Independent Arts Manager & Programme Curator
Strategies of reactivation of cultural memory.
When Ania invited me and told me about this project I was immediately intrigued. The story behind the project is amazing and I look forward to hearing Diab’s story later. Just to tell you a little bit about myself, I moved to London about a year ago and I worked for a year at the Delfina Foundation, which for those of you who don’t know it, is a non-profit arts organisation promoting artistic exchange through residencies, public programmes and exhibitions. The core focus of the programmes has been working with artists from the Middle East, although now it is expanding. Before that I was in Istanbul and before that I was living in Cairo for four years, where I worked for a non-profit space called the Town House Gallery. This was between 2006-2010, so I left a couple of months before the revolution. A lot has happened since.
Just before leaving, I curated a symposium called Speak Memory on archives and strategies of reactivation of cultural memory. It was borrowing a title of Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography. It was looking at archival and historiographic initiatives in the Middle East, specifically at the ways of making archives speak to a larger public. I was looking at artists and grass roots initiatives working with archival material. I’ve always been fascinated with the topic of archives and memory and I could talk about it for hours, but I will centre my talk on Speak Memory and the context that led to the organisation of this symposium in Cairo.
When I was in Cairo, and let’s say for more than a last decade, there has been a lot of talk of the Cultural Renaissance in the Middle East, very often linked to the post 9/11 funding for arts institutions, the proliferations of biennials such as the Sharjah Biennale, the Dubai Art Fair and more recently the museums being built in the Gulf. A lot of artists and curators based locally were unhappy with that idea of “the Renaissance” because it almost implies that you are coming out of some Dark Ages whilst actually there was a lot of stuff going on beforehand. There was a general consensus that there was a lack of scholarship written on modern art history of the region but certainly no one could say that there is no archival material.
There are a lot of primarily sources and a wealth of material both in public and private collections but I guess a lot of this material has been dormant or semi-invisible. In the case of private collections very often people don’t know about it and can’t access it. Of course this is symptomatic of lack of trust in the public institutions as recipients or custodians of archival material. A lot of people have material, they just want to hold on to it because they don’t want to give it to the national archive of a specific country. There is a lot of material in state-held depositories although maybe it is sometimes not conserved very well. Another problem is that very often it is not organised very well either, making it difficult for a researcher to navigate that material. Sometimes the access policies are a bit opaque also.
One of the things that is particularly interesting about the Middle East, and I would say also other areas of the world where there is a general lack of trust in some public institutions, is that this context has given way to a proliferation of independent grass roots historiographic endeavors. Each of them adopts a particular strategy and methodology. Even more interestingly, a lot of these initiatives have been started by artists, curators and researchers, even by private collectors.
Ania was referring to the Arab Image Foundation and the director will be coming next week. That is an amazing example of how an independent arts organisation has created an expanding collection generated through artists-led projects, and I mean not artists and scholar-led projects. There are also other initiatives such as Arab Modernities Study Group in the Visual Arts Initiative by a film curator Rasha Salti and a researcher Kristine Khouri. That’s an initiative where they are making a growing archive, a lot of it with oral histories, interviewing gallery owners, private collectors and trying to piece together the history of some exhibitions that sometimes have been ignored or dismissed and haven’t been documented properly.
Speaking of symposium on archives, on the Speak Memory website we documented absolutely everything, so there are transcripts, there are videos, we did a publication. We invited archivists, artists, curators who were working with archival materials to take part in this symposium, including Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin who were at residence at the Townhouse Gallery where they developed a fantastic project around the Egyptian Surrealists Group.
As the result of the symposium I commissioned a project called the Archive Map, where I worked with PhD students that have been writing their thesis specifically on modern Egyptian, Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese art histories. They did a mapping out of material that was available in public institutions both in the specific countries and internationally and the outcome is available on the website. We decided to keep out the private collections from the listings. There are many reasons. Actually, most of the interesting material they were accessing was in private collections but we didn’t want to put it online because one of the things that have been going on is the growing commercialization of some of these private archives and in some ways it can be problematic. Some archives are operating out of their countries of origin which is upsetting some people, so we didn’t want to instigate any more of that by putting contact info of people who own the material on the website.
Of course, since the Arab Spring, the revolution and everything that has been going on, and a lot has been happening since 2010, there have been many other initiatives that have emerged, including the Mosireen Collective. It is a collective based in Cairo, they have a Youtube channel and have a lot of independent filmmakers that gather documentary footage. It emerged out of the revolution and it’s an amazing example of how the Egyptian government’s grip on information access was ultimately broken down by people working with social media: Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, etc. They’ve done presentations in London several times, recently talked at no.w.here. One of the founders, Khalid Abdalla is a filmmaker and an actor. He was the main protagonist of the Kite Runner movie. It is an outstanding initiative.
I’d like to leave some time for Diab’s story and our conversation, so I will finish with that. Thank you.