Murtaza Vali on the Art of Curating 'Crafting Geometry'

Murtaza Vali on the Art of Curating 'Crafting Geometry'

An interview with Murtaza Vali, the curator behind Sotheby's latest exhibition, Crafting Geometry: Abstract Art from South and West Asia.
An interview with Murtaza Vali, the curator behind Sotheby's latest exhibition, Crafting Geometry: Abstract Art from South and West Asia.

G eometry, that branch of mathematics concerned with how we measure the earth, is not a modern invention. But in the 21st century, some artists are considering geometry not as a fixed set of structures and form, but as a potent language to explore abstraction – and nowhere is this more apparent than in Modern and Contemporary South and West Asian art.

Murtaza Vali, curator of 'Crafting Geometry: Abstract Art from South and West Asia'

This February and March, Sotheby's New York presents Crafting Geometry: Abstract Art from South and West Asia, a selling exhibition presenting artists from across South and West Asia (and their respective diasporas) who explore geometry in their work. The person behind the show is Murtaza Vali, an independent curator based in Brooklyn, US, and Sharjah, UAE. Vali is known for his expertise in Contemporary South Asian art, and is a regular contributor to Artforum, ArtReview, Art India, Bidoun Magazine and ArtAsiaPacific.

For Crafting Geometry, Vali brought together pioneering artists from across generations, including Rasheed Araeen, Anish Kapoor and Rana Begum, among others. We sat down with Vali to learn more about his approach to curation, the allure and challenges of Contemporary art and the power of geometry.

Lubna Chowdhary, CHROMATIC LANDSCAPE, 2011

What first drew you to curation?

For me, exhibitions are essentially essays in space. But while research and writing are solitary pursuits, I like curating because of its publicness, because of the conversations it necessitates with artists and audiences. It is also a way to test out an intellectual hypothesis, a hunch. An exhibition is an experiment in many ways. It can be more intuitive and tentative than an essay.

Sahand Hesamiyan, MAJAZ 2, 2017

In considering your approach to curation, which aspects of the exhibition do you focus on first?

The curatorial premise always originates from works of art that I have seen. And when a few feel, often based on intuition, like they have something in common, I try to figure out what exactly that might be, which then serves as the core idea of an exhibition.

There were two main driving forces behind the [Crafting Geometry] exhibition. The first was to create dialogues – transnational and intergenerational – that don’t often happen. I was excited about the prospect of juxtaposing Rana Begum’s work with that of Anish Kapoor and Rasheed Araeen, or Nima Nabavi and Sahand Hesamiyan with Monir Farmanfarmaian, or Araeen with Farmanfarmaian (both of whom are pioneers who have only recently received the acclaim they deserve). The second was to introduce New York audiences to some of the younger artists I was familiar with from other parts of the world. Begum, surprisingly, has rarely been exhibited in New York, and this is one first times that Nabavi, Hesamiyan and Lubna Chowdhary are showing here, as well.

(left) Rana Begum, NO. 572 ZIG ZAG, 2014; (right) Rasheed Araeen, ZERO TO INFINITY, 2015

Crafting Geometry presents a dialogue between contemporary artists from across West and South Asia who explore the enduring language of geometry; why is geometry an intriguing language for abstraction?

I find geometry fascinating for many reasons. Its simplicity suggests universality, though, as we know, the meaning ascribed to geometric forms can vary across cultures. Also, geometry does not have the same strong link to artistic subjectivity that we see with gestural abstraction. And because of its basis in mathematics and the precision required to produce it, geometry can often hide the traces of the hand that made it, or the weight of the material it is made out of. This exhibition is all about reminding us that geometric art is, and has throughout history, been man-made; it was and is the product of minds and bodies.

"'Crafting Geometry' is all about reminding us that geometric art is, and has throughout history, been man-made; it was and is the product of minds and bodies."
Murtaza Vali
Rana Begum, NO. 888 L FOLD, 2019

While the artworks in Crafting Geometry are precisely crafted, they also feel very organic and alive. Can you tell me about your experience, so far, of interacting with the works included in the exhibition?

Both color and medium were important considerations when selecting the work. Color, texture, weight are all embodied phenomenon and I am hoping that they help elicit an embodied response, however subtle, in the viewer. This embodied response, I think, is the vitality you note.

While I have seen works by many of these artists in person over the years, this sort of 'IRL' experience is a luxury you often don’t get when selecting works for an exhibition, which is often done from photographs and PDFs on a computer screen. It has been absolutely exhilarating finally seeing the works in person. It is always both a joy and a relief to see your curatorial instincts validated.

Lubna Chowdhary, CERTAIN TIMES XLVII, 2019

The artists in this exhibition differ in many ways, but they share a loosely common background: each hails from across West and South Asia and their respective diasporas. Do you see a shared idea of home, culture or place in the world come out in their artworks?

