Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 19 September 2020

'They took a risk with me': Why the new curator of the University of Chicago's art museum is a 'bold' choice

Myriam Ben Salah aims to bring back the avant-garde in her upcoming curatorial work at the Renaissance Society

Tunisian curator Myriam Salah will take up her new role in September. Courtesy Nicolas Cottong
Tunisian curator Myriam Salah will take up her new role in September. Courtesy Nicolas Cottong

“I’m not the usual suspect,” says Myriam Ben Salah, the new executive director and chief curator of the Renaissance Society, the highly regarded contemporary art museum at the University of Chicago.

“I’m not the American curator who did a postgrad in curatorial studies. It’s bold that they chose someone coming from different horizons – and the risks that they took with me, I’m going to be taking with the programme.”

Ben Salah, who grew up in Tunisia, will be starting in Chicago in September – taking on her new position as art organisations worldwide start to chart their roles in a Covid-19 environment.

The future of art-making

The “risks”, Ben Salah says, might be the answer for a field that relies on viewing art in situ and on bringing together people for performances and lectures.

“Could there be something else instead [of an exhibition]?” she asks. “Could the exhibition be replaced with a series of radio podcasts? Could another format replace the exhibition for a while if it’s better suited to a certain art production for a certain place in the world? How [can we] propose something new despite the 100 years of contemporary art that happened in that room? That is my main question.”

A video still from Sarah Abu Abdallah's 'Saudi Automobile' (2012), part of Myriam Salah's show of Gulf artists from 2015. Courtesy the artist and Myriam ben Salah
A video still from Sarah Abu Abdallah's 'Saudi Automobile' (2012), part of Myriam Ben Salah's show of Gulf artists from 2015. Courtesy the artist and Myriam Ben Salah

Ben Salah’s attempt to reimagine art-making is not a new response to the pandemic, she says, but part of a longer quest for the art world and its often “alienating” engagement with its audience. Perhaps because she has followed an unconventional path towards being a curator, she is prone to forthright judgments about the art world – an anomaly in an industry that keeps a code of silence about the fact that although the proverbial emperor might not be naked, he is at times in some state of undress.

“Contemporary art became an institution and got comfortable in its own shoes,” she says. “We are constantly talking about experimentation and the avant-garde, but it is as if talking about those things was preventing us from being those things.”

Ben Salah's 'unconventional' path to curatorship

Ben Salah moved to Paris at the age of 18 to study French poetry and western philosophy in one of France’s "classes preparatoires", the demanding programmes that train students for entry into the most competitive universities – an unusual choice for someone from Tunisia, she says, whose Parisian transplants tend to study disciplines such as medicine, maths or science.

She then went to business school, while taking courses in theatre and performance at the Sorbonne, and only entered the art world by chance. One night she attended a lecture by the Palais de Tokyo's then deputy director, Mark Alizart, about contemporary art’s search for new ways to engage audiences.

Salah first moved to Paris to study French poetry and western philosophy. Photo by Ilyes Griyeb
Ben Salah first moved to Paris to study French poetry and western philosophy. Photo by Ilyes Griyeb

She emailed him the next day asking for an internship, and was brought on to set up the patrons club, helping the young institution to attract private and corporate sponsorship.

She now calls her seven years at the Palais de Tokyo her “gradate programme”, where she immersed herself in learning art history, theory and practices. She eventually became its public programming curator, putting together performances, screenings and publishing initiatives, while also working as editor-in-chief of Kaleidoscope, a raucous art magazine based in Milan that is published twice a year.

Her fascination with “the point of friction between the very experimental and the mainstream”, as she calls it, has been particularly important in her curatorial work with Middle Eastern artists, which she came to late in her career.

'It really struck me how art from the Arab world was being packaged'

Like many regional artists and curators of the current generation, navigating her identity as a “Menasa” or “Arab” curator has been tricky: there is, she says, on the one hand the desire not to make her background the focus of her work, but at the same time the desire to correct misrepresentations of Menasa artists, particularly in the West.

The khaleeji collective GCC's intervention to the entrane of Galerie Steinek in Vienna, in a show organised by ben Salah in 2015. 
The entrance to a show at the Galerie Steinek in Vienna, in a show organised by Ben Salah in 2015.

“It really struck me how art from the Arab world was being packaged, and I was really saddened by how a region with a rich cultural legacy was looked at only through the prism of failure and conflict, or through very specific crafts and techniques,” she says. “There are certain expectations that were put on artists from the Arab world from the western gaze, which resulted in artists creating works that were almost a response to this tacit commission.”

Ben Salah started thinking of how she could engage with art from the Arab world in ways in which identity was secondary, in a framework she calls “vernacular disorientalism”. One of these strategies was to put artists from the Middle East in dialogue with cultural trends, whether mainstream or high-brow, such as the show Like the Deserts Miss the Real at Galerie Steinek in Vienna in 2015.

It responded to accelerationism, a mode of philosophical thought then in vogue that argued for the acceleration of capitalism as the way towards a communist future. Ben Salah suggested that artists from the Gulf, such as Raja’a Khalid, Sophia Al Maria, Sarah Abu Abdallah and art collective GCC, might have a particularly perspicuous take on the idea that hyper-consumerism provides a route towards a post-capitalist society.

The title of the show was, classically, a mix of high and low: it alluded at once to an album by the band Everything But the Girl and a quote from the film The Matrix, while also referencing a book by the Slovenian Marxist Slavoj Zizek and a famous phrase by French critical theorist Jean Baudrillard.

“I wanted to connect the Gulf and philosophy,” she says. “It’s not because you come from the Menasa region that you have to talk about the Middle East, and you do not have to talk about the side of it that is easily packaged and feeds into exhibition tokenism. That is when I thought, I have to go back to who I am, to where I come from, and work with that, and to help show the region as it really is and not as it is fantasised or fetishised.”

It’s too early to say what Ben Salah’s programmes will be for the Renaissance Society, a small art organisation with a well-respected history. Though she is not a usual suspect among American curators, it is not entirely surprising that the institution has looked outside the traditional mould: it has a history of going against the grain in terms of its leadership.

Hamza Walker, who was at the Ren for more than 20 years, was long one of the few black American institutional curators, and Ben Salah’s immediate predecessor, Solveig Ovstebo, was a Norwegian curator who brought an internationally diverse and intellectual challenging group of artists to the platform.

“I’m thinking about new formats,” Ben Salah says. “Not just to reach audiences, but to make audiences feel comfortable and equipped to understand contemporary art, which they already are.”

“Hamza Walker,” she says, “gave me the best – and most scary – compliment: You might fail at the Renaissance Society, but I’m more interested in your failures than in others' successes.”

Updated: May 28, 2020 08:07 PM

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