Q&A: Wassan Al-Khudhairi
By Jess T. Dugan | March 1, 2018
Wassan Al-Khudhairi is the Chief Curator at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (CAM) and the former Hugh Kaul Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art where she organized Third Space /shifting conversations about contemporary art. She was invited to be a Curator for the 6th Asian Art Biennial in Taiwan in 2017 and Co-Artistic Director for 9th Gwangju Biennial in South Korea in 2012. Serving as the Founding Director of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar, Al-Khudhairi oversaw the opening of the Museum in 2010 and co-curated Sajjil: A Century of Modern Art and curated Cai Guo-Qiang: Saraab.
Jess T. Dugan: Hello Wassan! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. Let’s start at the beginning. When did you discover your interest in curating, and what was your path to getting where you are today?
Wassan Al-Khudhairi: During my undergraduate studies, I got a scholarship to study at the American University in Cairo—I wanted to become an Egyptologist at the time. While in Cairo, I explored contemporary art galleries, met artists and curators, and was exposed to the art scene in Cairo. That started my interest in researching art being produced in Baghdad, Beirut and across the Arab world. After returning from Cairo, I decided I wanted to focus on contemporary art. I did not know I wanted to curate until I worked at the Brooklyn Museum many years later. I’m not sure I even knew what curating was until I was in the context of an art museum. It’s only fairly recently that the term ‘curate’ has become so commonplace.
JTD: You have held positions at a wide variety of institutions, including Qatar’s Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, the Gwangju Biennale Foundation, the Brooklyn Museum, the British Museum, and the High Museum of Art. Most recently, you were a curator of modern and contemporary art at the Birmingham Museum of Art, and presently you are the chief curator of contemporary art at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. What would you describe as your primary curatorial interests? What is the thread that connects your work throughout this wide array of institutions and locations?
WA: Recently I’ve been interested in exploring the shared human experience, in finding the similarities between places through art. In Birmingham, I curated Third Space / shifting conversations about contemporary art, which explored the similarities between the American South and the Global South. The exhibition features works of art that help the viewer draw parallels between places that might experience the same post-colonial conditions. For example, how might South Africa’s history with apartheid parallel the Civil Rights movement in the American South?
I am also always pushing myself to think about how to curate exhibitions and projects that take into account the context I/my institution are in, while also looking outward to interpret the world through the context of where my feet are grounded. I see it as an ongoing process of looking outward and processing what I experience elsewhere through the lens of where I am.
JTD: What is your process for developing an exhibition or project? How do you discover new artists to work with?
WA: There isn’t one particular way or specific process in which I work—I am always looking at art, reading about art, visiting artist’s studios, and going to exhibitions. Depending on the exhibition, the process varies in how it all comes together. I enjoy working collaboratively and find that my best ideas come when I can work with other curators and artists to develop my ideas.
JTD: You and I have spoken previously about the need for work by women and people of color to be exhibited, collected, and promoted in art museums and other art venues. Is this a conscious element of your curatorial practice? If so, what is your strategy for doing this, on a practical level?
WA: This is something I’m aware of because I always wished I could see, meet and talk to artists that came from my part of the world when I was a young person. One of the first exhibitions that made an impact on me was Forces of Change, an exhibition I saw when I was 14 years old, which featured women artists from the Arab world. Maybe because of my own personal experience of being from Baghdad, growing up in Kuwait, and then studying in the US—and often feeling like an outsider in American culture when I’m in the US and an outsider in my own Arab culture when I am in the Arab world. So, I think this very personal part of me comes out in my curatorial work because I value the multiplicity of perspectives and experiences.
JTD: It seems to be a particular challenge of a non-collecting contemporary art museum to cater to the needs of the local community while also engaging with art and culture internationally. As a curator, how do you balance the local with the global?
WA: This balancing act is something that I have experienced in every place I have worked, collecting and non-collecting institutions as well as encyclopedic and contemporary museums. However, CAM is the first museum I have worked at that dedicates a generous amount of funding and space to local artists—the Great Rivers Biennial gives three artists $20,000 each and an exhibition at CAM every other year. I am excited to be curating the 2018 Great Rivers Biennial, as it is giving me an opportunity to get to know three artists in St. Louis in great depth and work closely with them to curate their work. Having a program like the Great Rivers Biennial is one great way of committing to support and expand the local art scene. The other thing I have noticed since being on the team at CAM is how much the museum employs artists to work with us in various capacities—from designing promotional materials to producing products for our shop to working as full-time staff on our team.
JTD: You are new to CAM, and you arrived after a period of controversy and curatorial transition. What is your strategy for integrating into a new city, particularly when you arrive after a period of tension between the institution and the community?
WA: Listening and being open—and trying to stay confident in being myself.
JTD: I imagine there are certain aspects of your job that are particularly exciting, and there must also be aspects that are challenging. What is your favorite part of being a curator?
WA: Working with artists.
JTD: What is the most difficult aspect of your job?
WA: Time. The nature of my job is to always be thinking about and planning two or more years ahead. That’s hard because we can’t always anticipate what will be happening that far out… and trying to shape a program that feels relevant can sometimes be challenging when you have to imagine what we might be thinking about and experiencing that far out in advance.
JTD: What advice would you give to emerging or aspiring artists?
WA: Travel and go somewhere that will make you feel uncomfortable—push yourself to experience what it is like to be in a place that is as different from anything you know as possible. Support other artists: there is space for everyone.
JTD: What projects are you currently working on, and what is on the horizon?
WA: I am working on getting to know St. Louis and spending time doing studio visits in and out of town. Most immediately I’m working with the upcoming group of Great Rivers Biennial artists while simultaneously thinking about the next three years at CAM and how to shape a program that people will feel excited about and challenged by.