Unsettled Objects : ‘There is art all around us, all the time,’ says Omar Kholeif

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Exploring art history’s hidden stories, the Sharjah art Foundation’s exhibition ‘Unsettled Objects’ features new acquisitions and rarely seen works from the Foundation’s collection comprising more than 1,000 works from the 1920s to the present day.

Curated by Omar Kholeif, Director of Collections and Senior Curator, Sharjah art Foundation (SAF), the exhibition features around 35 artists representing significant works of modern and contemporary art.

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“The Sharjah Art Foundation Collection is the culmination of nearly 30 years of acquisitions made through the Sharjah Biennial, our year-round exhibitions and other commissioning program and projects that were initiated by the Foundation,” said Hoor Al Qasimi, President and Director of Sharjah Art Foundation, to Al Arabiya English.

“It reflects Sharjah’s history as a major regional trade route, as its holdings include significant modern and contemporary works from the MENASA region that span art movements from the 1920s to the present day. We’ve had a number of important exhibitions from the Collection over the years, and we look forward to continuing this kind of public engagement as the Collection grows.”

Mounted at the Flying Saucer, SAF’s newly restored architectural landmark in Sharjah, the exhibition display is composed of salon hangs that take on the building’s circular shape.

This exhibition draws its title from a significant new acquisition by the late conceptual artist Lothar Baumgarten. ‘Unsettled Objects’ (1968–1969) is a slide carousel projection that unfolds hidden characteristics behind the foundational artefacts of Western museum collections. Where do these objects come from? Are the keepers of these entities entitled to hold them, and if so, under what jurisdiction?

The artists and works at the ‘Unsettled Objects’ exhibition encourage the viewer to reconsider how the creative imagination is constructed.

Omar Kholeif, Curator, spoke to Al Arabiya English the significance of the title and the direct inferences from Lothar Baumgarten’s work, “the seed that sowed the tapestry of this exhibition.”

A slide carousel projector composed of 80 images taken at the ethnographically-focused Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, Baumgarten’s ‘Unsettled Objects’ is a meditation on colonialism and its after-effects.

“As we hear the click of the slide projector, a light beams an image, and then another, of hundreds of artefacts held in vitrines, sandwiched together, stacked in close proximity, sitting before us, seemingly hollowed of life. Baumgarten editorializes these images with his signature penchant for quizzical irony. Words such as ‘obfuscated’; ‘lost’; ‘celebrated’; ‘composed’; ‘displayed’; and ‘imagined’ appear. Imagination, as articulated here, is a possibility that is thwarted.

“How can one animate these objects with one’s subjective faculties when its authors, its original owners, go nameless — never allowed to lay claim to their own history?”

Kholeif says the acquisition of this work coincided with a seemingly global debate on restitution regarding looted artefacts found in Western museums.

“This conversation, in many respects, echoed the larger framework in critical race theory around making visible histories that had been entrenched or confined in the hermetic fold of encyclopaedic museums in western Europe and the United States.”

“It thus felt like an appropriate place to begin to frame an exhibition of works from a Collection that is based outside of the West, which largely focuses on works of art that have emerged from outside of the Western sphere or canon of influence,” he says.

“The notion of the ‘unsettled’ is also pertinent here in an ontological sense, as artworks are objects that seek to form an emotional relationship with the viewer -- as this exhibition argues, they are not simply sleeping, subjugated or passive instruments.”

On the main rationale for the selection of artists and works for this show, from the works with SAF, Kholeif says, that the Foundation’s collection is home to a growing constellation of over 1,200 unique artworks in every medium. “With this exhibition, I was eager to bring together works of art, many of which were recent acquisitions or had not been seen before, which sought to foster a deep-seated connection or relationship with the viewer. Thus, works of art formed into clusters that collectively explore hidden histories and multiple forms of collective imagination.

“The artworks are loosely thematized around concepts of human exchange; mythology; archaeology and solidarity.”

When queried whether the recent works and artists among the works displayed references the pandemic and the lockdown, this what the Curator had to say: “The works do not directly reflect the concept of the pandemic or global lockdowns. That said, the theme of the exhibition, which is about bringing together objects of history that have the potential to move and affect the viewer was a direct response to the fact that much of our lives; our habitats, have been mediated and distanced due to the context of the global pandemic.”

“Some of the works, such as Lubaina Himid’s Leave to Cool (2020) was produced during the lockdown but it is not directly referring it. That said, the two subjects in this sophisticated painting do struggle to hold ‘space’ with one another. One can intimate or deduce that this could be a metaphor for the emotional distance felt during this specific moment in history.

“In the exhibition, there is one intervention, which is not currently in the Collection, by the artist Prem Sahib called ‘Liquid Gold,’ which was re-imagined just for this exhibition and which I believe directly speaks to this context.”

From 9 pm to 9 am as the doors of the Flying Saucer shutter, the exhibition comes to life again -- an ebullient glowing gold light shimmering, the building alit. “The work refers to a number of ideas, including the value that we attribute to the color gold, but equally, its activation when the exhibition is ‘asleep’ as it were, speaks to the distance felt between the human subject and the exhibition venue. The intention here was to create a public artwork or a sphere of visual experience, even for those who felt they did not want to enter. There is art all around us, all the time; sometimes it can be as simple as looking up while you are at a traffic light or taking a look outside of your window.”

Speaking of the choice of location for the exhibition, Kholeif says: “ I explicitly chose the Flying Saucer as a venue for this exhibition. It is one of my favorite architectural landmarks in Sharjah and I was so very excited to work with it.

“The Flying Saucer felt like an intuitive choice because its circular nature mirrored the circular form of Lothar Baumgarten’s slide carousel. Equally, as this is a public Collection of art; it was exciting to take it to a different neighborhood, in this case, Dasman, for a different audience to see. Every exhibition is a collaboration and it is a great joy working with architects, designers and fabricators.”

Kholeif says that Mona El Mousfy worked with the SAF team to create a design schematic that worked with and not against the architecture, thus accentuating the form of the Flying Saucer and at the same time, allowing the different works to create both formal and informal relationships among each other.

“It was a privilege to work with Mona who also worked closely with SAF Architecture team on the beautiful renovation of the venue,” he says.

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