Amid the global lockdown, Dr Omar Kholeif began developing Perpetual Inventory while secluding themselves in archives and storage units. Kholeif is an award-winning writer, curator, and cultural historian with over 60 exhibitions of visual art, architecture, and digital culture centred on ethnicity, race, and gender and their intersections within the modern art world. With the increasing introspection of everyone, Kholeif designed Perpetual Inventory to reflect that essence, encouraging institutions to ‘look inward’ at their own collections and cultural artefacts to learn and evaluate how artwork can be reinterpreted over time.

In this new collaboration with artPost21, Dr Omar Kholeif takes a deep dive into The Third Line’s vaults, featuring rarely exhibited works from the gallery’s roster of artists. The exhibition Perpetual Inventory invites viewers to explore the diverse aesthetics of artists such as Tarek Al-Ghoussein, Shirin Aliabadi, Youssef Nabil, and many others and examine the relationships we can form with the artwork in the present moment.

In addition to Perpetual Inventory, there will also be Dr. O’s Pop Shop offering artist-designed prints, editions, clothing, and accessories.

Anuar Khalifi, Maqam “Negus”, 2021. Courtesy of Third Line Gallery

The term “Perpetual Inventory” is more associated with business and economics. I’m fascinated by your choice. Please share with us why.

In the realm of art criticism, it evokes Rosalind Kraus’s writing—initially an essay that she authored for October journal, and later, she used the term as a title of a volume of her collected writings. Krauss argued that the critic must constantly revise her ideas about contemporary art, with time—as the clock of history strikes forward. Meaning and context shift with every passing moment. The significance and impact of an artwork shifts, and, the emphasis of the artwork changes as it always does.  

But it is indeed also associated with the business and economics of ‘taking care of art’. As a Collections Director, curator, and caretaker for myriad objects, I must often consider how objects are stored—from a conservation standpoint. Works must be rotated and moved, displayed, shielded, checked, packed and unpacked. During the pandemic, I found myself returning to the pure disciplinary pleasures of organizing things of going through storage, arranging, classifying, and deciphering—a form of significance emerged. At that point, I often said that the ‘moths became my friends’, which isn’t a quite accurate thing to say, as climate-controlled storage for art, is bug-free. But the moths were sort of like thought bubbles that lived with me, and I decided to investigate what it is that people held in their storage units.

What is it that lays temporarily dormant, sleeping, awaiting re-animation? Certainly, the meaning attributed to any given artwork is developed through and from the animation—the dialogue between an individual’s ocular perspective, their feelings, emotions, their sensibilities, and their de facto ontology of the world. So suddenly, the most valuable thing on Earth can be that which is not necessarily seen at any given moment, but only for this moment. Let it come alive and see! Do you see what I see? 

Can you tell me more about your artPost21 platform and what you intend to change within the art and culture industry?

Thank you for picking up on this. artPost21 is a platform that I launched in 2012 when I was completing my doctoral research. Schooled in colonialism, post-coloniality, and critical-race theory, I decided that I wanted to create a ‘space’ of some description that isn’t necessarily ‘reacting to’ historical colonial oppression, but which is ‘signposting’ an ocular perspective towards a culture that exists on its own terms, and through its own cultural parameters. That is why the ‘P’ is capitalized in ‘Post’—a specific stylization, and, why the logo that we made, presents the P as a kind of signpost—not to the future, but to the very ‘live’ and active present. 

Amir H. Fallah, Venice Beach A Fury of Stones, 2007. Courtesy of Third Line Gallery

In 2012, what prompted you to establish artPost21?

I was working on a range of projects at the time with collaborators—artists, filmmakers and programmers that did not seem to fit within the parameters of what was sanctioned by institutions. We were all people of color, some of us were disabled, but we did not simply want to be ticking a box on a form, or indeed, be performing our difference. But we needed an umbrella to produce our culture. And in those intervening years, the cluster and community of this entity has swelled and contracted, and at times, necessitated going to sleep. The general context of where we all live, and work defines a fair amount of what artPost21 does. 

