Martha Kirszenbaum, curator, Paris

Madre Museum is a contemporary art museum in the historic centre of Naples (Italy): a former, old and disused school department has been restored by the famous architect Alvaro Siza. Opened in 2005, it hosts a peculiar range of in situ permanent artworks. 

While going on a light restoration, it recently reopened its stunning and unforgettable terrace overlooking the city. Siza cleverly recovered this residual space from abandonment: it now hosts site-specific works. My favorite is a literary and profound textual piece by Neapolitan duo Bianco-Valente citing Ortese’s ‘Il Mare Non Bagna Napoli’. 

In these months Madre also hosts a deep, stratified, emotional cinematic journey into contemporary art moving image with loop screenings along the opening time of the Museum. The Shadow of the Tree displays artists from the Middle East and North African region. It’s a strong way to candidate art and this hilly and contrasting city to be one of the peace and dialogue Mediterranean hubs. If this will succeed or not the time will tell, for now entering this great building finding an annexed temporary cinema where storytelling and sound-scoring of each piece is paramount stands as a perfect way to to discover Middle East from a pure and precious perspective. 

What brought to Naples this incredible retrospective in such troubled times is the will of the Madre new director, Eva Fabbris, and Martha Kirszenbaum’s curatorial touch. I have already crossed her path enjoying the monumental solo show she designed to representing France at Venice Art Biennale. 

I met Martha during The Shadow of the Tree opening day where also a Palestinian artist whose work is on screen has been invited.

Your life in a few words, exactly from when it started

I was born outside of Paris to Polish Jewish parents and, in a way, Eastern and Central European culture and history inspired my early life, and we always spoke Polish at home. Later I learned Russian and have been close to this region by traveling to Poland, spending vacations in new-age summer camps in the north of Poland in the 1990s but also going to music school as a child. 

I studied viola and drums at the Conservatoire in Versailles where I grew up. I have to say that music always played a crucial role in my curatorial practice, which you can also see in the program I curated at Madre – The Shadow of the Tree. My partner is actually a music producer and I can definitely say that music is a part of my professional and intimate life.

The original score of Farther than the Eye Can See (Basma al-Sharif, 2012, 12’ 56’’) the first video of the screening ‘The Shadow of the Tree’ is really amazing -stunning, refined, powerful, contorted and above all pointing very much the emotional carry of the story. Black magic, I would say.

I agree. 

Returning to my life since you’re asking, I traveled a lot, particularly in the Middle East and, during one of my trips to Morocco as a teenager, I discovered myself as a belly dancer. When I I returned to France I started to take lessons which led to a professional belly dance career. I performed in France and abroad in restaurants, cafes and cabarets that evoked the golden age of Egyptian cultural life in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Middle-Eastern films and music became a very important source of influence, and I started collecting records from the region. 

I made a living as a belly dancer and performed in Syria, Morocco, the US, Switzerland etc. It definitely informed my curatorial practice!

Another formative moment was moving to New York in 2006 when I was a student at Science Po (Paris). I was studying political history and cultural studies and got into an exchange program at Columbia University. This move radically changed my life! During my teenage years I was always dreaming of New York — the 1970s and 80s art scene, the Velvet Underground, the Factory…

Once in the city I was granted an internship at MoMA’s Media and Performance Department, another seminal place where my profession was shaped. There I found my ‘actual’ family in the museum context and through writing and working with artists, especially with film, media and performance. 

Once I moved back to Europe I started working independently and focusing on the MENA region. 

In 2013 I moved back to the U.S., settling in Los Angeles (my other grand passion) where I started an exhibition space and residency program named Fahrenheit, that was supported by a French non-for-profit, FLAX. 

It was 250-square meters space within a former, beautiful factory in Downtown LA, a place that now is gentrified and has changed a lot since then and has become the location of many contemporary art galleries. 

I was lucky to have carte blanche for the space’s program and I brought French artists such as Caroline Mesquita, David Douard but also ones like Dorothee Iannone, Genesis P-Orridge, or Michel Auder and also Laure Prouvost. I invited Laure for a residency and this was the start of a very important collaboration because when I moved back to Paris a few years later, Laure invited me to curate her participation at the French Pavilion of the 58th Venice Biennale.

Curating a pavilion in Venice changes your life forever! Nothing can ever be the same (she smiles more than ever when telling of Venice!).

Laure’s piece was a film installation about a road trip around France and all the way to Venice until the door of the pavilion itself!

I saw it three times and every access to the beautifully transformed pavilion meant a long queueing; it was a marvelous work of art and its context was very precious also for people not working in or supporting the scene

What I realized with that project was that – apart the first week filled with professionals as the director of Tate, of MoMa and so on. – lots of people of different background were very moved by the piece. This includes my friends and my family but also inhabitants of Venice and regular tourists.

Laure has this incredible capacity to take you beyond, to bring you in the journey — An emotional, a physical one, and an intellectual one. At different levels, such an incredible amount of people was leaving the pavilion with tears in the eyes, which we did not plan!

