A Celebration that Started with Stories…

VCUarts Qatar celebrated its 25th anniversary through an exhibition titled: this Sand is made of Stars/ this Sea is made of Pearls — Horizon Historiographies curated by museum consultant,Dr Hesperia Iliadou Suppiej. SCALE sits down with Dr Iliadou to understand the exhibition through her special curatorial process and to share her journey in art and architecture. By Sindhu Nair

An exhibition organised by VCUarts Qatar that is as poetic as its name suggests.

VCUarts Qatar celebrated its 25th anniversary in Qatar by a creative coming together of the alumni, both international and local group of students, reuniting within Mathaf: The Arab Museum of Modern Arts, in a diverse exhibition curated by art and architecture historian, museum expert and academician Dr Hesperia Iliadou Suppiej. The exhibition will run until December 1, 2023.

A museum consultant, Dr Iliadou is a member of the International Council of Museums and the only woman elected to the Europa Nostra Industrial and Engineering Heritage Committee, thus far.

This is also not the curator’s first introduction to, or collaboration in, the Middle East. She was part of the Abu Dhabi National Museums (at Louvre Abu Dhabi and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi) Curatorial Program held in collaboration with NODE Curatorial Studies, Berlin.

“The stories make the exhibition”

You know she is a believer of stories and fables, when Dr Iliadou explains the story behind her first name Hesperia, which in Greek mythology means “evening” or “evening star” named after one of the nymphs that symbolised the golden light of sunsets.

The curator of the exhibition Dr Hesperia Iliadou Suppiej believes in the power of story telling.

Then with the title of the exhibition as poetic as –This Sand is made of Stars/ this Sea is made of Pearls – Horizon Historiographies, we get to see the depth of emotions that underlies the curator’s art sensibilities and her love for storytelling. It also shines light into the stories of the alumni that stole their way to the heart of the curator and later on to the visitors to the exhibition.

“The poetic title of this showcase, ‘this Sand is made of Stars/this Sea is made of Pearls – Horizon Historiographies, was inspired by the alumni, their projects, and their emotional ties to the country in which they studied – Qatar. Hence, we felt the best way to showcase these relationships was to present their works as a curated series of narratives in a manner reminiscent of the local fables of Al Khor, tales that were once narrated when people gathered around a fire, yet resonate with those living in today’s digital age. We made sure the visual feel of the space and the variety of installations on display convey this beautiful harmony.”

“Faith and love for the country was the underlying themes for many pieces and this inspired me as well since it represents VCUarts Qatar as an academic community that partakes in such a unifying message but also focuses on Qatar, a land that brings together so many different people from around the world to find their home here,” says the curator about the theme chosen and the stories that bind the pieces to the land they are from.

Dean of VCUarts Qatar, Amir Berbic at the opening of the exhibition with Mathaf Director Zeina Arida.

Dr Iliadou has a curatorial process that is different from most; from the way in which she approached the exhibition, through her journey to the culmination and the launch of it.

She says, “Contrary to what people would expect, I actually begin with reading the stories of the artists on board; reading how the artists explain their work and also their personal stories. I do not see their work in the beginning. I want to choose meaningful stories that captures the imagination and the soul. I believe in the power of storytelling; the piece might be aesthetically interesting but the story behind it might be poor. But if the story is strong and meaningful, then the piece will find its way to the hearts of the audience.”

This has been Dr Iliadou’s curatorial approach wherein she does not treat artworks as objects but as stories that touch the heart and impact the soul of the audience.

“Artists need to interact”

She takes us on her journey of story reading from the submissions of the VCUarts alumni.

“We finalised on 39 alumni working to create 38 pieces, but the number of initial submissions as a result of the open call put up by VCUarts Qatar were much more, and it was no easy task to finalise on the pieces,” remembers the curator.

“The exhibition-making process is a learning process for everyone involved,” says Dr Hesperia Iliadou Suppiej

Dr Iliadou’s curatorial process not only involved the story telling process but also a coordinated approach wherein each participant came and narrated their story to the entire participating group of artists. This made sure that all the artists appreciated the significance of the journey of the art pieces and even discussed the process.

“I believe in this organic process of artists working together, understanding and supporting each other, in the comments of other artists involved, the dialogues between artists as all of them combine in making or breaking the exhibition,” she says again shining light on her unique curatorial approach.

Dr Iliadou’s artist meetings in Doha proved to be so successful that it went on till late night with interesting artistic discussions that were enjoyed and appreciated by the artists.

“I consider myself as a teacher and I consider that the exhibition making process is a learning process for everyone involved. An artists should never be only about perfecting his or her own craft but also about listening to  the voices of other artists,” she says, “Artists these days are very lonely people and I feel they need to connect more with the audience and with co-artists to make their work more relevant to the times we are in now.”

“The connecting elements”

“There were stories that began or found inspiration from the same theme or the same territory of ideas, and by looking at the stories, we slowly begin to form a book. So, the exhibition is like a book to me that someone would read. And like a book, it had different chapters. After reading all the stories of the art pieces, we found that they have distinct chapters,” explains Dr Iliadou.