Ideas of home and cultural origins can be overplayed in how works by diasporic artists, or artists from elsewhere are interpreted and presented. I try to resist the impulse to use these as frames while still allowing such ideas to come through in the work. What I like specifically about abstraction is that its non-representational character makes it much trickier to make projections of cultural origin or identity onto the work and the artists.

But of course, these ideas are important for the artists in the show; they are the reason why so many of them refer back, directly or indirectly, to histories of Islamic and South Asian art. For example, with Prabhavathi Meppayil’s monochrome, a neat array of hundreds of horizontal rows of dash-like indents in gesso, the marks are made using a thinnam, a traditional tool used by goldsmiths in India, which is the only reference to her familial history of craftsmanship and her cultural origins. The work can be appreciated both as pure abstraction and as a document of a culturally-specific artisan tradition.

A closer look at the horizontal rows in Prabhavathi Meppayil's monochrome work, entitled I/HUNDRED TWENTY-EIGHT (A SET OF TWO PANELS), 2019

We’ve talked about geometric space, but what about time. Does time play a part in the dialogue between these artists and their artworks?

Of course, time is a central consideration: the time of craft, of the handmade, of pattern, of ritual, of texture, of gesture. Because geometry is familiar and “slick,” it feels like we take it in quite quickly. The time of craft and the different weights of the materials that feature in the show are meant to slow that experience down, to force us to feel our bodies seeing. Nabavi’s ink drawing consists of tens of thousands of drawn lines, its final form an accumulation of the time taken to make said marks. Both the wall works by Begum and Kapoor change as one walks to and fro in front of them; the works refuse a single perspective or viewing position. Tarik Currimbhoy’s sculptures, which are both mobile, and Araeen’s floor pieces, which can be manipulated by the audience, perform this through the possibility of interaction.

"Because geometry is familiar and 'slick,' we can take it in quite quickly. The time of craft and the different weights of the materials that feature in this show are meant to slow that experience down, to force us to feel our bodies seeing."
Murtaza Vali

What message or meaning do you hope visitors of Crafting Geometry leave Sotheby’s with?

Crafting Geometry is the latest in a series of exhibitions I have made in New York that seeks to trouble the canon of Western abstraction – especially of the geometric and minimal strains – by presenting artists, both older masters and younger contemporaries from other parts of the world, who have long been and are currently working in these idioms but are largely unknown or under-recognized here. These shows have focused on qualities that the most pervasive ideologies of abstract art in the West marginalize: empathy and affect, texture and material, craft and the hand, ornament and pattern, repetition as a meditative and ritualistic act rather than as the industrial logic of the factory assembly line. Though these artists are clearly in dialogue with the Western canon, it is the inspiration they draw from other, older visual traditions – in this case, the primary role geometry has played in Islamic and South Asian art and architecture – that is interesting to me, that reveals, in retrospect, how the West did not, in fact, invent abstraction and how much it has itself borrowed from these older traditions.

"Though the artists in 'Crafting Geometry' are clearly in dialogue with the Western canon, it is the inspiration they draw from other, older visual traditions that interests me."
Murtaza Vali

As with all my shows, I hope the exhibition introduces visitors to artists and ideas they were previously unaware of and, of course, question the art histories they know.

(left) Nima Nabavi, 2019.12.25, 2019; (right) Steven Naifeh, CYRENE III: VENETIAN BLUE, 2010

Could you please touch on your other projects, past and present?

The first show I ever curated was entitled Accented, for a Brooklyn non-profit space called BRIC Rotunda Gallery. This was in 2010, and the show explored the accent as the residue of difference in the age of globalization, as that embodied trace of the 'Other' that cannot be translated or assimilated.

While I do have this abiding interest in abstraction, especially what I have of late been calling “ex-centric Minimalisms,” my curatorial practice is quite varied. My last exhibition, Crude, which was the inaugural show at the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai, explored the complex relationship between oil and modernity across West Asia. Also, I am currently curating a series of exhibitions at Warehouse 421 in Abu Dhabi called Substructures, related to some of the more “intimate” infrastructures that shape daily life in Gulf cities. The first one of those, which opens next week, focuses on artistic representations of the ship-breaking industry in South Asia, using it as a case study to investigate how one might document a site of exploitive labor practices and environmental destruction in the twenty-first century. It is titled The Stonebreakers, after Courbet's famous lost masterpiece.

'Crafting Geometry: Abstract Art from South and West Asia', is open from 28 February through 20 March at Sotheby's New York. The exhibition features 27 artworks from 11 artists. For more information on works included in the exhibition, please contact Assistant Vice President, Specialist in Sotheby's Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art department and the Head of Sale, Manjari Sihare-Sutin.

Modern & Contemporary Southeast Asian Art

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