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Sumac Space in conversation with Ofelia Scisca [Artribune]

Sumac Space in conversation with Ofelia Scisca [Artribune]

This interview was originally published on Artribune under the title Sumac Space, la piattaforma digitale dedicata all’arte contemporanea del Medio Oriente.

You confirm that Sumac Space was born as a reaction to the pandemic moment, but maybe this particular moment brought to the surface and speeded up processes that were probably already necessary, was it so for you? What does this project tell us inside but also outside the pandemic moment? What is the difference between your project and the past?

Maybe we need to rethink about using the term “moment” here, because we’re living in a pandemic period. The concept of this project was born before this period, but it developed during the pandemic and the platform was launched on October 8, 2020. 

We can say that unlike other similar initiatives that were fast responses to the pandemic situation, we tried to slow down the process to achieve a specific objective. We knew we didn’t want to create yet another online exhibition. All the suddenly emerging online viewing rooms and showrooms helped us to deepen our research and redefine our intention – to see what was missing and what we wanted to do differently. We looked for new ways to use this exterritorial space. 

Although Sumac Space was born last year, we would rather say that it was a coincidence that it happened during the pandemic but it wasn’t triggered by it. For us, the pandemic and the associated restrictions were not part of our thinking process and our project development.

An important point to say is that we have developed this platform in conversations with artists. We had almost 37 Zoom meetings in this period to get a deeper understanding of artists’ needs and figure out what is missing. We believe that, as a curator, you cannot walk one step back or in front of artists, to create a research platform for art you need to be in conversation.

Tell us about yourselves! Who are you? It seems that there is a widespread international community behind your work.

The core concept and development of the project was created and established by us (Katharina Ehrl and Davood Madadpoor), but now our community of collaborators is growing. Our aim is to move forward collectively.  Already – in the first 5 months – new voices from different places like Tel Aviv, Vienna, Tehran, Berlin, USA and Lisbon have joined us in the form of, for example, guest curators and authors of our Dialogue section. Currently, we have a program titled On Ongoing, a series of 5 conversations involving 14 artists and 5 international curators from within and outside the Middle East region.

This makes clear our belief that a platform must invite people to an exchange and create a dialogue and add an international perspective that can offer new insights and solutions for people to reflect upon their practice. Innovative solutions only occur when dialogue is brought to light.

Your focus is directed towards the Middle East, how does this very particular subject speak to the rest of the world, what does it say to all those who are not part of that culture and what does it intend to bring up in those who belong to Middle Eastern cultures instead?

If people visit exhibitions dedicated to art from the Middle East / the Arab countries, they often expect something oriental. Art from this region is often still in the discourse of Orientalism, but we have to get rid of these stereotypes.

Our research is devoted to the Middle East, to give exposure to its contemporary art. Regardless of challenging social and political circumstances, the Middle East has a remarkable art scene. Sumac Space addresses central questions and contemporary urgencies through the lens of the artists involved. As part of the art world, it is always important to aim for making a contribution to social change.

What space does Middle Eastern art have in the world today?

In the last few years, many exhibitions of contemporary art from the WANA region (West Asia and North Africa) have been held globally, and within the region itself. Also, the “biennalisation” has made a great contribution to the visibility of the artists – not just from the Middle East but from the whole global south. 

Also, with Christies, the international auction house, first auction of International Modern & Contemporary Art in the Middle East, held in Dubai 2006, the interest in the art from this region emerged. 

Globalization at the level of art production, however, is by no means a homogenization. Rather, it has led to a co-presence, the simultaneous presence of countless aesthetic traditions that deeply influence not only the perceptual context of the artists, but also the perception of art.

We have to understand that geography is not a location but a situated knowledge. 

The West today stands in a relationship with the Middle East that sees the latter not so much as a producer of art, but as a user and sounding board (between large buyers and large fairs), how do you relate to this  as curators?

Answering this complicated issue needs a complex answer that cannot be written down in a few lines of this interview. 

Since the 1990s, when the art of the Arab world has gradually taken part in the international art scene, it has opened up discussion of appropriate interpretation of contemporary art of the region.

Silvia Naef mentions that “Western eyes are often unable to see modern and contemporary art from the Arab world in an appropriate manner and thus appreciate it”. One can ask how could we consider the work of art that is produced in the part of the world, which has a different path and is living a different present?

Sumac Space, by formulating complementary components – Artists’ Rooms and Dialogues – next to the exhibition itself aims to create another level of understanding and activate the imagination to link all together: the artists, their work of art and their thinking process.

How do you see the future of contemporary art? 

Quoting Anneke Lensen and Sarah A. Rogers “contemporary art currently represents a field of exchange that transcends any single cultural or historical precedent and forces the articulation of alternative affinities and differences”. 

Art in any period is defined by its relationship to the past but of course, there will be changes in a variety of areas. The future will be multiple and plural – there will be not one future. 

There are so many different aspects in the art field like the art market, the institutions etc. that influence contemporary art. The market plays a key role but also the latter, institutions, like museums and collections are highly political and we already know that the history they have written has to be rewritten in multiple histories. Decolonization of the Western narratives by reconsidering the collections through both migration and historically excluded artists and geographies has been waiting to be done for far too long. 

Art itself will take diverse forms. A painting will remain a painting, but the technical possibilities will also be reflected in art – as they already are. Further formats will also develop in the possibilities of presenting / communicating art. Last year we realized how important it is to rethink these very possibilities. In Germany the Federal Cultural Foundation provides a total of 15,8 Million Euro for digitization projects of cultural institutions. All this will be also reflected in the art itself. 

Despite the fact that with the web and the new technological possibilities distances seem to have almost disappeared, in reality the boundaries seem to have been strengthened, in your work you obviously tend to fight these divisions, but how do you imagine things could evolve?  And what results will this situation bring to art? For you and in general.

The young art scene in the Middle East is growing and in the countries themselves, there are also many new cultural opportunities in the form of collections, museums, cultural centers etc., but the problems with the borders and the related travel restrictions still affect especially young artists whose work is not yet often exhibited in a way that would allow them to have a voice abroad. Particularly important for us is to rethink how to use the World Wide Web for the broader art sector and facilitate the issues mentioned above and not only as a tool for the art market.

For the first time in Europe, it became clear what mobility problems or restrictions meant. For EU citizens this was something new, but for other nationalities it was an everyday occurrence due to their origins. We aim to dissolve these borders and provide a place for exhibiting and conversation without facing bureaucratic restrictions or limitations.

At the end we would like to invite you to visit these exhibitions, pay closer attention to other components of the platform such as the Artists’ Rooms and Dialogues and join us in this conversation. 

Last, we have an open call for writers, curators, critics, researchers etc. to engage with the work of contemporary artists from the Middle East and experiment with different writing formats for our Dialogue section. 

Ofelia Sisca (b. 1986) is a curator, journalist and content manager; she graduated with honours from the University of Rome La Sapienza with research on sonority in the artistic act. She specializes in cultural journalism and is trained in the design, communication and promotion of projects dedicated to artistic and cultural enterprises under the joint direction of the Ministry of Heritage and Culture, the University of Rome La Sapienza and the Research Center on Entertainment. She holds a master’s in management of museums and cultural enterprises from 24ORE Business School.
She has been responsible for the communication of cultural events, has written articles and essays for magazines in the arts, and is an editor and South manager for the magazine Artribune. She is currently the manager of an art gallery for which she deals with curatorship and management. She produces critical texts on art and international artists, curates independent exhibitions and interdisciplinary events, and structures projects and educational plans for contemporary art.

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