Solidarity and Resistance: Sohrab Mohebbi on Curating the 58th Carnegie International

Terence Trouillot speaks to the curator about his experience preparing for the exhibition and his plans to show artists who span the globe and different time periods 

BY Terence Trouillot AND Sohrab Mohebbi in Interviews , Opinion | 29 SEP 22

Terence Trouillot: Let’s start with the title of the exhibition: ‘Is it morning for you yet?’ I know it’s a traditional Mayan expression, but I’m curious to hear how you came to choose it for the 58th Carnegie International.

Sohrab Mohebbi: The Guatemalan artist Édgar Calel was in Pittsburgh for a site visit. While we were having dinner, Calel said several things that really stuck with me, one of which was the expression ‘Is it morning for you yet?’, which has a few connotations. On the most fundamental level, it reminds us that we don’t all experience the same thing at the same time. It also speaks to our current moment in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exposed only too clearly how not everyone has the same access to healthcare. Then, in terms of the Carnegie International, the curatorial team and I had been thinking a lot about the relationship of personal time to collective time – how, at certain points, they intersect and, at others, they don’t – so we decided to go with it as a title partly because it was just so poetic as an expression but also because it was this amazing catchphrase that not only brought a lot to the relationship between the contemporary and historical works in the show but spoke to our current moment, as well.

TT: I think it’s fascinating because it’s a prehistoric aphorism but, as you mentioned, it feels so contemporary when thinking about different time zones and the global context of this exhibition. Can you tell me a little bit about the framework of this year’s Carnegie International?

SM: One of the first questions for me to ask was: what is international – and how do we approach that from the United States, in Pittsburgh? We decided to follow the geopolitical imprint of the United States since 1945 to give a specific scope to our exhibition. This was a way not only to think about the movement of ideas or people or images or objects, but also to give greater intention to geographical considerations. Further, 1945 not only marks the end of WWII and the rise of the cultural, financial and military hegemony of the US, but by some accounts it is also the start of the period of contemporary in art history. 

This question as to what constitutes international also created an opportunity to bring works into the show in conversation with the museum’s collection. Works by artists that had been overlooked in the [Western] art historical canon and further provide context for new commissions or recent work. We also invited several groups that are showing historical presentations: the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende in Chile, for instance, who are exhibiting a selection from their own collection, which is entirely made up of artist donations in support of Allende’s socialist government of the early 1970s. We’re also working with the Indonesian collective Hyphen—, whose presentation focuses on Kustiyah, a painter who was instrumental in the post-independence art scene of Indonesia during the 1950s and ’60s, but whose role, as a woman artist, was largely disregarded. In this context, it becomes an important exercise in historiography.

Rafael Domenech, Dividing an edge from an ever (pavilion for Sarduy), 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Carnegie Museum of Art; photograph: Sean Eaton

TT: Founded in 1896, Carnegie International is one of the oldest international art exhibitions in the world, second only to the Venice Biennale. Did you feel the weight of responsibility in taking on a curatorial project of such repute?

SM: Yes, absolutely. What’s fascinating about Carnegie Museum of Art is that its collection starts from the exhibition. So, it’s been part of the museum’s history as a way to approach collection-building. The other thing about the International is that it’s had different moments and different formats, some of which were hugely influential – especially in terms of introducing international artists to the US for the first time. In my moments of curatorial self-doubt, I would find this history really daunting. However, I do now feel that this show is helping to contribute to that history, and I can see some aspects of it that I think would also help future iterations, as well. I must also say how valuable Ryan Inouye has been as associate curator. He came to us from Sharjah Art Foundation, which was really important because he had a lot of experience and knowledge around the Middle East and Southeast Asia. We made a lot of decisions together. And we have a large curatorial council: Pablo José Ramirez, Freya Chou, Renée Akitelek Mboya and Rob Ochshorn, as well as Talia Heiman, who is our curatorial assistant. Working with a group was key to thinking about how to approach contemporary art as a form of disruption.

Thu Van Tran, Colours of Grey, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Carnegie Museum of Art; photograph: Sean Eaton

TT: What are some of the standout works that you’re excited about presenting?

SM: I am hesitant to single out particular works as the exhibition brings together very strong aesthetic positions and methodologies by artists, each opening up a different dimensions of possibility. Since we talked about the US imprint, perhaps we can talk about Thu Van Tran’s Colours of Grey [2022], part of the artist’s ongoing practice of making these frescos made from the colours of the rainbow herbicides – the most famous being Agent Orange – that were used by the US Military to destroy the Central Highlands vegetation during the Vietnam War [1955–75]. Now that the work is installed, one can really appreciate its scale and sublime intensity. Banu Cennetoğlu has created balloon bouquets of the first ten articles of the United Nations’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights [1948] that will gradually deflate as the exhibition continues, a reminder that rights are fragile and need to be upheld, protected, expanded and constantly revisited. Édgar Calel shows us that technologies of communication were part of human cosmologies way before Silicon Valley’s redefinition of social as a digital abstraction. Dia al-Azzawi’s powerful presentation of the ruins of the two ancient cities of Mosul and Aleppo are among many examples of artistic solidarity and aesthetic resistance presented in this exhibition.

TT: What do you have planned in terms of public programming?

SM: One of the first projects we commissioned was A Gift to the Hill District [2022] by Pittsburgh-based artist James ‘Yaya’ Hough, who lives in the Hill District and wanted to create a community-based mural. We had a number of convenings with members of the Hill District to allow local people to express what they wanted to see in a public artwork in the neighbourhood – their thoughts, hopes and desires.

We are offering a robust public program, including ‘Refractions’, a series of conversation-based readings, artist talks and performances that put artists in the 58th Carnegie International in conversation with people across disciplines, practice and geography. We will also launch a film program in March 2023, which has been curated by Rasha Salti, an independent film and visual arts curator and writer. Films on view will provide expanded context to the social, political and environmental histories and lived experiences that many artists in the exhibition are making work from and through.

Édgar Calel, The family of Édgar Calel performing the Oyonïk healing ritual in the fields of San Juan Comalopa. Courtesy: Proyectos Ultravioleta and the artist; photograph: Édgar Calel

TT: What do you want visitors – particularly the local communities in Pittsburgh – to take away from this year’s Carnegie International?

SM: The question of what constitutes local is always challenging because it’s entirely contingent on perspective. Pittsburgh has been hosting a contemporary art exhibition for more than 125 years, so a lot of people have seen many Carnegie Internationals: it’s history here, you know? Likewise, many of the artists we are collaborating with have a connection to this place. For instance, we are working on a commission with LaToya Ruby Frazier, who is from the Pittsburgh suburb of Braddock. However, her piece More Than Conquerors: A Monument For Community Health Workers of Baltimore, Maryland [2021–22] is about the community healthcare workers in Baltimore, who are instrumental in making sure that medical access is available to underserved communities.

Overall, we sought to ensure that the exhibition responded to some of the urgent questions we asked ourselves, while also acknowledging the history of the Carnegie International and this city. I can’t really speak on behalf of the people of Pittsburgh, but I’m really happy that I had the chance to live in this city for a couple of years, and I hope the exhibition will be well received.

The 58th Carnegie International is on view at various venues in Pittsburgh, USA, until 2 April 2023.

Main Image: Portrait of Sohrab Mohebbi; photograph: Sean Eaton

Terence Trouillot is senior editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.

Sohrab Mohebbi is the Kathe and Jim Patrinos Curator of the 58th Carnegie International. He also serves as curator-at-large at SculptureCenter in New York, and in 2022, was appointed Director of SculptureCenter.