Petja Grafenauer: The Significance Of Inter-Regional Networking For Curatorial Practices

Since 1999, SCCA−Ljubljana has been organising events that focus on studying the relationships between different systems of contemporary art through examples. The first such project was the Manifesta in our Backyard (1999–2002).[1] The initiators of the research project sought to use Manifesta 3, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art – which was held in Ljubljana in 2000 – to “examine the functioning of contemporary art system while avoiding passive and uncritical reception of the event itself. The aim of the project was to promote critical discourse on the contemporary art system whose functioning is subject to market mechanisms and the dominant (post-modernist) ideology. At the same time, the goal was to encourage the self-reflection of local and regional protagonists, and emancipation of various models of functioning within an art system that would draw on specific needs of a particular environment.”[2]

One of three research objectives was to analyse the impact of Manifesta 3 on the local art scene. The conclusion was that Manifesta, which took place in Ljubljana mainly for political reasons, failed to connect with the local art milieu. Manifesta 3 revealed the complexity of and potential conflicts between relationships that arise from the actual juxtaposition of local and global models of cultural production.”[3]

The research project spurred inquiries about the relationship between the local and global art worlds, which SCCA−Ljubljana included in its next research project What Is to Be Done with “Balkan Art”? (2002–2005). At a time of increased interest in the Balkans and “Balkan art”, with several smaller and three major exhibitions of “Balkan art”[4], the focus shifted from the relationship between the local and “global” to the exploration of the relationship between the regional and “global” worlds of art.

If we analyse the “phenomenon of rediscovering or (re)defining the Balkans and ‘Balkan art’ – which in recent years has been quite noticeable in art and theory both in Western Europe and the region itself”[5] – we can appreciate the need for establishing connections within the region and creating discourse “from the inside”. In his text, Igor Zabel writes that “regardless of all possible reductions and exclusions which accompany the construction of an identity, this nevertheless facilitates the creation of stronger ties between art systems and their protagonists in the region.”[6]

As part of its research and educational activities, SCCA−Ljubljana seeks to follow up on the needs of the local and regional worlds of art, and construct knowledge about the regional art systems which have not (yet) been integrated into the paradigm to which the makeshift name of “Western world of art” still applies. In so doing, SCCA−Ljubljana is building new knowledge which is based on the research of local social, political and artistic features of a given local or regional environment. On the one hand, this knowledge offers an opportunity to understand one’s own world of art while, on the other, it functions as a platform for establishing an alternatively functioning world of art which does not blindly emulate Western models. Thus connections are formed not between a dominant centre and subordinate local or regional environment, but between equal partners.

SCCA−Ljubljana uses the findings of its research work in its educational practice, as part of the World of Art programme. Since 2006, SCCA−Ljubljana, in collaboration with its regional partners – the National Association of Art Critics of Armenia (NAAC), the Soros Center for Contemporary Art in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and the BM Contemporary Art Center in Istanbul – has been creating a platform for promoting and understanding curatorial practices and criticism. One of the joint activities is also the Yerevan Summer School for Curators, which has been organised since 2006 in Armenia by the National Association of Art Critics of Armenia. The collaboration opens up new opportunities for protagonists of the Slovenian art scene to get to know the Armenian world of art and establish new ties with other seminar participants – curators from Eastern and, since 2008, also Western Europe.[7]

On 6 November 2008, SCCA−Ljubljana organised a symposium on the state of curatorial practices in Armenia, Kazakhstan, Egypt and Turkey in the Project Room at Metelkova 6/8, entitled From Elsewhere. The event comprised two parts. The first featured speakers presenting the current state of contemporary art and curatorial practices in selected countries, while the second featured a round table on curatorial practices in education in different regions.

Representatives of all four countries attended the symposium. The two Armenian guests were the art critic, curator, President of NAAC (Local AICA in Armenia) and Director of the Summer Seminars Program for Contemporary Art Curators, Nazareth Karoyan, and the curator, art historian and co-organiser of the annual seminars for contemporary art curators, Angela Harutyunyan. Karoyan, who is mainly concerned with the emergence of an art system, the articulation of the socio-political context in contemporary Armenian art, and art issues in communication between the post-Soviet Armenia and Europe, opened one of the first private galleries in Armenia, Goyak Gallery, in 1991. Through his work, he has become an expert on the Armenian art scene.

At the symposium, using exhibitions and various art pieces as examples, he showed the transition that occurred in Armenian art in the late 1990s. At the time, artistic practices in the country that gained independence in 1991 were a reaction to Soviet collectivist ideology and iconography. The practices, mainly installations and performances, which at the time represented a reaction to the dominant discourse of body and space, have now transformed into new media practices (video and digital photography) and discourses of the time and memories past. Karoyan also described the transformations and shifts in the field of curatorial practices which run parallel with the above-mentioned paradigmatic changes.

Valeria Ibraeva, a visual arts theoretician, critic, curator and the Director of the Soros Center for Contemporary Art in Almaty, Kazakhstan, talked about the diversity of practices of Central Asian, Indian and Pakistani artists and theoreticians. Her research and articles focus on the relationship between art and politics and changes in the culture of Central Asia related to international processes which include the Central Asian region.

Ibraeva presented the current situation of contemporary art in Kazakhstan by focusing on the project Destination Asia (2007−), which highlights the diversity of the worlds of art of Central Asia, India and Pakistan in practice. It seeks to examine the gap between two geographically isolated regions, which emerged already during the fundamentalist Muslim regimes of emirates of Bukhara, Kokand and Khiva in the 17th and 18th centuries. The differences grew during the conflicts between and British and Russian empires, and finally behind the Soviet iron curtain. By describing the exhibitions Non-strict Correspondence (2007), which took place in Almaty, and Flying over Stereotypes (2007–2008), which was presented in Mumbai, the lecturer showed how there are major differences between works from countries which are perceived by the West as uniform. They are the result of different social and political realities, in which artists lived and created.

