Reem Fadda, Associate Curator at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

Reem Fadda, Associate Curator for the Middle Eastern Art at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Project and Curator of the 6th Marrakech Biennale 2016Reem Fadda is Associate Curator for the Middle Eastern Art at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Project and Curator of the 6th Marrakech Biennale 2016 (February 24th – May 8th)





A Skype conversation with Reem Fadda

Conversation transcription below

Tiziana Casapietra: So Reem, I have a few questions for you. First of all I would like you to introduce yourself and the projects you are involved in at the moment. Secondly, I would like to ask you your points of view about the dynamics of contemporary art, especially according to geopolitics, how things are changing so quickly in front of us and how art is facing them. Then I would like to ask you if there are any artists that you consider the most representative of what we are facing nowadays in our world, in the contemporary world. 
Reem Fadda: Ok.

TC: So let’s start with yourself and the projects you are involved in at the moment.
RF: Currently I work as associate curator of Middle Eastern Art with the Guggenheim Foundation on building a museum project — the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi — that is slated to open in the next two years in Abu Dhabi. I’ve been on this project for six years and I’ve worked on mainly building the strategy for its collection and — hopefully — exhibition making, and the curatorial vision behind this institution.
Recently I’ve been appointed curator of the Marrakech Biennale for their 6th edition that is going to open next year in February. We have already been doing a lot of works behind the scene, both structurally and in really trying to formulate the concept and the artist list for the Biennial and working with institutions there.
So these are the two projects that I’m most involved in at the current time.

Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency and Campus in Camps, The Concrete Tent, 2015. Photos by Campus in Camps/Sara Anna.

Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency and Campus in Camps, The Concrete Tent, 2015. Photos by Campus in Camps/Sara Anna.

TC: Ok, thank you Reem. So, you have a kind of… I would call it, a privileged point of view.
RF: A privileged point of view, I like that.

TC: Is it possible to say that in English?
RF: What do you mean by it?

TC: Privileged means to have the possibility… It’s like when you open a window and you have the possibility to see many things.
RF: Many things, yes. Like a bird’s-eye view.

TC: Yeah, you have the possibility to see and to consider what is happening worldwide because of your position.
RF: I can definitely agree with that. Despite the multiple kinds of tremors this project has caused, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is really a very unique premise because it’s trying to build a museum in a place that does not have museums and does not have that history of building museums. This allows for a very meticulous and even revisionist methodology from a Western based institution, alongside its counterparts in the East and the Arab world, to see what is the playing field of contemporary art. What does that large field look like? Where does it need to be corrected? How can you look at the world at large and also criticize your own self and your own position, that kind of Western Eurocentric position that has been taken for granted for centuries?
The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi has that possibility and we are really a small curatorial working group of people, women mostly. We’ve identified key consultants and advisors, and art historians and curators who we’ve been in conversation with across the years and we’ve been asking ourselves these tough questions.
That is a great opportunity. Especially that we are not just talking about these issues, we are not just philosophizing, we are not just creating hypothetical frameworks about these ideas, as many academics have profoundly written and done already. But we are actually setting a framework of collection, building, collecting. So we are defining with material evidence. It is a very different process.
That is what a museum of this kind in the 21st century should deal with. I know there is a lot of criticism: are museums necessary? Are they not redundant? For me this is crucial, because there has to be a speaking point that tells that history differently and in a more equitable fashion.
We are not saying or negating any kind of history and creating a new hierarchy allowed before, such as the voice of the East to go over the voice of the West. No, we are wondering how do we create equilibrium. How do you see history as it is? Of course, in the making of history there is always a voice of authority that comes and there is always a selective history in the process. We are very well aware of that, but there are still opportunities and possibilities to make for equitable history. And I think this is where this project really has the possibility to do now.
Yes, I therefore believe that it is a privileged position to be in that framework and to be part of a team where you are studying the world.
So I am the curator for the Middle East, but the Middle East is already a very contentious term and it means more than what it looks like. We are already debating the term, we are already saying “Middle East should not be a defined geography,” let’s look at Asia. If you look at Asia, Asia is Russia, Asia is the ties with the Arab world, with Turkey, with Iran, North Africa, and then it goes to Africa and then South Asia, which is a very important neighbour to the Gulf and this museum is built in the Gulf.
It’s such a fluid relationship that you start understanding this place, and the diversity of geography that you are looking at, in a very deep way. And of course that is not conclusive to this region only, my colleagues also are experts on Eastern Europe, Western Europe, America, South America… We are looking at South Asia again, we have East Asia that plays also a very important role within our collection and in how we are building things.
Of course I am benefitting from looking at this large preview and understanding the diverse world in a very nuanced way. So I think yes, that is a privilege. And I would also add to that — and this is again not to sound cocky or privileged — but it is a privilege at this point in time to think that we can learn from the Third World.

