This March, Midwest-based interdisciplinary artist Moheb Soliman was in residence at Minnesota Museum of American Art for an Artist Takeover in the Josephine Adele Ford Center for Creativity. Courtney Gerber, the M’s Curator of Learning and Engagement, chatted with Soliman about his life and work as an artist before he began his residency, and to get his insight into what he hoped to get from his time at the museum.
Courtney Gerber: Is there anything particularly resonant about the M being an American art museum, with strong Minnesota and Midwestern roots?
Moheb Soliman: Sometimes, I think all my work is basically about reckoning with my Midwestern identity, from a thoroughly Americanized immigrant perspective. It’s not just a personal “project” however. In our times, the terms of identity, belonging, and representation have become extremely politicized and complicated. So, I think my own, idiosyncratic take on the struggle to think and live freely has great relevance and resonance for diverse others. But I’m not interested in presenting an expressly minority or POC [person of color] experience of that, or of America or American or Midwestern art. I am all that already, whatever that is. I am after the West, too. And I want to escape in nature; I exotify others and other places. There are themes I’ve worked with, that I expect will follow through to this M residency—belonging and place, agency and voice, insider/outsider existence, and transgression as a way of life, and more.
CG: You were a 2018 Tulsa Artist Fellow. This Oklahoma-based fellowship provides visual and literary artists with space and resources for one year of concentrated artistic production. Can you share a little about your work coming out of this experience? Do you imagine any threads carrying through to your M residency?
MS: Thanks for this challenging question! My year in Oklahoma was a dream. Weird, fantastic, mundane, personally affecting—all at once. My family moved to Oklahoma from Egypt when I was six (and my MN relationship was definitely tested!). By the end of it, I was shooting a country music video all around Tulsa, using a poem/lyrics I wrote; I brought in old musician friends to turn my lyrics into an actual song and act as my surrogates, since I’d be more a novelty act than an actual boy of country. It’s called “We’re Back!” I think of it as a performance project, an experimental short and, still, just poetry. The whole year I was raring to make something of this place that was my first home in the U.S., yet nowhere I can say “I’m from.” Lots to say about all that, but, suffice it to say, I definitely think some themes I work with that were strengthened there will follow through to the M residency—belonging and place, agency and voice, insider/outsider existence, transgression as a way of life, and more. But, I think, for this residency other long-running interests I also have will also surely come into play.
CG: The M’s Artist Takeover residency is a much shorter experience—somewhere between four and six weeks—and it encourages artists to focus on process and experimentation, without expectation of a finished product (i.e., artwork, performance, manuscript, etc.). What do you imagine some of the opportunities and challenges will be with such a short timespan?
MS: The time frame seems ideal to me—long enough to be open-ended, yet short enough to see the light at the end. Process and experimentation for me are both pretty difficult, actually. I love planning, though I tend to make very site-specific work, so I never quite know what I’ll do till a touch too long after I get there. Thing is, I’m not really aware of any clear artistic process I initiate or lean on in circumstances like this, where it would be perfectly called for. I’m terribly hesitant to just jump into a line of work, for fear that I won’t know when to quit or recalibrate. So, basically I do a lot of elaborate hemming and hawing, prodding and canvasing and wandering, wanting to look away from making art at the surrounding reality (oppositional concepts to me sometimes!) and circling back to my work with more substantial “real” material in hand. In my weeks at the M, I think I’ll have enough time to get a little lost in the environment and art, and then see what comes. That itself is one definite opportunity—being around for a few weeks, at this unique juncture of the institution experiencing a physical renewal. It’s rare and just great to be able to see something as large as a building, an organization, settle in. A polar opportunity with this timeframe is to not have the option of too intricate a project—to have to go for some larger strokes in leaving an impression behind: what made an impression on me, and what I’d like others to consider in their own brief museum encounters. The challenge, then, is to also not be shallow or cursory. I’m sure I’ll feel like I’m just beginning to scratch the surface of something as I’m wrapping up. But, hopefully, the core concepts will surface in other projects down the line; hopefully, whatever emerges from my time at the M will be that substantial and genuine to me.
CG: Why does taking up residence in an art museum excite you?
