In the arid mountain terrain of the Sinai Peninsula after living with Bedouin shepherds and their herd for months, Amal Khalaf abruptly turned her back on her dream job at the age of 22.
Khalaf, as an integral member of a small television team recording the annual migration of a Tarabin tribal family, was no longer stuck in an office in London doing research but directly involved in the story as it was constructed in the desert.
The talents of her fellow documentary makers aside, however, she was growing increasingly uneasy. There was a feeling of distance and of extracting too much from people who “had themselves never seen a television set nor a camera”.
Her response was to run a photographic workshop with the Bedouin, teaching them to turn their imaginations into art and express themselves – "but," Khalaf tells The National, "in their own hands rather than in the hands of, say, a foreign film crew".
“I realised that the process of making images with them was so powerful, and that this is what I wanted to do,” she says. “I didn't want to make these distant, dubbed-over kind of films about someone else's story.”
The experience has profoundly affected everything that Khalaf has done since. These days, as an artist and Civic Curator of Serpentine in London, she concentrates on giving a voice to the subjects instead of shaping their narratives.
Dominating her practice has been the decade-long Edgware Road Project, commissioned in 2009. It brought together artists and curators to explore the history of the thoroughfare that since the 1970s has been at the heart of London’s Arab and Kurdish population but dates back to Roman times.
Local residents and businesses, such as hair salons and eateries, were deeply engaged in producing the resulting recorded interviews, performances, photographs, paintings and film.
“My ‘office’ at that time was in the cafes and restaurants there,” Khalaf recalls, “which are owned by people speaking different languages from different countries, and realising that these places had become community centres and embassies, and job centres.
“They were the places where everything was solved. I spent a decade watching that street change. But the thing that always remains is the characters.”
The project was a “deep dive”, looking into the past through various buildings, but particularly Shishawi, the biggest shisha restaurant on the Edgware Road. It opened as a newsreel theatre in 1938, then operated as the Gala Royal showing radical films before briefly becoming an Arabic cinema. In one guise, as a nightclub, the Lebanese singer and actress Sabah performed there, and the former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat visited.
“So, in this one building is this incredible history and layers of migrant histories, a tracing of Arab history in London, and, by default, the Arab world because iconic events in London would drastically impact life back in the region,” she says.
By focusing on the effects of migrant communities on the city and vice-versa, Khalaf was harking back to her own roots as the progeny of a Singaporean mother and Bahraini father. She describes how her background gave rise to a perception of being different, what she calls “othering”, and kindled an interest in telling stories with a social urgency or an issue as a backdrop.
Khalaf’s mother, an architect, was researching courtyard houses when she wrote to a magazine asking for some information. A mechanical engineer replied. The two, each in their tiny island states separated by more than 6,000 kilometres, became pen pals for seven years before meeting and marrying.
She speaks of her mother with deep pride, saying that she was the first Singaporean to move to Bahrain. There, Khalaf says, she became an unofficial ambassador for the many compatriots who followed. “She’d feed everyone,” she says, laughing. “She now speaks Arabic and is very settled.”
The young Amal, though, witnessed racism in Bahrain, where most domestic workers are from Asia, and unforgettably suffered prejudice first-hand herself when growing up.
“A few of my uncles are academics who were involved in politics and a leftist history of the Gulf, and so were really interested in telling stories about social justice,” she says. “Since a really young age, I was involved in different kinds of migrant worker support groups with my mum.
“As a teenager, I got involved with finding shelter homes and connecting with embassies to find places and beds for domestic workers who had run away or were escaping violence and danger. I’m very much involved in migrant unions, such as the Voices of Domestic Workers, and thinking about them in my work in London.”
She had wanted to study art but, dissuaded by her parents who advocated the need for a well-paid job, left her British school in Bahrain with the intention of “becoming Christiane Amanpour”.
Khalaf studied communications at the University of Leeds in northern England, edited Iraq war footage at the BBC in London, and worked in Egypt as a researcher. Her time in Sinai, though, ended the idea of following in the footsteps of her British-Iranian journalistic idol.
