Written by Lindsey Lowe Osborne
Photo by Beau Gustafson
Wassan Al-Khudhairi says she’s most often asked, “Why Birmingham, Alabama?” But before we get to how she ended up here, as the curator of modern and contemporary art at the Birmingham Museum of Art, we have to go back to where she started. Al-Khudhairi was born in Iraq and lived in Kuwait as a child (her parents are from Iraq); when she was 9, her family moved to the United States. “My family has always been really proud of where we’re from, so I was raised in a home that celebrated our culture,” she says. “I speak Arabic and English; I always spoke Arabic and English. People say to me, ‘But your English is so good!’ and that’s because I learned to speak both languages at the same time.”
Perhaps it was that initial celebration of dual cultures that sparked in Al-Khudhairi the wonder about how they work together; no doubt it played a part in some way. “I think the tie to where I’m from has completely informed the way I make my decisions,” she says. “I’ve always been moving and going places, and I think that’s inherent in my blood.” Her family moved around a good bit when she was a child, and as soon as she got out on her own, in college, she began to do the same. During her undergrad career, she studied in Italy, Cuba, and Cairo, Egypt. She says that it was in Cairo that her fascination with contemporary art began. Though she went there on the assumption that she wanted to be an Egyptologist (someone who studies ancient Egypt), she was exposed to the contemporary art in Cairo, and she began to consider how valuable it would be to study it. “I was fascinated by the contemporary art scene in Cairo. I came back from that experience asking a lot of questions about why we don’t learn about contemporary art in other places in the world in the United States,” she says.
After she completed her undergrad in Atlanta, at Georgia State University, she went to London, where she received her master of arts with distinction in Islamic art and archaeology from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. From there, Al-Khudhairi took part in a number of remarkable opportunities that began to lay a path to Birmingham. The first was in Qatar, where she was offered the chance to build a museum from the ground up. “I had been visiting the region because my parents lived there, and there was a member of the royal family from Qatar who had been collecting art for a very long time,” she explains. “He had gifted his collection to the government with the instruction that it should become a museum. I got hired at the early stages of that. It was a big leap for me, for my career.”
The museum was Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art and Al-Khudhairi became the founding director. “It was very exciting because all along the way I had been studying art history, with a particular focus on the Middle East and an interest in learning more about how cultures intersect. So here was an opportunity to go and work with a collection that was basically all of those things, and [the collection] had never been made public,” she says. The position was a big undertaking, bigger than anything Al-Khudhairi had done before. “I was kind of scared, but I just went for it anyway,” she remembers. “A really good mentor of mine said, ‘If it doesn’t work out, you can just come home and write a book about it. But you should jump in.’” And jump in she did—Al-Khudhairi ended up staying in the position for five years, getting the museum well on its way and adding invaluable experience as a museum director to her repertoire. “It was really challenging as a young woman to get the respect I needed to do my job,” she says. “But it was an amazing experience. My favorite parts were being a part of something that was new and changing, helping establish a new institution, and helping audiences connect to contemporary art.”
That last part—helping audiences connect to contemporary art—is a mission of Al-Khudhairi’s. She believes that contemporary art has great value in helping us understand both the world we live in and the ones we don’t get to experience firsthand. It helps us get a feel for other people’s experiences, to empathize with them. And it is a bridge to other cultures as well, she says. “Contemporary art really connects us to our current day,” she says. “It helps us understand the world around us and it helps us understand each other, but in a way that is what you make it. It doesn’t force anything.” She carried that appreciation and passion for contemporary art to South Korea. It was there, in 2012, that she took a position as coartistic director at the Gwangju Biennale Foundation; alongside a team of five other women, she contributed to the curation of the ninth edition of the Gwangju Art Biennale.
Once again, she had completely switched cultures and had to learn the nuances of the one in Korea. “In Qatar, it’s not my culture, but it’s similar to my culture, and I spoke the language. But in Korea, it was a different language, a different culture,” she says. “But it was a really interesting, engaging opportunity. I was introduced and exposed to artists from East Asia who were interested in contemporary works. It was a wonderful, really challenging opportunity.” Some of the challenges were a result of the power structure in Korea, as well as the communication barriers. And there was the fact that she was a woman in a leading role in a very male-dominated world. “It was an interesting opportunity to learn about myself, about my management style and my communication skills. In those different environments, you become very self-reflective, because you’re trying to find new ways to communicate in an environment that’s unfamiliar,” she explains. “I think what it did was it helped me realize that in every setting and in every context, I have to think about ways of communicating differently. For example, think about talking to someone who’s older. Because they’re older, there would be a power structure there that might not come into play somewhere else, like in the U.S.”
From there, she did a lot of traveling—she spoke in Tokyo and Shanghai, and traveled to other places, all the while taking note of the different art scenes she encountered. And then she decided she wanted to be back in the U.S. to take all she’d learned and channel it into something new—or rather, something old. She was interested in working in an established museum, since she’d only had experience in places started from scratch. “I wanted to take all of my experience as an administrator, as a director, as a curator, along with my transnational, global perspective of contemporary art and bring it back to the U.S. and see how I could look at a bigger picture,” she explains. “I wanted to see how I could integrate a Western perspective of contemporary art into a larger conversation.” That’s exactly what she gets to do as the curator of modern and contemporary art: She takes her global understanding of art and spins each exhibit to connect audiences in Birmingham with other parts of the world (and with the people who reside here). So why Birmingham? Al-Khudhairi says it had a certain momentum that drew her in. “I was particularly interested in Birmingham because Birmingham is this interesting, changing landscape. If feels like a place of opportunity,” she says. “There is a strong group of collectors here, which is important to my job, but also a really engaged creative community. Not just artists, but also designers and architects, different people who are personally invested in seeing this place grow. In the same way I thought about Qatar—just jumping in there—I decided to just jump into Birmingham.”
She’s been at the museum for nearly a year and is settling into her position. She has worked to bring the greater arts community—both arts enthusiasts as well as artists of all kinds—into her exhibitions. In fact, one of the most recent events was a performance piece; she’s also interested in the way music, literature, and other art forms interact with visual arts. “When I think about my job as a curator, I think about it in a very multi-disciplinary way. The performance was a good example. It was an opportunity—if you don’t like visual arts, you might like music and sound, and you might be drawn in,” she explains. She also feels that it’s her duty to offer avenues of understanding to people who may not immediately see the value of art. “I think that’s my job at the museum—to find different ways for people to engage with contemporary art,” she says. “I think art helps us further our curiosity and grow as individuals, and it helps us understand other people’s lives and thus the world we live in. It helps us perceive the nuances of culture.”
That said, her ultimate goal is not necessarily to appeal to people who don’t appreciate art or to please those who do, though those are certainly things she appreciates when they happen. Ultimately, she’s trying to gather and share art that offers us all insight to the way we see the world—which is differently. She wants to put together collections that capture exactly how we are responding to what’s happening now, which she feels is illustrated in the art we’re producing. And by “we,” she means humanity as a whole, on this Earth, today. “Something I’m trying to do at the museum is make the collection represent a bigger conversation. Of course it represents a Birmingham, Alabama, perspective, but it also represents a southern perspective, a national perspective, and an international perspective,” she says. “Because that’s the world we live in today—we can have a Skype video conference call with someone on the other side of the world. In the past, there were exchanges between people, but it took so long. Now, it’s instantaneous. I can talk to my mom on my tablet, and she lives in Duabai, a nine-hour time difference, a 16-hour flight away. I think that what I’m trying to do is help reflect those significant changes in society today.”
For more information about upcoming events and exhibits at the Birmingham Museum of Art, visit artsbma.org.