ICOM UK member Luigi Galimberti interviews Maisa Al Qassimi about the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Maisa Al Qassimi is Senior Project Manager at Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. She has been a member of the board of directors for the Dubai International Arts Centre and the advisory board of the UAE Pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale. She is a member of the team responsible for defining the curatorial vision for the future Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, building its collection, art commissions, organising exhibitions, conducting scholarly research, realising public programmes and publications.
Luigi Galimberti is Board Member of Res Artis, the world’s largest membership-based network of artist residencies. He was previously Collection Care Research Manager at Tate, London.
Luigi: What is the role of art and artistic production in Abu Dhabi today?
Maisa: Art and artistic production are flourishing in Abu Dhabi and throughout the United Arab Emirates. Not only does the capital have more artists based in the emirate than ever before, but the number of institutions is growing, Louvre Abu Dhabi is a recent institution that is a great example of this, having commissioned site-specific works by artists such as Jenny Holzer and Giuseppe Penone. Another space is Warehouse 421, which commissions works for every exhibition. There is also the Department of Culture and Tourism’s annual exhibition of commissioned works by local artists, Emirati Expressions, which serves as a mainstay of art production and an important platform for emerging artists.
I would say that one of the major roles of artistic production is the enhancement of quality of life through access to public art. Abu Dhabi has expanded its collection of creative and meaningful public art commissions, such as with Idris Khan’s award-winning Wahat Al Karama memorial for the UAE’s fallen soldiers. The Department of Culture and Tourism has recently inaugurated a sculpture park commemorating the Special Olympics World Games, which took place in Abu Dhabi in March 2019, with six new artworks by renowned international artists such as Etel Adnan, Pascale Marthine-Tayou or Wael Shawky. Public art can be found not just in Abu Dhabi city but all around the emirate. A fantastic initiative is Abu Dhabi Art Fair’s annual Beyond programme, part of which involves commissioning established artists to create site-specific works in historic sites in the western region of Al Ain.
Luigi: Whose stories will the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi be preserving?
Maisa: Our location in the UAE, a central axis between Europe, Asia, and North Africa, has inspired Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s mission to contribute to a more inclusive and expansive view of art history, which emphasises the convergence of local, regional, and international sources of creative inspiration rather than geography or nationality.
The museum’s collection will encompass art produced around the world and in all media from the 1960s to the present day. Through our collection, exhibitions and educational programmes, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will bring attention to under-researched and lesser-known histories. In parallel, we will re-evaluate those chapters that have defined the art historical canon to date.
Luigi: What are the themes around which the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s collection and programme will revolve?
Maisa: The overarching theme of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is the celebration of points of interconnection in contemporary art. These points of interconnection enable us to explore histories and ideas from around the globe and commonalities among cultures. The collection falls under defined narrative motifs, i.e. Popular Culture and the Mediated Image; Abstractions; System, Process, Concept; History, Memory, Narrative; and Figuration.
The collection includes numerous works by artists from completely different cultures and backgrounds that spark dialogue and interplay by examining similar concepts. For instance, we have several works that make use of the expressive potential of calligraphy. Some artists focus on given letters, as seen in Parviz Tanavoli’s Big Heech (1973), while some others evoke its methods while employing distinctive techniques, such as Gu Wenda’s use of human hair in United Nations–Silk Road (2000). Various artists explore the meditative potential of writing in their art, for example in Shirazeh Houshiary’s painting Luminous Darkness (1998), and still others evoke the human figure as in Rachid Koraïchi’s installation Le Chemin des Roses (Path of Roses) (1995–2005).
Luigi: How will the museum involve new generations of artists in its activities?
Maisa: Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is very committed to the new generation of local and regional artists. We are educating a new generation to be literate in the language of art, achieving this through our substantial outreach work with schools and young people. Our public programming includes many youth-oriented events, which are led by or involve academics or the artists featured in the collection. We have had artists such as Sarah Morris and Susan Hefuna leading workshops for university students in order to achieve our goal in a continuous dialogue with young people.
Luigi: Can you tell us of a recent show, activity or commission that you have curated?
Maisa: Our first commission is Sarah Morris’s film Abu Dhabi, which was completed in 2016. Sarah Morris is an incredibly talented filmmaker, whose oeuvre focuses on historically significant places around the world at transformative points in time. Abu Dhabi examines the forces and challenges shaping our emirate at a time of rapid change and progress, and as such I think the film was a very fitting first commission for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi permanent collection.
The film was shot during the National Day celebrations, a day marking the formation of our united federation of seven emirates. Abu Dhabi traces the many undercurrents and interconnecting elements of our emirate and features many of our most important architectural and natural landmarks, such as the Falcon Hospital, the Sheikh Zayed Bridge designed by Zaha Hadid, the Um Al Naar Refinery, the Liwa desert, the Norman Foster-designed Masdar Institute. This was supplemented by the use of archival footage sourced from the early days of urban development in the 1970s.
Ultimately, the film is an exploration of Abu Dhabi’s explosive growth in the last 40 years, and our endeavour to balance tradition with modernity as we shift away from our recent history as an oil-reliant state and into a more sustainable and diverse economy.
Luigi: What does it mean for you as a professional to work in a museum that does not yet exist?
Maisa: We are fortunate to be a part of building a new institution from the ground up, allowing us to participate in the rethinking of art history. Truly, working on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi collection has been the most exciting opportunity. It is not often that you get the chance to be part of the curatorial direction of a major institution to build a collection from scratch. With regards to the curatorial direction we are taking, with its emphasis on points of interconnection between different cultures, our location is significant. The Abu Dhabi emirate is a historical and contemporary gateway, bringing together people and cultures from around the world.
We have already staged two exhibitions of works from the collection, allowing the public to get an idea of what they can expect to see when the museum will open. Seeing Through Light: Selections from the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Collection took place from November 2014 to March 2015, showcasing works from our collection through which we explored light as a primary aesthetic principle. The exhibition featured works in a variety of media by 19 artists from the 1960s to the present, who practice in multiple countries and regions around the world.
The second exhibition The Creative Act: Performance, Process, Presence offered a transcultural perspective on a specific theme in art since the 1960s. Consistent with the curatorial vision for the future museum, The Creative Act highlighted interconnections among contemporary artists, revealing common sources of inspiration and lines of influence as well as distinctive contributions. It featured more than 25 works by 20 artists in a variety of media—installation, painting, photography, sculpture, video, and works on paper. It focused on the related themes of performance, process, and presence. Both shows took place at Manarat Al Saadiyat, an exhibition space located in Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi’s cultural hub. They were a great success bringing together an audience of over 130,000 and showed us the appetite and excitement for the coming museum.