The curator of the Palestinian Museum’s inaugural exhibition “Jerusalem Lives,” Reem Fadda has an inspiring history of organizing programs to promote an international understanding of art and culture. She was Associate Curator of Middle Eastern Art for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Project from 2010 to 2016, Curator for 2016 Marrakech Biennale and the National Pavilion of the United Arab Emirates of the Venice Biennale in 2012. The 2017 recipient of The Menil Collection’s distinguished Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement, Fadda also worked as Academic Director to the International Academy of Art Palestine, which she helped found in 2006. artBahrain contributing editor Paul Laster recently caught up with the innovative curator shortly after the opening of the Palestinian Museum to talk about her past achievements and current exhibition.
What made you decide to pursue your art studies at Goldsmiths, where you received your Master’s Degree in Curating in 2005, and what was the takeaway from your time there?
I’ve always wanted to pursue a degree in the visual arts. Originally, I wanted to train to become an artist. However, there were no independent academies teaching visual arts practice in Ramallah at the time. I opted to work at Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre instead and worked with a number of artists, notably Khalil Rabah, who convinced me that I should pursue my studies in curating. I didn’t even know what the term entailed when I applied to it! I don’t think many of us—the postgraduate students in the curating program at Goldsmiths—fully understood what it involved. It was a very experimental program and unstructured in many ways. The whole field of studying curating was also fairly new. However, my year studying curating in London really taught me to explore the arts from the widest and most varied angles. This is what enabled me to think of a more politically charged way of curating.
Fresh out of school you became the Director of the Palestinian Association for Contemporary Art (PACA) and the Academic Director to the International Academy of Art in Ramallah, which you helped found in 2006. What was the goal of these pioneering arts organizations?
I wanted to address the lack of independent art schools teaching a Bachelor’s degree in visual arts practice, which I had personally suffered from. I was given the opportunity early on to contribute to the growth of the Academy. PACA’s mandate was to found the Academy and that’s what we did. I stayed on board as Academic Director for two years helping to run the Academy.
What were your responsibilities when you served as Associate Curator of Middle Eastern Art for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi from 2010 to 2016?
I developed the curatorial strategy for collecting at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi that pertained to the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. This involved studying the region, its various art movements and pioneering artists. I was also responsible to adding to the collection from those areas.
Were there any artworks that you were particularly pleased to have added to the collection?
I will always be proud of bringing in many works. But one of the feats I worked on was bringing in over 63 works by Hassan Sharif into the collection. I also worked on adding pieces by Mohammed Kazem, Abdullah Al Saadi and Ebtisam Abdulaziz. This cluster representing UAE arts helped cement the collection locally, and that for me is important.
How did the title “Not New Now” function as an intellectual framework for the sixth edition of the Marrakech Biennale, which you curated in 2016?
I started from the premise of the title to explore the idea of rejecting “newness”, a concept entrenched in our understanding of modernity. If we did not look through the prism of the new—new cities, new buildings, new technologies, etc.—could we see what remains, i.e. societies and ways of living and coexisting—as humble as they are—as the real markers of our modernity and progress? Newness also focuses on the futuristic. We find ourselves caught either between the nostalgia of the past or running towards a future we barely grasp. This concept really steered me towards thinking of the living and the now—the present day. I started to explore replacing the term contemporary art with living art, one that’s more entrenched in societal and political concerns and more suited for a practice of arts emanating from the Global South. This then ultimately led me to decolonization.
What was your criterion in assembling the impressive group of artists that you showed in Marrakech?
I really wanted to choose from a practice that did not limit itself to the white box. I chose artists operating in the Global South to speak for the Global South. Of course, there was a large Moroccan contingency, and that’s important. I also involved historical figures, because I like to ground what we see contemporarily. And intuition! I work largely by intuition. Sometimes I dream about an artist, and that’s good enough reason to invite them.
Since you didn’t have traditional gallery sites, what was the biggest challenge of integrating the art into historical sites in the city?
I think all artists I invited became excited at the venues where I was choosing to display their work. Our exhibition designer Melanie Taylor and myself were inspired by the venues and allowed them to speak to us and choose. It was really a beautiful task. The only difficultly I encountered was with the local authorities- there were many restrictions to deal with in using the walls, etc. And they only granted us authorization to install eight days prior to opening! That put a lot of pressure on the production team. We had to install 50 artists with several major installations in a short amount of time!
How important is it for Palestine to have this new museum?
I don’t know that it’s important for Palestine! I think it’s the reverse; it’s important for museums to be located in Palestine to learn from the experience there. Museums need to change their vocabulary of object preservation and presentation to something that is spurred from a different impetus—creating agency, betterment of lives and activating citizenry.
What guided your selection of artists for “Jerusalem Lives,” the inaugural exhibition of the Palestinian Museum?
The actual exhibition is sectioned to two parts: the central one, which is mostly a research exhibition of audio-visual materials, and then the second part is in the gardens, where commissions by artists are on view. Initially, I wanted to include artists only in the gardens, and I was on the search for who could really create an artistic experience that speaks to the land and exist in the outdoors. I pushed a few artists from some of their comfort zones of the white box to do that as well. I spoke in detail about my concepts with them, but their output was their own, as I gave them free reign. The results were amazing—artistic installations and sculptures that mimicked land, rootedness, openness and belonging. All that stood for Jerusalem, in my shared mind and theirs. It was a beautiful collective leap of faith.
Although initially I did not want to include artists in the central show, I found myself steadily being inclined to present them within it. I was worried that the research part would be overwhelming and I didn’t want to put art across from that. But of course, I realized that artists have also long been research oriented and always advanced in noticing, documenting and alerting us to the urgent political realities we need to focus on. They are seers of our society, and I wanted to present that in this show. That worked well, as it allowed for a natural segue into what was displayed in the gardens.
In what ways are they engaging the concept of the show, which examines Jerusalem’s globalization and its failures?
The artists selected in the central exhibition had been long working in representing a critical stance to what the city of Jerusalem and Palestinian lives have been undergoing under occupation, closure and exclusionary politics imposed by Israel primarily targeting Palestinians. This harsh reality exposed shows the antithesis to an open, and inclusive global city—the very potential and dream of what Jerusalem could be.
How do you hope the exhibition will impact the future of the city and the cultural development of the state?
I really hope that this exhibition becomes a conversational platform that instigates debates and generates creative ways of thinking towards progressive cultural resistance to help support Jerusalem, which is at the frontiers of facing the Israeli colonial project in Palestine. I think, we as Palestinians, we need to be cautious not to recycle the same exclusionary logics imposed by our oppressors and colonizers, the Israelis. We also need to understand that manifestations of cultural resistance, like the sit-ins and prayers we recently witnessed happening in the events that occurred in Jerusalem fighting the closure of Al-Aqsa, is a real methodology to resist this hegemony and militarized state control of Israel. It bears fruits. I do hope that this exhibition becomes an extension of this cultural resistance.