‘Art in the Age of Anxiety’: Curator Omar Kholeif spells out ambitions

“I always begin by looking at the art and I see how things come together to tell a story.” -Sharjah Art Foundation Director of Collections and Senior Curator Omar Kholeif

Sunday 01/03/2020
 Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) Director of Collections and Senior Curator Omar Kholeif. (Eric T White)
Pushing boundaries. Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) Director of Collections and Senior Curator Omar Kholeif. (Eric T White)

The Sharjah Art Foundation is introducing the most ambitious exhibition of its kind in the Middle East, “Art in the Age of Anxiety,” to explore ways everyday devices, technology and digital networks altered the collective consciousness.

The 3-month exhibition, which opens March 21, will showcase over 60 works by more than 30 international artists.

Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) Director of Collections and Senior Curator Omar Kholeif, who also served as curator of Sharjah Biennial 14, calls himself a “digital centrist” or “a digital utopian.”

“I do not believe that the digital creates endless doom and gloom,” he said. “However, I do believe that if we do not pay attention to the changing nature of our everyday technologies — their propriety ownership, their algorithms or their changing apparatus — we could potentially be left in a dangerous situation in which we relinquish our own sense of self control.”

Kholeif said he has always been interested in how the internet could be a unique form of digital distribution, linking artists across the world through shared networks.

Under “Art in the Age of Anxiety,” there are sub-themes, including one focusing on the blurring of the virtual and the physical; how artists transform virtual icons into objects and vice versa.

The exhibition also explores how algorithmic culture is changing the ways narrative, storytelling and identity evolve and are presented.

“I always begin by looking at the art and I see how things come together to tell a story,” Kholeif said on how he selected artists for the exhibition.

“I spent an extensive period researching artists I had worked with previously and many others whom I had dreamed of working with but whom I had never had the chance to before. Through studio visits, portfolio reviews and ongoing conversations, I came to a final list that tells a cohesive and collective story that, I believe, reflects on the current cultural moment in which we live.”

The exhibition is global in scope. There are artists from China and South Africa to North America and the Middle East. Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal and Lebanese-British artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan are two of the artists representing the Middle East.

The show also attempts to throw light on the global digital divide.

“The way that the exhibition addresses this issue is by imploring the viewer to connect to knowledge bases — structures that will enable them to understand the tools that they use. Internet penetration has exponentially grown with mobile telephony with more than 3 billion people online but is everyone using the internet aware of its implications, one must ask,” Kholeif said.

The works of theoreticians largely influenced the curator’s views on the subject.

“I have written or edited eight books on this topic and curated numerous exhibitions around it so to pivot one theoretician over another feels very difficult,” he said. “I love Bruno Latour (French philosopher and sociologist) but I was also drawn to the work of political scientists like Will Davies.”

He also mentioned: “Lawrence Abu Hamdan, whose research was instrumental to me; Christiane Paul, who has been a constant source of inspiration; Nora M Khan, a young writer who blurs the boundaries of fiction and reality; Jesse Darling, whose manifesto in my book ‘You Are Here: Art After the Internet’ completely opened up new trajectories of thinking for me.”

Kholeif highlighted a few of the works at “Art in the Age of Anxiety” that can guide viewers in navigating through the huge show.

“I believe that the works of Trevor Paglen, which are diverse and varied in the exhibition, anchor the viewer,” he said. “Here, we see algorithms shifting photographic practice alongside video work that reflects on the structures of power that control our media.

“Lynn Hershman Leeson’s film ‘Shadow Stalker’ is also pivotal in that it reveals how the future of citizenship might look like in an era of algorithmic citizenship.

“Overall, it is an experience to enjoy and get lost and immersed in.”

About his new role at SAF, Kholeif said: “Sharjah is one of the world’s major cultural hubs. We stage exhibitions and collect art that you won’t see anywhere else. I hope that, over the coming years, we will be able to continue to push the formal, conceptual and theoretical boundaries that make modern and contemporary art so exciting!”