On May 5, Wassan Al-Khudhairi began her role as the Birmingham Museum of Art’s Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. In the last seven years, her career has taken her from a curatorial position at the Brooklyn Museum to serving as the head of the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar, to guest curating a biennial exhibition in Gwangju, South Korea. Al-Khudhairi sat down with Weld to discuss how those experiences will inform her work at the BMA.
Weld: There are some similarities in the assumptions that people make about the South and the assumptions people make about the Middle East. What was it like curating modern art in Doha?
Wassan Al-Khudairi: From a really big picture, I think that what I’m interested in, in my curatorial practice, is being able to engage with art and audiences in a way that feels meaningful. And maybe that’s a little self-serving, but I find that in places like Birmingham and Doha, which aren’t quite the central cities…cities that are sort of on the periphery, there’s a lot of leeway to experiment and try new things, because there’s not the same level of pressure as the big city. It’s a little more forgiving.
In Doha, we used to say, ‘We’re punching above our weight.’ The place had its own reputation as a whole, but we tried to create the museum as a place that challenged all those thoughts that people had about Middle Eastern art, with the hope being that we could open up a dialogue.
Weld: An interview you had with NPR in 2010 led into your segment by mentioning that you were tired of talking about how “controversial” your work in Doha seemed to be.
WAK: All the press wanted to talk about censorship…and it was such a boring way to talk about it. Talk about the fact that this is one of the only collections of its kind in the world. Talk about the fact that this is a modern, contemporary museum in this country. Don’t talk about censorship, because it wasn’t a problem. But people wanted to make that the story. People also wanted to talk about royalty and money, and then censorship. And it kind of got old. I wanted to say, ‘Can we talk about the real stuff? Can we talk about the meat of what we’re doing?’
Weld: So how did working in Doha and Gwangju compare?
WAK: Gwangju is a small place. It’s not Seoul. They’ve had a biennial since 1997, and it’s strange, because biennials kind of orbit the community, and then outward. The community doesn’t really, I think, feel like they’re a part of it. … That’s a challenge of the format: what is the locals’ role in the biennial? [That, and only living in Gwanju for a short time,] made it hard, because you want that to be a part of your curatorial thinking.
For me, I took a lot of cues talking to people in the community, where people felt that the previous biennial was inaccessible to them. One of the things I did was use my budget to commission new work that felt more responsive, and to commission participatory work. There was a sculpture that you could write on, there was a collective who made a piece where you could remove elements of it…there were physical ways to engage with the work.
At the museum, it was totally different. We were building an institution that was anchored into a community. Before we opened, a lot of our work was figuring out how we were going to make it so that people felt like they had ownership of the shows. It’s a very hard thing to do. We did a lot of focus groups and panel discussions on what the museum meant to them and how they felt it could serve them, and we developed ambassadors for the museum.
It was always a priority, in everything we did, to think about the public. It was about finding a balance of being rooted locally…and understanding where your feet are, but then interpreting the world through where you are. So yeah, I want to recruit artists from all these different places around the world and I want to get them engaged with Birmingham, but through the lens of being in Birmingham.
A show I carried in Doha was from a Chinese artist named Cai Guo-Qiang. … He’s in the Guggenheim and lots of other institutions, and when I talked with him, I told him that I didn’t want him to do a show where you could look around and be anywhere – New York, L.A., Berlin, Paris. I wanted him to do a show that felt like it was here, and engaging its immediate situation. And so he did; he created a series of works that really reflected the context of Doha, and it was his work still. He used it as an opportunity to challenge what he thinks about…his hometown in China was the starting point of the maritime Silk Road, and historically that route came into the Gulf – maybe not specifically Qatar, but that part of the world.
People were saying, ‘Why bring in a Chinese artist? How is he relevant to an Arab museum of modern art?’ And I used to say, ‘We’re not a museum of Arab art, we’re the Arab museum of modern art.’ The idea is that it’s through a filter that’s Arab, but it’s looking out into the world. People were very skeptical about it, but when they saw images of the show, they recognized Arabic calligraphy, Arab images. It was very contemporary, but it was drawn from history. And people loved it.
I like challenging people, but I choose to work in a place because I want to use that context as a starting point for what I’m doing. … I didn’t come to Birmingham with a roster of shows I wanted to do, looking for a venue to put them in. I came here with ideas – artists I know I want to work with, subjects I want to think about – but I came with the idea that these things will come into being through my experience here and my understanding of the collection. It will happen through my understanding of Birmingham’s challenges and its history. … That’s just how my practice is, I think; audience and context are very important.
