Think global, ‘art’ local: Curators discuss contemporary curatorial practice – conference

In an increasingly globalised world that still marginalises large groups of people, what is the role of art and its institutions?  

Eminent curators grapple with difficult questions in the radio show “Urgency and Relevance: A Curatorial Perspective”, aired on Clocktower Productions on 5 May 2014 as part of the series “Dialogues in Asian Contemporary Art”.

Imran Qureshi, 'Opening word of this new scripture', 2013, gouache and gold leaf on wasli paper, 27 cm X 22 cm. Image courtesy the artist and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Imran Qureshi, ‘Opening word of this new scripture’, 2013, gouache and gold leaf on wasli paper, 27 x 22 cm. Image courtesy the artist and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Recorded on 11 March 2014, the show documents an important conference jointly held by the Guggenheim Museum and Asian Contemporary Art Week (ACAW), a prelude to the ninth edition of ACAW to be held in New York City in October 2014. The panel featured distinguished curators whose practices extend from China to Australia, Abu Dhabi, Afghanistan, Pakistan and more. The panellists were:

Watch a video of the panel discussion at the Guggenheim Museum on

An insider’s view of globalisation 

As moderator Alexandra Munroe, Samsung Senior Curator of Asian Art at the Guggenheim Museum, says in her introductory speech, the conference aimed not to deliver final thoughts but to open up new questions: to allow curators working at the edge of contemporary curatorial practice to share their personal experiences, doubts and reflections. Opening the discussion, Munroe asks:

How do we instil and inspire our institutions to think globally? […] How can we work through the traditional curatorial platforms and how can we create new ones? […] We hope to illuminate the terms of an emerging curatorial practice and discourse. We don’t know what to call it, we don’t want to name it yet: transnational or global art curating… I think most of us […] recoil at that nomenclature, but we’re working at the edges of that, if not the middle of that.

Bringing light to darkness: What is “Asian”? 

Leeza Ahmady, the first speaker on the panel, observes that globalisation and technology have enabled artists to travel more since the 1960s, thereby transforming global art-making processes, theory, criticism and ultimately art history. Furthermore, the rise of transnational art centres play a crucial role in bringing to the surface art from areas of the world that were once considered remote.

In particular, Ahmady sees her role as Director of ACAW as one that continuously links to larger dialogues “the very complex geographical and conceptual space called Asia.” According to Ahmady:

The term ‘Asian’, precisely because it is problematic […] serves as a reminder for me to continue problematising categorical representations of artists, countries, people and ideas while tying them together into broader conversations. It has meant enrolling non-Asia focused institutions to join the consortium and inviting artists from many of the continent’s less visible regions such as Southeast and Central Asia to participate; not to mention expanding and including regions that are not traditionally considered ‘Asia’ in the United States, such as the Middle East.

Ultimately, Ahmady argues for a shift away from the categorical summation of countries, regions, movements and artist collectives to “simply the study of individual artists, active in different parts of the world, at different points in time, in light of their own significance.” She cites Uzbek artist Vyacheslav Akhunov, the subject of her dOCUMENTA(13) “100 Thoughts – 100 Notes” notebook contribution, as an artist that merits such attention.

Look globally, act locally

Ahmady is quick to assert, however, that ACAW’s mission goes beyond creating critical awareness about Asia within the international sphere; it aims to introduce Asia to itself. “Let us recall an Asian continental philosophy,” she says, “change begins with self-knowledge.”

Thomas Berghuis continues this train of thought when he cites his three-year project Edge of Elsewhere (2010-2012), co-hosted by the Campbelltown Arts Centre and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Australia:

I presented this idea as that one lives in Sydney, stands on the coast of Australia and is looking outwards to the world, outwards to the ocean, but where one actually needs to turn around and reflect on the international context within Australia, as well as the deepening of history through aboriginal culture.

One of the twelve artists involved in the project is Richard Bell, an Australian aboriginal artist and activist whose work constantly asks what it means to be or become Australian and emphasises the negation of aboriginal histories in Australia.

Richard Bell, screen shot of 'Scratch an Aussie', 2008. Image courtesy China Art Projects.

Richard Bell, screen shot of ‘Scratch an Aussie’, 2008. Image courtesy China Art Projects.

