Abdellah Karroum, Director of Mathaf Museum, Doha, Qatar

Schermata 2016-05-30 alle 10.45.08 (1)Born in Morocco in 1970, Abdellah Karroum is Director of the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art (Doha, Qatar) since 2013. He is a curator, researcher and initiator of several independent artistic and curatorial projects. In 2002 he founded L’appartement 22, an independent art space based in Rabat, Morocco. In 2000, Karroum initiated “Le Bout du Monde” art expeditions with artists and researchers that have took place in several continents. He also conceived of a methodology for collective artistic projects, which he coined Curatorial Delegations. He has been Associate Curator of various international art biennials, including Dak’Art (2006), Gwangju Biennale (2008), and Associate Director of the Marrakech Biennale (2007) and consequently Artistic Director of the Marrakech Biennale in 2009.


Conversation transcription below

  • A conversation with Abdellah Karroum (full version)

  • A 2 minutes excerpt from the conversation: The Curatorial Delegations

Michela Alessandrini: Abdellah Karroum, thank you for participating in this interview. I would like you to introduce your path, notably L’appartement 22, which you founded in 2002 in Rabat and the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, that you are directing since 2013.
Abdellah Karroum: My interest in curating came from looking at artists. I knew many different people, artists, intellectuals, friends who were in different industries in Morocco. In the late 90s, I wanted to do something that reflected the expressions I was meeting. Artists were producing objects, artworks, writings, and I wanted to find spaces where I could share these intellectual productions that looked at these societies.
What I started in 1999 was a publishing house called Hors Champs. It was in Bordeaux while I was finishing my Ph.D. This was an editorial space where you could share ideas, thinking, reading, artworks, translating them into something such as a book, or a poster. We created something that was a kind of manifesto.
Few years later, I went back to Morocco and tried to meet with these artists and find the spaces that would again reflect these productions. I didn’t find places that existed, I mean not as institutions or as museums – you had of course these more traditional forms of museums. But for the younger generation you didn’t have an existing space. You had galleries, but not really continuously. I wanted to have a more natural space for meetings, so I organized these kind of temporary spaces for thinking, formulating, helping the artists to formulate and put together ideas and objects that spoke of their society, or what they were addressing as issues. This is how in 2000 they started the “Expeditions:” they invited artists from Morocco and from other countries, to go to the mountains or small villages, to marketplaces not to bring books, but we encouraged them to just come themselves and start talking about their interests and meeting people. This was the “Expedition” number 1 with Jean-Paul Thibeau and Younès Rahmoun in the Rif Mountains in 2000.
Immediately after, the second one took place in the Atlas Mountains and then, every year, I organized what I called the Expedition “Le Bout Du Monde”: that was not intended as the “end of the world,” but as “a place in the world.” The basic idea was that sharing an idea about art or expressing an idea with art could take place anywhere and you could create a place. It was inspired by the Peter Brook’s “L’Espace Vide” and it developed quickly into the Apartment 22 in Rabat (2002), because the Apartment 22 was the same place as the marketplace, the street, whatever. It was a private place that became the content, an artwork, and an idea to be discussed. Meeting artists, curators, audiences, became the alternative place to a museum or to an amphitheatre, or to a university. In Rabat, you are in a place where you don’t have an art department at the university.
The main idea behind the Apartment 22 was to create a space that could be used concurrently as a university amphitheatre and a museum gallery. It is a space that can be the exhibition space in the morning, a debate place in the evening and later on it can become the distribution place, or the documentation place, or the place where we can come back and find the traces of what took place before. And it is always connected to the city or to the country.
Apartment 22 is situated in the centre of Rabat, basically in front of the Parliament, and you have a balcony facing the street that has daily protests led by young people, and unemployed people, teachers, doctors, groups of women who want to change laws. With all these social activists, it was somehow a privileged place, but not necessarily chosen from the beginning for that purpose. It could be in any other place. This is why at the beginning it was part of the “Expeditions;” it was a projection of this idea of creating a space. The entire project: from “Expeditions” to publishing house Hors Champs, to the Apartment 22 is about creating physical spaces, an editorial space, a physical space of a trip or a space of exhibitions.
Much later, after many exhibitions in the Apartment 22 that were really at a scale of what you could do in this private space that became public, I also created this R22 radio, that became a mediatic space. And the space of the Apartment 22 – a small space – became much bigger. It became an online space that was, at the same time, documenting and discussing. Sound pieces are now online in the form of curatorial dialogues, where curators and colleagues are invited to discuss ideas of how to deal with art, and how to address issues in a space that is larger than the space of its production. How can the correspondence between the space of production – where the artist is experimenting and producing – and the space of exhibition or the space of distribution becomes this active space? How do you activate an artwork beyond this moment of experimentation, this moment of production?
So this was already in 2007, in between I was engaged with temporary exhibitions that are biennales: DAK’ART, the Marrakech Biennale, the Benin Biennale and La Triennale in Paris. These were always done in collaboration with people, whether being invited by other curators, or myself inviting curators. So I really enjoyed the idea of collaboration, but not only that, it also became really necessary to collaborate because this is how things are made efficient.
Around 2010/2011, I was invited to Latin America, Colombia, to these encounters at Medellin by colleague José Roca. I didn’t know Latin America; it was the first time I went there. So I wondered: “How can I do something that makes sense in this place?” In between I was discussing with a friend, Juan Gaitán, who is also a curator with whom I had some encounters in Europe. We discussed many ideas. I found that if I invited him to Latin America, to Colombia, if I could bring him with me, he would not only guide me, but also show me the issues, the important issues that we would discuss together. Thus, I invited him to Morocco, but I also invited him to his country, Colombia. It was very interesting because we spent a few weeks going around in the city, seeing artists and exchanging, talking about what’s happening there but also in a larger context, about artwork, about all these issues. The idea became equivalent, or similar to collaborations in other fields, such as business or politics, and the idea of the curatorial delegation was born during this collaboration.
The curatorial delegation is a methodology that helps a curatorial group to understand a context and to produce an exhibition or a publication. It brings a proposal to the addressed context with a strategy that is led by the person who knows the context. If you are five curators in a delegation, the leader will be the one who is from there or is closer to there, who has studied the context. Then you go to another place and another curator takes the leadership. This is how the collaboration works in a curatorial delegation.
I adopted this idea in the Benin Biennale, West Africa, in 2012. It worked very well because we had curators who were more interested in cuisine, with cooking, and they brought together people interested in lifestyle and art. We had others who were more into craft, others who were more interested in performance, others who were more interested in writing or in the concept, on building an idea of the art production in a more descriptive, conceptual way, but not necessarily spectacular. All these forms of exhibiting, of documenting an artwork, are different ways of addressing the idea of art, on how art is looking at the world, which is inspired by the past or the elsewhere. How the artist is receiving the images, how the artist is interpreting the world, how he is projecting something? You have to find the way; you have to find this editorial space that helps the curator to propose the right space. Because the curator is like the editor, he is not changing the art. As a curator you don’t do the work for the artist. The artist does the work. But the work is also the result of this interpretation of how as curator you do create a space. This space is an editorial space. It’s not a space that becomes the main subject. It is the stage.

