Art & Voices Matter: Morad Montazami sifts through complexity of Southern Modernism

The curatorial-archival practice of Morad Montazami, director of Zamân Books & Curating, aims to extricate the critical vocabulary on Southern Modernism from the western domination.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Jun 28, 2021

Of the many faces of the tangible experiences, one that holds allegiance to permanency is the art of navigating through the routes of the maps. To traverse the intricate pattern of dots and lines on the map is to tread the borders and boundaries carved in the 20th century by a way of negotiating the roots of nation and identity that, even if fluid, were yet connected. At the dusk of colonisation and dawn of neoliberalism, the shifting borders and the shrinking cultural spaces harked back to the roots of nation-states only to betray their diversity, and draw the fault lines of differences. The promise of stability held by the cartographer has the human cost to it compounded by cultural appropriation. If the archival collection, as an extension of human life in the museums, at the cusp of colonialism and modernism, transmuted to be a site where the politics of inclusion and exclusion were played, then the contemporary artists of the Global South have been on a journey to redefine the conventional idea of home as a constant ‘place of origin’.

From this space of archival knowledge systems, not limited to the aforementioned institution of museums, coupled with the works of the artists from the Global South – who shuttle, straddle, and shift the many homes - emerges the curatorial-archival practice of Morad Montazami, leading Zamân Books & Curating in France. From 2014 and 2019, he was the curator for 'Middle Eastern and North African' at Tate Modern, London. His work opens avenues for ushering in a new critical vocabulary to express and represent the situated knowledge. Montazami’s curatorial-archival practice – cognizant of both what constitutes a home for a cosmopolitan artist and ever-evolving meaning of the archive in the world saturated by data – could be summed as a ‘poetics of non-arrival' (to heuristically borrow Judith Butler's reference to Franz Kafka’s oeuvre): a perpetual desire to excavate, resettle, reclaim, the singular relationship between culture, place and time.

Exhibition view of The disoriented object in Morocco, Decorative Arts Museum, Paris| Douglas Abdell | STIRworld
Douglas Abdell, artist studio with electro-magnetic sculptures and drawings Image: Courtesy of Douglas Abdell

1. Please talk about your general practice.

I see myself as an archivist in the digital era. Even if publishing research papers and curating exhibitions in real physical spaces remain my chief priorities, I am also now acutely conscious of the questions raised around the circulation and accessibility of knowledge systems. Still publishing and curating today means to be alert of the current debates and ideological shifts between different memories and subjectivities: a composition of the postcolonial and ‘connected’ history of arts – virtually organically connected. To study and analyse how the so-called two zones – one claimed to be the centre and the other pushed to the periphery – interacted throughout the 20th century is one of Zamân Books & Curating main goals, building grounds for postcolonial debate since 2010 with our annual journal Zamân. The contemporary artist of Global South, Faouzi Laatiris, who inspired me profoundly, takes the city as a crossroads of the informal economy, drifting visions and conceptual ‘mobiles’ to create the on-site installation works. I curated his large-scale retrospective Fugitive Volumes in 2016 at the Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary art, Rabat, but I still dream to show him outside Morocco. To give an example of another artist who works in the context of connected histories and multiple subjectivities is the American-Italian-Lebanese artist, Douglas Abdell. He published ‘intervalist manifesto’ Mirror Magnetik in 1984: a piece of esoteric graphic art combining letters, numbers and symbols, a priori, without clear signification, but phonetically and poetically ostentatious. He continues to produce electro-magnetic drawings and sculptures from the South of Spain, where I shot and produced a documentary film about his complex and cosmopolitan journey.   

02 mins watch From Batoul S’Himi’s film Espace 150 x 295 cm | Faouzi Laatiris | STIRworld
From Batoul S’Himi’s film Espace 150 x 295 cm Video: Courtesy of Batoul S’Himi and Faouzi Laatiris

2. What are the key concerns that you aspire to address through your work? What prompted you to make this your area of focus?

I aim to clearly address a trans-Mediterranean space, in addition to this, the transnational Arab, African, and Asian art histories and resources, as wide as it can sound. Hence, exploring various momentums and heritages around which artists, historians and activists converge today. Imagining news practices and functions of the archives to widen and perform their accessibility, constantly evolving in the long-run digital revolution. As such, we cannot say that the financial and media powers related to the big data economy are concentrated in the South countries. The sole reason why we must manage to think of the ways we ought to archive South modernisms and design their post-internet dimension. To give an example: The intermedia practice of Iranian artist, Arash Hanaei, now resettled in France, progressively shifted from strict urbanised spaces to psycho-geographic wanderings, and from representation issues to post-internet strategies. Cyclothymia of a Land, as part of a film trilogy, reveals the transition between the political instability of Tehran to the one found in Paris – after the terror attacks on the Bataclan concert hall in 2015 – the film is a provocative visual and sound collage. It struck me that a French artist could not do it as eloquently as a foreigner, especially a foreigner like Hanaei who experienced the Iran-Iraq War.

Mehdi Moutashar, Houé | Mehdi Moutashar| STIRworld
Mehdi Moutashar, Houé Image: Courtesy of Mehdi Moutashar

3. How do art interventions question the normative order? Do you think art helps the audience to think and experience about matters that are otherwise considered of a lesser importance?