The exhibition is divided into four sections based on the common themes found among the artworks. The sections are: The Sacred, The Water (Sea), The Land (Sand) and The Self & The Other.

Dr Hesperia Iliadou Suppiej standing in front of Bouthayna’s Al Muftah ‘s work.

“What I found deeply moving was that the Sacred is the most dominant theme and it is loosely connected with every artwork as a common thread,” she says, commenting on a factor she found deeply engraved in the works, analysing this thread as an international art expert from Europe, she says, “I find this respect very poignant and special to the region.”

The exhibition starts with The Sacred and also ends with this thread connecting through all the artworks. While some artforms are obvious in their messaging and why they fall under a chapter, some are enigmatic in their classifications that need more indepth look into the story to garner the link.

“This piece by Bouthayna Al Muftah falls under this category. It is special because it is a new piece made especially for the exhibition and is a representation of a prayer that women sing while waiting for their loved ones to return from sea. Her story tells about the power of human faith over natural elements and is also one that carries us over to the new section of The Water,” explains Dr Suppiej.

“Art from personal stories”

Othman Khunji’s The Sacred Union.

Work by Othman Khunji, The Sacred Union, takes an important place within the first segment with a bespoke diptych crafted from marble, metal, and clay. “It personifies the heritage, religion and culture of the Arabian Gulf and is minimal in design yet captivating in its presence,” she says.

Faheem Khan’s Less Water, More Holy: Tools for Sustainable Ablution.

Faheem Khan’s Vessels bridges the two segments The Sacred and The Water with his designed vessels for ablution that are both sustainable as well as spiritual in their process. Nada Elkharashi’s containers transform the process of drinking into an awareness of breathing as well and falls into place in the Water segment.

Nada Elkharashi with her work.

Shouq Al Mana lets her work speak of local traditions and customs.

Shouq Al Mana’s work, the Tawasil Series are a mirror to her emotions towards Qatari traditions and values, a recurring theme in the artist’s practice. The artists brushstrokes remind the curator of water ripples.

Lauren Morell’s creation is an ode to the country she loves, Qatar.

Lauren Morell, a Class of 2020 alumna and Qatar-based fashion designer, connects Water and Land through her contribution of a garment that flows like water and ripples like the sea when a soft breeze runs over its surface.

Morell, noted how the exhibition brought diverse cultures together. She says, “When you walk through the exhibition, you see how it creates links between different artistic backgrounds. And this is something very special about VCUarts Qatar; it’s a place where self-expression and creativity are nurtured. For the same reason, to be a part of an alumni exhibition held to mark the University’s 25th anniversary is an honour, especially because it has been a part of my life both during and after graduation. Up until today, I apply the work ethic that I learned during my time here.”

Amna Yandarbin’s scarves with stories.

Another story that is a favourite, is Amna Yandarbin’s Yoikkh, the Story of my People, wherein the artist creates a series of scarves to tell the story of herself and the Noxci people to which she belongs. The artist wants to share stories of her community to help reverse Islamophobic tendencies and to raise empathy. The power of storytelling is strong in this artwork as the artist touches on her life story and the story of her community in these scarves. This work straddles The Self segment quite easily.

Maryam Al Homaid uses hand-coloured and hand-woven creations to share her personal impressions of the construction site taking the artwork within the Land segment. Shaikha al Suliati’s furniture is an inspiration from the natural landscape of the country.

Falling within the Self and others segment, Eman Makki’s Where the Poem Begins and Ends, is a series of books that documents the first and last words that the artist utters to another person, every day. This work for the curator is like a day that starts with a prayer and ends with hope.

Hassan Al Shehhi’s personal journey in art.

Hassan Al Shehhi, a Class of 2022 alumnus, and one of the exhibition participants, shared his thoughts. He said, “To me, design is something personal; it is a creative process that I discovered and explored during my four-year journey at VCUarts Qatar. Those were four years that introduced me to a world of creativity with no limitations. Hence, to be part of the VCUarts Qatar family at an event like this makes me proud; it makes my participation in this exhibition all the more rewarding.”

His installation Reclamation of Self is evocative and stunning as well. In blown glass acrylic his work describes his emotions during Covid 19. Tears carry the burden of the heart; the artist reflects as he turns to tears to help him detoxify from his own negative emotions during the difficult times. The piece shatters the male stereotype and celebrates the need for giving in to emotional expressions when need be.

Majdulin Nasrallah’s Mohasir- Mohasar

Majdulin Nasrallah has an impactful interactive installation that reflects the emotions of liberation and confinement that humans face due to the transitory nature of political barriers. The installation also explores the notion of borders or walls, a physical and psychological construct and named Mohasir- Mohasar. This piece gains much significance now when the fight for liberation of Palestine has gained intensity.

A culmination of art in an exhibition that is as poetic in its story telling as it is impactful in its process.

Image Courtesy: Regiane Salvadori & VCU arts Qatar.