“Whatever Your Gift is, It is a Gift”: Maya Allison on Mohamed Ibrahim, the Venice Biennale, and the NYUAD Art Gallery
By NiccolòAcram Cappelletto
Published on March 21, 2022
Chief curator and executive director of the NYUAD Art Gallery since its opening in 2014, Maya Allison has shaped the vision of the museum-space present inside the campus of New York University Abu Dhabi and contributed to the UAE art ecosystem with exhibitions, programming, and scholarship. In the following interview, I had the opportunity to have an anticipation of the upcoming curatorial project of Maya Allison at the 59th Venice Biennale (23rd April - 27th November 2022), titled “The Milk of Dreams.” The exhibition, “Between Sunrise and Sunset,” will present a new body of artworks by Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, part of the first group of contemporary artists in the UAE from the northern town of Khor Fakkan. Maya tells the history of the relationship with the artist, the major publication coming with the exhibition, and the process of curating such a show.
We then moved the conversation to the past, present and future of the Gallery. NYUAD Art Gallery established itself as a vital element in the UAE and now it is becoming a vehicle of representation for art from the UAE abroad. This interview was of particular value to me since I had the opportunity to work at the Gallery for almost three years during my degree. I witnessed its expansion, enduring rigor, and dedication to the immediate communities around it, such as the NYUAD student body. As Maya says in the interview, “whatever your gift is, if you are an artist or a creator or a practitioner or a curator, it is a gift. In the literal sense of the word. A gift that you give.”
Niccolò Acram Cappelletto: Thank you so much for sitting down with me. Let us start with the Venice Biennale exhibition. How is the preparation going? How are you feeling with the opening coming so soon, and how is everything right now?
Maya Allison: The preparation is done. The work is now getting ready to ship. The book is going to print tomorrow. And it is a major book actually. At this point, the main thing we are focusing on is how to tell the story of what we are doing to the press that might never have heard of the UAE beyond Dubai. We have now revealed that the work will be a single major piece, made of lots of smaller pieces, that fills the whole space. A part of his [Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, the artist selected to represent the UAE at the next Venice Art Biennale] paper-maché sculptures series. The show will be a contemporary presentation of his current work and the book will be a retrospective of his life's work to date.
N.A.C.: Is it your first show curated at the Biennale?
N.A.C.: That must feel exciting.
M.A.: Yes. It is a wonderful boost of confidence to have been nominated by the artist–and then the pavilion and the government confirmed that nomination. So I feel honored and empowered by that trust in my understanding of his work and ability to translate it across such different audiences.
I feel honored and empowered by that trust in my understanding of his work and ability to translate it across such different audiences.
N.A.C.: I guess you kind of replied already, but what did it mean for you to get selected by the artist? And not in the usual way, as some would say, the other way around: a curator that chooses the artist.
M.A.: I have been saying for a long time that this artist really needs to go to the Venice Biennale. I mean, not even Venice in particular, but I have said that we have not seen enough of his work. It is really important and interesting. At every chance I get to work with him, I always commissioned new work, such as when I was a guest curator at Abu Dhabi Art and then again for the Cultural Foundation. There was no mystery that he would be ready for the Biennale. When I got the news, there was no question in my mind whether or not I was going to do this. It was an obvious choice. If it was an artist that I did not trust could [represent the UAE at the Venice Biennale], I would have said no.
N.A.C.: Speaking about the artist, Mohamed Ibrahim, you have known him for quite some time now. How does an event such as the Venice Biennale impact the relationship between you two? How did you support each other in the artistic and curatorial processes?
M.A.: A big part of the process has been me interviewing him. I would say the book is the major part of the work. He would go back and forth with me with a couple of different ideas and I would say yes to this one or this one I have this question about. At a certain point, he said: “Okay, I'm thinking Between Sunrise and Sunset [a phrase which later became the title of the exhibition] as the concept. The work will shift from black and white to color.” I said: “That sounds amazing.” Then we talked about what the division point would look like, and what the forms look like. We wanted to do additional work on the walls and we left it as open as possible. His process does not arise from rigorous planning. He finds the work in the material. A lot of the process consisted in setting the frame together and within that, him finding the work and the material, this paper-maché. I would visit him and see how it was going and we would talk about the different groupings and what he thought of them. Something then clicked for him, and he started an intense period of production. Suddenly he had produced a full work. And then it became a matter of us refining the layout – very few adjustments, really. While he was doing that, I had spent several days of continuous, sustained interviews with him about every aspect of his body of work. I asked him everything that I thought of, and included sort of casual-ongoing interviews over the year. I would go visit him about once a month and spend a couple of days with him. I was really trying to make sure that I understood his work, his work's progression and his influences from the source.
