Introduced by ABDULMALIK MERCHANT
Ways of Seeing and Ways of Knowing – A conversation with Zainub Verjee
As one of the anchor programs of the Jubilee International Arts Festival in Lisbon, International Art Gallery (IAG) was located at the famous Portuguese National Pavilion. My experience visiting the Gallery was captivating. Led by Zainub Verjee, the Director of the International Art Gallery, her visionary work of bringing such International Art Gallery to reality was not only a success but set a new standard for any successive iteration of the Festival. In total, 129 artworks were exhibited with participation of 135 artists from 29 countries.
Zainub Verjee is an accomplished leader in the art and culture sector and has shaped culture policy at all levels of governments and contributed to building of cultural institutions and organizations in Canada and internationally. She is also an accomplished writer, critic, curator, contemporary artist and public intellectual. She is invited to speak nationally and internationally, on cultural policy, contemporary art and cultural diplomacy. Her art work has been shown at the Venice Biennale, Museum of Modern Art, NY, Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, Portland US, and resides in private and public collections (Vancouver Art Gallery, Canada).
In continuation of this interview, there is going to be an on-going series on this blog and will seek to contextualize the numerous artworks for the benefit of everyone who attended the IAG in Lisbon as well as readers of this blog who will be seeing images of the artworks.
Here are some excerpts of my conversation with her:
Abdulmalik Merchant: What was the vision of the International Art Gallery?
Zainub Verjee: As part of the vision of the International Art Gallery we not only wanted to offer the visitors and the Jamat an international standard of Visual Arts Exhibition, we also wanted to encourage the visitors to understand how one experiences an Art Gallery, how Visual Arts is spoken about, and how to developVisual Arts Literacy.
More importantly, it was to break the commonly held understanding that an Art Gallery = Exhibition! Actually, an art gallery is composed of many things of which exhibition is one part!
The nuanced aspect of the setting up the International Art Gallery was also to make a differentiation between Public Relations model of visual display (eg: Rays of Light), a trade fair model of visual display (eg: Art Trade Fair) etc and allow the Jamati members to experience and negotiate the difference appropriately. The larger part of the educational objective of IAG was to build cultural literacy. Thus, the Jamati member is able to optimize their experience when they visit Art Galleries / Art Museum and learn the protocols of doing so.
AM: The site of International Art Gallery could not have been better for such an historic event. How was your experience of the Portuguese National Pavilion?
ZV: I still cannot believe that we had an opportunity and privilege to put up this exhibition at the International Art Gallery in the Portuguese National Pavilion!
The Portuguese National Pavilion is an imposing work of modern architecture designed by the famous Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza who is the winner of the Pritzker Prize, akin to Nobel of Architecture!
Apart from the beauty of the building, we were faced with the challenge of the huge body of disparate artworks and vastness of the space. The space was not an homogenous one but a multiple combination with different room sizes and some open grand halls and a dark enclave. Further we wanted to know how best we can ensure that the visitor invariably will be overwhelmed and may get lost in the scope of the exhibition. Keeping that in mind our Curator devised a spatial strategy of dividing the whole exhibition into four zones or sections. They were called Sala Rio (River Room), Sala Lago (Lake Room), Sala Oceano (Ocean Room) and Sala Dois Raven (Room of Two Ravens). These were Portuguese names and connected to local history and context. For eg: the Sala Dois Raven was our way of acknowledging the local legend of St. Vincent and the story of two ravens which we see on the coat of arms of the City of Lisbon.
Thus, at the International Art Gallery, the exhibition was divided into these four spatial division and each division had its own story. But at the same time in order to keep the visitor engaged with the entire exhibition we ensured through curatorial strategies of display of the artworks that these four stories emerging from four zones merged into one to make the narrative of the exhibition. This was facilitated by creating four conceptual categories – Imagination, Heritage, Community and Identity – which offered a vessel to hold these disparate works together. They were like the four wheels of a vehicle on which a visitor toured the exhibition!
AM: So, what was the big picture of the International Art Gallery?