The main normative order to be subverted is a general attempt in rethinking geography, beyond the nation-state and colonial borders. The cultural growth in England, France or the United States has been the fruit of citizens and social fabric made up of multiple origins, memories, often conflicting, because of the colonial history that witnessed Arab, African and Asian being ‘looted’ to fill the vitrines of Western museums. It is our clear attempt to negate the so far dominating paradigms of western modernism and reclaim the major museum collections. In an effort to overcome institutionalised geographies, alternative borders need to become operative, as cultures transfer and creolized inter-spaces come into being. The large-scale sculpture Houé (like the Arabic word for him/her) of post-minimalist artist, Mehdi Moutashar, transcendent geometry to illustrate the motion back and forth between Iraq (home of origin) and France (home of choice). A human-scale letterist installation formed by two letters: the aspirate h, which is developed based on a twofold concentric and eccentric movement, and the waw, which follows a spiral line. To dovetail these two letters gives rise to a back-and-forth motion, like a spatial breadth. The plasticity of letter and language, faithful to the Arab-Islamic or Arab-Andalusian culture, strives for some kind of ‘self-ecstasy’ and the ‘unveiling of truth’.

Arash Hanaei, Cyclothymia of a Land/Free Adaptation/Mountain Polyptych | Arash Hanaei | STIRworld
Arash Hanaei, Cyclothymia of a Land/Free Adaptation/Mountain Polyptych Image: Courtesy of Arash Hanaei

4. What kind of curatorial approaches do you apply to reflect the reality of the community in question?

The National Museum of Baghdad, the Museum of Fine Arts of Algiers, and the National Museum of Damascus are a few of the several key spaces of art and display, with a complex and rarely documented history; often reduced to a nostalgic celebration of ‘marvels’ and antiques of Iraq, Algeria, Syria. It is crucial to turn emotive nostalgia into an art of a critical look at the past. But also a Solar Nostalgia, to refer to a title of a famous painting from 1962 by Mohamed Melehi, only to suggest nostalgia as a creative process; as a way to ‘brighten’ the slice of time that was once made to succumb to the impenetrability of the past. 

The requests for ‘return’ of artefacts to their country of origin are fundamental and must be defended. But it is also vital to develop archival and digital tools to re-enact the ‘life’ or ‘aura’ of these objects, beyond their materiality – through recreated archival ecosystems designed for books and exhibitions, but prominently based on first-hand field studies and research. It is with the same spirit of re-enactment of the Mediterranean continent that the artist Michele Ciacciofera should be invited to this conversation. Ciacciofera always fascinated me for his capacity to interact with the trans-Arab cultural scene. Insular, he is both from Sardinia and Sicily, two islands that on the Italian map are only separated by the Tyrrhenian Sea but culturally quite remote. By extracting the archaic dimension, Ciacciofera recreates ancestral techniques and traditional crafts in contrast to a greatly globalised contemporary society.

Faddia Haddad’s artist studio | Faddia Haddad | STIRworld
Faddia Haddad’s artist studio Image: Courtesy of Faddia Haddad

5. How do you maintain artistic sensitivity to capture the fragility of the people who are often misunderstood, stereotyped or unheard? What are the ways to balance the aspects of sensitivity and solidarity?

There is an all-encompassing political dimension to the effort of shaping the field of South Modernisms, but also a comparative and complementary aspect; in fact, it is asserted that cultural history of the South cannot be written without a counter-history of ‘North’ and the historical centres of modernity. In the first instance of this commitment, the terms ‘Middle East’ and ‘North Africa’ need to be abandoned in order to debunk the Euro-American centric worldview and ‘neo/con/lib’ political agenda; with a preference for the terminology of ‘West Asia’ and general ‘Arab, African and Asian transnational art scenes’. The mask theme of the paintings by Fadia Haddad, who left Beirut for Paris at the end of the 1980s, rightly anchored hybrid imaginary, both modernist (cubism, colonialism...) and postmodern (parody, repetition), becomes a dynamic principle. The repetition of loose patterns and explosive gestures takes us into psychological vertigo, from spiral to spiral. The incessant movement from the centre towards the edge and from the edge towards the centre is hypnotic, almost addictive.

Artist Morad Montazami | Morad Montazami | STIRworld
Artist’s Portrait Image: Courtesy of Morad Montazami

6. Lastly, how far have things changed in the past years and what do you aspire to as an outcome in the long term of your work?

The universalist museum discourse on the greatness of Mesopotamian, Phoenician antiquities etc. has turned anachronistic. Heritage preservation and reinvention are everyday experiences to draw a balance between the urgency to create nomadic collections and data and the different memorial stages we undergo – a way of seeking a semblance of truth. All these issues go beyond the simple exhibition of obsolete national glory or pride. The archives will always play their role in the emancipation of memories. They serve as the fecund site to recognise the victims of colonisation over several generations; but also unfold the layers of the decolonisation movements. In our current times, most of these debates have become open-ended or open-source art history, mainly taking place through social media, where different actors, witnesses and researchers share and store material and even cross paths on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, Twitter, to name a few. Towards the end, I must mention, the artist community, especially from the nations with troubled history such as Syria and Lebanon, with the mediums such as digital, cinema and photography have remained committed to cultural resistance. Hala Alabdalla, a Syrian woman filmmaker living in exile in Paris, with her movie I Am The One Who Brings The Flowers To Your Grave (available on Youtube), talks about the meaning of exile and the traumatic experience of leaving your country behind devoid of the possibility of a cheerful return. Far from the Neo-Orientalist clichés prized by the Middle Eastern art market or the sociological stereotypes about the ‘Lebanese golden youth’, Myriam Boulos' photographic works create an empathetic resistance, in a subtle game between stolen and collaborative images. She accompanies the bodies with her objective, in their narcissism and their drift; more than she aestheticizes them, she embraces them more than she reveals them.

Myriam Boulos, Beyrouth, from Dead End series | Myriam Boulos | STIRworld
Myriam Boulos, Beyrouth, from Dead End series Image: Courtesy of Myriam Boulos

Art & Voices Matter
Co-curated by Rahul Kumar and Dilpreet Bhullar, Art & Voices Matter is a STIR original series of interviews with global creative practitioners who bring to the core the issues of communities that may be seen at the periphery.

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