9. Salwa Mikdadi Reflects on the Opening of NYU Abu Dhabi's Arab Center for the Study of Art
By Nada Ammagui
Published on October 1st, 2021
New York University Abu Dhabi recently announced the opening of alMawrid: the Arab Center for the Study of Art (ACSA) in January 2021, a research center dedicated to the rewriting of regional art historical narratives to be more inclusive and representative of local perspectives.
A much-anticipated and long-overdue academic endeavor, the ACSA is the first research center of its kind in the world. AlMawrid—which means “the source” in Arabic—aims to reevaluate research methodologies and art historical pedagogies about the Arab world, from within the Arab world. AlMawrid is dedicated to “developing new frameworks for the study of the visual arts” of the Arab world by archiving and digitizing primary documents, currently either unavailable to researchers or difficult to access.
In doing so, alMawrid advances current scholarship and provides innovative pedagogical tools to academic institutions around the world. AlMawrid is headed by Salwa Mikdadi, Associate Professor of Practice of Art History and alMawrid Director and Principal Investigator. Mikdadi will be overseeing two initial research projects: the history of Arab art institutions; and the region’s exhibition history.
Shamoon Zamir, Professor of Literature and Visual Studies, is a Co-Principal Investigator at alMawrid and leads the Akkasah Photographic Archive project. May Al-Dabbagh, Assistant Professor of Social Research and Public Policy, serves as the third alMawrid Co-Principal Investigator and heads Haraka: Experimental Lab for Arab Art and Social Thought. Al-Dabbagh’s project aims to contextualize aesthetic, cultural, and intellectual production in the Arab world by investigating social movements and knowledge flows in the region.
Akkasah, a previously-established archive at NYUAD and Professor Zamir’s brain-child, collects and preserves primary photographic materials from artists and art historians to build an accessible and comprehensive visual archive. Akkasah will provide resources to researchers in the region who are interested in tracing historical and contemporary photographic practices in the MENA region.
“The main lesson I learned is don’t postpone; this is beyond urgent. In a region that is challenged with instability, there are many archives that are in danger of being lost completely or dispersed beyond reach.”
- Salwa Mikdadi
As a three-time student of Professor Mikdadi’s, I had heard much talk of alMawrid’s development over the years and, in particular, of the urgency of its creation to help preserve and promote the rich artistic history of Western Asia and North Africa. When the Center was finally announced, I knew I had to reach out to Salwa to learn more about how alMawrid finally came to be and what we could expect to see from this project in the coming years.
In our conversation, we discussed the inspiration behind alMawrid, its role in contributing to local and global academia, and the importance of collaboration within the Center. As our interview came to an end, I was yet again reminded of the unwavering commitment to and passion for celebrating Arab art that Salwa—undoubtedly one of the foremost scholars in the field and one of the most connected individuals to Arab artist communities and movements—carries out through her work.
The founding of this research center, an ambitious undertaking in scope and intended impact, is, in a way, the culmination of Mikdadi’s lifelong dedication to supporting artists from the Arab World. Some of Mikdadi’s contributions to the field of Arab art history to date include: co-founding and directing the Cultural & Visual Arts Resource/International Council for Women in the Arts (ICWA) to promote Arab art in the US; curating the first touring exhibition of modern and contemporary female artists from the Arab world and the Arab American National Museum’s inaugural exhibition; curating the first Palestinian pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale; and writing extensive chronologies of art of the MENA region for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.
Mikdadi also headed the Arts & Culture Program at the Emirates Foundation, UAE and taught various Museum Studies and Art History courses at Sorbonne-Paris Abu Dhabi and New York University Abu Dhabi, where she continues to teach today. Lastly, Mikdadi serves on the advisory boards of the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery, and Darat Al Funun in Amman.
As a student of Arab cultural studies and art history in the UAE, my interview with Professor Mikdadi was of great personal significance. While it was a chance to share information about the founding of alMawrid, with readers our conversation was also an opportunity to learn more about resources and infrastructures that empower young Arab researchers to build upon local cultural production and to incorporate these narratives into global art history.
Whereas in my own research I tend to spend more of my time hunting down archival materials, alMawrid will enable Arab art enthusiasts from around the world to engage with sources on Arab artists, exhibitions in the region, and local art institutions all from a single archive. More importantly, I am extremely excited about the ability of the Center to increase global accessibility to, and thereby interest in, art history of the Arab World from an institution based right here in Abu Dhabi.
