Culture | January 25, 2020

One-on-One with Nabila Abdel Nabi

Aimee Dawson

London’s Tate museum is taking its commitment to internationalise its collection to the next level. In September last year, the institution announced a raft of new curatorial staff to focus on art from non-Western regions: Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The Tate says the new positions build on 20 years of working to represent art beyond Europe and North America and “form part of Tate’s ongoing strategy to explore multiple art histories from a global perspective."

Nabila Abdel Nabi took on the role of Curator, International Art, specialising in the MENA in April last year. Born in Egypt, she grew up between Cairo, Toronto and later Dubai. Previously she was the Associate Curator at The Power Plant in Toronto, and before that was the Gallery Manager (Exhibitions) at The Third Line gallery in Dubai. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago in Interdisciplinary Studies, focusing on art history, English literature and Classics, and she later completed a Masters degree in Art History at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art where she studied with the acclaimed Iranian-American art historian and curator Dr Sussan Babaie.

“I’ve always loved London, so it actually feels like something of a homecoming,” says Abdel Nabi of her move to the Tate. “There are particularly interesting conversations happening here right now, given the various histories and communities living here and the ecology of organisations and institutions with overlapping remits.” Here, we speak to the young curator about the how she became interested in MENA art; the Tate’s latest acquisitions; and how she plans to make her mark in the new role.

You’ve moved from one old power station-turned-gallery to another! What have the big differences been for you and are there any striking similarities?

Nabila Abdel Nabi: Indeed, it seems to be a recurring theme in my life! But the similarities don’t stop there. Although there are certainly differences—first in scale and moving from a kunsthalle-type gallery to an institution with a major collection—both are very much driven by a transnational vision and approach towards their programming, with two incredible women directors at the helm.

You’ve been at the Tate Modern since April—what have been your main tasks so far?

My role is incredibly exciting, both for the content I am working on and for how multifaceted it is. One facet involves researching and identifying key artworks for the permanent collection. This involves working closely with the rest of the curatorial team to think through works for the collection in a broader context, often acquiring works with the support of the incredible Middle East and North Africa Acquisitions Committee (MENAAC). I am also very much embedded in the new Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational (HTRCT), which is a platform for curatorial and art historical research in historic, modern and contemporary art, where the phenomenon of “transnational” runs as a continuum throughout these time periods. Finally, I am also working on various exhibitions as well as rotating displays of our permanent collection—for example, a major exhibition of Rodin’s work that will open later this year (21 October-21 February 2021).

Other big London museums, like the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum, have had Middle East-specific curators for years. Why do you think it has taken the Tate so long to do the same?

The Tate has actually had curators working on the MENA previously, in adjunct curator positions and in assistant curator positions. This is the first full-time post for a curator dedicated to the region, which is a real commitment on the Tate’s part to increasing its representation of artistic production from the region within its collection and programmes.

What do you think of the Tate’s collection of MENA art? What are you favourite pieces?

The Tate's eight regional and medium-specific acquisitions committees work to realise major acquisitions of modern and contemporary art from around the world. Since its founding in 2009, the MENAAC has played a huge role in enabling the Tate to carry out its commitment to presenting key historical practices alongside significant contemporary voices. In the last years we have greatly expanded our representation of artists from the region, across different generations and media.

One thing that is important to point out here is that it is all one collection—there isn’t a collection of MENA art, Latin American art and so on. It is all acquired, researched and exhibited to reflect the transnational nature of art production and dissemination so that in one context, you are able to see work from around the world. I feel like I fall in love with a new work every day as I get to know the collection better, so that last part is quite a difficult question to answer!

Are there any works or artists that you particularly keen to collect? Have you made any acquisitions since you started?

Working within the context of a global art museum requires negotiating a number of factors. In developing a strategy for the acquisition of works, it is essential to contend with the DNA of the institution, considering how incoming works will resonate with the existing collection, as well as what it would mean to increase the visibility of particular works by an artist within a revised cultural landscape that is multi-centric and hetero-chronic.

As one of our core interests, we explore the formation of avant-garde groups and art movements, where these represent critical moments of artistic transformation and international exchange. Last year, the Tate acquired a wonderful work by Mohammed Melehi, one of the leading members the Casablanca Art School along with Farid Belkahia, who is also in the Tate collection.

The Tate is also committed to pursuing research on major women artists whose practices have been relatively established since the 1970s, where we adopt a fluid definition of diaspora, taking into account artists who were born or raised in the region but who spent a significant amount of their lives and careers elsewhere.

For artists whose work has not historically or frequently been exhibited, solo exhibitions like those that the Tate presented of Saloua Raouda Choucair and Ibrahim El Salahi allow for deeper interrogations of individual biographies and the space to contextualise artists’ practices within their socio-political context. This is a format I hope to continue working with in tandem with my research on the permanent collection. We did make some major acquisitions last year so stay tuned!

How did you end up specialising in MENA art?

I remember taking a class on Surrealism in college, and the main book was History of the Surrealist Movement. It was this tome-like edition. And within all that space, there were scattered mentions of Ramses Younane and Georges Henein relegated to a couple of paragraphs. Further research quickly led me to the discovery that the artistic practices and productions of the region, particularly those coming out of what we’re calling the modern period, are almost entirely absent from scholarly-critical view.

This has fuelled my ongoing interest in reframing the question of modernism across the globe, and the often misdirected narrative of “influence” that has pervaded much of the scholarship around modernist articulations from the region. In the last few decades, several people have been doing amazing work to nuance across academia, institutions, and galleries. I am interested in considering the mutually transformative encounters across transnational networks of production, presentation and circulation throughout the modern period. This is why, for the last few years, one of my favourite collection displays has been International Surrealism at the Tate Modern, where you see works produced in Brussels, Cairo, Mexico City, Prague and Tokyo among others, in conjunction with one another.

There are lots of Arab- or Middle East-focused arts and culture initiatives and organisations in London—I’m thinking about Shubbak, the Arab British Centre, the Mosaic Rooms, and P21 to name a few. Do you think that you will be collaborating with these already established institutions as part of your new Tate role?

I think that’s a great question, and something that I was already thinking of before moving here—it’s an incredible ecosystem that we have in London, and I’ve already had some wonderful meetings with people at the organisations you named to think through how we can enhance the work that we do through collaboration and partnerships, given shared visions, and very real opportunities for knowledge exchange and bridging audiences. I am excited about what’s ahead!

Nabila Abdel Nabi took part in Alserkal’s symposium Temporary Spaces: Exchanges in Art, Architecture and Photography in the UAE in November 2019.


Aimee Dawson is the Associate Digital Editor at The Art Newspaper. She specialises in art and culture from the Middle East and North Africa, having studied a BA in Arabic and Middle East Studies and an MA in contemporary African and Asian art.
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