Mark Lee, principal and founding partner of the Los Angeles–based architecture firm Johnston Marklee, is completing his first year as chair of the department of architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD). Final exams loom, and to reach his office, one has to scramble up steep stairs past students’ desks—”trays” in GSD speak—at Gund Hall, a five-story open-plan beehive where bodies hunch over cutting mats and rulers with equally palpable panic and pleasure. A word play on Bauhaus, the building’s café, Chauhaus, pumps out cappuccinos below, and the aroma wafts upward.
It is no secret that the art ecosystem in the Gulf is dominated by women. Much more than figureheads, there are female royal patrons, experienced expatriates and homegrown professionals leading cornerstone institutions including Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation, 21,39 Jeddah Arts, Qatar Museums and Sharjah Art Foundation.
Western observers often delight in pondering why so many women are at the forefront of this scene, a relative newcomer to the global art world. “How is it possible that women’s voices can be heard so loudly in the Middle East?”, they ask, through thinly veiled Orientalism.
To the women themselves, gender is almost a non-issue. The Art Newspaper spoke to three female directors who are shaping the future of museums in the Gulf about their efforts to build creative communities, embrace inclusivity in the workplace and reveal the relevance—beyond the beauty—of Islamic art.
It takes ten staff members to gingerly install each nasturtium plant in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s magnificent courtyard. “The vines are up to 20 feet long,” explains Stan Kozak, the museum’s chief horticulturist. “So, it’s like a bridal procession, with one person taking the pot and everyone else carrying a section of the plant with arms out. We walk from the truck, up the stairs into the museum, and then slowly hang them over the third-floor balconies.”
For Bostonians, the annual appearance of the 20 nasturtium plants every April is the first sign that spring is on its way. Propagated from cuttings of the preceding generation or germinated from new seeds starting in June, then coddled through the winter in the museum’s greenhouses in nearby Hingham, the vines with their extravagant vermilion flowers only alight for three short weeks. Their brief, dazzling appearance, like the rest of the beloved museum’s flora, has been Stan Kozak’s work for his entire career.
Photo: Sean Dungan/Courtesy Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston
Namsa Leuba is an unapologetic thief. “I take what I want from each culture and each thing that I experience in my life,” she says. Indeed, the photographer has made a lifelong habit of syncretism—hand-picking traditions and practices from every society, religion, place, or person that her quick-witted lens encounters. Her compositions are cleverly conjured deceits grounded, at least for now, in the heart of Africa. Each image plunges the eye into an imagined world while evoking the commanding feel of photojournalism. This is docufiction at its trickiest with exaggerated voodoo rituals, invented acts of statuette worship, and tattooed acrobatic spirits plodding through the tall grass on stilts.
Born in Switzerland to a Swiss father and a Guinean mother, Leuba studied photography at ECAL, the University of Art and Design in Lausanne, and currently splits her time between Africa, Europe, and French Polynesia. At the moment she works in the garden of her rented bungalow in Tahiti, pumping Pink Floyd into the trees for laidback vibes. When we spoke over Whatsapp, Leuba had been trekking through the Andes for days and had just arrived, totally exhausted and with banged-up legs, at a little hotel in Lima. Her grandmother had passed away just before the trip began, but navigating dangerously narrow passes with her head (literally) in the clouds had helped Leuba to slowly make sense of things.
When European photographers trudged through West Africa with their clunky cameras in the 19th century, their contrived documentary shots of “the natives” were often used as a tool for proving African primitivism and consequent justification for colonial domination. But in reality, many of these images were staged to deceptively portray Africans as white Europeans wanted to see them: as savage, weak, exotic, and backwards. Leuba critically responds to this history by creating her own staged portraits, forcing viewers to question personal perceptions of fact versus fantasy.
Image: Courtesy of Namsa Leuba and Art Twenty One Lagos