Sara Raza is a London-based curator, writer, editor and educator who organizes projects in the Middle East, Asia and Europe. Over the past ten years, she has arranged numerous exhibitions at institutions in the Middle East, including the Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah, Alaan Artspace in Riyadh, and has curated several independent international exhibitions and projects for biennials and festivals.

Appointed the Guggenheim UBS MAP Curator for the Middle East and North Africa in January 2015, she has been traveling the region and its diaspora to organize the final instalment in the Guggenheim UBS Map Global Art Initiative, But a storm is blowing from paradise, which opens at the museum in New York in April 2016 before traveling to Istanbul’s Pera Museum in 2017. artBahrain contributing editor Paul Laster recently spoke with the curator about her background in art and her upcoming Guggenheim show.

How did you first become interested in art?

I studied the history of art. I have history of art backgrounds at both undergraduate and graduate level from Goldsmiths, University of London. However my interest in art has been informed by my cultural background and by my parents’ interest. My father was an engineer but he was an avid photographer. My grandfather was a scientist but he was a collector. Art is almost synonymous with all Persian homes, to some extent.

What was you first art-related job?

I was an intern at the Jerwood Gallery in London, which focused on multi-disciplinary artworks. I next worked as at Artnet as an intern in New York. After that, I had several internships before I began writing art reviews for ArtAsiaPacific and other publications. My first position within a curatorial field was at the South London Gallery, which came about through a curatorial award for emerging curators that I was awarded through the Arts Council of England.

How did writing about art help shape your curatorial outlook and interest?

My ideas often come through writing. I studied English literature and the history of art as an undergraduate. I was very interested in literature, as well as language. I came to curating after already being defined as an art critic.

What was the first show that you curated?

The first show that I organized was a showcase preview with the Contemporary Art Society in London. It was a co-curatorial show of the collection from the Contemporary Art Society that consisted of young British artists.

What was your first show that involved artists from other parts of the world?

Initially I was involved in public programming at the South London Gallery and had organized a video lounge that included several works by artists from the Middle East, including Shirana Shahbazi and Lida Abdul. There were several other projects that I integrated within my fellowship there. After leaving the South London Gallery, I became more and more immersed within my own research of art from Central Asia and the Middle East.

How has your past achievements prepared you for your position as the Guggenheim UBS Map Curator for the Middle East and North Africa?

I’ve had a very varied working history—working across many time zones, working amongst different geographies, both independently and within institutions, which has definitely prepared me for the diplomacy that’s involved with such a position.

What is the Guggenheim UBS Map Global Art Initiative?

It’s a multi-year project that’s funded by the UBS. It started with South and Southeast Asia and then Latin America and now North Africa and the Middle East. The mandate is to shift and divert the collection of the Guggenheim Museum, which is predominantly European and American-centric. If museums are to remain relevant in the 21st Century, they really need to look beyond the border of the country they inhabit.

How did you prepare your list of artists?

It was very difficult—as you can imagine—because I wasn’t going country by country; I had a thematic concentration. A lot of my curatorial threads are centred on science and philosophy. Here I was also looking through a scientific lens. I was looking at a social space, but also mathematical space. The crux of the show is based around the origin of geometry. I closely studied the museum’s collection, which is founded on the art of our time and founded on abstraction, so I was also looking for artists that could speak to the collection, while also speaking to my interests. I was equally interested in the idea of contraband—not in its literal sense, which is obviously more illicit kind of ideology. I’m interested in the idea of contraband or smuggling and value within hidden meaning, which is quite important to several of the artworks in the show. All is not what it appears to be. There’s a lot of underlying matter that exists within the work. The show is like a complex jigsaw puzzle, where the sum of parts somehow shouldn’t fit yet they do fit.

What does the title of the show, But a storm is blowing from paradise, reference?

The title is also one of the artworks in the exhibition by Rokni Haerizadeh, an Iranian artist who lives in Dubai. His artworks are very interesting because they are sourced from the news media. They take from the Internet. They take from clippings from newspapers. The artist has created a carnivalesque atmosphere by painting on top of them. There are animal related to fables and Orwellian ideas. It’s linked to the contemporary moment through a kind of Kafkaesque trial that’s occurring. The title, obviously, also comes from an essay by Walter Benjamin, in which he speaks about Paul Klee’s 1920 painting Angelus Novus, depicting an angel fixated in time.

Are you exhibiting existing works or were some of the projects and pieces commissioned for the show?

Unfortunately, given the short amount of preparation time, I wasn’t able to commission any new artworks. However, I do have a very interesting public program that we are developing that will involve performance and there’s a soundtrack to the exhibition, which is somewhat of a new commission.

In looking at the checklist, I don’t see many paintings; does the show have more of a conceptual bend?

Rokni Haerizadeh is the main painting, which is quite a huge proportion of the show. There are 24 of his paintings. You are right in saying that the focus is more conceptual. It’s more driven by architecture, as well as new media works and photography. There are also a number of installation-based works.

Is it true that Kadar Attia’s installation is made
from couscous?

It is true. It is entirely made from couscous—a mixture that involves couscous, glue and salt. It’s based on the architecture of Ghardaïa in Attia’s native Algeria. The French architect Le Corbusier is said to have frequented this area, even though there is very little evidence that he had actually been there. Le Corbusier borrowed from the vernacular architecture of this region, where adobe houses existed; but it was never acknowledged. This style of architecture was later used by his predecessor Fernand Pouillon to build a lot of social housing in France, which ironically was constructed by North Africans. With this work, the artist is extending a posthumous dinner invitation to the architects.

Will the museum be acquiring the works in the show, as they have done with past UBS Map Global Art Initiative exhibitions?

The works that will be on exhibited have already entered the permanent collection of the Guggenheim. It’s a very historical moment. I hope that it will leave some sort of legacy here, and that the artists will come out again and again in different contexts.