The opening of alMawrid signifies much more than the creation of a reference point for archival documents and pedagogical tools; it is the assertion that artistic and cultural movements in Western Asia and North Africa deserve to be narrated from a perspective rooted in the locale in which they were born. Leveraging their decades-long experience in the region and connections that span the continents, Principal Investigator Salwa Mikdadi, with Co-Principal Investigators May Al-Dabbagh and Shamoon Zamir, aims to bring attention to these very narratives from the ground up.
“I look at the study of art as porous; a field that is inherently interdisciplinary. Collaboration is central to alMawrid’s mission.”
- Salwa Mikdadi
Nada Ammagui: My first question is about the title of the Center. What struck me initially is the order of the words in the title; it's the Arab Center for the Study of Art and not, as some might think, something like the Center for the Study of Arab Art. What was the reason behind this wording?
Salwa Mikdadi: Well, alMawrid aims to study art history from a regional perspective while considering the influence of our immediate neighbors—whether Turkey or Afghanistan or other countries from Eastern Africa—that have a long history of trade and cross-cultural links with the region, which is a historical global crossroad.
The Center’s title reflects the diversity of the Arab world, which encompasses Arabs of many ethnic groups. There are many examples of how the respective cultural traditions have influenced modern art, such as the Kabyle of al-Maghreb, among many others. We hope that alMawrid will provide the platform and resources for exploring these exchanges from within the Arab world.
N.A.: It is actually quite intuitive to situate it as an Arab Center, then. The Center is located here in the Arab world while encompassing a geographically broader study of art, in which cultural circles overlap and intersect. And I know that the Center was being planned over a number of years. As a student of yours this was something that came up many times in our conversations. When was the idea for the Center born?
S.M.: It began with a modest archive that I started in the early 1980’s that was referred to as the Database of Arab Artists. It was based on my own research and soon expanded to serve scholars and institutions as a resource on art of the Arab world in the form of a nonprofit called Cultural & Visual Arts Resource/International Council for Women in the Arts (ICWA). This was fifteen years before the internet, when research was limited to library resources, physical archives, and artists on location. At the time, unfortunately, interest in the region’s art was almost nonexistent, which limited funding and research.
N.A.: Is this lack of consolidated and digital archives the primary gap that alMawrid aims to fill?
S.M.: There are actually two important gaps to address: access to primary documents; and academic research. The first is the lack of access to a digital archive of artists, art historians, and art institutions, from academic journals and exhibition ephemera to audio and video archives. There are a number of books on the history of art of the Arab world in Arabic, but they’ve never been translated, so there is a general assumption that such scholarship does not exist. The archive can create a space for anyone to access and learn more about these sources.
As for the second gap, study of the region’s art is relatively recent; there are few courses or dedicated area studies programs offered on the region’s art history. However, interest to pursue research in this field is growing. AlMawrid’s research focus will begin with two projects that will help advance scholarship in this area: the histories of Arab Art exhibitions and the histories of Arab Art institutions. Offering access to rare publications will help to support further research and promote advanced scholarship on regional art.
N.A.: We’re still in the early stages of the Center opening, but are there any lessons you learned as you were building the infrastructure for a research center like this one?
S.M.: The main lesson learned is not to lose time. There is an urgency to preserve the archive. In a region beset with wars and conflicts, archives are in danger of being lost or dispersed. We have already lost archives to fires, building bombings, and dispersion. It is common practice to preserve the archives of artists in museum collections or universities. Unfortunately, however, there are few systematic efforts to collect, preserve, and digitize these. So much has already been lost that it’s like picking up the bits and pieces of a puzzle and putting them together.
Another lesson that we’ve learned is that it is our responsibility to digitize the archive in its original format and not to curate it; every document is an important piece of a larger puzzle put together differently by each researcher or academic.
N.A.: How do you think that the Center will contribute not just to collecting the archive of artists and art history, but to creating archival materials about the Center itself, noting what’s been successful, what’s been unsuccessful, and, in that way, creating an institutional memory of alMawrid? This was a topic that we discussed frequently in your course on museums and cultural institutions at NYUAD.
SM: A very good question. The value of institutional memory lies in how it is articulated and who contributes to the narrative. Gathering impressions from all of the staff who work or will work with us in the future is key to recording our history. Recording the versions of the art historical terms, in Arabic and English, typically used in the field of Arab art history and the new terms that replace them is part of our research goals at alMawrid.
N.A.: I can definitely imagine someone down the line writing their senior thesis on alMawrid, looking at how the Center was built and what kind of impact it has had in the field by using primary sources from and about alMawrid. Having documents about the early years of the Center would be really important, especially because it is the first and, so far, only research center like this in the region.
S.M.: I agree; it is important to keep a record today.
