Artist Spotlight with Moad Musbahi "Sufi Tombs and Sea Burials, Performing Preservation," 2020, Film Still

Artist Spotlight with Moad Musbahi

Posted: Jan 7, 2022

ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Moad Musbahi as part of our Artist Spotlight series.

Moad Musbahi is an artist and curator currently based in Tunis. His work investigates migration as a method for cultural production and political expression, focusing on the social practices and forms of knowledge that movement engenders. He is co-directing the year-long roaming program Taught to Travel with the Harun Farocki Institut on the relation between pedagogy, migration and media archives across Alexandria, Beirut, Berlin, Dakar and Tunis. He is a recipient of the Sharjah Art Foundation Production Programme grant (2020); the EU’s All-Around Culture research grant (2021); and the Goethe Institut’s Visual Arts Project Fund (2021). Recent work has been presented at Projects Arts Centre, Dublin (2021); Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai (2020); Beirut Art Center, Beirut (2019), and appeared in The White Review (2021); Kayfa-Ta (2020), AA Files (2019), The Funambulist (2018), among others. Previously, he worked with the DLX Design Lab at the University of Tokyo; as a researcher at the Royal College of Art’s School of Architecture, London, and is currently in residence at the Singapore Art Museum.

ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?

Moad Musbahi: I always find it difficult to pin down a main or general theme in my work. A big part of this is, I think, due to having been trained as an architect, and the reality of that education which is so broad in its remit and scope. The first time I used a video camera properly, and thought about the need to do ‘art related work’ in a serious way, was in 2011, when I set up a media center with a bunch of friends. This collective/institution sought to generate news content, translate and report on what was going on generally in the west of Libya during the revolution. I have been thinking about that moment a lot recently, which was more than ten years ago, as kind of the beginning of working through and positioning the development and contributions of my practice.

More recently, I presented an academic paper at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies on relations between financial policies and family politics. I produce video installations and animations using quite technical mathematical simulations with physical mechanical models. I write a fair bit on sound and its history such as the the great vowel shift’, though I do not make music nor intend to. I have curated exhibitions dealing with docu-fiction, staged performance-lectures on authorship and book-making, I have edited academic and literary journals and write fiction. 

I list this out as I find it easier to narrate a sense of it rather than summarize it, and yes, it is quite varied, and intentionally so. I suppose my main approach rather than theme that I am really preoccupied with, is how do I try and contend with the way knowledge is produced and circulated, how things and people ‘migrate’, which is to say, seeing associations and connections between geographies, time periods, disciplines, mediums, frames of references and ultimately epistemologies, or more simply, how are things related and what is the nature of that relation.

Poem on Zacob Zuma, part of the Media Center set up in Libya during 2011, most of the videos were of the war, but included interviews and poetic recitals. Shot by Moad Musbahi in Benghazi, May 2011

AE: You attended the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. How has your training as an architect informed your curatorial, academic and artistic practice? 

MM: Architectural education, and specifically the model of the Architectural Association, was a way to learn how to experiment and fai,l and I don’t know, spend time in a studio with other people who were also unsure about what exactly they were doing. It is hard to think of it as a place of ‘learning’, I think it was only after 4 years that I actually was taught how to draw an architectural plan. 

My best memory and project I worked on was with my colleagues Hunter Doyle and Sofia Pia Belenky. In our first year, we replicated a white wall from canvas to protest the increase in student numbers and the abysmal allocation of space we were given as students. We ended up spending out of our pocket to set up a parallel summer show, and somewhat destroyed the grass of Clissold park in the process with pink paint. 

I think the main lesson I took from that institution was when I almost failed my second year, and risked my funding as I presented ‘too chaotically’, while I still bitterly recall my jury was on their phones for most of it. I quickly learned that it was key to engage an audience, and to be vigilantly articulate even when trying to work through things that are undefined or in progress. 

The truth is though, a lot of ideas I developed during my time there are still the main material of many of my current projects. It really was a place for me to break down the dogma around learning, as a student and someone who was dealing with these issues in a professional setting. I worked the whole time as well, to be able to pay bills, and so blurring these two just sort of happened. 

I left before the final year of my masters to work on the Sharjah Architecture Triennial as part of Adrian Lahoud’s curatorial team and on research projects at the Royal College of Art with Sam Jacoby and Lucia Alonso. During that time, I also enrolled in the Masters in Writing at the RCA led by Brian Dillon, and so by the time the opening of the Triennial was happening, I was enrolled in two masters in London and was based in Sharjah for the install, and working on another opening in Tunis curated by Ma3azef and Reem Shadid, and in London with Ana Maria Nicolaescu. It was tight to say the least, and ultimately the pandemic forced me to stay in one place and finish my degrees (though my very technocratic Arab parents are still bitter I never graduated from either). It was a steep learning curve on the hard reality of juggling things and following through with them well. 

Control Panel Glyph, 2016, Video, 2 minutes and 58 seconds

AE: Can you discuss your current collaborative project with the Harun Farocki Institut?

