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Omar Kholeif appointed Manilow Senior Curator at MCA

Internationally renowned curator and author Omar Kholeif has been appointed the new Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the museum announced today.

Michael Darling, the museum’s chief curator, said in a statement: “Omar is an exceedingly bright and personable curator whose infectious energy and wide range of interests will win new fans to the MCA for his projects. He knows how to balance the scholarly with the populist and to identify ideas and patterns that are highly relevant to cultural and societal dialogues, which aligns perfectly with what we are hoping to achieve in our programs. He is a wildly prolific writer whose erudition on a variety of topics will certainly enrich the expertise of our staff, especially in the realm of artistic activity in the Middle East. He brings with him an international network of artists, writers, friends, and colleagues who will help us extend and expand our offerings for years to come.”

Kholeif, who most recently served as curator at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, where he organized large-scale group exhibitions and monographic shows, will assume his MCA duties on Nov. 23.

Phoning from London earlier today, Kholief expressed his excitement about the MCA appointment.

“For me, the MCA is one of the great cultural institutions in the world of art. It’s unique because it’s a contemporary art museum as opposed to an encyclopedic museum like the [Metropolitan Museum of Art] and the Art Institute of Chicago. It has an incredible energy in its approach to artist-centered and artist-led approaches. It really puts artists at the core of its narrative. It truly is on par with the great contemporary and modern art museums of the world. I want to have the world come and experience its incredible collections and history.”

Born in Cairo, Egypt, Kholief moved with his family to Scotland, then Los Angeles for a brief time, before returning to Egypt, followed by Saudi Arabia and finally London. He holds degrees from the University of Glasgow, the Royal College of Art, London, and the University of Arts in Zurich, where he recently completed a Ph.D in curatorial and cross-disciplinary cultural studies.

“I suppose my [global upbringing] informs my cultural work in some respects,” Kholeif said. “I have a real strong interest in thinking about modern art practices in the Middle East, Africa, Asia very much. When I was growing up, I went to the American High School in Saudi Arabia, and when I was studying art there, I noticed that none of the figures we were studying represented my heritage. Most of what I studied was Western art, Renaissance art, U.S. pop art. There was not much art of the region from where I was from. That began my personal conquest of art forms from different geographies. I was very curious about why there wasn’t anything written about these cultures’ art forms in the history books, why it wasn’t being studied parallel to other histories. Which is why my B.A. and master’s and eventually my Ph.D levels of education focused on the different historical roots from modern art to contemporary art forms from Africa and the Middle East.”

The Museum of Contemporary Art plaza. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times
The Museum of Contemporary Art plaza. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Kholief said his focus on these overlooked geographical art regions also grew out of his love for politics and how the political arena and the art world go hand-in-hand on so many levels.

“I thought I was going to be a politician at first,” Kholief said with a chuckle. “Which is why I studied political science. I was very interested in arts and politics and their relationship to one another. Being a curator is the purest form of a political career in the sense that so many elements of a curator’s job really involve many of the same responsibilities as those of a politician: courting supporters and [financial] support, speaking on behalf of your work and an institution. … As curators we are rewriting history whether it’s looking at a particular art movement differently or telling stories that everyone knows in a different way or updating a story to make it relatable to a contemporary audience. That’s why what we do is so challenging and exciting. We have to make sure our political statements have legs and the research behind them to back it up.”

Kholeif’s resume as a curator includes his most recent exhibits at Whitechapel, “Fiona Banner: Stamp out Photographie”; “James Richards: To Replace a Minute’s Silence with a Minute’s Applause” (in partnership with the V-A-C Foundation). and “Electronic Superhighway: From Experiments in Art and Technology to Art After the Internet.” The latter is extremely close to Kholeif’s heart, and an exhibit genre he’d like to explore at the MCA.

“I’m very excited on what it means to be an artists working in the era of rapid technological change,” he said. “The Internet is how I discovered many artists from the Middle East and the African diaspora, through the exchange of images and literature. It’s a fascinating exchange artists are having on the Internet. What is that relationship between art and the Internet? That is what I’m excited to explore.”

Kholeif said his vision for his work at the MCA includes bringing in artists whose collected works have not been seen in the U.S. before.

“What is global modernism? I want to look at the histories of Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and how we draw parallels between those regions and Western knowledge,” he said. “We’re in a pivotal moment in how the MCA and other museums. What does it mean for a museum to be a contemporary institution, from its publishing to the way it collects works? These are issues I look forward to [tackling] in Chicago. …

“My other great passion is literature. At the MCA I would like to look at the link between literature and visual arts. Poetry has really come back into the work of contemporary artists.”

In addition to his appointment at the MCA, Kholeif has also received a three-year appointment as Visiting Lecturer in the Division of the Humanities, in the Department of Visual Arts and the Department of Art History at the University of Chicago.

“In my spare time I truly enjoy literature. But I’m really excited about Chicago’s comedy scene,” Kholeif said laughing, when asked about what he does for fun in his spare time. “The weather is something I’m very much looking forward to experiencing. A winter coat will be a first for me! And I’m arriving in late November, so I will experience my first proper Thanksgiving. I’m looking forward to that very much.”

Follow @MiriamDiNunzio

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