MA: It’s like a structure.
AK: Yes, it’s like a structure, but this structure should not be visible. How does this structure, foundational to the exhibition, publication, performance, disappear and make the content visible? It is quite challenging and it works really well when you don’t forget the artwork, when you don’t forget the main idea, or the initial idea of the artwork. The work of creating this stage, or platform, comes before but it’s not visible. I mean today, when we are talking about my work, it becomes the main subject of course, but normally this is not the subject. It is the subject here, in this conversation, but it is not the subject when you have an exhibition or when you publish a book about an artist. You don’t see it; it disappears. This is where it becomes interesting. It’s important; it’s strong when it’s not visible.

MA When the curator is invisible.
AK: Yeah, the curator disappears but the work is really there, it is prominent, it is active. So this is not the perfection, but it is the most important part. You asked about the path of a curator. From creating spaces, moving from a project that could be the alternative to the absence of the museum. From a very small space to a very large landscape in which you have to define a space, this movement toward a large museum that is today the Mathaf Museum of Modern Art in Doha.
Contrary to what people think, the Mathaf did not start with a big building. It started with an idea, with an individual initiative, with the personal initiative of Sheik Hassan, who is an art lover, prince, researcher, art historian, historian, a linguist. He started collecting art from the region, places where he travelled.
He wanted to buy this art for himself and he wanted to share it. The most important thing is to share these artworks that are modern productions, production of modernity in the Arab world and production of this time. By interesting himself in the art, learning with these artists, inviting the artists to practice the arts with him, learning painting, reading texts, he managed to develop a collection of thousands of work: 5,000. It became a project that had an educational component. The individual, whoever this individual is, even if you have the money or you have the political power, can’t make it just by himself in a society where the museum as a building doesn’t really exist yet. The collection had to move toward the public domain, to the public space. So the collection moved to the Qatar Foundation and they used a school. The state provided a school, an old school that was renovated to host the collection and to have an educational, a research programme around it and to exhibit part of it.
This was the origin of the collection. I arrived at a certain moment of the collection when they still had this temporary building. The museum opened in 2010 in a temporary building; but it exists since 10 years as a public collection. Since 20 years it exists as a private initiative in a temporary museum. When I arrived in 2013 – almost three years now – I found the museum still under construction and, until today, I think the museum is still in construction. Not under construction, but it is in construction. You are still in the phase where you have to find ways to display the work, it is a modern work, and where you have to also make it visible for schools.
As we said, we have an educational programme, providing research tools to read this modernity with a lot of conventional readings. We have to read this modernity again and put it into context while producing research. We also need to work more with researchers, scholars and other museums to research exhibition formats and how to display this collection.
Another component that is very important, we are in a context where we produce and commission works. We commission works and put them in the same space as existing works, because they still interrogate the political context, they interrogate the social context in a moment of major political changes in the Arab world today. Although I moved to the Mathaf, I still keep one foot at the Apartment 22, in Rabat where I work in a very small space. While in Doha, I work with the largest museum collection, let’s say of this world. Moving from Morocco to Qatar, between a small space and a large space, at the end it is always about the same thing, it’s about art.
Although we deal with art the same way, we don’t deal with space in the same way. You deal with the private space in oneway; you deal with a public space in another way. But for me the public space is in between, because it is outside the building. This is where things are addressed; the topics are addressed as a production of its time. From Mahmoud Said, who died a long time ago, he looked at society, at women in the 30s. Shirin Neshat looked at a certain society of the 90s and 2000. After this, Wael Shawky looking at history, writing history, old times, current times, parallel shifts in society.