ZV: Various element of the IAG were put in place to help Jamat understand that Art gallery doesn’t equal to an exhibition. A commonly held mistaken notion that is! That’s why, the IAG was like a full-fledged “institutions” that was brought together with a complete set of services and programming that one can get in an international art gallery.
For instance, the IAG had a well-staffed with teams covering Visitor Services, a Knowledge Production (Education and Programming), Exhibition Design, Logistics that covered Art Shipping, Art Handling and Art Registrar components, and also, Marketing and Special Events work streams. In addition, we had the overarching Operations and Finance streams. What I am implying here is that the International Art Gallery that you experienced was like walking into an established Art Gallery. International standards and best practices were observed, be it the temperature levels in Exhibition Halls or Art handling protocols or Art Condition Reports or Art Shipping or the labels or the way finding or wall texts or the public programming! Not to forget that there were Mentoring sessions and Master Classes!! I can give you full program, in case you don’t have one.
Jamati artists were exposed to an international slate of Curators, Scholars, Artists and many of them have communicated to me as to how critical and game-changing this experience has been for them.
AM: What kind of impact did they have?
ZV: Some have decided to change their academic and professional pursuits and shift towards Art History, Visual Arts or Architecture instead of pursuing professions such as law or accountancy. There were some young volunteers on the Art Handling team who discovered a whole new professional field of Art Handling. Another one said, “I never thought so much thinking and detailed planning and process goes behind Exhibition Installation.” He continued “I have a new found respect for Art Galleries, Artists and Artworks.”
For many artists it was a first time their artwork was being shown in a professional art exhibition, let alone at an international level! For such artists, this show was a real shot in the arm! They had this wonderful opportunity through Mentoring sessions and Masterclasses where they could discuss their artworks, practice…..what they should do and not? These interactions with renowned slate of international artists, curators and scholars was the biggest opportunity of all! Most important was to get a chance to bond as artists of the global Jamat!
AM: You mentioned art gallery is a site of knowledge production. Could you explain?
ZV: An art gallery is a site of knowledge production and it is one of the crucial, and if I may add, very few such sites where public pedagogy is deployed. The point I am making is that Knowledge Production is not limited to an education institution but it occurs at multiple site in our society. For instance, at the International Art Gallery, in addition to the Exhibition did you know there was an elaborate public programming and especially for artists there were Master classes and Mentoring sessions?
Talking of the public programming, three Keynotes were delivered by eminent Curators, Art Historians and Scholars who were invited Faculty and Guests of International Art Gallery from around the world.
During the three panels a range of themes were discussed passionately [see special panel feature below, following interview – AM].
As much the demanding engagement was there for a viewer in the Gallery. It is in these discussions, the viewing of the artworks, the tours, and other programming modalities that the Art Gallery created an experience and an apparatus for the discovery of new knowledge.
AM: Moving on to the exhibition, can you give help us understand how should we see the artworks and make meaning?
ZV: Let me give you an example. Recently we heard about how a young Swedish girl protested to stop the deportation of Afghani Refugees. Let’s look at how some of the artists at the International Art Gallery in Lisbon were engaged with this issue. In one of the evocative and powerful rooms of the Sala Rio section of the Art Gallery, we see the foregrounding of the refugee crisis. Gulzar Quintino’s sculpture titled Refugees deeply moves the viewer. Placed in the centre of the room, it holds and defines the centrality of the crisis: the contemporary condition.
On the wall, the series of photographs retain the disembodied element and yet documentary relevance of the ravages of war in Syria. This is a moving work ironically titled Full of Life by Yamam Alshaar (Salamieh, Syria). From a happy and united family in the first photograph, the sequence details the ravages, losses, and despair wrought by war as the family unit is broken up and left bereft. Hope for a better life and the return of the father drives this family, but the poverty, instability, and effects of war leave marks that only the children, as the last surviving hope, manage to transcend.
More poignant element in this room is how Anish Kapoor, the British sculptor, is brought into conversation with Gulzar’s and Yamam Alshaar’s works. We see his quote on the wall opposite Yamam’s artwork and it reads:
“We are demanding creativity of others, recognising that those who leave their country and go on a journey across the water full of danger or who walk hundreds of miles across land are also making a creative act.”