When I was coming back every month to check on technical details I was discovering the array of different kind of publics, from Venetians to other tourists: I always noticed they were very moved and therefore I understood that we did a good job!

After that amazing experience in Venice, we jumped into a pandemic time: I wanted to move back in Los Angeles but it was a bit uncertain and uneasy so I stayed in Europe and  continued working on my projects internationally, for instance with the Norwegian Museum Kistefos, but also in Marseille, Vienna or Almaty. I also regularly contribute for art magazines such as the Italian Cura (of which I am also part of the editorial committee). 

On a very different and happy side of my life, I just had a baby boy, Ezra,who is often traveling with me now. Curating a show at Madre being a ‘mother’ is a very important part in my personal mythology!

At the moment I live in Paris with Ezra and his dad, working on many independent projects, some of which are  connected to video and performance in the Mediterranean region. 

After The Shadow of the Tree, I will organize a large performance program in Marseille all over the city, in connection to Art Explora’s catamaran project that will sail all over the Mediterranean for 3 years and stop in 15 cities including Marseille, the departure point of the journey. There I will bring 20 projects of artists from the city and the MENA Mediterranean region around films, music, performances, djing, food, fashion and discursive programs, which will all take place by the boat in the Old Port, and in cultural places like museums and galleries and spaces related to the popular culture of he Middle-East, such as a hammam or a cabaret.

What is important in my practice is always aiming to break hierarchies between high and low culture – contemporary art philosophy and music, tv, popular dance. I wish to combine them, to blend them and create new contents.

Videos are very easy taking objects of art especially when it comes to display pieces from war zones as Palestine where not always the mobility of the artists is granted. 

Being easy to ‘present’, they are on the other way really punching you in the stomach for days because they stand as a very pure, concrete and overlapping form of art. Many video artists from MENA and SWANA are very focused on the sensation, to reach an immediate feeling with viewer given by the combination of multiple sources. In a very powerful way as like they are confined (Palestinian artists are really confined, but for instance Philippines artists are not) in the struggle for means and for audience.

Even if the grammar of video composition of the above scenes is very differing, one of the main sources I feel MENA artists are using very much is their own literature tradition. 

Do they look for immanence in your opinion and therefore they are very much on literature? Or because they all love very much poetry in their country because this culture branch is very enforced since the childhood?

It is always hard to make stereotype of the kind ‘all Middle East artists are connected to poetry’. I’m not a very big fan of these kind of statements but definitely the project I curated right before this one was in a gallery in Vienna and related to a Persian poet of 1960s, Forugh Farrokhzad. 

I invited two artists of very different generations (Reza Shafahi and Sadah H Nava, this latter is a young Iranian/Canadian based in New York) developing singular practices of drawing on paper, film, performance and music. 

In this case, and in Persian culture, the importance of this poet and others infused the minds. When I was traveling in Iran, I visited Shiraz and the tomb of the great poet Hafez, where you see very normal people, from lower and middle class recitating his verses. I never had seen this on the grave of Victor Hugo! For this I agree with you.

It is important to remind that when we talk about the Middle East, even more today, we think of wars and violence, it’s a cyclical pattern of tragical events but music and joy are equal part of this culture and they are the core of Middle Eastern life: we have to break this narrative of suffering and disaster.

I feel this new cycle of violence can stand unfortunately for the end of a Palestinian state, it’s so tragic that my life safe and sound here is derailed because I can’t do anything to prevent these people to die.

It’s tragic.

Returning to music and readings, can you give me a title of a book with you now and a score you’re listening in these days?

Yes, sure. 

Regarding one of my passions, Middle-Eastern music, I’m a big fan of a female singer named Googoosh, an Iranian diva of the 60-70s. She was very modern and stylish woman and her voice was incredibly strong and low, somehow very resembling Grace Jones. And I love Warda, a very important Algerian-born, French raised, Egyptian singer – her dad used to run a cabaret in Paris where the National Liberation Front members used to hide weapons. 

Artists from the region are always subjected to confront with political events preventing their freedom of expression. Googoosh, for instance, was silenced forever in her country in 1979 and she decided not to leave the country even if she could have.

What did you feel you have understood and been taught from life until now?

A lot, but for sure the more important thing is the more you give the more you receive. 

What is a curator? Curator comes from the latin ‘curare’ that means taking care of people. I am not a doctor and unfortunately I cannot take care of harmed people in Gaza right now or save lives, but I am here to curate a show at Madre, and hopefully I can infuse your souls and improve the sensibility toward the world. That’s all I can do.

Madre Museum (Italy, Naples) is screening until March 6 2024 everyday in the opening hours of the museum ‘The Shadow of the Tree’, a monographic program showing forty moving images works of art from documentary to video to music. Articulated in six programs, the screening alternates three retrospectives (Basma al-Sharif, Valentin Noujaïm, Sara Sadik) curated by Martha Kirszenbaum with Myriam Ben Salah, Stella Bottai and Asma Barchiche. The screenings will be looping the entire day in original language with subtitles and offer a deep historic, political and social reflection on the MENA region in these times of very fragmented balance.

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