How Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s latest acquisitions help define its vision

Valerie Hillings, the curatorial manager of the Abu Dhabi project, talks about how the museum shows the symbiotic influence of different cultures on one another.

The latest acquisitions by Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, revealed during Abu Dhabi Art on Thursday, help to form a clearer picture of the museum’s vision.

It will be a site of “multiple narratives”, says Valerie Hillings, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s curator and manager of cultural affairs.

The collection is “around the 50-per cent mark” towards completion, says Hillings, with certain key areas still to be explored.

“We’ve been quietly working all along,” she adds. “There are moments when it seems like things are really picking up when, in fact, there’s been incredible activity behind the scenes.”

The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi team has already started imagining what the art works will look like in the space, working with computer renderings of designer Frank Gehry’s galleries to map out the different spaces within the museum – its main galleries, the “satellite” rooms that can house temporary installations, the studios and education spaces.

The timeline for the building and opening is still being determined, however.

“Certainly, breaking ground will be a key milestone,” Hillings says. “We look forward to the day when we get off to the races for the finish line.”

The collection starts in the 1960s, when the world became more connected and began to go through a series of profound social changes. The decade was also the beginning of Conceptualism, the movement that has influenced contemporary production more than any other.

By collecting art works under a “transcultural” perspective, the museum shows the symbiotic influence of different cultures on one another.

The acquisitions so far chart a line – for example, from the French-born, New York-based artist Marisol, who created a portrait of her friend Andy Warhol, to Warhol’s own image of Chairman Mao, which itself connects to the larger context of US engagement with China.

“Warhol makes this Mao in 1973, right after Nixon goes to China,” Hillings said. “It’s about politics – but for Warhol it’s also about fame. Mao was the most famous person in the world at that time.” Transculturality is also embedded within specific works.

The museum announced its acquisition of a 1989 Mappa by Alighiero e Boetti, one of a major series of works (dating from 1971 to 1994), in which the Italian arte povera artist had Afghan artisans weave maps of the world, charting throughout the series the political changes to the globe. The Guggenheim's Abu Dhabi collection will have a special focus on art of the Levant, Turkey and Iran – for which they are notably using the term West Asia rather than Middle East – as well as North Africa and South Asia.

“We were thinking about the profound history of this region in the world, and how interconnected it has been through time,” says Hillings.

“A lot of museums might pick an artist here or there but we want that story to be a key driver.”

The museum seeks to show the tributaries of influence. They have acquired major holdings of Emirati artist Hassan Sharif’s works – if there is a signature artist for the collection, he would be it – as well as works by artists taught by Sharif, who went on to establish their own practices, including Dubai-based Mohammed Kazem.

Pakistani-born artist Rasheed Araeen was important in advancing the discourse of postcolonialism in London. He founded the journal Third Text and curated a number of groundbreaking exhibitions and also features prominently in the collection, for example, with the newly acquired Chakras (1969 –70/87).

An exciting part of the museum's vision is how it plans to weave together different moments around the globe through often unexpected combinations. The Japanese Gutai artist's Atsuka Tanaka's 1960 representation of a dress made of lights connects formally to 2010's light-filled Doubles and Couples (Version Berlin) by Haegue Yang, a Korean-born, Berlin-based artist who often addresses cultural displacement.

Hillings is particularly proud of the purchase of Kader Attia's monumental Act 2: Politics. The Repair's Cosmogony (Die Weltentstehungslehre der Reparatur, 2013).

For the installation, the artist, who was born in France of Algerian origin, “made very African-looking sculptures out of marble and more-ostensibly western ones out of wood. He’s reversing the terms of representation”, says Hillings.

The work, she continues, “toggles between real histories of colonialism, histories of representation, and the idea that we all borrow from each other. As long as we acknowledge it, we celebrate the notion that there’s a way to fix history, to repair it”.

Which could serve as the perfect sentiment for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project as a whole.

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