MM: This is something that I have been plotting and scheming to do since 2011 really, while I was in Libya during the revolution. It started off with an obsession with a particular building typology, the Zawiya (a tomb-school complex), that suddenly became very relevant again. It is so ubiquitous and present across Libya as  a model of pre-colonial governance, learning, legal mediation and pedagogical practice. It was also widespread across the Sahara, west Africa and the Indian ocean. Slowly in this architecture, a kind of ritual practice of performance, teaching and travel were beautifully combined, in different languages, different cultural contexts and with different myths and origins. But ultimately, the project is based on a hunch, really, that they all speak to one another and contain with them something that is portable, relatable and conscious – a hospitality and attitude to movement and being with others that I find really fascinating and ill-explored. 

The project, which still has a working title of Taught 2 Travel, is funded by the Goethe’s visual art project fund, and is co-directed with the Farocki Institut. A few friends think the name sounds like teaching English as a foreign language course, but I think that’s the vibe I’m going for here. It is both really every day and omnipresent, albeit in a counterintuitive way. It mainly grew in conversation with one of the co-founders, Tom Holert, whose work is focused on school buildings and the role of education in art practice. It started in September of this past year, and continues until next summer, and works with a series of local partners. The list of collaborators is really a dream and extends from Alexandria, with Behna el Wakalet (a new study program based in the oldest film archives in Egypt), to Dakar with RAW Material Company. It also brings on board Women in Airplanes (a curatorial/evening study program run by Annett Busch & Marie-Helene Gutberlet) and the Arab Image Foundation, as way to think about the archive that is produced by this. There is still a lot to develop and work on, but the aim is to have a series of exhibitions and programs in each of these places, COVID restrictions allowing.

AE: Collaboration is a central part of your practice. What do you gain from this process and what do you see as its role in your practice? 

MM: Though there are a few different ideas and topics in my practice, a motivating factor of even working is connecting and thinking with others. I agonize less over the look of a final piece, which is probably to my own detriment, and more around how it was produced and with whom does it enter into conversation. This is a sort of roundabout way to say that whenever I’ve had commissions or grants, I’ve always seen them as opportunities to connect with people I couldn’t otherwise. I have worked with academics, anthropologists, typographers, as well as fashion designers and musicians. A key component of the collaboration is also to not divide the work based on ‘expertise’, but to see how much the work can be shared and inflected with each person’s respective backgrounds and sensibilities. 

It also explains somewhat why it is important to remain in-between being an artist and curator, as I think the division between them is quite arbitrary. I am keen on exploring how to approach the opportunity of the exhibition, or entering the artistic domain, differently. 

AE: Can you discuss your project, Hearing the Shape of a Drum?

MM: Hearing the Shape of the Drum is a new series that has involved an incredibly inspiring group of interlocutors and collaborators. The idea first came through reading the work of Nathanial Mackey, a Caribbean poet and currently a professor of Creative Writing at Duke University. It has since developed alongside an exhibition I curated of Somnath Bhatt’s work at the ISA Gallery in Shanghai in the summer of 2021, and then in conversation with  the architect Sumayya Vally. I spent three months in Tunis this past year and worked with Balti Alkarim on a mechanical structure based on patents of orchestral drums. I got some cultural research funding from the E.U. to visit a whole host of drum performances across the south and west of Tunisia and that was really inspiring. 

It takes the title from a super important mathematical paper that actually went on to win a prize in mathematics, first published in 1966,  titled, Can one hear the shape of the Drum? It is a question that is still very much a hot topic of debate in the scholarly math and physics circles. The importance of the sight-sound relation has had huge implications within astrophysics and quantum mechanics. As from its underlying theory,  it allows for the determination of the size of distant galaxies from the detectable white noise that they emit. 

There are a lot of interrelations here: between mediums, between secular science and sacred situations that drums also bring to bear. The first performative iteration is called A Second Cut and is a story that builds on some of these issues, and follows two female drummers. It is inspired by the pre-history of Islam, where drummers where usually women, for example, those who circled the Kabbah in Mecca while beating drums. The narrative is based on a series of letters that are addressed between them. I did a work-in-progress version of it as part of this residency in Athens with the Onassis Foundation, and am very grateful to the incredible residency team there, who kindly supported the production of a new version of the drum sculpture. (It is amusing that there are now two on either side of the Mediterranean.) Some of the letters are also going to be published by a project run by two Libyan and Sudanese collectives, Waraq and Locale respectively, and so hopefully will be out in the new year!

AE: Do you have any shows, residencies or new projects coming up in 2022?

MM: I am a big believer in open calls and just reaching out to people randomly. It has been difficult navigating the art world, both in relation to particular personalities and also due to not producing particularly conventional work. During some dark moment in one of the lockdown waves, I sort of over-applied to various residencies and so, am now scheduled back-to-back until the end of the year. Following Athens, I will be heading to Singapore for a while, at the national Singapore Art Museum, then I have a month in Dakar with RAW Material Company in February, then I will go on to the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania in Philly. This schedule somewhat continues until the end of the year, while I am also simultaneously trying to push forward with the Taught 2 Travel project which is set to finish in August 2022.  


Instagram: @rubicon_m