Khaled Malas, Windmill. Photo: Yaseen al-Bushy.

Khaled Malas, Windmill. Photo: Yaseen al-Bushy.

TC: Yes exactly.
RF: I think it is very important to counter the realization that, after this tumultuous time of post colonialism and all the studies and everything that we are coming at, even in the midst of all that is going on in front of our eyes, we have arrived at the point where the world is suffering from an amnesiac state of being, a large new liberal status that is kind of in a slumber.
Everybody is asleep. And I think the Third World is a privileged place to be because it is still awake. It’s awake and it sees things. And I think I am even more privileged because I am Palestinian, so the colonial condition is not removed. That laboratory allows me to see things in a very different eye. I see all… We are still in… Before the machinations of new liberalism have fully enveloped Palestine; before they have enveloped all these States around us. So we can maybe propose how to remove, how to decolonize, how to move away from all of that. Looking at the Third World ecology, from South America, to South Asia, to the Middle East, from my point of view, having revisited these histories in the collection and in thinking about the parameters of our strategy for the museum, from the Forties to this day, has been a learning curve for me, definitely, and for the institution I represent.

TC: I totally agree Reem. That’s why I say privilege. Privilege is when you have the possibility to look at things from different points of view.
RF: Yes and to really kind of learn from that at the same time, and learn and teach…

TC: It’s give and take.
RF: Yes.

TC: Let’s talk about Marrakech.
RF: Yes.

TC: Would you like to tell us something about it?
RF: It’s an exciting thing for me to get out of my museum bubble, out into the real world, and curate a biennial, such as the Marrakech Biennale. It’s really a turf that I feel comfortable with. Marrakech is quite beautiful as a city, it has so many similarities to many places I have inhabited. I feel very comfortable, and very pointed being involved with Marrakech.
At the same time it’s a place for me to really deal with a lot of topics and ideas that I’ve been thinking about for many years now and hoping to investigate further through exhibition-making and working with contemporary artists.
I’ve a title for Marrakech, it’s “Not New Now,” although the concept is not fully forged and developed. It still requires a lot of work to sort of engage with the artists that I have known and I am continuing to research and wanting to add to that roster… But I want to say that it is really tackling some of the troubles and topics that have really troubled me. I work in art not because it gives me solutions, but because it allows me to think further, be that top provoking feel that allows me to contemplate on the world around me. And I want to say that some of the things that have been big concerns of mine are issues about the idea of the new for me, it’s something that I want to look into and contemplate. In the legacy of the modern and in the legacy of the post modern, the new has not been fully criticized, has not been eradicated from our consumptive society. And I feel this is still an area that needs interrogating. Maybe by doing that, we will really start to question: “Where is art going?”

Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency and Campus in Camps, Refugees Reshape Their Camp, 2014.

Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency and Campus in Camps, Refugees Reshape Their Camp, 2014.

TC: Where is art going, Reem?
RF: I want to see what are the other vocabularies. I’m not saying that I’m going to be capable of renunciating the new, because I’m part of the system that is largely around me and I admit my defeat from the onset; but I’m just saying that I want to be defeated by the new, I want to defeat the new, and I want to look at it and really explore it.
There are two things for me at the state that really the new allows for… as well as… It allows me to look at constant time because I feel that we are constantly in contemporary moments, either the future or the past.
I’m really asking a question about what is now, when I really look at this period of the now and the role of artists and the interrogators and creative people out there, and the interlocutors, be they architects, urban planners, city developers. How are we looking at today? This is something that I think might allow me to look at all of these things. So, this is a little bit of a synopsis on where the direction of the title is going.
Another thing that I wanted to say is that I’m unabashedly making this an Afro-Asian axis for a Biennial. Of course my knowledge is not limited and I deal with many fantastic artists from all over the world. It’s not going to be exclusive, but the people who will visit Marrakech are going to see mainly artists from the Arab and the African world. This is something I cannot be ashamed of, it’s just who I am and it’s my knowledge base, and this is what I want to present.