Once she had quit the world of news and television, she never looked back. As well as being the Civic Curator at the Serpentine, she is also its union representative. She is involved in a large project called Radio Ballads based in the east London borough of Barking and Dagenham where four artists are embedded in social care services. She also teaches at Camberwell School of Art and Goldsmiths, and is a facilitator for Theatre of the Oppressed.
Along the way, Khalaf was one of nine founding members of the GCC, a contemporary Arab art collective born in 2013 in the VIP lounge of Art Dubai, and whose name is humorously based on the pan-Gulf government body, the Gulf Co-operation Council.
At Cubitt, London’s oldest artist-run co-operative, she was appointed the first director of programmes in 2019. She leads a diverse team of eight – a big change from the white male-dominated scene of the 1990s when Cubitt began in pre-renovation King’s Cross – and hopes gradually to introduce programming that reflects its changing demographic.
“I’ve experienced ‘othering’ my whole career in London so at Cubitt I started to reimagine a place that I would want to work in,” she says. “There has been a process of learnings that are happening. We’ve set up a committee of non-white artists, trustees and staff. The artists have decision-making power at Cubitt as well, which is one of the exciting things for me. I’m very much into flat hierarchies.”
For Cubitt’s 30th anniversary celebrations this year, Khalaf will look to the past by involving core artists who have come through over the years, such as British Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili and the renowned figurative painter Peter Doig, as well as running campaigns and fundraising drives.
The intention is also to create space for imagining new futures. The age of Covid, she says, has given rise to many questions.
“We’re also looking at what is the role of an arts institution after a pandemic? What's the social function of an arts institution? What is the role of artists today? What are the possibilities to rewrite our relationship to the city?”
The decision-making over what and who to prioritise does make her a little nervous, Khalaf concedes. The pandemic has been tough on the arts and as she talks about reimagining the recovery, she raises the sore point of a poll conducted by the Straits Times newspaper in Singapore last year that listed the top 10 non-essential jobs.
“Artists were number one,” she says, in not entirely mock outrage. “Everyone was sharing that with me and it was circulating in the art world ‘like I am non-essential’. Of course, my family were saying ‘hee hee!’”
Khalaf does not want the creative industries to go back to normal once restrictions fully lift, but instead make a massive shift in which all those working within the sector are taken care of – not only museum staff but the art producers and unpaid workers.
The protracted crisis has renewed the love for what she does and deepened her understanding that as a curator what she is caring for goes beyond artwork or objects. “It’s really the people and that’s always been how I’ve worked,” she says. “I feel like that’s something that everybody’s talking about now. The language of care is very prevalent.”
Another silver lining of the coronavirus, Khalaf says, is the recognition of how unequally global events such as pandemics and climate change affect people in various countries. She refers to it as "the different pace of trauma".
“It's a huge discussion in the arts right now to talk about ecology and the Anthropocene ... I experienced the apocalypse as a kid in 1991, when the sea turned to oil because of what was happening in Kuwait,” Khalaf says. “I remember that so clearly.
“With Covid there’s been this collective trauma, which is experienced disproportionately in different parts of the world. I feel, in fact, that working together has become more possible in the mainstream between different locations than ever before.”
For Khalaf, of course, connections between disparate places have long been part of life. Many of her working collaborations, such as those for the GCC, are conducted across multiple time zones and group chat platforms with only the occasional “summit”.
Personally, too, she began a long-distance relationship with the man who would become her husband, Joe Namy, a Lebanese-American artist, after they met at the Sharjah Art Biennial. The couple spent their pre-pandemic time shuttling between Beirut, the US city of Detroit where Namy’s family lives, Bahrain and London.
Perhaps inevitably, though, it is the seven-year epistolary love story of her parents that has informed Khalaf’s views on what can be achieved with the necessary will.
“I believe that anything’s possible,” she says. “That is something I inherited from my parents. I think it wasn't the letters. It was this idea that you could do something or make something so impactful happen against all odds, and against all geographies.
“I just grew up with that. I don't accept no for an answer in many things. The idea that you cannot have connections between places is something that I couldn't even entertain. Borders or geographies are not an issue.”
And, with that, she’s already dialling into another Zoom call halfway across the world.