And as our gaze shifts out of this dialogue one sees a statue. As if like an astute observer standing by the side listening in this conversation, we see the sculpture, a woodwork titled The Return, by Awos Ward (Ghent, Belgium). Made from Azobe wood the sculpture plays with the materiality reflecting the long and enduring processes of preservation; symbolizing an individual’s struggle to find peace and preserve an ethical set of values in the face of adversity.
Three Panels and Keynotes at International Art Gallery
Inaugural Panel: HOMELAND AND DIASPORA – ART AND ARTIST
In these times of increased mobility and our histories of migrations, where is our home? Or what is home? This panel offered an engaging exploration of the creative tension between Homeland and Diaspora and how this tension impact the artists and their art. The panel discussed how this creative tension is the driving force of the contemporary art. The panel consisted of Zainub Verjee (opening remarks), Shaheen Merali (keynote), and Rosemin Keshvani, Niranjan Rajah, Zarina Bhimji (panelists) with Yasmin Jiwani as the moderator.
Premier Panel: ARTISTS’ JOURNEY – ROLE OF ARTIST IN OUR SOCIETY
This panel had the President of OCAD University, Dr. Sara Diamond, from Toronto, Canada, an eminent artist, inventor, and scholar who delivered the keynote on what it is to be an artist and why artists are critical to our society. Her keynote encouraged the panelists for further discussions on the role of artist in society and what their individual journeys have been.
Power Panel: WILL PLURALISM SET THE AGENDA FOR GLOBAL ART?
This panel explored the important role of Pluralism in our anxiety ridden world. Pluralism seeks to balance by demanding that society actively embraces difference.
An exciting panel consisting of international thought leaders, senior artists, art historians and critics spoke on this topic that explored the promise of pluralism in art.
Panelists discussed how artists and contemporary art are engaging with issues of the times and whether it saw the prospects of Pluralism to be the force of future that shapes the global art debate. The panelists were Niranjan Rajah, Zarina Bhimji, Bryan Mulvihill, Pedro Gadanho (Director of Museum of Art, Architecture & Technology, Lisbon), and was moderated by Narendra Pachkhede.
To be continued……
Date posted: August 14, 2018.
Zainub Verjee is an accomplished leader in the art and culture sector and has shaped culture policy at all levels of governments and contributed to building of cultural institutions and organizations in Canada and internationally.
A trailblazer of her generation, Zainub is a mentor and role model for generations. Fueled by passion, vision, and a staunch conviction about art as public good, Zainub advanced vital interests of artists, and created spaces and access for artists across different disciplines in Canada.
Zainub is also an accomplished writer, critic, curator, contemporary artist and public intellectual. At the forefront of the two decades of cultural politics of the 1980s and 1990s in Canada, Zainub was the co-founder and Festival director of the critically acclaimed In Visible Colours: An International Film/Video Festival & Symposium for Third World Women and Women of Colour (1988–90). She is invited to speak nationally and internationally, on cultural policy, contemporary art and cultural diplomacy.
Zainub has published in numerous academic, cultural and critical fora including, Leonardo Journal (MIT), Kinesis, Parallelogram, Fuse, Horizon, Canadian Art Magazine, Journal of Art and the Public Sphere etc.
Currently Zainub is the Executive Director of Ontario Association of Art Galleries, Toronto.
Among many appointments to Boards, she is proud of her work at the B.C. Arts Board that led to the legislation B.C.Arts Act and the formation of the institution B.C. Arts Council. Among others, currently she sits on the Advisory Board of ArtsBuild Ontario, national steering Committee of Cultural Human Resources Council and is the Chairperson of the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre. She was invited as an expert for the Opening and Closing ceremonies of Vancouver Olympics 2010.
Her art work has been shown at the Venice Biennale, Museum of Modern Art, NY, Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, Portland US, and resides in private and public collections (Vancouver Art Gallery, Canada).
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