The new contemporary art exhibit at Birmingham Museum of Art, Third Space borrows its name from philosopher and Havard Scholar, Homi Bhaba‘s term ‘third space,’ which he defines as a space that “challenges our sense of the historical identity of culture as a homogenizing, unifying force, authenticated by the originary past, kept alive in the national tradition of the People.”
Wassan Al-Khudhairi is the Hugh Kaul Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art; as curator for Third Space, Al-Khudhairi is quite aware of the power of shared experiences. Her personal experiences growing up in one place and traveling to others color the exhibition. She reaches, through the selections to explore the commonalities that draw communities together and make them stronger.
“Third Space is intended to create a dialogue that allows for the discovery of connections between the American South and the rest of the world,” Al-Khudhairi said. “We hope visitors walk away from this exhibition with the desire to have those important conversations related to the experiences we share.”
Wassan, can you tell us how the idea for this exhibition come about?
The exhibition idea was inspired by thinking about the Birmingham Museum of Art’s collection and its relationship to Birmingham, the American South, and the Global South. The American South is often discussed within the parameters of the United States of America and within a North-South dichotomy. I was interested in thinking horizontally and creating an opportunity to have an south-south conversation. The Global South refers to a loose geographical space, a space that is often a post-colonial space. I wanted to explore the Museum’s collection through this lens of post-colonialism — a condition that is quite similar in many ways to other places in the Global South. The exhibition title, Third Space, is a term borrowed from Homi Bhaba a philosopher and scholar who coined the term to describe another space, one where commonalities come together to create an alternative space. The term felt like the perfect way to encompass the exhibition ideas.
What was the largest hurdle in pulling it all together?
Pulling it all together– being sure the exhibition ideas are being communicated to the visitor and creating the conceptual space for people to feel like they can reflect their ideas and experiences onto a work of art.
On another note, the exhibition is open for 2-years and within those 2 years we will have 3 changes in the galleries. The first one takes place this August– many of the large works will remain on view but photographs and works on paper throughout the exhibition will be replaced with other works from the collection. This will happen 3 times in two years… it was a challenge to think ahead in planning the works that will be on view for example in Fall 2018.
But these changes every 6 months will mean that there will always something new to see for our visitors, so we hope people will keep coming back!
How did you go about selecting these works of art?
It’s not such a linear or defined process as you might be imagining. It is more of a constant back and forth between building the framework for the ideas of the exhibition and selecting works that help shape and push those ideas further. It is a back and forth, back and forth until it feels like you have been able to find the right balance.
Assuming you had more pieces in mind than the show could contain, and how did you narrow your choices?
Its a juggling act– and many different things factor into how to make those decisions. You have to take a lot into consideration and one decision affects another so its a domino effect. Which works speak to the exhibition ideas the strongest? How works relate to each other in the space? Will the work physically fit in the space? What works will our visitors respond to?
What piece do you think will receive the most attention (whether its via social media or conversation gold) and why?
It depends on who you’re talking to or what platform you’re looking at. Contemporary art has the ability to allow for multiple interpretations and what I hope Third Space will illustrate to our audiences is that there’s something very personal about what works you are most drawn to and that you may see something in a work that I don’t– that there are many interpretations and the hope is that all our visitors can find something to relate to in the works of art in Third Space.
I thought it was an interesting choice to use perspectives of the selected works for the audio guide, instead of the merely quoting the artist. How did you arrive at that decision?
This was a very deliberate decision that my colleague Angela May and I made– we wanted to include voices of people in the community speaking about the works of art in the exhibition. The hope is that by hearing a ‘non-art professional’ speak about a work of art our visitors will feel empowered to make their own interpretations and speak about the works in the exhibition as well. We also wanted to weave into the exhibition the voices of people in our community to show that there is no one way to talk about these works of art and that the exhibition should be a place for conversation and sharing of ideas.
I noticed a mention for the upcoming video diary allowing for visitors to share their experiences with the exhibition. How will the museum utilize those perspectives?
We aren’t sure yet how we will use these perspective immediately– but including an audio guest book was a way to create another space for visitors to the exhibition to leave behind their story, their voice, their perspective. If we want the exhibition to be a space to share ideas and create conversation then we needed to keep our work by offering the space for that to happen…. we hope it will be ready soon, so if you’ve visited the exhibition already please come back!
If you’re still intrigued, please check out our 10 of our favorite pieces from the exhibition, they’re sure to provoke stirring conversation on the exploitation of people and land, identity and race relations.