Another artist in Edge of Elsewhere is Wang Jianwei, a Chinese artist whose work features the rise and fall of ideology, nationalism, capitalism and industrialisation in China. His work Hostage (2008), for example, reveals the multiplicities, complexities and politics concealed behind the boisterous façade of the 2008 Olympics.

Berghuis says that the coming together of the two artists is an example of curating difference that results in a togetherness. “We should […] think globally but we should act locally,” Berghuis says. “We should link regionally as well [in order to] curate with the trauma of history in mind.”

Playback: Curating as a catalyst for change

Melissa Chiu, focusing her presentation on Pakistan, moves the discussion towards the urgency and relevance of art in areas of conflict and turbulence, whilst staying with the idea of acting and curating locally. She cites two exhibitions, one contemporary and one historical: “Hanging Fire” (2010) curated by Salima Hashmi and featuring work by Imran Qureshi among others, and “The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara” (2011), which investigated artistic production in Pakistan from the first century BCE through to the fifth century CE. As Chiu notes,

“Hanging Fire” took place right when President Obama declared Pakistan the most dangerous place in the world. The “Gandhara” exhibition took place right after Osama Bin Laden was assassinated in Pakistan. So the planning and the lead up to the exhibition was marred by a lot of fits and starts to the extent that the show was in fact delayed for many months […] and many people said to us that the show could never happen.

The show did happen, due to the persistence and support from many people in Pakistan, and Chiu emphasises the importance of what she calls ‘playback’: curating, as a practice, on the one hand catalyses change in the regions which are being represented, and on the other hand benefits precisely because people in such regions have a stake in what is being shown to the world.

Imran Qureshi, 'Self-portrait', 2009, gouache and gold leaf on wasli paper, 27 x 34.5 cm. Image courtesy the artist, Corvi Mora, London and the Ali and Amna Naqvi Collection, Hong Kong.

Imran Qureshi, ‘Self-portrait’, 2009, gouache and gold leaf on wasli paper, 27 x 34.5 cm. Image courtesy the artist, Corvi Mora, London and the Ali and Amna Naqvi Collection, Hong Kong.

Urgency and relevance: Curatorial responsibility

Reem Fadda concludes the presentations with an impassioned self-interrogation on the role of a museum in turbulent places and uncertain times. As a Palestinian who lived most of her adult life in the occupied territories, Fadda says:

Urgency and relevance means a very different thing for a curator that works in the arts that deal with military occupation on a daily basis […] I asked myself, very heavily and multiple times: what would be the set of politics that I want to address in the building of a museum that is the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi […] located in the Middle East, where histories have long been interrupted due to wars and dictatorships and colonisation, where a general narration of history has never been told in a full sequence?

Fadda’s sense of responsibility as a curator is evidenced by her dismissal of “fast-food curating” and her insistence on research “deep into the histories of spaces and political places” in order to truly show their complexities. Rather than organising superficial regional shows based solely on geography, she speaks of a curating practice involving long-term relationships with various UAE artists such as Hassan Sharif, Mohammed Kazem, Mohammed Ahmad Ibrahim and Layla Juma, among others. Such extended collaboration processes are able to unpack, connect and re-tell forgotten stories and histories.

Hassan Sharif, 'Cow Belly' 2010, Steel, copper and aluminium, 160 x 385 x 100 cm, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art Collection. Image courtesy of Singapore Art Museum

Hassan Sharif, ‘Cow Belly’, 2010, steel, copper and aluminium, 160 x 385 x 100 cm, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art Collection. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

A transnational ethics of art 

Fadda’s conscientious methods feed back to Alexandra Munroe’s plea in her introductory speech: a plea to think about the ethics of working transnationally, especially in contexts where urgency is not a luxury but a reality. The desire to rethink and go in-depth into the local also echoes Pablo León de la Barra’s thoughts. He spoke of localised curating methods which are

against the idea of the international curator, landing, bringing artists from outside, […] importing things… [but instead] really trying to work with the ideas of what could be done with the place.

The ensuing panel discussion further explores and interrogates such a transnational ethics of localisation, as well as the unique role of art in fighting and educating perceptions and transforming historical narratives.

Michele Chan


Related Topics: lectures and talks, conferences, curatorial practice, Afghani art, Australian art, Chinese art, Emirati (UAE) art, Pakistani art, Palestinian art

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