Interview with Omar Kholeif, curator of Armory Focus: Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean

We talked with Omar Kholeif, curator of this year’s Armory Focus: MENAM, a section dedicated to the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean inside The 2015 Armory Show art fair in New York City.

Omar Kholeif, 2015 Armory Show

Omar Kholeif, curator of Armory Focus: Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean (Focus: MENAM)
Photo © Matilde Soligno

 

DROSTE EFFECT: At The 2015 Armory Show press conference earlier you mentioned how at the beginning of your practice you didn’t usually work with commercial galleries. How did this transition to the world of The Armory Show [view photo gallery] happen?

OMAR KHOLEIF: I have never, ever got involved in the commercial side of the fair. The idea was that I would work just following the curatorial project. However it has been interesting, because instead of just talking to the artists I also had to talk to the dealers about their inventory, what material they have, what they could bring to the fair, what it would be possible to physically ship to the United States. There are so many intense processes – like if you have to bring a work of art from Cairo, Egypt to the US, it needs the stamp of the Egyptian Minister of Culture. So, being part of this fair as a curator added on me this layer of pressure and stress which was for me quite unusual, because most of the work that I do is inside museums, and the works of art I use to select are already present in museums collections… so it’s easier. I worked also at the Whitechapel Gallery, and there I was able to easily borrow lots of works. It’s a very different kind of strategy. So this one is a really a new experience for me but also one of the most interesting ones I’ve ever done. It actually opened my eyes to the kind of work these people would do. These works are not just about being sold, there are works that are really edifying for the audience, and they could open new possibilities around art and culture so… For me that was the main difference: this other layer of information, I suppose. And also the context of a fair. Usually a museum has a permanent collection and then few temporary shows and that’s it. Instead here you have few days and an enormous quantity of exhibitors, all in the same big space. The time is also different and the fact that there are so many people at one time, all together. A different pressure but at the same time a different kind of buzzing energy. It was definitely a wonderful experience for me.

 

Panos Tsagaris, Kalfayan Galleries, 2015 Armory Show

Panos Tsagaris, Kalfayan Galleries, Focus: MENAM
Photo © Matilde Soligno

 

DE: How did you manage to choose the fifteen galleries that are included in the MENAM section? What was the process of your personal selection?

OK: I started by choosing the key artists I know I would love to exhibit here in this fair context. I always start by picking the artists first. Actually I always start from a particular work of art by one artist, and it’s about thinking of all the significance it could have: the cultural significance, the historical significance… and also about boundaries like, mostly, the conceptual ones. I tried to work out from there. Then with the galleries we thought and we worked on the best presentation that we could give in a tiny space such as the one of the booths here. Basically we tried to figure out the best possible ways to do all of these things, involving the artists in the whole process. Other artists sometimes emerge, new works I’ve never known about… this is kind of what I developed here.

 

Mona Hatoum, Alexander and Bonin, 2015 Armory Show

Mona Hatoum, Alexander and Bonin, Focus: MENAM
Photo © Matilde Soligno

 

DE: Was Gypsum Gallery (from Cairo, Egypt) an exception in this process? You were mentioning you’re bound to that territory by your origins. [Kholeif was born in Cairo city and moved to the US with his parents at the age of 2.]

OK: Actually no, because they represent some of my personal favorite artists, so I started from the artists in that case, too. But I also think it’s worth shouting about that story. [In Egypt galleries struggle to survive and get visibility beacuse of the lack of public and private institutions to link together and promote cultural instances in the territory.]

Armory Focus: Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean [Focus: MENAM], curated by Omar Kholeif for The 2015 The Armory Show, New York, 5-8 March, 2015.

 

Ahmed Mater, Athr Gallery, 2015 Armory Show

Ahmed Mater, Athr Gallery, Focus: MENAM
Photo © Matilde Soligno

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Galeri NON, 2015 Armory Show

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Galeri NON, Focus: MENAM
Photo © Matilde Soligno

Hrair Sarkissian, Kalfayan Galleries, 2015 Armory Show

Hrair Sarkissian, Kalfayan Galleries, Focus: MENAM
Photo © Matilde Soligno

Discussion 2 commenti

  1. March 7, 2015 at 2:24 pm

    […] EFFECT: What do you think about the 2015 Armory Focus on MENAM? We know that you are interested in this topic, since last year the New Museum hosted an exhibition […]

  2. March 8, 2015 at 2:35 pm

    […] 2015 Armory Show features Armory Focus: Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean (Focus: MENAM), a section curated by Omar Kholeif (curator at the Whitechapel Gallery in London) that examines […]

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