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An Interview with Omar Kholeif


Although the program only mentioned that Omar Kholeif’s talk would be about the Gazawood project, it quickly became clear that Kholeif had bigger plans. In a dazzling lecture, he gave an immensely thorough criticism of the current practice in the art world to select that artwork of Arabic artists based on nothing more than geography. He went on to criticize several group exhibitions that focussed on Arabic artists for “emotional curating” and being more concerned with finding artworks to fit a certain political narrative than actually trying to figure out what the artists themselves tried to do. Kholeif went on to present several contemporary Arabian artists who try to present an alternative to this narrative, such as the Gazawood films of Tarzan and Arab, and Larissa Sansour’s science fiction art.

Impakt: As you said in the panel, many of the artist that you champion offer an alternative to the current narrative. Do you think that because the narrative between the “East” and the “West” is now so focused on conflict, it will take until that conflict settles down before these new narratives take root?

That’s a difficult question, because the narrative of conflict will never really disappear. The region is in perpetual conflict, perpetual change, and the entire world is run by international relation strategies. So, to try and craft a space, or even a taxonomy where you can start talking about art outside of the narrative of conflict is incredibly difficult and unlikely. Conflict is not going to end in those spaces. So the thing is to not think of alternative views or binaries of East and West but just curate, create, produce and consider works of art on their merits of work. It’s important to think about them conceptually, theoretically, and formally in terms of the aesthetics that they choose to use. How they’re interesting in relation to a broader conception of visual art, without necessarily being tied to an “Arab” or “Middle-Eastern” sense of identity.

Impakt: At the Hivos Free Internet Panel yesterday, someone from the Syrian rebellion talked about an understanding between the rebels to keep their slip-ups and information that could be damaging to their cause from the international press, which in a way created a sort of counter-propaganda. Do you think that when people themselves are making use of these typical narratives, they become a part of the world that these artist draw inspiration from?

Yes, absolutely. I think the good things is that they disrupt the flow of that narrative, complicate it, and raise more questions. Wafaa Bilal, of the Virtual Jihadi piece, was actually using that grand narrative of conflict, and used an American-made video game to intervene with it. The furor around that created a discussion about those binaries of the Other, about whether he was an American or not an American, and about what rights he had to speak within that shared language. In a sense, the actual issue is that no-one wants these people to speak within the same vernacular, or be part of the same history as everyone else. Whether it’s the Western art historical history, the Western political history, or the Western nationalistic history, they want them to exist outside of that, on the periphery. They have to exist within these very particular aesthetic waves. You get these pieces like the Islamic rug that’s made out of metal. There’s an expectation that they should conform to a particular thing.

But you’re right that when artists start to use this same language as their peers they then become part of the grand narrative. Those works that I was showing, as much as they subvert and disrupt the conventional flow, are also a part of it. So it’s a really complex thing. I don’t have the answers, but I was just giving a range of problematics and case studies and trying to say: “this is where we’re at now”. And I certainly don’t think we’re at a part where we can say that there’s a new centre that isn’t defined by a binary or a retaliation against the West. I don’t think we’re there yet. But I’m not sure how we are going to get there, exactly.

Impakt: Do you think there are others ways than fine art to disrupt these narrative flows?

The thing is to just make really amazing work that is conceptually, theoretically and aesthetically strong enough to sit alongside any other exhibition, whether it be at the Tate or the Moma, without being put in because it’s tokenistically Arab, or representing a certain chapter of history. That’s when an artists’ work is rigorous enough and when the curators are able to see the work in a much broader sense. That is the strategy to success, and what these artists are aiming towards. Every artist who works locally, whether it be in Egypt or Tunisia or in Lebanon, doesn’t want to be in an exhibition because they represent that part of the world. They want to be there because they want to be considered great artists, who are worthy to be in that show. The real success is to be put in group shows, alongside artists from very different contextst and conditions.