In the third part of the Destination Asia project, the participants – theoreticians from the participating countries, as well as Japan, Italy and Germany – sought to understand the metamorphosis of the Western concept of orientalism into an Eastern one and research the possibilities through which Asian countries can critically examine Western cultural projects on “Asian art” by incorporating new knowledge.

The Egyptian contemporary art scene was presented by Laura Canderera, the Programme Manager at the Townhouse Gallery, the first independent gallery for contemporary art Cairo since January 2007. The gallery opened in 1998 and has since managed to at least partially fill the gap in the local art scene. Until then, existing commercial galleries mainly offered the public what it expected: contemporary imitations of the art of the Ancient Egypt. Under the sponsorship of the ministry of culture, museums and galleries presented art in accordance with the modernistic tradition supported by the education system based on the Western model of the history of art, while stressing the significance of the art of the Ancient Egypt. Townhouse became the first independent Cairo gallery focusing exclusively on contemporary art. After 2000 other art venues emerged in Cairo, including the independent art initiative Contemporary Image Collective (CiC), Artellewa gallery and Alexandria Contemporary Art Forum (ACAF) gallery and residency programme in Alexandria.

It has since become clear that local art scene lacks curators and contemporary art critics who would attempt to understand local art in its own context. Meanwhile, this art has become interesting to the West and has been presented at several exhibitions, including Contemporary Arab Representations, Disorientation, Breaking the Veil, Images of the Middle East (Copenhagen), Arabise me (V&A London) and Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent. Thus the Townhouse Gallery, which has since developed into a centre for contemporary art, prepared its first education seminar for curators in 2007. In its first edition, the course sought to establish and legitimise contemporary curatorial practice in Egypt and the wider region. A new problem emerged: lecturers all came from Western Europe and were not familiar with the context of contemporary Egyptian art. Their experience was foreign to the situation in Egypt, marked by regional dynamics and the lack of financial means and infrastructure. Therefore, the organisers concluded that lecturers have to be found in the regions sharing at least some characteristics with Egypt.

Contemporary art scene in Turkey was presented by Renata Papsch, a cultural manager from Austria, who initiated and managed cultural projects in different countries of the Mediterranean. She had helped to helped establish the DEPO cultural centre which sought to connect the contemporary art worlds of Turkey, the South Caucasus, the Middle Eastern and Balkan countries. The lecture described in detail contemporary art spaces in Istanbul, which range from privately-owned museums or museums sponsored by private universities, private galleries and cultural centres to artist-run galleries. She also presented the problems of financing contemporary art in a country where most of financial means come from private sources also international organisations.

Presentations were followed by the Panel on Curatorial Practices and Education. In addition to lecturers, participants included Barbara Borčić, the Director of SCCA−Ljubljana, Angela Harutyunyan, and Petja Grafenauer as moderator. The discussants pointed at the similarities in the art worlds of the presented countries. Everyone realised the need to establish educational programmes for curators. In Egypt and Armenia such programs already exist, however, the issue of human resourses still remains. There is a great need for knowledge which would not be based only on the dominant Western art world, but which would offer insight into the local framework, its characteristics and problems. Through connections between participating organisations, which now includes also SCCA−Ljubljana, with twenty years of experience in running an educational course called the World of Art, there will be an opportunity to share experts, and establish and spread knowledge on local and regional worlds of art. With such cultural policy, participating organisations not only develop curatorial educational programmes, but also nurture knowledge on local particularities of individual art regions.

The symposium attracted professionals, but not the broader art public, which shows that Slovenian world of art is increasingly oriented toward the West and is not attracted by regional art practices. Therefore, organising events such as From Elsewhere is all the more important, as SCCA−Ljubljana can thus ensure that knowledge on regional art systems is not lost in the world of generalised, Western-oriented contemporary art.

First published in english: Petja Grafenauer, “The Significance Of Inter-Regional Networking For Curatorial Practices”, Towards Collaborative Curating: Curatorial Education Redefined, Yerevan, 2009, 76–84.

[1] Results were published in the first three issues of PlatformaSCCA magazine for contemporary art. More on, 18 April 2009.

[2], 18 April 2009.

[3] Eda Čufer, “Refleksije na Manifesto 3“,, 18 April 2009.

[4] In Search of Balkania (curators: Roger Conover, Eda Čufer, Peter Weibl, Graz, Austria 2002); Blood and Honey. Future’s in the Balkans (curator: Harald Szeemann, Klosterneuburg Austria 2003); In the Gorges of the Balkans (curator: Ernst Block, Kassel, Germany 2003).

[5], 18 April 2009.

[6] Robert Alagjozovski, Barbara Borčić & Urška Jurman: “Interview with Igor Zabel”, PlatformaSCCA, No. 4, Ljubljana, September 2005, p. 8.

[7] The participants at the first Summer School for Curators in Yerevan in 2006 were Monika Ivančič and Tevž Logar. In 2007, the participant was Petra Kapš, Tevž Logar presented World of Art School and Barbara Borčić participated with a lecture on the curatorial practices in Slovenia. At the third summer school in 2008, which was open to participants from around the world, I, Petja Grafenauer, lead one of the modules, while Dušan Dovč presented the World of Art and other educational programmes by SCCA−Ljubljana.