One of the problems [with curating] is that people put their own interpretive lens onto other artworks. A big part of my job is to make sure that, as much as possible, I do not interpret independently. I am trying to theorize upwards. First, I look at that material, and then develop the theory from the work rather than applying any existing theory to it. I had some major discoveries. I thought I knew his work well – we did four other exhibitions together – and we have had many conversations when I interviewed him before. Yet, based on this round of research, I realize how not only the landscape around him is important, but also that there are all these other cultural influences in his landscape. They are so common for him, he does not even think to mention them anymore. But when spending time with him, on a full-time basis, you come to realize the intricacies of his influences. There is, of course, the tradition of rock art, going back to ancient times. I think they call it proto-writing, in a way that he would have experienced it as a teenager, going out in the mountains, seeing these caves where the rock art still is. You can imagine the rock landscape as a normal part of his visual landscape, interlaced with ancient structures, such as the 15th-century Al Bidya Mosque. It is a really old Mosque that may have been a pre-Islamic shrine. History is a very fluid thing when you do not know exactly what is happening in this space. There was also the Portuguese occupation [in the northern Emirates of present-day UAE] and the footprint of that occupation is still there. All of these factors affected his work, over time. And we should not forget about his garden. The plants have histories that are related to other artists that he knows and so on.
I am trying to theorize upwards. First, I look at that material, and then develop the theory from the work rather than applying any existing theory to it.
N.A.C.: The book will contain these precious interviews. How did you incorporate and edit the interviews? Did you extrapolate information from them, or included texts that you wrote yourself?
M.A.: My co-editor, Cristiana de Marchi, and I felt it was important first to collect all the relevant archival material. We engaged Munira Al Sayegh [independent curator in the UAE], and she sifted through the material from Mohamed’s studio archive. Cristiana de Marchi brought in her own archival knowledge, as she was curator at the Flying House [where these artists documented their work over decades]. We put together folders full of images of his work from his entire career, year by year. When I interviewed him, I would ask him about each of those years and those bodies of work. He would tell me stories. The interview was essentially starting with: “Tell me your life story. When did you first start to feel like you might be an artist? How did that come to be? What else happened along the way?” That sort of thing. And we started to delve into the works themselves – this is days-long interviews to get through. When I finally put together all the materials, I started to think: how do I tell the story? I did not want to only tell his life story, but also the story of his artworks and his artistic process through the story’s lens. We also commissioned many other writers, who are his friends and his colleagues, as well as other art historians and curators. This book is a kaleidoscopic view of his practice.
This book is a kaleidoscopic view of [Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim’s] practice.
N.A.C.: The artist's work comes from a specific local context in the UAE [Khor Fakkan] but it also reaches a wide audience. It can speak to many, many different audiences. How have you considered this connection between the artist, his background, and the exhibition context in Venice? I guess that was a big challenge.
M.A.: Yes, and that is actually why I think he will be so important to Venice. I have been going to see the Venice Biennale for some time now, and the main challenge I see is: how to catch a visitor’s attention in a biennale that takes a week to get through. Everything starts to look the same after a while. I feel very strongly that his work has the potential to stand out in that context. My hope is that through the sheer power of visceral presence, the work will invite the viewer to stop and look more closely. [Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim] is Emirati, from a small town on the Indian Ocean. His life story does not fit neatly into the usual story of what an artist does and looks like. My hope is that in the journey of understanding the work, audiences will start to realize that they are interacting with an artist who does not fit in any clear-cut categories. This will help raise questions complicating one’s own narratives of what art is, where it comes from, and how it works. I think we have inherited a lot of unconscious colonial thinking about what art is and how it is supposed to look like.
My hope is that through the sheer power of visceral presence, the work will invite the viewer to stop and look more closely.
N.A.C.: Super interesting. Thinking about Ibrahim's origins and the context of Khor Fakkan, how have you developed a relationship, after living all these years here in the UAE, with Khor Fakkan and the Northern Emirates in general?
M.A.: That is a really good question. I can say that now it feels very familiar. I know this drive through the rocky mountains by heart now. Going to Mohamed’s studio and knowing that after turning on this corner, I will see the port. Khor Fakkan has incredible fish restaurants because it is a fishing town. It was originally a port town with a big fishing trade. Just in the span of time since I started visiting his studio in 2016, I have seen the landscape go through many changes. This is especially noticeable as tourism in the region increases. Now cruise ships stop in Khor Fakkan, I do not know for how long that has been going on. They even have this new waterfall, a man-made waterfall. It is kind of amazing. Have you seen it?
N.A.C.: I have, yes.