Weld: Have you already started considering or planning out a show?
WAK: I’ve only been here for a week, and I’ve still got a lot to discuss with my colleagues. … But I’m trying to think beyond exhibitions. Maybe it’s not that everybody has to wait two years for a contemporary exhibition, then wait two years for the next one. Of course I want to do large-scale exhibitions; every curator does. But I also think that having moments of engagement…moments of intervention, like a site-specific project, or having someone come in to talk about their art, is valuable. It keeps things interesting, and hopefully people don’t just come to the Museum once a year that way.
Weld: It seems like the Museum is trying to update a bit to accommodate a growing contemporary arts culture in town. How do you see your role in ushering the Museum in that direction?
WAK: I think it’s a sign that the stakeholders in Birmingham are interested in growing that direction, just from hiring me, which I personally think is a great sign [Laughs]. They hired me, they know what I’m interested in, and so I think it’s going to be about carefully finding a way to learn about, value and build upon what we have, because the Museum has a great collection.
In the next six months, I have to think about the collection and grow it based on my interests and what I think the community here would like. I think it’s a combination of exposing people to interesting things, making it feel accessible, and avoiding making them feel like they can’t understand it. … I’m interesting in hearing people’s opinions, finding people in the community who feel invested in the Museum and hearing what they have to say. It’s hard to make everybody happy, but I’d like to try [Laughs].
I think that museums are a place for people to have fun, and a lot of times, that just gets forgotten. Sure, it’s about learning and expanding your understanding, but they should also be fun.
Weld: Do you have any idea of what the Museum’s cooperation might be down the line with AEIVA, UAB’s new art institute?
WAK: I’m not against it, but we just haven’t had those conversations yet. … I love collaborating; I think it’s a great way to get a number of ideas and minds together, but I also think it’s a great way to share resources and audiences. I know there’s already a good relationship between the two institutions, since the Museum curated the first show there. I’m sure we’ll keep working with them in different ways, but I’m not sure how yet.
When I was interviewing and they told me that space was there, I took it, as someone who’s new to Birmingham, as a really good sign. When a university can raise that money and create a space like that, it’s a sign of commitment to art going forward.
Weld: In your NPR interview, you mentioned that the shows at the Mathaf weren’t an alternative modernity, but rather the same modernity as the West in a different context. That notion, and the idea of building from the materials presented to you in a location, seems to resonate in Birmingham.
WAK: For me, the starting point is the collection. The Museum has a very strong collection of Alabama artists. Any consideration of new acquisitions has to be in line with the collection, which is why it’s going to be a while before I can do anything – I’ve got to learn the collection. You have to look it up on the database, go into storage, and it’s going to take a while to do that.
I absolutely agree with starting from what’s here and building upon it; it’s not about starting something new. I’m not sure how the idea of alternative modernity translates to this context yet, but I can say that what’s interesting to me is thinking about contemporary art in an international context, and tying it back to the U.S. and the South and Birmingham, it’s like concentric circles. What does Birmingham mean in the context of the Southeast? How can we, as practitioners, work better with each other in the Southeast and share resources and create more exchange between Birmingham and Atlanta and Chattanooga and New Orleans?
Then, within the U.S., how do we show that the South is contributing to the country’s overall artistic accomplishments? … It’s there, but how can we use the Museum to make it relevant to that bigger conversation? I venture to say that everybody in Alabama would be happy to see its local museum discussed in a larger context. You don’t want to forget where you’re from, but you also don’t want to hold yourself back from growing into something larger. It’s something we used to think about a lot in Doha – local, regional and national. Interestingly, I find a lot of similarities in my experiences in Birmingham and Doha.
Weld: Have you gotten a chance to see Joe Minter’s art?
WAK: It’s a special place. He wasn’t there when we visited, but there was an energy to the place. [Folk artists like Minter and Howard Finster,] they all have some kind of spiritual energy that charges their production. It’s always kind of obsessive, kind of out-of-control, but it’s so cool. And it’s a very Southern thing.
Weld: Are you familiar with the preservation plans for his art?
WAK: It’s a hard thing with materials and situations like that. When you think about it – it’s difficult. You want to preserve it, but the more you take it out of its context and put it into a conservation studio, the more it loses its meaning. There are many ways to do it, but it’s a double-edged sword. … I wonder sometimes, like if you travel overseas, you’ll see UNESCO Heritage Sites, where there’s a budget for it and everyone’s involved. That may be wishful thinking, though.