Hats in abundance. As many as one would admit to owning, which in London, where Sara Raza was born and lives today, could be many. She does own quite a few (hats), although metaphorical ones—curator, critic, writer, editor, and also Ph.D. candidate. When asked about the existence of an administrative routine to keep all of them afloat, she nonchalantly explains that all the roles in fact coalesce into an interconnected practice wherein one feeds the other. So, no there is no predetermined schedule for the one who populates social media feeds as Punk Orientalism—an intriguing juxtaposition of terms, eponymous of Raza’s soon to be published book. A parallel to her Ph.D. research, Punk Orientalism can be defined as an exploration of the dissident praxes that have emerged in Central Asia and the Caucasus after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The protagonists of Raza’s research: artists who have striven to renegotiate a dogmatic post-Soviet art system through punk aesthetics all while remodelling the fictional characteristics of Orientalism.
The geographical areas of concern in Raza’s polyvalent trajectory (Central Asia in her academic work and the MENA region in her curatorial projects) result from a conscious decision taken very early in her career, partly motivated by a substantial interest in the social conditions and practices of artists living East of Europe and the post-Soviet Asia. The other half of Raza’s decision-making most probably stemmed from her family’s roots, which extend to Central Asia and Iran.
“Cultural capital has obviously played a role in my work,” she explains, referring to her interest in examining the migration of people and ideas while articulating them into a historical or philosophical framework.
The accurate verbalization of concepts—a starting point of any curatorial project Raza delves into—is what lead her to study Art History and English literature at Goldsmiths, University of London where her master thesis examined the impacts of Iranian Ta’ziyeh theatre on Modern and Contemporary Persian arts.
Raza’s inclination towards historical dissection as means to shed light on cultural commonalities hybridizes with her focus of thinking sciences—a subject she became acquainted with from an early age given that her parents and grandfather were involved in various degrees of scientific research or practice. “I grew up in a home with a lot of books and a lot of research on Islamic sciences or sciences that have merged from Greek, Persian, and Arabic scholars. They fascinated me as a child and still continue to do so today”, shares Raza about the aspect that threads in all her projects, and most recently in her curatorial role at Guggenheim’s UBS MAP Global Art Initiative.
Fostering artistic and cultural exchanges through education about emerging regions, MAP recently entrusted their Middle East and North Africa section to Raza, who joined curators June Yap and Pablo Leon de la Barra, spearheading the South-East Asia and Latin America programs respectively. Although the three don’t directly work together, their efforts to highlight the rise of a global south all while emphasizing the specificities of each dynamic region brings several historical crossovers. During her two-year residency, Raza’s role of selecting artists and creating educational tools to promote their practices will culminate in a 2016 exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York that will later travel to the Middle East. Sara works closely with Chief Curator Nancy Spector and Director of Curatorial Affairs Joan Young as well as regularly conferring with the Abu Dhabi team.
Only a few months into a project that has her travel between her London base and the Guggenheim’s New York City offices, what Raza accepts to disclose thus far is an approach geared towards presenting the MENA region as an origin for the world’s many inventions and ideologies. However, she feels that the heritage of the Middle East region is largely forgotten in our contemporary world. “It is not a nostalgic project in any type or form,” she states. “It addresses the cultural and social conditions, which are global conditions. Foreign policies that are created in Europe and America have a huge impact on the region so it’s a more global project.” Raza asserts her determination to bridge the existing gaps in today’s transmission of knowledge between cultures.
Crafting relations between art and local communities to widen the reach of exhibitions is something she has proven to be successful at since the inception of her curatorial career at South London gallery in 2004. It was there that she designed a program of talks, films, and screenings in order to entice the audience. “Curatorial work doesn’t end when the exhibition goes up,” she says. “There is a much wider dialogue to engage with the community, particularly in the public sector, [which] is hugely beneficial to the regular, normal public because the programs are devised for them.”
It is this constant interaction with art practitioners that Raza considers the most thrilling part of her career. “What an artist offers is an analysis of different parts of history and an individual culture which is very interesting for me”, she admits. Among her favorite artists are Lida Abdul, Sheza Dawood, Ergin Cavusoglu, Wafaa Bilal, whose rigorously academic practices intertwine the thinking sciences. “Their work is more than just a surface study,” she explains. “They have delved deeper.”
When asked about the artwork that impacted her most recently, Raza mentions the Akbank Sanat International Curator Competition in Istanbul, where she saw Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue — a video installation that was awarded the Silver Lion at the 55th Venice Biennale and examines the origin of the universe and its subsequent evolution through multiple superimpositions of computer windows projected onto a large-scale screen. Like Henrot’s installation, Raza admits to an attraction for artists who have grown up with the Internet and whose digital practices stand as irrefutable proofs of technology’s global impact. The interest becomes even more compelling when the artists come from regions where there hasn’t been a great history in museology, and where, as Raza puts it, “the real rock star is the artist and not the superstar curator of the West.” And this, as she so boldly states, is the focus in all of her work. It is the artists and the ideas they set forth through their studio practices that, ultimately, must prevail.