to ask: what does it mean to take a step back to think through a variety of contexts? I chose to focus on the concept of “time” because I am interested in how histories are made and deconstructed. I am not yet at liberty to discuss any specific projects, but I can say that there will be work in every media and there will certainly be works that respond to specific sites and which look at different histories of technology. I am very excited to be continuing the work that I do here at the MCA on a global platform.
Featured image: Omar Kholeif, Photo Eric T White
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, Curriculum Vitae #44, pages 206-208.