Your curatorial selections for this exhibit aren’t commonly seen. What do you think is the reason it has yet to be? Do you think Dubai being a poster city for “commercial art” plays a role in that?

I think Dubai, and the UAE, is a generative society creatively. It is just that finding your tribe or community is difficult at times. In fact, some of the artists whose individual pieces that I have chosen are very much emerging, and Dubai, can create a wonderful context for emerging practitioners. That said, I am clearly always interested in what it means to show and work with artists who tell stories, create, fashion and govern portals of seeing for us, which enable us to see the world differently.  

Tarek Al-Ghoussein, Abu Dhabi Archipelago (Jubabibat), 2015. Courtesy of Third Line Gallery.

How would you describe and differentiate the art habits and tastes of people from Dubai, the neighbouring region, and MENA citizens (local or diasporic), and how would you encourage them to expand their artistic palette?

That isn’t something that I have the answer to. I think that everyone, everywhere, needs to look more closely at what is right in front of them (or indeed, in their backyard). Certainly, to consider how to nurture it. If you do not support your own art ecology, then one day, there just may be nothing left. 

The work chosen for Perpetual Inventory, Volume I, has a predominantly relaxed, self-documented, and subtle appearance – as demonstrated by your selection of Amir H. Fallah’s and Hassan Hajjaj’s work, both of whom are well-known for their maximalist style. I would love to know what you think about this and what drove you to this decision.

I was interested in looking at things that had not been seen in a very long time and to ask how these pieces served as archives of a particular moment in time. For instance, Hassan Hajjaj’s Call Me is from 2000, and it demonstrates a courtship between two individuals. When I think of 2000, and the picture before me, I am struck by how this is an archive of a form of communication that no longer exists. Back then, it was pre Tinder, Instagram, Facebook, etc…how did we fall in love, not just with each other, but with anyone, or anything? How did we discern taste without the visual panopticon of social media surrounding us, pushing us into a specific direction? 

Hassan Hajjaj, Dehbi in Pink, 2000. Courtesy of Third Line Gallery

Despite each artist’s distinct styles and methods, it is natural to see their boundaries expanding when looking through their archives and even their less popular work. How significant is it to view artists through a multidimensional lens that includes their work that deviates from their popular aesthetic?

For this particular ‘exercise’ and it is An Exercise in Looking as I have called this first chapter of Perpetual Inventory, I literally sought works that connected to me personally. Works that summoned and entered corners of memory and feeling and that I felt would dialogue with each other. I have written about how we live in ‘An Age of Emotion’—and in many regards this exhibition is a further interpretation of that. I further comment on this in my new book, which comes out in March. It is titled Internet_Art: From the Birth of the Web to the Rise of NFTs. It is a memoir as art history, and I am very proud that it is published by Phaidon—a publisher that people turn to measure a certain kind of pulse in art history. 

As an esteemed art curator, how should the public look at artists’ artwork as a whole?

I believe that it is a journey. I believe that one should collect, look, and examine the work of a certain artist in-depth. There are very few artists that I have the capacity to do this with all the time. But with certain artists, their work is a commitment—it is a life project. I read everything that they write, publish, look at everything that they make, and I develop a relationship that is specific to me. I think that is what we all need to do with art and artists—build our own relationship. 

Shirin Aliabadi, Girls in Car 4, 2005. Courtesy of Third Line Gallery

Perpetual Inventory, Volume 1: An Exercise in Looking is available until January 29th, 2023 at Third Line Gallery in Serkal Avenue. For more information, click here.

Rand Al-Hadethi is an art, culture, and fashion writer who approaches all her creative endeavours with a penchant for storytelling. She explores the intersection of fashion, culture, and society and sheds light on talent and cultural movements across the Middle East and the world. Rand also publishes a bi-monthly themed substack newsletter called WebWeaver™. To reach Rand, email her at rand@khamsa5.com or follow her on social media @rundoozz.
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