TC: Is it possible for you to give us some names of artists that you are working with and that you consider representative of…
RF: I’m afraid that it’s a little bit too early because I’m still in a very early conversation with a lot of people. There are many people I had fantastic debates with both locally and elsewhere and I don’t know yet the level of commitment and so I don’t know if I can answer that question.

TC: Yes, but not only regarding the Marrakech Biennial, but perhaps there are some artists that you are working with or that you have been working with recently and that you consider very representative of what we are talking about, of the issues we are dealing with.
RF: Yeah, for sure, definitely. Another kind of important thing for me that I’ve been very much researching is this idea of use value in art and how much art could be of use for society. I can definitely say that this is something that I will hopefully explore within the Biennial and within all of these parameters. There are a couple of artists that I’ve long been associated with and I’ve worked with quite in depth.
For example, the collective Decolonizing Architecture, a group that I’ve been very much advocate of and at the same time a big supporter and a collaborator with them.
I find their practice to be invigorating and very important, essential to the expansion of what art is for society, how much the creative individual and the creative collective can insert and settle in society, and create useful frameworks that become part and parcel of how we live. I think that is a very important model for us to reexamine and think what art should be. So that’s one thing.
Another group is Superflex and it’s no wonder I am very much drawn to collectives because I think there is something to be said about the authorship that disappears and therefore becomes something more communal and societal and I find that to be also very refreshing. Superflex have done several very unique projects thinking about creative design, be it societal engagement design or urban planning design or even object design that really has a level of engagement that is also insertive and critical and very important for the societies they look at. And also very useful.
I like that use value that they are advocating for and I like that they are releasing the objects from its rudimentary disassociation to use in arts. I think that’s something they bring very forwardly and very importantly. I recently got to meet and know a young architect, his name is Khaled Malas and he’s worked on several very important architecture interventionist projects. For example he recently found out that there is this small initiative through workers in Syria that were trying to create an electrical mill through the use of recycled materials, and that they would be able to develop electricity for their local use, because of all the atrocities that are happening around them. He just stepped in as a facilitator for them, to think with them on the structure of these mills, and also how to make these mills happen for necessary institutions and places, and work as an advocate to facilitate these projects happening. And I find that to be the most fantastic thing art, artists or a creative personality can do. This is where we can become the most effective. So, these are examples.

TC: Yes. That’s great Reem. Would you like to add something? Perhaps, something that you would like to highlight or things that you have been going through recently.
RF: I can think of things that have been going on recently in my mind, there are so many hats on my head, so I just don’t know which one to discuss. Actually one thing that I want to say is that the social political framework is never removed from my curatorial way of being, or how I develop my ideas, the social contexts, the political contexts or the things that I constantly take into consideration when I move into any project or how I deal with their works.
Something that I’ve always been invested in doing is also institution building, because I am very much a realist and I’m not invested in the momentary exhibition. I am not invested in just things that are ephemeral. I hope to build in an arts environment that is about accumulation of immaterial history. All these efforts that build up to something… I am really trying and hoping that these are some of the efforts.
Even my involvement with the Marrakech Biennale at this time is hoping to restructure the Biennial and help the team there build a platform that is from a Maroccan kind of base; our founder was Vanessa Branson and she had taken this institution for ten years and really developed it to the point that she could. And with the recent patronage from the king it was really kind of handed over back to the society. I was invited within this opportunity to say: how do we create a framework for this city and for the development of this Biennial that is unique? Because it’s a place where it’s always public institutions that host this Biennial, so it’s very much part of the city and in the city itself. And how can the entire region own up to having a Biennial of this caliber for it? This region is an expansive region, it is the Mediterranean, it is Africa, it is the Middle East, it’s the Arab world, so there is a lot of to think about and help set up a model that hopefully would be a successful one for years to come.

TC: Ok, Reem. I think for the moment we have done a good job.
RF: Thank you.

TC: Thank you Reem.

Khaled Malas, Windmill. Photo: Yaseen al-Bushy.

Khaled Malas, Windmill. Photo: Yaseen al-Bushy.


English proof-reading by Fulvio Giglio