N.A.: You already touched on who will be contributing research, where you mentioned that there are fellowships, residencies, and other opportunities for individuals to work with the Center. Will there be any independently commissioned research projects or will they be more formal research positions?
S.M.: There will be both, full time researchers as well as visiting scholars and collaborations with faculty. Such partnerships already exist currently with several professors. An art historian with the Humanities Research Fellowship for the Study of the Arab World at NYU Abu Dhabi will be exploring the alMawrid archive. There are also several external researchers working on specific archives in different locations, such as Kuwait, the UAE, and other Arab countries. The research plan is already outlined for the next five years; however, external researchers working on their respective archives can still submit proposals for journal articles.
The Center’s collaboration extends to faculty at other universities, art professionals in the UAE and beyond, and art institutions in the region, as well. For instance, more recently, we collaborated with the Sharjah Art Museum, sharing archival data and video interview material for their exhibition and publication. We look forward to collaborating with faculty at other universities. And, of course, it goes without saying that our students will be primary beneficiaries of alMawrid resources.
N.A.: Moving on to the collaborative element of alMawrid, you’ve touched upon how you hope to work with the Arts Center and Art Gallery on campus. How do you anticipate these collaborations taking shape?
S.M.: The Gallery is an amazing resource for faculty and for alMawrid. Their exhibitions and programs are in synergy with our objectives. I am in conversation with Maya Alison, the Founding Director and Chief Curator of the NYUAD Art Gallery, and with Bill Bragen at the NYUAD Arts Center. As a long-time member of its Advisory Committee, the Gallery is a natural partner and another good resource on art of the Arab world. I look forward to working with both Maya Allison and Bill Bragen.
The Center also works closely with the Arts and Humanities Division and their plans for postgraduate degrees. As a research center, alMawrid will contribute to the curriculum and projects of these future postgraduate research programs.
N.A.: Within alMawrid itself, there’s Haraka: Experimental Lab for Arab Art and Social Thought. I’m intrigued by the decision to link these two realms of knowledge: the social sciences and the arts. Yet, it seems to make a lot of sense since art doesn’t exist in its own bubble, separate from the world around it. Was it a decision from the start to have the social thought element at the Center?
S.M.: The intention to partner with faculty was always part of the initial plan. Professor May Al-Dabbagh’s history of engagement with Gulf artists is well known; her research intertwines deeply with art. May will initiate a project that contributes to our understanding of contemporary art practices from within the regional theoretical discourse that frames art production. Al-Dabbagh will “investigate the ideas, interpersonal engagements, cultural production, and knowledge flows emerging from the region to support alternative modes of knowledge production and pedagogy about the Arab region’s societies and history.”
Drawing upon new understandings of Arab and global social thought, Haraka will develop three research projects: ‘Tracing Migrations,’ an oral history research project which documents the lives, careers, and contributions of artists and cultural managers in the GCC region; ‘Teaching Global Social Theory,’ a pedagogy project that reworks the “centers and peripheries” of social theory; and ‘Plurilogue,’ a mobile conversation platform based on engaging artists and social scientists working on the region in Arabic and English.
N.A.: As for Akkasah’s role at alMawrid, will the Akkasah team continue to focus on historical photographs or will they also begin collecting materials that are being created digitally today?
S.M.: Akkasah's already robust documentation processes and high resolution database are quite well-suited for the incorporation of various media created in digital spaces. They have an extraordinary website that contains some of the best documented photographs from the region. The archival process—digitization and documentation with tags and metadata—would be easily adapted to enable the preservation of digital media and would fit well with their current archival practices..
Akkasah’s photographic archive continues to grow their collection of documentary and vernacular photography, with several projects focusing on the UAE. Akkasah offers an exceptional opportunity to view high resolution images with documentation and excellent search components.
N.A.: I’m wondering how the digital shift during the pandemic will impact collection practices. We’ve somewhat been pushed, this past year, to accelerate into the virtual world: exhibitions; symposia; conferences; conversations—everything is now online. Do you think that this lack of tangible or physical archive is going to make things more difficult in the collection and preservation process or do you think it makes it easier?
S.M.: Actually, it doesn’t change much. It just puts virtual access to the archive at the core of our mission at alMawrid. The shift to the digital makes alMawrid’s work even more timely and necessary. The pandemic has created new challenges restricting physical access to the archive. It has certainly disrupted our plans and delayed our work, but, nonetheless, we managed to find alternative ways of working virtually. Researchers continue to identify, evaluate, and acquire archives for digitization and documentation.
N.A.: As for young curators, artists, writers, and art historians, do you recommend they stick to printed publications rather than digital ones? Or would a complete transition to virtual modes of production be fitting during this period?