So the space of the museum, at the same time, reflects the current change. Twenty years of major political change corresponds to the explosion of the media in the Arab world, for example. These changes are very visible today because the space of the media is very immediate. Before you had the same changes: if you look at the cultural movement in literature, in the art of the 60s, 40s, 30s. In Egypt or in Lebanon, you always had these movements, intellectual movements that reflected the social change that corresponded to the political movement. But at this time they had restricted communication. Today they occupy a larger space, because they have immediate communication. So the challenge for the museum is to reflect this immediacy of the production and its correspondence with society and make into something that makes sense. How an artwork made today, shared in the media, makes more sense in a given space than in social media for example? Talking about it at the same time, in all these different spaces. It is the same space when looking at its content. It is not the same space when looking at its presentation, the display of the work changes between Apartment 22 and Mathaf.
I hope this is giving an idea about the path.

MA: Yeah, it is. Actually this introduces the second and third question I want to ask you. The second one was the difference between the two spaces that you already answered. You were mentioning the political situation; it seems to me that your methodology arrives from your curatorial approach, which deals with the local context. You seem to place a lot of attention on the local context. What I would like to know is the main differences you notice between these two regions of the Arab world: Morocco and Qatar.
AK: I worked in very different contexts since many years. We are people, so we move around the world. We exercise this aller/retour, back and forth between spaces. We have the space where we think we are from, and a space from where we speak. Today we speak from Bologna, Italy. When I am in Benin, Africa, I speak from Benin. We are all affected by our daily life, by what is there. When you are in Paris, you speak from all these museums and libraries, all these books. It’s a feeling; it’s a physical feeling. When you speak from Rabat, you speak with this tension. When you are sitting in the Apartment 22, you speak from Apartment 22 from Rabat. I am not from Rabat. But when I am in Rabat I feel that I am in Rabat and I speak from Rabat, with all these very strong political tensions. That is one of the streets where every day of the year you have a protest. Small, big, it changes in scale, but it doesn’t disappear. Even at night you have this sound that is there.
When I am in Qatar I speak from Qatar, from Mathaf. And the weight of the place, or the sound of the place, is not only the project, not only the museum, not only the collection, not only the building, not only the budget we have, not the organization. It’s also how this place is changing, becoming something else, thanks to all these components.
Morocco is a place that has a different density than Qatar. They have shared elements that are in part the languages. In Qatar you have Arabic but you have also, English, Hindi, Filipino. You have all these components that you hear every day; this is the sound of the city. Of course you also have very big cars, this is also the sound of the city. In Rabat you don’t have that number of big cars, but you have other things. In Morocco you are in Africa, in Qatar you are in Asia, in the Gulf. The notion of integrating of these elements, these foreign elements, whether it’s about technology or about population, is different from a place to another.
I don’t want to make a comparison, like a literal comparison, between the two places, but they both have a different density in terms of how you feel you exist in this place, in Rabat or in Doha. I feel at home in both places, like I feel at home in other cities in Europe as well. Even if I don’t have a Qatari passport but I don’t have a Moroccan passport either. If you work in Morocco for 50 years, you will never have a Moroccan passport. It has to be a decision made by the king. In Qatar it is the same, it has to be a decision made by the emir. But in France or in America you have the passport after a few years because you are involved in the intellectual production or in whatever participation, just because you want to be part of this place. So there are some differences.
The good thing in Qatar is that you are in a very young nation, in terms of a State that is building itself. It is also an old nation because it’s about family, and people living there, but in terms of organization, political organization, social organization, is very, very young, it’s less than half a century. Its urban space is very young and universities, museums, schools, other infrastructure are very, very young. The very important element is that the museum is a major component in the building of the city. Mathaf is located within an education city. You have universities, laboratories, sport places, stadiums, but you also have a museum that embodies a very important element.
In Rabat we are in a place where the State has other priorities, tourism is a primary income because you have natural resources, but not gas. The museum is really secondary; it has no importance to the State. We can have propaganda speeches declaring the importance of contemporary art and artistic production, but this is not reality. Civil society is very strong in Morocco. It is through civil society that you have the internal production distributors: galleries, publishing houses.
In Qatar it is the opposite, it is the State that takes the initiative. Maybe this equilibrium is to be found from a political point of view. It would be interesting to analyse the number of artists you have in each country. They are not comparable actually, you cannot compare them because Morocco has 40 million people and Qatar has 2 million people.

