Q&A with Omar Kholeif, 1-54 Forum London 2022 Curator | Limna

Q&A with Omar Kholeif, 1-54 Forum London 2022 Curator

With 1-54 returning to Somerset House, London, to celebrate its 10th anniversary edition, we were delighted to catch up with the curator of 1-54 FORUM, an extensive programme of film screenings, performances, panel discussions, and much more. One of the most prolific creators of their generation, Omar Kholeif has authored, co-authored, or edited 41 books; curated 63 exhibitions; and commissioned over 100 works of art, realised on six continents. In this interview, they reveal how it all started, as well as which artists and exhibitions we should definitely be watching out for.

How did you get started doing what you do?

I like to say it was sort of an accident, but that is not quite so true. I was a hyperactive, hypermobile, intense, and introverted kid who wanted to do everything all the time, but we never had the means to do so. When I grew up, I was obsessed with learning, but I always wanted to do a million things at once: when I was studying to play the guitar; I wanted to figure out how to shoot on celluloid at the same time. When I was cramming-in computer code, I was investigating singing and acting classes. You get the gist. After I finished film school, I began working at film festivals. I was drawn to works that experimented with and expanded the limits of the imagination. I became a filmmaker, a broadcaster—an artist who decided to re-centre their practice on staging and imaging words with artists through exhibitions and books, primarily anyways.

Omar Kholeif by BLAKE GALLACHER (1)-min.jpeg Omar Kholeif. Courtesy of BLAKE GALLACHER.

What’s something you wish you knew when you first started in the art world?

First of all, I believe we are part of the art industry—a world is nourishing and the ‘art world’ is a little too cutthroat for that. I suppose I wish I knew that. But I also wish I’d savoured the artist conversations and the strange encounters a little more. As we grow older, we become busier, and time our scarcest of resources.

What’s the first artwork you ever bought?

I have no idea! I have amassed a beautiful and meaningful art collection over the years, but it’s composed of works of art from the many artists who I have worked with over the last two decades. It’s like a biography, or an itinerary of my career—spanning works from Paul Heyer and Zachary Cahill, Marwan Kassab Bachi, as well as Douglas Coupland, Patti Smith, Basim Magdy, Hrair Sarkissian, and Anuar Khalifi.

Of course, I have acquired hundreds of works for museums and public collections over the years. I also try and collect the work of my students whenever I can at their degree shows.

fa9ab2e5f659fcb3e931cc4e15e5f808.jpg Patti Smith, GRAVE, AMADEO MODIGLIANI AND JEANNE HEBUTERNE, PERE LACHAISE, PARIS, 2010. Courtesy, the artist and Robert Miller Gallery.

What’s the most misunderstood aspect of the art market in your opinion?

Many individuals tend to think that the art market and the not-for-profit sector exist in isolation. They do not. They foster and support each other, creating an ecosystem for artists to burgeon. Too much talk is wasted on making assumptions that the market and the museum world should be completely separated by a line drawn in the sand. But that simply isn’t practical in our current climate, nor is it good for the future of art, artists or the people who work to support the stories that they wish to tell.

Which artist are you currently really excited about?

That’s an impossible question to answer! Art and artists are what nourish every aspect of my life. I can say that I am particularly excited to be continuing my ongoing dialogue with artist Lubaina Himid, who I have been working with for a number of years. Those efforts will be coming together in a survey exhibition at Sharjah Art Foundation, UAE, in autumn 2023. I am also forever enraptured by the conversations that I have with Otobong Nkanga, who I’ve worked with for nearly a decade. The fruits of one our major collaborations will result in a vinyl release next year, which we are previewing as part of FORUM in a listening session on the 15th of October at the 1-54 Fair. Another momentous artistic figure whom I am working with is Sonia Balassanian, whose first UK exhibition I have curated and is on view at Cromwell Place — Sonia Balassanian: Five Decades in the Making.

Sonia B.jpg Sonia Balassanian, Hostages #10, 1980, Mixed media. Courtesy of the artist

What’s the last art-related Instagram post you liked or an account you followed?

I don’t follow many people on Insta/social media because I get overwhelmed by the visual stimuli. I tend to follow very few people. I recently began following the artist and photographer, Sunil Gupta and it’s been great fun learning more about his life and practice. I also follow Anuar Khalifi – I love having the opportunity to see his paintings as works in progress before they are completed. Bearing witness to the artist’s ritualistic process is a most enchanting thing.

What upcoming exhibitions are you looking forward to?

Kamala Ibrahim Ishag’s survey exhibition at Serpentine! It’s co-organised by Sharjah Art Foundation, UAE, and the Africa Institute and co-curated by my inspirational boss, Hoor Al Qasimi. Kamala is a Sudanese artist who for far too long has been overlooked. Hoor has long pioneered and supported her work with Africa Institute Director, Salah Hassan. I am delighted that she is finally having her moment. I am also counting down the days to my forthcoming exhibition,In the Heart of Another Country, a show at the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg. It is the result of 6 years of research and hard labour, presenting the single largest presentation of the Sharjah Art Foundation Collection, which over the years, I have taken care of; helped nourish and build. It opens 28th of October this year!

Ishag-min.jpg Kamala Ibrahim Ishag, States of Oneness © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag 2022. Photo: George Darrell, Courtesy Serpentine

Tell us about an artist who should be getting more attention.

Good question. There are far too many to list. For one, David Koloane, the South African pioneer, deserves a bigger spotlight here in the UK. Hrair Sarkissian, whose travelling survey I have co-curated, is also a significant force—one of the greatest living artists working in photography. He lives in London and should be put on view fully here in Britain. His work will enrapture audiences’ imagination.

What’s the best piece of art-world advice you’ve ever been given?

Keep failing, and the next time you fail, fail Better! The process of artmaking is an act of constantly learning how to learn from one’s failures.

How do you gain confidence when buying art?

Only buy what you love. It does not matter what market speculation exists in the air; or what the price point is— whether you are considering a work of art at 100 pounds or a million pounds, if it isn’t love, then you should probably move on.

David Koloame.jpg David Koloane, Untitled ( the moon over Hillbrow Tower), 1998 -2010. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery.

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