A Fruitful Project in the Big Apple

A Fruitful Project in the Big Apple
Mohammed Rashid Al-Thani, founder of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Art, talks to Artscoops about filling an artistic and cultural void in New York City



What inspired you to set up the Institute of Arab and Islamic Art (IAIA)? 
For me the project was triggered by the lack of a platform for artists, curators and writers from the Arab region and Islamic world. I felt that while New York represented artists from some global regions very effectively with great programming, this was not the case for those from the Arab countries or of Islamic origins. Before, when it came to presenting works, we were at the mercy of larger institutions, which brought risks of inconsistencies in connotation, context and frameworks. I felt that a standalone project would give us the ability to pursue public programming and engage in narratives we deemed important and relevant to the New York community. There is incredible art being produced by artists from the Arab and Islamic world and I wanted to highlight it.
Why do you think this void existed in a city so well known for its arts and cultural scene?
Honestly, the realisation when I moved to New York that such a void existed really shocked me. The US is certainly not short of Arab diaspora. There’s also plenty of investment from the region and educational institutions that teach related subjects, so I couldn’t comprehend why the gap was there. The fact that Dana Awartani’s work first appeared at the Jewish museum really highlighted the gap. However, we’re trying to fill it now. 



Looking back at the launch, would you have done anything differently? 
I don’t think I’d have changed anything. The first few months have gone pretty much how I predicted and while our work to build a narrative and present artists in a different light has brought challenges, we’ve had a great reception. 
One of the positives has been visitors telling us that the institute offers a different perspective on artists whose work they’ve seen elsewhere, in retrospectives for example. We’re a non-profit institute, so we rely heavily on support from the public. This makes the positive feedback particularly satisfying and, in return, we are doing what we can to fully engage with people through our programming.
The first exhibition in which four female artists explore the impact of Islamic architecture on their lives and work was a real landmark. How did you come to select this project as the launch show? 
Islamic geometry has a huge presence in architecture today and its influences are evident around the globe. I liked the way that the artists had a different approach to the subject and the extent to which their personal experiences, including where they’ve lived and trained, influenced their work. 
We wanted to get across in the show that while work on this theme is highly relevant when traditional, the same is true for art that is divorced from the original or not overtly Islamic or geometrical. We wanted to present the exhibition in this context and build a narrative.



What part can art play in helping to challenge certain stereotypes and misconceptions that hinder cross-cultural understanding?
The power of the visual experience is truly remarkable. Art makes people think and takes them way beyond the experience of viewing the work. It’s changed my perspective on so many issues. When people view the work of artists from the region who have previous talked about their personal experiences, their understanding of a situation is enhanced. In this way, art is an educator, opening a viewer’s eyes. It also offers an alternative viewpoint or interpretation to what’s being portrayed in the media. Above all, art is a great stimulant for lively conversation.
Tell us something about your personal art collection. Is it eclectic or mostly focused on a particular genre?
There’s no special focus. I’m a poet and when I’m stuck for ideas, I look to my art to inspire me, so I make choices based on how a work makes me feel. I like to think that even though the artists I’ve brought together are from different movements, they appear to be having a great conversation. Hopefully that’s a sign of thoughtful perspective and taste! For example, there’s a Nam June Paik TV sculpture right opposite a work by Gisela Colon who’s a younger artist inspired by the movement of light and space. 
How do you decide whether to add a new piece to your collection?
I look at artists whose work I believe is important within a certain movement,  or perhaps someone I believe to be undervalued. I’ll also consider their socio-cultural relevance or whether a younger artist’s relevance could grow in a decade or so’s time. Naotaka Hiro is a prime example; his work really moves me emotionally and I can also see the importance of what he’s doing, how he’s creating his own voice. That’s the connection that I’m looking for. 
Is there a work that gave you particular satisfaction when you acquired it? 
The art of Per Kirkeby. His work is satisfying on an intellectual, emotional and visual level and has played a central part in my evolution. 



All images ©IAIA, Institute of Arab and Islamic Art, New York, All rights reserved.


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