Omar Kholeif unveils his Sharjah Biennial plans after leaving MCA Chicago

'My dream is to see a major commission by James Turrell in the UAE,' says the Egyptian curator

Omar Kholeif pictured at the Sharjah Art Foundation 
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Omar Kholeif is a busy man. In May, in an adjunct programme for the Venice Biennale, he will stage an exhibition called “Time, Forward!” about the acceleration of time – and he might as well be talking about himself.

In the next few months, Kholeif, a Egyptian curator who grew up in Saudi and now resides in London, will curate the Focus section of Abu Dhabi Art; promote his two most recent books; oversee the 15 commissions for Time, Forward!, with the V-A-C Foundation; and co-curate the Sharjah Biennial, which has just announced its artists list and will run from March to June next year.

“It’s good,” he says. “It’s good to be busy. It’s good there’s so much happening in the UAE.”

That’s as laconic a statement as you’ll get from Kholeif, who speaks – true to form – at about double the pace of most, and seems to think that way too.

Kholeif’s abiding concerns are technology and art of the Middle East, and he has been active in promoting and untangling both of these since his earlier days as a curator at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London. While working there, he published a book on the then-dominant movement of post-internet art – or artists who were born after the internet was founded – and curated a year-long presentation of works of Arab modernism from the Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah.

Technology and a diversity of geographies also inform his Sharjah selection, titled Making New Time. Kholeif's section is part of a biennial also curated by the Vietnam-based Zoe Butt and the US-based Claire Tancons on the theme “Beyond the Echo Chamber”.

The artists Omar will work with for Sharjah's upcoming Biennial

“For me, it began with thinking of the news media and the idea that we’re spoon-fed a particular narrative that is then echoed and reaffirmed in specific social media feeds, which are algorithmically predetermined to spoon-feed us the knowledge that we want to see,” he explains. “Then I started to think about what it would be like to be in a space that had no connectivity and to meditate on the issues of our time without being subsumed by a broader media context. How do we demand our own images? How do we demand our own narrative? The way I see it is – through the voices of artists. Artists have the agency to critique things and do things in society that not everyone is able to do.”

Kholeif will be working with well-known contemporary artists in the study of technology, such as Ian Cheng and Lawrence Abu Hamdan, as well as artists from the 1960s and 70s whom he feels deserve more recognition, such as Huguette Caland, a Lebanese-Californian painter, Semiha Berksoy, an opera singer and outsider artist from Turkey who passed away in 2004, and the German painter Astrid Klein.

More on Lawrence Abu Hamdan:

“One of the opening things you’ll see in Bait Alserkal,” one of Sharjah Art Foundation’s exhibition spaces, “is a painting by Klein which says, ‘what are we fighting for?’. It’s a very abstract painting where the text is almost invisible. I wanted this exhibition to be a call for the audience to think through what artists have to say about our time and how they have they been thinking about these issues over time, from the 1960s and 70s to now.”

A work by Astrid Klein:

The details of Butt’s and Tancon’s presentations were also released yesterday. Butt, who is artistic director of the Factory Contemporary Arts Centre in Ho Chi Minh City – a place she leads amidst government censorship and budget woes; she is a woman you want on your side – is looking at tools as a means of accessing colonial, technological and religious histories, for example in the work of Carlos Garaicoa, Phan Thảo Nguyên, and the Philippine film director Kidlat Tahimik. Tancon’s presentation will draw on the emirate of Sharjah itself to investigate how locations are apprehended, in the work of Peter Friedl, Caline Aoun, and Wu Tsang.

A work by Caline Aoun:

The three curators came up with the concept together, Kholeif says, and their presentations will be spread out amidst the Sharjah Art Foundation’s major sites, interlacing with each other.

Before that, however, Kholeif will be in the UAE for Abu Dhabi Art in November, returning for his second year, where he again curates the Focus section of the fair. This year the invited galleries offer solo presentations of artists – such as, for example, the San Francisco-based Kayne Griffin Corcoran with a light installation by James Turrell, whose installation at NYUAD Art Gallery’s Ways of Seeing has become a visitor favourite.

“My dream is to see a major commission by Turrell in the UAE,” Kholeif says. “I think the UAE is desperate for a Turrell skyscape – it would resonate so well with the environment and the broader public.”

A work by James Turrell: 

Turrell’s manipulation of light links, for example, to the work of Thomas Ruff, who will be showing at Spruth Magers, from London, as well as, continues Kholeif, to the work of Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian at the Third Line, based in Dubai.

Other artist presentations, he continues, focus on the body, such as that by Mohammed Kazem, at Galerie Isabelle van den Eynde, and Mona Saudi, from Lawrie Shabibi, who had a retrospective at the Sharjah Art Museum earlier this year.

Huguette Caland will also feature in the Sharjah Biennial in a presentation by Beirut gallery Janine Rubeiz. Caland, whose father was the first Lebanese president, played a major role in the development of the Los Angeles art scene – “they used to call her Gertrude Stein of Los Angeles,” Kholeif says – who would congregate at our house while she worked, painting her walls and floors in fantastical shapes. “It’s my aspiration to use this platform to grow interest and to test out ways of presenting her work to a broader public,” he notes.

A work by Huguette Caland: 

Moving on from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

Kholeif stepped down from a high-profile position at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, earlier this year, where he was credited with bringing Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi on as a museum trustee – the two worked together during the Barjeel show at the Whitechapel – and helping to establish a fellowship for young curators from the Middle East and North African regions, endowed by the Barjeel Art Foundation. The inaugural fellow for the programme, which starts this year, is Bana Kattan, formerly a curator at the NYUAD Art Gallery in Abu Dhabi. At the MCA, Kholeif was working on a major exhibition about Middle East and South Asia, Many Tongues: Art, Language, and Revolution in the Middle East and South Asia, and the fate of that show is now unclear.

He has recently taken up a teaching position at the Ruskin, the art school at the University of Oxford, and is no doubt planning more exhibitions, introducing new work to old regions, and old work to new regions, and back again.


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