Rose Issa has spent more than twenty years championing the work of artists from the Middle East in her London gallery and beyond. Hugely influential in the careers of many key figures in contemporary art from the region, she has curated exhibitions around the world and published numerous books and catalogues to accompany them. This weekend, she will be in conversation with Juliet Cesar at Sotheby’s new Dubai office to coincide with the launch of her latest book, Signs of Our Times – From Calligraphy to Calligraffiti, co-authored with Juliet Cestar and Venetia Porter.
When did you decide to open a gallery, and what do you enjoy most about working with artists?
The first gallery I opened was in 1986, called the Kufa Gallery. It was the brainchild of the late Dr Mohamad Makiya, an Iraqi architect. I was the artistic director and manager, but after two years, I started to work as a freelance curator for several public institutions including Samana Gallery, the Barbican, Beirut Exhibition Center, Leighton House Museum, Tate Britain and the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, among many others.
Your book Sign of Our Times explores 60 years of an aspect the art world in the Middle East, of which you are an expert. Did you learn anything you didn’t already know when researching the book?
Of course; I discovered more artists, and many more who are not in the book, because everything is finite and we needed to edit so we were not able to include them this time. I also made connections between historical events and cultural developments of events, and felt the need for a time line that my colleague Juliet Cestar has created to give context.
In your opinion, who is breaking new ground in the art in the Arab world and Iran?
Many artists have in the past – in the late 1950s and 1960s – done so. From Zenderoudi and Armajani, and Shirazeh Houshiary. And today it's the same: from Mona Hatoum or Shirin Neshat to Emily Jacir, Mounir Fatmi to Bahia Shehab. In fact all the artists we have selected, and many more we could not include in Signs of the Times, have contributed to breaking new ground through their practice.
What advice would you give a young, female gallerist starting out today?
Hard work pays. See as many exhibitions as possible in order to detect originality; check auctions houses to adapt prices, and publish as much as you can. And, remain true to yourself.
How did you find – and keep – the inspiration to innovate?
There is still so much to do that has not been done and discoveries that have not been shared. Meeting artists and seeing artworks that you want to share with others is where I find inspiration.
What do you think about the new generation of super museums in the middle east? The Louvre, The Guggenheim. Is it a good thing that western imports are making headlines alongside locally initiated projects?
The more museums the better as we need any initiative and any cultural input. So let them make museums, set cultural standards, teach design and hanging; have educational programs and compete, instead of witnessing destruction and regression. Big museum initiatives become an anchor for small independent projects, so even if the big museums in the gulf will have mostly foreign visitors and expats, locals too will go to these places one day. I can never be against any cultural project. Culture for everybody is good.
Who or what excites you in the art world at the moment?
Kiarostami and Edward Said, 30 years ago, Mona Hatoum and Shirin Neshat 20 years ago, Maliheh Afnan, Manuel Duque since I have known them (for the last 40 years); Siah Armajani and Banksy. In addition to these artists, some of the events produced by the organisation Artangel are truly exciting. More recently, a film called Wild Stories by Damian Szifron and Michael Moore's Who to Invade Next, a film that has such social impact that its aesthetic weaknesses do not matter.
Rose Issa will be in conversation with Juliet Cesar on Saturday 18 March at 11am at Sotheby’s Dubai, Level 1, Gate Village Building 3, Dubai International Financial Centre.