On the occasion of the presentation of the Guggenheim UBS MAP exhibition at GAM Milano “But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise” I had the chance to ask Sara Raza about the conceptual origin of the show.
Mara Sartore: We’re at the last chapter of this UBS journey which started in New York. I would like to start by asking you to tell us a bit more about the concept and the story of the title of the exhibition “But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise”.
Sara Raza: The title is derived from the writing of the German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, part of the Frankfurt school and his impact on my own thinking: particularly his story was very pertinent. He was trying to escape Nazi persecution of occupied France and he travelled thought the Pyrenees to Spain, he had a visa for the USA and his intention was to arrive in neutral Portugal and from there he would cross the Atlantic to USA. However when he reached the boarder they told him that all visa would be revoked and everybody would be sent back. He subsequently committed suicide. One of his possessions was a Paul Klee painting of an angel, referred to as the ‘Angel of History’ and about which he writes very poetically. Benjamin refers to it as the angel trying to save mankind but there’s debris piling up and there’s a storm blowing from paradise which doesn’t allow him to move. There was this kind of reckoning between that essay and his life and how it all came together in terms of the project, this is because we’re facing the largest migratory footprint since World War II with the Syrian crisis in Europe, so it was really important for me to bring all this together within this exhibition. It has been also a collection-building exercise and at the same time I had to think about a curatorial project that would leave a mark, a very contemporary one.
MS: During the press conference you said that there are some invisible elements to the naked eye in this exhibition, could you tell us a bit more about the elements you where referring to?
SR: One of the curatorial strategies in this exhibitions was to look at conceptual contraband, and by contraband I mean trading of goods and ideas and particularly the black market. Contraband it’s like an alternative economy and I was interested in some of the strategies the artists employed. You will notice that there’s no provocation in the art works, they’re not provocative for the sake of provocation, but this doesn’t mean that they are not political. Actually they are indeed political, but they’re using several layered meanings that work in the same way a smuggler operates. As smugglers are able to cross borders, to go from country to country, without necessarily ever being caught or questioned, I think that’s what I was interested in when I was thinking about hidden meaning and providing value to some of those ideas that go unnoticed.
MS: I’ve noticed that not all the artists included in the exhibition come from what we conventionally think as the Middle East, for example there is Lida Abdul who was born in Afganistan and lives between Los Angeles and Kabul.
SR: Middle East is a construct. For 400 years before colonialism and the Ottoman Empire it existed as a constellation of cities and people were moving, but after the Ottoman Empire collapsed, British and Europeans really divided the region up and it became no longer a constellation but North of Africa and West of Asia is what the Middle East is understood as. You’re right in pointing out that Afghanistan is not part of that. Afghanistan is in central Asia, but Afghanistan historically has always been a buffer between East and West and in this exhibition I never ever reference directly to Syria or to the Syrian crisis, but it was really on top of my mind when I was working for the Guggenheim. I always had on my mind Syria when I was soliciting and looking for artworks to acquire for the institution, when I was enquiring about them, when I was building the curatorial concept because this is also a collection, not just an exhibition.
MS: Among the art works in the exhibition there is one in particular I would like to ask you to talk about “In Transit” by Lida Abdul.
SR: Lida’s piece is a very poetic analysis on places of post devastation, a space that has been ravished by war. She’s an artist that I have been working with for more than 10 years, I have written the Venice Biennale catalogue for her, I have written several books and essays and curated her work in several occasions. Lida is somebody who really provides a non prosaic analysis and particularly this work deals with the idea of rebuilding, a kind of reformation of a country that cannot rebuild itself, that has had decades of being ravaged by war and conflict and also internal struggles. The children in the video are able to be resilient, they’re able to move forward, when perhaps adults are not, so there’s hope. The action, beautifully portrayed, draws from Iranian cinema, from Armenian filmakers’ practice and really incapsulates what I am trying to achieve with this exhibition.
- Sara Raza, Guggenheim UBS MAP Curator, Middle East and North Africa Photograph by David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York
- Lida Abdul, In Transit, 2008. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Guggenheim UBS MAP © Lida Abdul
- Installation view: But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa, GAM, Milan © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2018 Photo: Carlotta Coppo