Interviews

Meet the NYC Art Community: Amid Crisis, Ruba Katrib is Looking to Artists for Guidance

An interview series spotlighting New York’s creative community. Hear directly from artists, curators, and art workers about their current projects and personal quirks.

Curator Ruba Katrib

Lately, I keep finding myself feeling homesick for New York. While I haven’t left the city in months, many of the things I love about it feel out of reach for the near future, making my hometown feel oddly distant. For this ninth edition of Meet the NYC Art Community, I spoke with curator Ruba Katrib, for whom the idea of home is similarly complicated. Katrib spent her formative years bouncing between various cities in the US and Syria, before returning to New York to take up the role of curator at Long Island City’s SculptureCenter. There she mounted exhibitions including the likes of Cosima von Bonin, Anthea Hamilton, and Jessi Reaves, before heading down Jackson Avenue to MoMA PS1, where she has served as curator since 2017 — which feels fitting, given her family ties to Queens.

At PS1, Katrib’s curatorial credits have included Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011Simone Fattal: Work and Days, and Julia Phillips: Failure DetectionAdditionally, she has curated and contributed research to SITE Santa Fe (co-curator, SITElines, 2018) and the 2018 Carnegie International, and sits on the advisory board for Recess. Katrib received a curatorial fellowship from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts in 2010 and holds degrees from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College.

Below, we discuss her nostalgia for studio visits and other IRL art experiences, and her love for the work of the pioneering feminist artist Niki de Saint Phalle, who “strongly believed that encounters with art could heal trauma and transform in its own way.” (Keep an eye out for her forthcoming solo exhibition at PS1, curated by Katrib.)

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Installation view of “She/He Has No Picture “(2019) by Hanaa Malallah in Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011 at MoMA PS1, New York (image courtesy MoMA PS1; photo by Matthew Septimus)

Where do you consider home?

Home is really complicated. At this point, my family is spread out around the world. I’ve spent formative years in various cities, which I never really return to once I’ve left. And a feeling of longing to go back to Syria — where both of my parents emigrated from and where I spent a lot of time when I was younger — doesn’t ever really subside. I think New York has a long history of being a good fit for people like me.

What brought you to New York/what has made you stay?

I always wanted to live in New York, at least for some period of time. When my grandparents came to the US, they lived in a townhouse in Jamaica, Queens where I spent a lot of time hanging out. Experiencing the city through their new lives here was fascinating and really colors the way I see the city now. For instance, my grandfather worked as a translator at the United Nations, and sometimes I would meet him for lunch in the cafeteria there. We would eat at a table with his fellow translators, who were always arguing about politics and chain smoking inside (which was permitted in the UN until 2003). I learned a lot from their debates on world affairs.

Tell me about your first memory of art.

Growing up, I didn’t have much access to visual art, though I found creative outlets through literature and music. On visits to New York as a teenager, I definitely went to MoMA at least once on my own, and I remember being very impressed and overwhelmed. But I didn’t actually get to experience viewing art regularly until I was already enrolled in art school at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Installation view of She/He Has No Picture (2019) by Hanaa Malallah in Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011 at MoMA PS1, New York. Photo by Matthew Septimus.

How would you describe your practice?

For me, the space of the exhibition is a multivalent and generative site. I believe information, feeling, and experience can be revealed in a unique way through bodies in space with art. Exhibitions provide a particular embodied forum for learning, and putting together shows is really a very holistic intellectual and physical mode of thinking for me. I do a lot of reading and research across disciplines and collect oral histories when embarking on any exhibition project, and then it is important to work out strategies for how to express and transmit meaning spatially with each show. Working closely with artists on new works is one of the most exciting ways of doing this.

What are you working on currently?

When we had to close PS1 in March, I was just about to start installing an exhibition of Niki de Saint Phalle’s work that I have been working to realize for several years. Niki was a very groundbreaking and misunderstood early feminist artist who charted a practice that expanded into many arenas, from sculpture to perfume to books to architecture. She aimed to make her work accessible to audiences of all ages to widely share her message of joy and healing, and she often worked outside of established institutions of art to accomplish this. Arguably, she was also one of the most famous artists of the 20th century, but she has not been included in the same art historical canons as her male peers. I am very excited to present her work for reconsideration now, and it was quite jarring to stop everything and go into quarantine just as we were about to realize this project. But we are in the process of rescheduling the show––just as it feels like her work might be needed more than ever.

I am also working on our Greater New York initiative. New York has changed so much in such a short period of time — as has work and life conditions for so many of the city’s artists and creative communities. A lot of deep thinking around the state and future of art in this city is required for this project.

Installation view of Julia Phillips: Failure Detection, on view at MoMA PS1, 2018 (image courtesy MoMA PS1, photo by Pablo Enriquez)

Creatively speaking, what keeps you up at night and what makes you get out of bed in the morning?

I have been grappling a lot with what art means in times of crisis and change. Despite everything that is going on, so many people I talk to are still craving IRL experiences with art — even while a pandemic rages and even while protesting in the streets and fighting to change this system and its rotten power structures. This makes me feel that art still does something that is important, in ways we might not even see or understand until later, and even if it might be unwise to look to art or its institutions to change societal or political structures in the immediate. I think this is a crisis of purpose that many cultural workers are grappling with, particularly when things are so dire. But Niki de Saint Phalle is really insightful in that regard; she strongly believed that encounters with art could heal trauma and transform in its own way. She also worked to make those experiences with art as wide reaching as possible. So, I think it is a very good time to look back at other ways of working and being and learn from them as we chart a way forward.

What are you reading currently?

I am reading Marie NDiaye’s novel My Heart Hemmed In, which is a deftly unnerving, subtle, and tense meditation on the limits of self-awareness, as well as rejection from community. I am also reading a book called Loft Jazz: Improvising New York in the 1970s [by Michael C. Heller], which provides a much needed critical and historical account of the jazz explosion that took place in experimental and domestic spaces during the 1970s in New York City.

Most importantly, I am reading and watching everything I can about what is happening in Lebanon. Everyone needs to pay very close attention to the situation there and support the people on the ground.

What is your favorite way of experiencing art?

I miss seeing art in person in exhibition spaces, but I realized that, even more than that, I miss seeing art in studios. Getting to experience art with artists in the place where it is made is one of the best parts of what I do.

Installation view of the work of Nuha al-Radi in Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011 at MoMA PS1, New York (image courtesy MoMA PS1, photo by Matthew Septimus)

Favorite exhibition you’ve seen in the last year?

This year has been a blur, so this was probably longer than a year ago, but somewhat recently I was able to visit the National Gallery Singapore and their collection and rehang of art of Southeast Asia. I was lucky to have a tour by Shabbir Hussain Mustafa, a friend and colleague, who is the Senior Curator there. His stories of tracking down artists and works to tell a more comprehensive story of art of the region from the mid 19th century on was really inspiring. The work they have done in filling out gaps in histories and in self-representations during periods of colonialism is so important.

In the creative circles you’re part of, what questions do you want to see more people asking?

More questions need to be asked about priorities and value systems, and how we can support each other. A lot of artists and curators I know are figuring out ways of working more collectively and creating formal and informal support structures outside of existing institutions. I hope a lot of these strategies will stick around.

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