M.A.: That is new. Mohamed was born back when there was no electricity and people were living in mud wall huts or the type of Arabic houses where he was born – and that is now gone. The mosque next to the house he was born in is still there though. Of course, it has been updated and expanded since, and so on. But the footprint of its life is still there as the city has grown around it. I feel a real affection for it as a place.
N.A.C.: Regarding the curatorial project itself, what was the most surprising and/or inspiring moment as this experience is reaching its culmination with the opening in Venice?
M.A.: I think that one of the things Mohamed has not done a lot of is to make large-scale artworks. He is making something new, and large-scale. The moment of breakthrough, of truly envisioning a large single work for the space, was very exciting. You could really feel the life coming into the work.
That was one moment, and the second one was the product of looking at many of his works over the years and starting to see connections across decades that were quite beautiful, a resonance among certain forms that reappear throughout his work on a large-scale and on a small-scale. I started discovering the patterns of his practice that you can only really see when you start to zoom out and see the whole body of work together. There was a moment where I was organizing the images for the book and I decided to put an image from a piece from 2009. In it, he is in Dijon, France, conducting a performance in which he is walking and clearing the leaves from a patch of grass. The way he is walking back and forth creates a line in the grass. He also made an artwork in 2018 for the Sharjah Art Foundation: that was a long line made out of charcoal. Both works have similar length, width, and compositional feeling attached to them. He and I would never have made the connection otherwise. I like putting those works together and then realizing that these are actually the same form, a decade apart. They both hold this vibration of his compositional signature.
The moment of breakthrough, of truly envisioning a large single work for the space, was very exciting. You could really feel the life coming into the work.
N.A.C.: Do you think he was also unaware of these connections and he discovered them with you during the process?
M.A.: Yes. Some of them were so obvious that he did not even think about it. For others like these two [the artworks from Dijon and Sharjah], I think he was not consciously trying to draw parallels. He often says “when I am making work, I am not consciously making something about something else. I discover in retrospect that there is a connection to either the past work or to my past, my life history.” There is a number of cases like that because he really trusts his process and he does not question it. And then when it comes out the other side, he realizes that he has created something that is related to other elements.
N.A.C.: How did you grapple with his impact on the UAE art scene while doing all the research for the show? He is a major figure.
M.A.: I know that a lot of people admire both his work and his kind of effervescent energy. He is perceived as very warm and friendly man, full of humor, who likes to have a good laugh. In Munira Al-Sayegh’s essay, she writes about learning to see the landscape from him in a way that she never had before – through his eyes as an artist, but also through learning more about the history of the UAE’s art scene. There is also another photographer, who has moved here recently and has been following Mohamed on Instagram. He loves Mohamed’s work. I think that he [Mohamed] attracts a lot of people that admire his independent spirit in some kind of motorcycle-riding way: he has a free-spirit energy. But it has not always been an easy road. Mohamed made a decision in the 1980s that he was going to not worry about what other people think about his work and really create art for its own sake. From that decision, he finds people who connect with him. He trusts the work to speak for him in a way. He might say, for example, “It’s fine if only five people like my work because those will be the five people that I want to talk to.” That decision meant a lot in that era. There was a long period of time when people that did not necessarily like his work. I am sure that is still true today, but the momentum has been increasingly positive with more and more people responding to his work.
I know that a lot of people admire both his work and his kind of effervescent energy. Mohamed made a decision in the 1980s that he was going to not worry about what other people think about his work and really create art for its own sake.
5. Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim: Between Sunrise and Sunset” publication poster. Image courtesy of National Pavilion UAE La Biennale di Venezia.
N.A.C.: Very positive. You two ended up at the Venice Biennale. I want to shift the last few questions to the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery. You have now been open for eight years.
M.A.: Yes, that is crazy.
N.A.C.: And has proven to be a key element for the UAE art ecosystem in the region, but also on the international scene, when considering the level and the kind of artists you have been showing here. What are your short-term goals and long-term hopes for the Gallery?
