Guggenheim’s exhibition featuring regional artworks under way in New York

Sara Raza, curator of Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, says museums worldwide should look towards the Middle East to stay relevant.

Sara Raza, the curator of Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative. Antonie  Robertson / The National

Architecture, science, geometry and truth are the inspiration for But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa, an exhibition of newly acquired works by 20 artists from the Middle East and North Africa.

On show at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, it is the third show as part of the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, and was put together by its Middle East and North Africa curator, Sara Raza.

Appointed last January, Raza spent the first seven months of her new post researching and identifying works that could become part of the Guggenheim’s permanent collection.

“I had a thematic that I proposed earlier on, a non-linear way of looking at the region, and I wasn’t interested in looking at it country by country,” she says. We caught up with Raza to learn more about the show, which travels to Istanbul’s Pera Museum next year.

How did you arrive at the show’s concept?

A lot of my projects have a scientific theme to them. I had an interest in science growing up and it is very rooted in Iran and Central Asia because we rely so heavily on science in our culture. Many of these ideas come from this part of the world, but I haven’t produced this exhibition as a nostalgic endeavour. I’m aware of the history, but I didn’t want to do this in a didactic way. The main theme was looking at geometry and origin. So I looked at the idea of geometry and disputed origins, all a complex jigsaw puzzle – some parts are jagged, others are smooth – and somehow it comes together. I also looked at other themes such as migration, not just a movement of people but of ideas; the ideologies of architecture and conceptual contraband, not the idea of smuggling in its literal sense, but trying to bring value into something that has a hidden meaning.

How did you go about identifying and acquiring works?

The Guggenheim collection’s ethos is that it is rooted in art of our time and art of abstraction, so I looked at contemporary art. I had a responsibility that the best way forward was to produce an intellectual argument. I was looking at the idea of truth and geometry as a form of logic – a form of truth.

It is a big responsibility to steer a collection according to a theme.

There wasn’t any scholarship devoted to the region in the main New York collection; while there were key artists, they were outweighed by their Euro-­American counterparts. These are artworks that will remain in the permanent collection forever, so future generation curators are going to work with these objects and that’s the beauty of this project – that they will transcend their geographic focus. If museums want to be relevant in the 21st century, they have to look beyond the borders of North America and Europe.

What did your thinking focus on?

My exhibition is driven by objects and ideas – it is not driven by territory. I have included the diaspora, so it is also about the places that have been identified with it. Each artwork has multiple readings in a number of contexts. I present a flying carpet in the exhibition about the Middle East through Nadia Kaabi-Linke’s work – it is not a flying carpet – but an open-air prison. There were strategies employed in here that subvert the obvious with the uncanny.

Art of our times often takes its cue from the past and, certainly, regional artists refer to the past.

Of course. I looked at modernity in the making of the modern Middle East, so architecture was a key theme in the formation of that. I haven’t cut the past off here. I looked to artists who haven’t severed their ties from the past but are still contemporary. There’s a lot of zigzagging between histories.

The title is so apt and contemporarily reflective.

Yes, it is very much with the times and taken from Rokni Haerizadeh’s work of the same name. There’s another layer, however. I want to remind people that what’s happening in Syria and the world happened very recently. History is being repeated and this title refers to the writings of German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who took his own life during the atrocities of the Second World War when he tried to escape Nazi occupation of France and was denied entry to neutral Portugal.

But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa runs until October 5 at Guggenheim Museum, New York. For more information, visit