S.M.: I cannot imagine living without my books; I love to hold a book in my hands. There’s something about being in direct, physical contact with the words on paper. Reading online, on the other hand, seems distant and removed. However, the advantages of e-books and digital libraries are many. They make it possible for students and others to read the electronic versions of publications and I believe that open access to knowledge will transform the traditional format of education.
AlMawrid Center is open to receiving donations of archives, which should be limited to original documents from artists, art historians or art institutions. With a few exceptions, the physical archive is returned to the owner after completing the digitization.
- Salwa Mikdadi
N.A.: Do you have any advice to give to young artists as they build up their personal archives? Would you suggest that they donate materials frequently or wait until their archives are more complete?
S.M.: Many artists today diligently document their art and archives, and this is especially true of many young artists. Today, documentation tools support the archiving of different folios more efficiently than manual entries once did. I advise artists to consider the future of their archive and website, and to identify the institutions that can maintain their digital archive in perpetuity so that it remains functional in fifty years. I hope they choose alMawrid!
N.A.: Do you have any announcements you’d like to share with our readers on behalf of alMawrid?
S.M.: Starting in Fall 2021, alMawrid will roll out its programs and launch its website. Other programs to look for are Artist in Residence, an inaugural exhibition, a lecture series, and stories from the archive. Digitization and documentation take time and, depending on the archive, that can sometimes be several months. We ask for patience in the meantime while researchers across the Arab world discover new archives. We also look forward to activating the archive in classes, thus expanding the reach of archival materials to generate new scholarship in the fields of modern and contemporary visual art, art history, photography, cultural studies, sociology, and anthropology.
N.A.: Now I’d like to ask you some questions about yourself. We know that you’re an extremely busy person and that your schedule is full with teaching, meeting people, and presenting your work. How do you stay organized, energized, creative, and motivated when you’re always so busy?
S.M.: No matter how much I try to be organized and plan ahead, establishing a new center means that I am constantly interrupted by a variety of requests and have to work on multiple aspects of the Center’s infrastructure simultaneously. I continue to be driven by my passion for the art and its history. Something like finding the archive of an artist is like discovering a treasure trove of information that leads to new links and unexpected turns in art history. Such a prospect keeps me energized.
AlMawrid is certainly an ambitious project, but I am not alone. My colleagues and collaborators, Professors May Al-Dabbagh and Shamoon Zamir, plan exciting programs and publications, they have been very generous with their time, and they are always available to help and advise. I am fortunate to be based at NYU Abu Dhabi where I receive support and encouragement from university leadership and staff.
I’m also inspired by other researchers—in the classroom and beyond—who dedicate their free time to writing and publishing. Several students of mine have, in the past, selected research topics on the art of this region. Nada, you were the first of my students to take on the extra challenge of dedicating a whole year to an advanced post-graduate research fellowship contributing new knowledge on Arab art institutions. Your seminal monograph on the Sharjah Biennial will be an important contribution to the field and will definitely be archived. These are just some of the things that drive my work.
N.A.: You’re truly an inspiration to us all! Are these activities—archival investigation, reading, teaching—what your ideal day would entail? I’d love to hear a bit about how the perfect day in your life would unfold.
S.M.: First and foremost, I wish I could wake up and there be no more COVID 19, with peace and justice in the world, and that I didn’t have to hear the word “dozen” on the news; “a dozen people were killed,” “dozens of people were killed.” When I hear that, my whole day is ruined. In that case, the ideal day would entail few emails to respond to, time to write and reflect, and the chance to be rewarded with just a bit of leftover time to read an Arabic novel.
N.A.: I agree; that definitely sounds ideal. Is there an artist that has been on your mind lately, whether from the contemporary or modern period?
S.M.: Yes, Lawrence Abu Hamdan. His work is extraordinary, thoughtful and scholarly. From the modern period, I’ve been rereading Inji Efflatoun’s publications and other writings on Inji. I have always respected her activism and admired her art.
N.A.: Last, but not least, if you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?
S.M.: Well, I’d like to be with my children and grandchildren. Every August, we meet at my home in the San Francisco Bay Area. We have already missed two family gatherings and, with the pandemic, it is still unclear when I’ll be able to travel again.
N.A.: Hopefully you’ll get to see them sooner than later, inshAllah! But for today, that just about wraps up our interview. Thank you sincerely for your time, Salwa. I am so pleased to have gotten to learn more about you and about this incredible accomplishment. You never cease to inspire me and many others in the field with your unbounded enthusiasm and selfless service to Arab art history. We all wish you many more successes.