M.A.: My short-term goals are looking at the next ten years: where do we go from here? We first take stock of where we are now, now that the Louvre Abu Dhabi has opened. It was not here when we first opened. The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is coming; the Zayed National Museum is coming. We are always taking stock of our new neighbors and thinking about our program in relationship to that. I think there are incredibly rich, complex audiences based in the UAE that are not easy to tap into because they are so complex and they change so quickly. That is going to be a big question for us: making sure that we are connecting with audiences beyond the typical art-going audience. I think that we can play a role that is different from other museums because of our connection to a university [New York University Abu Dhabi], but also because our campus is open to the public with a Performing Arts Center and the [NYUAD] Institute. We are part of a place that encourages active thought and experiences, connecting audiences across disciplines. I want to feed into and amplify that aspect of our identity. Our long-term goals are to–
M.A.: “Hopes” – Our long-term hopes. One of the things we should feel very lucky and grateful for is that we are a new institution in a new landscape. This means we can rethink things from the ground up. In general, we tend to import how things are done from wherever feels familiar to us. That can have both good and bad consequences. I know that a conversation in the museum world right now has to do with what it means to decolonize a museum, to rethink exhibitions in terms of inclusivity and decentering the colonial narratives or colonizing impulses that we have with culture at large. And so, I would like to – again, in the sense of theorizing-up that I was evoking earlier – curate “up” from the experiences we see in the UAE and highlight the connections that the UAE has with other parts the world. This does not mean curating from here. It means curating to here in a way that is not trying to impose my own ideas or preconceptions.
6. Above: New York University Abu Dhabi Saadiyat-Campus. Image courtesy NYU Abu Dhabi. Photo by Silvia Razgova. Below: “Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952-1965”, NYUAD Art Gallery, 2018. Installation View. Image courtesy of NYUAD Art Gallery.
I think there are incredibly rich, complex audiences based in the UAE that are not easy to tap into because they are so complex and they change so quickly.
N.A.C.: Connected to that idea, there is also the exhibition in Washington [Between the Sky and the Earth: Contemporary Art from the UAE on display at the Middle Eastern Arts and Cultural Center (MEI) in Washington DC, USA] that the Gallery helped to organize. Now, there is also the Biennale. These are shows outside of the UAE that are bringing the UAE’s artist voices abroad. What does it mean to be involved in shows like these representing the Gallery outside the UAE? What kind of responsibility do you feel?
M.A.: It is a huge responsibility. Especially with a show like the one in Washington D.C., first because the whole premise of the show is that it is art from the UAE. I think one of the misconceptions about the UAE from abroad is that Emiratis are the only artists who make up the UAE’s art scene when in fact, it is a much more nuanced conversation than that. Being able to bring all the complexity of what is happening in the art scene here to an audience in the U.S., challenging these preconceptions, is very gratifying to us. Likewise, with the biennale, to invite visitors to question their assumptions about where and how art is made and what it means to say somebody is an “outsider artist” versus an insider, is very interesting. Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim is as much of an insider as you can get in the UAE. The fact that he may be considered as an ‘outsider’ comes from the fact the UAE is outside of New York. The arts infrastructure here took time to grow. He does not fit into this binary of insider/outsider, a trained artist versus self-taught artist. These binaries do not apply because they cannot apply in this context. I really think it [the UAE Pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale] is an opportunity to break free from that.
Being able to bring all the complexity of what is happening in the art scene here to an audience in the U.S., challenging these preconceptions, is very gratifying to us.
N.A.C.: This is my last question. Do you have any advice for any young and/or emerging, curator or aspiring artist? This can be general advice for any cultural or art practitioners based in the UAE – as this part of the world is gaining more and more recognition in the global art world.
M.A.: Go to as many events as you can, just get used to the feeling of it. Show your support. I do believe that whatever your gift is, if you are an artist or a creator or a practitioner or a curator, it is a gift. In the literal sense of the word. A gift that you give. That attitude of mind is a helpful one, especially when you cannot control how it is received. But you can always stay in the mind of giving. Offering – offering in the positive sense. Do not feel that you have to somehow isolate yourself from other artistic inputs. You should see what is out there and what is happening. This allows yourself to receive the gifts from your fellow artists, but also to give them the gift of your presence and your support, as you would want to receive when your time comes. I think a lot of younger emerging artists do not actually do enough of this, and that it really does hinder their practice. You are in and of the world that you are a part of. If you are practicing alone, you may find that you exhibit alone. We all need our hermit times, but it is important to connect with fellow humans.
I do believe that whatever your gift is, if you are an artist or a creator or a practitioner or a curator, it is a gift. In the literal sense of the word. A gift that you give.
N.A.C.: Thank you so much, Maya.
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The UAE National Pavilion opens its doors to the public at Arsenale - Sale d’Armi on April 23rd, 2022, and will be on view until 27th November, 2022.
NiccolòAcram Cappelletto is an Editor at Global Art Daily and Postgraduate Research Fellow at NYU Abu Dhabi, based in Treviso and Abu Dhabi. After completing his B.A. in Art History with specialisations in Political Science and Heritage Studies, he is conducting research on the connections between heritage and contemporary art in the context of postcolonial Italy. Niccolò worked as a gallery and curatorial assistant with galleries in Venice, Paris, and Abu Dhabi. Interested in decolonial and demodernising practices, he believes in the need to translate into an accessible practice the heavy theoretical frameworks of the present.
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