An Interview with Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez and Vilma Jurkute

ArtReview sat down with the curator Petrešin-Bachelez and Jurkute, director of Alserkal Initiatives, to discuss solidarity, care and decolonisation.

Paula Valero-Comin, Manifestation Végétal/Resistant Herbarium Rosa Luxemburg, 2024. Courtesy Cité internationale des arts

When Solidarity is Not a Metaphor is an exhibition curated by Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez, Arts and Culture Programme Manager at Cité internationale des arts, and commissioned by Alserkal Initiatives. Inspired by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s 2012 text, Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor, this exhibition spans installations, photographs, performances, listening sessions, and heart-to-heart conversations. Intentionally foregrounding artistic practices, the When Solidarity is Not a Metaphor focuses on simple gestures, often evoking quotidian existences on the periphery of violence and conflict. Ahead of the exhibition’s opening on 16 April, ArtReview sat down with Petrešin-Bachelez and Vilma Jurkute, Executive Director of Alserkal Initiatives.

ArtReview The title of this exhibition, When Solidarity is Not a Metaphor, is a particularly charged one. ‘Solidarity’ has been something of a buzzword in recent years, so how will this exhibition depart from metaphor? Why is it important to do so?

Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez I would like to start by insisting that solidarity as a buzzword is inconceivable. Solidarity is an ageless, ongoing expression of feeling – and being – with someone or a group that experiences injustice. It is related to the core of any sense of humanity: without compassion, there is no solidarity.

Mediatised situations of political, environmental, social and cultural injustice have, more or less, given rise to struggles for freedom across the planet for decades. They have been producing emancipated political subjectivities across classes, and have become a means of expression of one’s position and practices within various domains, including contemporary art.

When something is not (only) a metaphor, it becomes a political project – political in an intersectional way, where various social categories that perform oppression in the first place (class, religion, gender, race, sexual politics) now collide and produce resonances and contexts for one another. Contemporary art practices that express solidarity with causes of inhuman injustices inscribe themselves directly into political potentialities and actions that consider challenging and changing the governing positions through which power is performed.

Vilma Jurkute We bear witness to a multiplicity of ‘-cides’ everywhere – genocides, ecocides, homicides – many of them invisible, but which continue to unfold in various parts of the world. At this moment in time, how can we talk about anything else? Solidarity is manmade; when we held initial conversations with the participating artists, their feedback in response to Nataša’s curatorial proposal was overwhelming; this created the possibility for this collective attempt to emerge.

The intent of this exhibition is to create a space where the convergence of practices and practitioners offers the potential to reframe and rethink. It is a ‘coming together’ although it is not celebratory; the exhibition space and the performative interventions that complement it offer room for shared contemplation and mutual exchange.

AR The artists included in this exhibition are previous collaborators of both the Cité internationale des arts in Paris and Alserkal Initiatives in Dubai – what can you tell us about how their works will articulate the exhibition’s theme?

NPB Several artists have stayed at the residency at the Cité internationale des arts in Paris, which has been hosting French and international artists of all disciplines, generations and nationalities since its creation in 1965, gradually adding to a unique collective memory and a kind of a living archive. From its creation, the Cité internationale des arts has continuously hosted artists whose practices have been impacted by exile. Quite a few of the collaborating artists within Alserkal Initiatives programmes have been residents there, and this fact has enabled the project to emerge and grow organically, based on a group of artists with whom the curatorial team, both Alserkal as well as ourselves, have been collaborating for a long time.

AR You’ve mentioned that you work with artists whose practices are embedded in the ‘ethics of care’, what does this mean for Alserkal Initiatives? How does the project practice its own ‘ethics of care’?

VJ We have always been a platform where diverse voices and stories are presented and represented. This now continues to evolve and grow through our global collaborations and projects. Our work is grounded in the importance of collaborative relationships, shared authority and collective learning; open dialogue and long-term cooperation are foregrounded in our partnerships.

When Solidarity is Not a Metaphor is a collective attempt grounded in the cognitive generosity of our partner institutions and a global civic network of multidisciplinary practitioners. In light of the ongoing injustices in Palestine, Sudan, Ukraine and other parts of the world, it feels imperative for us at Alserkal to embody the spirit of lived practice and extend our platform to the widest and most diverse audience possible. By working with artists whose practices are embedded in the ethics of care, we hope to encourage whole-thinking structures, new narratives of possibility and shared moments of intention to emerge.

AR Can you speak about how Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s 2012 article ‘Decolonization is Not a Metaphor’ has influenced the exhibition?

NPB Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s work is a precise manual of how to step out from a vicious postcolonial cycle in which generations inhabited by settlers’ feelings of guilt find ways and forms of washing that guilt away through various psycho-political gestures and acts. According to the authors, any form of decolonisation brings with it the repatriation of Indigenous life and land. An easy adoption of the decolonising discourse turns decolonisation into a metaphor. Similarly, solidarity should not be perceived as a form or as a metaphor, but as a durational practice that aims at accountable and ethical gathering across individual stories into larger and significant social alliances.

AR These artists come from a number of different backgrounds. How will the exhibition handle the different localities of each artist’s practice and as a whole?

NPB Many of the featured artists in When Solidarity Is Not a Metaphor share the same destiny of forced displacement and are committed to igniting questions that address these displacements, and to sustaining ethical practices of production. These works have grown from and during the women’s protests in Teheran, a decades-long blockade in Gaza, forced displacement from Ukraine to France, life as a hostage in Khartoum and this very exhibition in Venice. By thinking about all these extreme moments through transnational feminist perspectives, we will be able to form alliances without much trouble – as they all speak about the necessity to rise up and stand against injustices, as they concern each and every one of us.

I conceive of exhibitions as spaces where ‘distribution of the sensible’ takes place. According to Jacques Rancière, any distribution of the sensible in any given public or private space establishes the divisions between what is visible and invisible, sayable and unsayable, audible and inaudible. Thus, this exhibition intends to be a sensible political constellation of positions that form interdependent visual, performative, discursive and aural alliances.

When Solidarity is Not a Metaphor opens at My Art Guides Venice Meeting Point, Navy Officers’ Club – Arsenale, Venice, 16–21 April

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