As an extension of the North West Visual Arts Open 2012 in Manchester, we feature a special interview discussing the current exhibition ‘Subversion’ at Cornerhouse as part of the Manchester Salon Weekend programme. Curator at FACT in Liverpool, Omar Kholeif gives a behind-the-scenes overview into the curatorial process behind ‘Subversion’.
Corridor8: One of the curatorial aspects I found most engaging in this show is that you draw out conceptual and aesthetic connections between the works, rather than simply portraying a coherence of ethnicity and geography in the exploration of contemporary Arab identity. Is this an important reading for the audience?
Omar Kholeif: It’s the most important point I was trying to make in fact. I am not interested in exhibitions that merely portray or re-present artists because they boast a certain ethnic identity or because they hail from a particular geography that cultural practitioners or the media think is vogue. Having said that, I was very much aware that the majority of art in the UK (arguably in all of Europe and indeed in much of North America) has focused on presenting artists from the region that we refer to as the ‘Arab World’ within a particular curatorial framework. That is, to present their work in a context that is often fetishistic. Aware that I was operating within this hierarchical system, I wanted to work with artists who poked fun of this curatorial essentialism. As such, the works are bound by a shared interested in re-authoring personal narratives, using mass popular cultural forms, in order to espouse new forms of critique.
C8: I enjoyed that Subversion features cinema spaces within the gallery for viewing many of the film works, one with old cinema seats and one with airplane seats. What prompted these decisions?
OK: My curatorial practice is focused mainly on the presentation of film and video in the gallery. However, of course, many curators who aren’t versed in the nuances of this practice often mount what I believe can be very didactic, even boring exhibitions. One need only think of the numerous exhibitions that find video works placed on 12 inch CRT monitors with headphones for example, with little imagination. Having said that, for me, I wanted to create environments that brought the videos to life, and I worked with each artist to achieve this. I wanted to create environments, whereby the audience would become complicit within the action of the video work. So for example, when we sit back in the aeroplane seats of Sherif El-Azma’s Television Pilot for An Egyptian Air Hostess Soap Opera (2003), the viewer is intended to be teleported on the aerodynamic journey that the protagonists undergo within El-Azma’s narrative. Likewise, in Marwa Arsanios’ I’ve Heard Stories, Part I (2008) – we project the artist’s work onto a drawing table with archival materials, which directly references both the hand drawn animation and the archival qualities of this particular work, for example.
C8: Humour is an apparent quality of the exhibition. How do you consider the role of humour when dealing with subversion?
OK: This is a complex question and one too detailed to answer fully here. I believe that humour, parody and pastiche are some of the most interesting ways to espouse a form of critical and cultural subversion. One of the examples that most inspires me is that of the late Egyptian cinema comedian, Ismail Yassin, who’s political comedies, often directed by Fatin Abd El Waheb, espoused critiques of the socio-political regime, whilst still appealing to mass/popular audience. Still, it’s worth pointing out – that for me, Subversion – in and of itself is an act of irony; it’s a cultural notion that is continually amorphous in its identity.
C8: And finally, are there any continuations or sequels in the pipeline or is it much more a conclusion of a journey for you?
OK: Of course! There won’t be a Subversion part II by any means, but there will be a publication called Art and Subversion, which I hope will be ready in the next 12 months, as well as a range of collaborations with the artists in the show, which are presently ongoing. I have also been doing a fair bit of writing and speaking on many of topics throughout, and the themes herein are all but a spark for my future work. As a curator, I am interested in continually finding new means to develop creative, inventive and inspiring platforms for artists and audiences. Subversion is one step in that direction.
‘Subversion’ will be on view at Cornerhouse in Manchester until 5th June 2012.
Interview by Alice Bradshaw.
Photography courtesy of Cornerhouse.