MA: My last question is: how do you think these two different art centres will evolve in the future? Let’s talk about the museum of the future.
AK: Today the development of museums in the world, especially in Africa or North Africa and Middle East – or now we say West Asia – has different speeds. In Qatar, Emirates, Saudi Arabia, even Iran now, they started to have some kind of interesting modern art museums, contemporary museums. You always have a practice; you always have an expression of artistic production.
In the Gulf, we make the museum part of the urban plan: you have museums, you have universities, and you have collections. So collections today are the most important thing: how to build the collection? Building the collection is about acquiring something that exists, objects that exists, and objects that are expressions of the modern times, let’s say the last century, and objects that are still under production, to be added to a museum that has a programme, a strategy for collecting, for educating, for keeping memory of the place. They have to develop a way to document and encourage production. They offer a display that is about sharing knowledge, but that also educates creativity, that makes creativity part of the development of the country.
At Mathaf the contribution is to make art part of people’s daily life. So you have the collections in the museum, but you also have a lot of public art. The museum is outside, it is also in the city, and the museum becomes part of the city. Not as a closed space, but it invests all spaces. And the museum of the future is in these spaces that are open. We don’t really know how, which forms will be developed to share the artistic expression. Of course you have forms, you have volumes for human beings. People use public spaces and they move in the architectural space, and you have forms that are part of this urbanity, that are volumes that are images. But they are not only forms, they have to correspond to something in this organization, in this future organization: how people move in the city. Doha will open its first metro line in maybe two years, so it is a very young country. But the metro has a lot of art, public art. The city has a lot of public art now, international artists, and local artists.
But if you look to another geography, the northern Mediterranean, between Morocco and Spain and Italy and Tunis and Greece and Libya, we are in a space that is also in crisis, a different crisis. The Gulf has its own crisis, between Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Emirates, Iran, Iraq. But in Mediterranean area you have another crisis that is about this shared space, how population moves, from south to north and from north to south.
I was asked by somebody about the future of museums in the region. I think that we can see it as something that moves in between, like a platform that goes from Tangier to Beirut, from Athens to Tunis, because the Mediterranean will become more and more a shared space. It is the centre between Asia, Africa and Europe; this is a classical idea. The tension we talked about earlier, about the sound and the pressure of the place, today in the Mediterranean is very, very strong. A lot of artists are addressing these issues related to this pressure and to this movement. We talked about aller/retour, now we have a shared space that is moving around, circulating much more. Everything is moving.
We don’t really know if the population will be stopped from travelling or if we are going to encourage more movement of population. And the museum needs to be in the middle. The museum does not need to exist in space distant from the events, it cannot exist in a different space, and it has to stay within. This is the idea of contemporary museum, the museum of its time.What we call today the modern art museum is a museum that collects from the recent past. For us, is it going to be a model for the future? Will it consist of memories, objects, archives, and other parts that are more active, and more like today’s art centers? Are we going to be asked to move somewhere, to a place, to experiment, to see art, to hear ideas, to exchange? Is the notion of expression of the artists going to be limited, edited before sharing, communicating, acting?
I think that today a lot of projects are not put through this editorial process. They are not edited. There is no space between the studio and the display. This was really a very important topic or subject, for me as a researcher, as a curatorial interest: from the place of production and the space of exhibition, or between the place of encounter and the space of discussion.
In between you have this laboratory that we try to make visible as curators to see how big it is. It is very extensive, it’s very elastic. This space is elastic. Today this elasticity is in between, both spaces become elastic and mix everything: the space of display is elastic and the space of production is also elastic.

