Mandy Merzaban is a rising star in the Arab art world. Gallery manager and curator of the Barjeel Art Foundation in the United Arab Emirates (UAE,) the 23-year-old Canadian, who hails from Egyptian descent, is making waves with her engaging and provocative exhibitions at the Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah and traveling shows of works from the foundation’s collection abroad.
A+ recently caught up with the young curator to discuss her creative development, the scope of the foundation’s collection and programs, and the emerging Arab artistic identity in the age of social media.
When did you first become interested in art?
I first became interested in art making at an early age—beginning with drawing and then building my technical skills. However, my interest evolved into a more nuanced appreciation for art once I entered the university and developed an understanding that art can be an interdisciplinary process, which takes numerous forms.
Did you study art history in college?
I graduated with a degree in Fine Arts and Cultural Anthropology from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada in 2008. In Fine Arts I focused on painting, digital media and art theory and in Cultural Anthropology my concentration was on indigenous cultures.
What lead you to the UAE?
I came to the UAE a year and a half after graduation to visit my sister. I then did two internships, one with Art Dubai and another at Carbon 12 art space in Dubai, both of which proved to be interesting points of entry into the art community in the UAE. The art scene in the UAE is like an open network in a constant state of exchange and, since it is still developing, there is a lot of potential to contribute to its growth.
What was you first big break in the Gulf art world?
I have been very fortunate to be able to cultivate, develop and apply my interests in art, design and curating by working with Sheikh Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi on building the Barjeel Art Foundation. This has been incredibly engaging, exciting and challenging.
What are your responsibilities?
My responsibilities are both administrative and creative. I manage the Barjeel collection, in terms of logistics, cataloging and coordinating exhibitions. I also curate the exhibitions we present every four to six months in our gallery in the Maraya Art Centre in Al Qasba, Sharjah.
What is the scope of the Barjeel Art Foundation’s collection?
The collection includes more than 500 artworks, with a focus on Arab artworks—primarily contemporary, but it also includes some modern pieces.
What exhibitions have you curated for the Foundation?
So far, we have hosted three exhibitions. The first exhibition, Peripheral Vision, opened last spring and inaugurated the gallery program with works by Halim Al Karim, Jeffar Khaldi and Abdulnasser Gharem, as well as beautiful pieces by the late Layan Shawabkeh. Our second exhibition, Residua, opened last October and focused on how contemporary Arab cultures are continuously in a state of transformation. Residua explored ideas of language, politics, geography and public memory, while featuring work by Ghada Amer, Taghreed Dargouth, Steve Sabella, Hassan Sharif and others. Our current exhibition, Strike Oppose, diverges quite a bit from the previous two shows to examine ideas of communication, perception and media. In particular, it offers artworks by a group of Arab artists exploring various forms of opposition or acquiescence to media, government and social taboos.
Zena el-Khalil, Binge Drinking, 2008. Mixed media on board in artist’s plexi glass frame, 200 x 82.5 cm. Courtesy Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah
Is the Foundation collecting artist’s work in depth?
The collection has several works by certain artists and single works by others; however, the goal has always been to collect from a wide variety of artists.
Does the Foundation lend artworks to other exhibitions?
The foundation has hosted several external exhibitions, both in the region and in different cities abroad. In 2010, we sent works to Abu Dhabi—first to the exhibition Opening the Doors: Collecting Middle Eastern Art at Emirates Palace, which was organized by Christie’s and the TDIC, and then to our largest exhibition to date, which is on display at the Offset Bureau’s new state-of-the-art offices in Tawazun and incorporates 33 works in an exhibition space within a workspace.
We showed works at the Zoom Art Fair in Miami Beach, at Edge of Arabia’s Transition exhibition in Istanbul and we are planning to send work to IFA (Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations) galleries in Berlin and Stuttgart in the coming months. We are also interested in loaning works to cultural institutions, museums and universities abroad. Additionally, we are bringing students to the gallery space for guided tours and are organizing engaging seminars, in collaboration with international institutions.
Do you have a favorite artist from the collection?
There are several artists that I find very interesting and that have completely different approaches to art making, such as the interdisciplinary artists Sharif Waked, Kader Attia, Huda Lutfi, Ghada Amer and Hayv Kharaman and the mixed-media and performance artist Zena El Khalil, just to name a few.
What role has the Sharjah Biennial, which is now celebrating its 10th anniversary, played in the region’s growing interest in contemporary art?
The Sharjah Biennial is an incredibly important component of the contemporary art scene in the region. It provides a critical and informative platform for artworks by internationally renowned artists to be viewed by the public. The works themselves often cleverly challenge a range of different issues, from political regulation, social reform and injustice to gender and cultural identity. This kind of accessibility is crucial and invites a further appreciation for the arts.
What is the most exciting part of your job?
Organizing our exhibitions, which involves putting together both the concept and design of the show, is probably the most exciting part of my work, as well planning our touring shows. We also just published our first catalogue, which was definitely something I enjoyed producing.
Your current show, Strike Oppose, is about art and contemporary means of communication. How does the Barjeel Art Foundation use the Internet and social media to spread the word about the collection and Arab culture?
The concept for Strike Oppose certainly takes inspiration from the influx of social media, different modes of communication and the exchange of information. It looks specifically at how Arabs are represented in this chaotic flow of content. A play on words of the phrase “strike a pose,” which is a command to model for the camera, the words “strike” and “oppose” connote resistance and opposition, but at the same time the two phases sound similar in conversation. While the first phrase can be used to ask someone to pretend a smile for a photo, the other words counter the concept of being complacent. This has become especially relevant in the wake of popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.
The idea of representation in streaming content can be seen in how Egypt’s Tahrir Square protests flooded airwaves, news feeds, Twitter and Facebook feeds with footage, photos, sounds and voice recordings openly exchanged on a scale not previously known in history. Arabs are challenging global stereotypes about religious fanaticism, violence and apathy and many pieces in this show cleverly provoke viewers to rethink the stereotypes that they have formed due to media, cultural and political influences.
The foundation is interested in highlighting the current state of the Arab world and the transformations that are occurring. We would like to engage viewers in a critical conversation about these changes. Social networking and being online via Twitter, Facebook and our website does aid the foundation in reaching more people and stimulating interest in artworks that we find are in touch with the different stories that shape Arab identities around the world.
Strike Oppose, curated by Mandy Merzaban, is currently on view at the Barjeel Art Foundation at the Maraya Art Centre in Al Qasba, Sharjah, UAE through July 30.