Born in Kuwait to Iraqi parents, Wassan Al-Khudairi studied Egyptology and Islamic Art before turning her interest to Modern and Contemporary Art. The first Director and Chief Curator of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Al-Khudairi moved to the United States to become Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama in 2014 and made another leap last summer when she was appointed Chief Curator at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. artBahrain contributing editor Paul Laster recently caught up with the globetrotting curator to discuss her past history and current role.
When did you first become interested in art?
Art has been an interest as long I can remember. My mom was always very interested in art and she took my sisters and I to museums when we were growing up.
What motivated you to study art history at Georgia State University?
I wanted to become an Egyptologist.
What was the takeaway from your education there?
I decided to study at the American University in Cairo for a semester because I wanted to take advance Egyptology courses that weren’t offered at Georgia State. While in Cairo I visited contemporary art galleries, met artists and curators and realized that I was really excited by contemporary art and wanted to explore it. There was no exposure to contemporary art happening outside of the West in my courses at Georgia State. Studying abroad exposed me to contemporary art in Cairo, Beirut, Baghdad and other areas of the Middle East. I realized there was a whole world I didn’t know.
Why did you decide to go for your master’s degree in art at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London?
I had decided I wanted to pursue a PhD. As an undergraduate I studied ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, so I decided I wanted to focus on the period of the Islamic Civilization for my Masters, then I could move chronologically to modern and contemporary in my PhD. SOAS has a wonderful program in Islamic Art and London has a very global art scene. It was the perfect place for me at the time.
What the most memorable moment of your studies there and from the London art scene in the mid-2000s?
I reached out to Maysaloun Faraj, an Iraqi artist who started Aya Gallery in London, to express my interest in her gallery’s program and to offer to volunteer in exchange for experience. Before my arrival in London, she curated the exhibition Strokes of Genius: Contemporary Iraqi Art at the Brunei Gallery at SOAS. I did not see the exhibition, but I remember buying the exhibition catalogue and studying it—at the time there weren’t many resources that were easily available outside of the Middle East. She invited me to the gallery and brought me on to help her catalogue works by well-known Iraqi artists. It was the first time I was seeing many of these artists’ works in person.
What were the biggest challenges you faced as the first Director and Chief Curator of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha?
Time, as the nature of curatorial work requires that one is always thinking about and planning things two or more years ahead. That’s hard because we can’t always anticipate what will be happening that far out… and trying to shape a program that feels relevant can sometimes be challenging when you have to imagine what we might be contemplating and experiencing that far out in advance.
Did being a woman make your job any more difficult?
No, many of the people I’ve worked for are wonderful female leaders.
What do you believe was your greatest accomplishment during your five years at the museum?
I arrived in Doha in 2007 and Mathaf opened in December 2010 with three exhibitions and an academic conference. Our greatest accomplishment was building a museum from the ground up—recruiting the team, converting a school into the museum building and creating the foundations for the museum program, as well as establishing policies.
How did you feel the contemporary art scene in the region evolved during your time there?
The contemporary art scene in Doha was just picking up momentum. The first year I was there the Museum of Islamic Art opened, which really set the bar high. In the following years we opened Mathaf, and to coincide with that we also worked to launch Al Riwaq, a large kunsthalle-style space for large-scale exhibitions. It was a very exciting time and we were able to really capture that excitement with our exhibitions and programs at Mathaf.
As one of the six Co-Artistic Directors of the 9th Gwangju Biennale, which took place while you were still at Mathaf in 2012, were you able to bring many Arab artists to the thematic “ROUNDTABLE” exhibition?
Absolutely, I think that was part of the reason I was invited, but also because there was a deliberate decision to include the Arab world as part of Asia. This was the year that the Gwangju Biennale Foundation invited six female curators from across Asia. The project I was working on right before the Gwangju Biennale was an exhibition of work by Cai Guo Qiang, and it was during my research and conversation with Cai, when I was thinking about how the Arab world fits within the larger Asian context. This interest continues and is something I explored again recently when I was invited to be on the curatorial team for the Asian Art Biennial in Taiwan, which opened in September 2017.
What inspired you to move to Alabama and take a position as Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art in 2014?
When I left Doha I did so with the intention of going back to my studies and to pursue my PhD. After taking some time off I realized that what I really wanted to do was curate and work closely with artists. I was drawn to Birmingham because of the crucial role the city has played in the history of the United States. Similar to Doha, Birmingham is a small city that punches above its weight. The Birmingham Museum of Art has an excellent collection of contemporary art, but historically the institution has a troubled history with its communities. It wasn’t until 1965 that it opened its doors to the African-American community.
What kind of impact were you able to make there?
It would be pretentious of me to think that I made an impact. I think I just did my best to think about how art could play a role at mediating conversations between the communities the museum served and itself. I curated “Third Space /shifting conversation about contemporary art,” a large-scale exhibition that attempts to open up the dialogue between the American South and the Global South. With this exhibition I wanted to view the American South through a post-colonial lens and draw connections between spaces with post-colonial histories. The exhibition received good feedback from the Birmingham community and people responded to it by saying that it helped them see themselves in the exhibition.
Since your appointment as Chief Curator at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis last summer you’ve already organized three solo exhibitions, including a survey of work by the Iraqi artist Hayv Kahraman. What made you decide to start your programming with her exhibition?
I have known Hayv Kahraman and her work for nearly ten years. We had talked about working together, but the right opportunity had not presented itself until I arrived in St. Louis. In addition to new works that Hayv made for the show, we also exhibited past works and she staged her performance Gendering Memories of Iraq.
What kind of response did you get to the show, which basically dealt with issues of war, migration and gender politics?
The ideas Hayv explores in her work are being discussed daily on a national level in the United States. Although many of our visitors were being introduced to Hayv’s work for the first time, I think it exposed audiences to a new perspective on these issues.
What are the ideas addressed in your two current shows?
Both of the two exhibitions I have recently curated for the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) use narrative as a tool to interpret the world and current events. Trenton Doyle Hancock’s “The Re-Evolving Door to the Moundverse” explores the artist’s wild imagery and seriocomic narratives to speak to perpetual American dilemmas of race, class, identity and social justice. Stanya Kahn’s “Friends in Low Places,” projected on the museum’s exterior façade as part of CAM’s Street Views series, is an allegorical visual poem that follows a central figure through innocence, imprisonment, death and regeneration.
What are some of the ideas and who are some of the artists that you hope to investigate and work with in the future?
Being fairly new to CAM and St. Louis I’m spending a lot of my time now getting to know my institution and the city. CAM has a great legacy of exhibition making and I am looking forward to contributing to it.