<< With or Without Me

Mai Abu ElDahab

Cairo based independent curator, member of the curatorial team of Manifesta 6. This year she is living and working in Nicosia, Cyprus.


What is your biggest frustration that came about in relation to any of the collaborations you have been active in?

For example, before, in other cases, I worked on an exhibition with a large group of curators and I think the problem with those kinds of situation is that you always seek to a compromise so that your choices are always become your second choices. And this can in cases weaken a collaboration or a collaborative project.


Because you always try to find a middle ground. Your ideas then become a bit neutralized. This is what happens in specific kinds of collaborations.

What’s your experience on the power relations? Do you try to be in power position or the opposite, that you try to advance compromises by telling your second choices..

Yes. Unless you work with people that you know very well and you have been developing ideas together for a long time, you can’t take the complete risk with your ideas, because the other person takes the risk with you – when you’re not so confident about it or you are still experimenting, so you have to neutralize it a little bit.

Is it a kind of a self-censorship that you exercise at these occasions?

It’s not exactly about censorship, rather that you are responsible for yourself and the others, so you have to do things that you are quite confident about, so the opportunity for risk is a little bit less. That’s for certain kinds of collaboration, because most of the time I worked in collaboration with people that I have a longstanding relationship with. I think that a lot of the times the traps people fall into have to do with generic conversations where assumptions are made that people are on the same platform and understand the same issues whereas these things are often a lot more complicated.

Are you against those kinds of collaborations where you don’t have a deep knowledge of your partners?

Or when the framework is not clearly defined. I mean, you can invite three curators to work together and say, you chose 6, you chose 6, you chose 6 (artists), and then that’s the story – it is a stupid framework but it’s a framework and everybody knows the parameters. But as soon as a deep discussion becomes necessary, it is always better if it is with people you have a longstanding relationship with. It obviously depends on the individuals involved; you can’t generalize to that extent.

You don’t have any tendency to dominate collaboration?

Me? No, I don’t think so.

Do you prefer to work individually or collectively?

If I am able to find the right people, I prefer to work in a collective. More ideas emerge, you have the more chance to reflect on what you are doing, have other people to add their creative layers to an idea. I worked for two years with a work-partner who was actually a designer but was also an art-historian and with him we could really have great conversations. But even in collaboration it is about individuals. And this is something I really miss because we were really able to develop a language for our own discussion and think about how to develop ideas and to get really excited about them. And this excitement is really what makes me move.

You opt for collaboration for this kind of psychological reasons rather than practical advantages?

Both. One of the problems I would face with working in Egypt for example is that of kind of being the only curator there, which involves really missing my peers with whom to discuss ideas. The dialogue is missing, as working on your own is really-really hard.

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