MA: What is the status of the book in this editorial approach you have? You said that there is a gap between the studio and the exhibition space; the gap between the process and of the interaction with the artist. How do you make this process visible in the book? We usually see this process as something that can end up in a catalogue. Is the book, which you talked about, the editorial process that you are thinking about? Is the catalogue the right form?
AK: The editorial process is not necessarily a document. The editorial process does not give you a printed book. The editorial process is the notion of listening. The editor looks at the content and does something that is not visible, that passes it from the author to the reader, from the actor to the spectator. This is the editorial space. But if you consider the book as something that is the memory of a project, the book becomes the archive. If you look at the first archive documenting the Apartment 22 project, it is just the reproduction of the texts as they were written at the time. Nothing was edited. The only edits were made if something was missing in terms of language, but it’s just highlighted. Images are from the time and the texts are from the time.

MA: Even the introduction text?
AK: The introduction is clearly presented as such: “I’m introducing and I talk about the object.” Everything else is from that time. Now we do the tenth anniversary book that is also the same. Because in the course of the time your ideas change. If you talk about the same object, the same subject at two different moments, you are going to talk about them differently. If you ask me the same question in two years time I am going to respond differently, because I will maybe be in Dakar or in Dhaka, in Bangladesh. Not in Bologna as we are today. So the place affects and influences your thinking; how we exist. If you do this interview in a space or online, it’s not the same, it’s different. If I look here, now, to the camera, I’m talking to you on Skype. But if I’m talking to you directly, to Michela and not to the machine, the responses are different.
Like all developments in the art, by passing through the Internet, have different outputs, different words, different vocabularies and different translations.
If we do this interview through Skype we have this metallic sound, let’s say. But if you do it directly you have the echo of the room. If I speak in this room and you are listening from the other room, you will hear the echo of my voice that is in another place. So it is a distortion. It is very interesting to look at how technology is influencing the ecology of the subject. Technology meaning the technique, and ecology meaning the political dimension of the presence, or being somewhere in a place. The “Expeditions” are important because you go to a place physically, you invite an artist to be somewhere and start to discuss something. To connect that place to the exhibition space is something that is this process of editing. The editorial process is important because it is very challenging and difficult to make sense of something that is elsewhere in another time, in the future and in another place. Because you don’t have the same issues to address, you don’t have the same necessity for an artwork to exist. So this can be developed in many other things. An artwork can be very important and crucial in one city, because it responds to a specific situation. If you bring it somewhere else, sometimes, it makes no sense at all, because the issues are different. If you are in Tehran, the situation of the individual in Tehran about the expression, representation of the human body, is not the same as somebody who is in Helsinki or in Rio de Janeiro. It’s completely different.
All these integrations are very important. So working in a place like Qatar or working in a place like Rabat is different. In Rabat I am always preoccupied by youth and by the becoming of this youth: how do we deal with the political situation, how do we deal with all these young people who are unemployed, how do we show them art?
In Qatar you talk to a very large geography because we have Filipino, Hindi, Saudi. All these local persons and guests are part of the society. They are present and they are absent. The majority of the people are living in Qatar for a few years. The cultural workers stay for a longer term and we have collaborations. Personally, I have a really good relationship with the people who build this country, but I also have very good relationship with audiences made up by families who come to the museum on the weekends, and workers. Everything is open; the museum Mathaf is open to the public for free. So if you are a Filipino worker you come to the museum and visit. If you are a Qatari wealthy family you come to the museum at the same time. It’s a shared space. So the museum becomes this place of debate but you need to address what is necessary to address.

MA: Thank you.
AK: Shukran

English proof-reading: Emma Siemens-Adolphe

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