MS: I revel in landscape and romantic paintings (in fact, I consider myself a nature poet, above all). The M has a lot of beautiful work in that vein, and I can’t wait to spend time with it. And I love the contemporary and critical, too. I deeply appreciate being given a platform to take up all the subtexts and tangents of art and distill something fresh about how they sit together. I’m excited to add my piece to public discourses about what it means to be (from) here, now. A residency at a regionally-focused museum of American art is a very nice time and place to do just that.
Related event information:
Artist Talk: Moheb Soliman
Thursday, July 11 at 6 p.m. | Free and open to the public
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Moheb Soliman is an interdisciplinary poet from Egypt and the Midwest. His work is often oriented by themes of nature, modernity, identity, and belonging, taking shape in writing, performance, and installation projects. His work has been supported by the Joyce Foundation, Forecast Public Art, Pillsbury House, Northern Lights.MN, and Coffee House Press, which will release his forthcoming debut book of poems. Moheb has degrees from The New School for Social Research and the University of Toronto and was Program Director at the Arab American lit and film organization Mizna before a 2018 full-year Tulsa Artist Fellowship award.
Essay by Moheb Soliman, Artist Takeover resident, March 2019
My time at the M was, in part, a foray into the deep/back end of Minnesota Museum of American Art’s collection, by way of a wonderfully finicky database as well as on-site in a secret remote storage warehouse. I was mostly looking at landscapes for anything Great Lakes related, but more broadly interested in the overlapping remove from, management of, and desire for wilderness that we experience in our time. However compromised, however indifferent to us, we ceaselessly seek out and project onto the non-human living world as a blank, if not verdant, canvas, with harmonies, dreams, fears, limits.
As most physical encounters with nature occur under the very careful direction of public planners and parks services, so, too, is our aesthetic encounter with it thoroughly mediated by professionals and institutions. An individual’s painstaking landscape painting gives us captivating access to nature, one intimate step back from it. But behind that step are countless museums and administrators organizing and programming collections and shows; behind them are manifold databases, storage facilities, and related infrastructure. For me, this was a look into this one system of many that holds nature in a frame for us to revel in.
And in dwelling in that system, there was also seeing how I followed suit with its protocols towards my own romance with nature—how the eclectic set of artworks I dug up, capturing something of my precious Great Lakes, could collect to give me a satisfaction of the “first order,” always fleeting in the face of the real, live thing—needing rendering. Could I find the great outdoors in storage, or just the capture of its capture? What does the search do in this context for the unending pursuit? Perhaps you get somewhere uncannily new with the time-honored landscape painting and nature photography, when you’re so far in the weeds/on the ground of databases and storage. Maybe there’s an awakening that comes with the dream of escaping into sublime canvases, when you get to climb so deep into their scaffold that you see neither forest nor tree, but just lists of colors and strokes and provenance.
I didn’t exactly find what I set out to: a trove of pan-regional landscapes, art of Minnesota’s iconic Superior leading to works crisscrossing and tying together this one giant water body as the region’s industry and migration always have. But it was the lack I found, only after getting so close up to the system, that allowed me to vividly make up what I wanted—not just ephemeral art, but enduring bureaucracy. Lake of lakes. Landscape of all landscapes. This double connotation of the desire for “the one ultimate” and yet “the sum of all” (like Superior, and Great Lakes) struck me late in the residency, and set me on course to an odd culminating project that I hope manages to embody much of the ideas touched on here. Please do tune into a larger presentation of my time and work at the Mon July 11 that will explore that more. For now, here are three takes from finding, analyzing, and aggregating all Great Lakes-related artwork in the M’s collection, a glimpse into art processing.
1 > RECORD QUERY
2 > RECORD CAPTURE
3 > RECORD DESCRIPTION
Abstract drawing with orange, brown, blue, and green ink on paper. [Blank] [Artist omitted]’s collage is composed of weathered wood, found on the shores of [Great Lake omitted], that the artist pieced together to create an abstract landscape. [Blank] The work shows a view of the [Great Lakes city omitted] harbor with a line of houses in the foreground that lead into the distance and become surrounded by the lake. [Blank] The majority of the work is painted in blues, with several small patches of yellows and greens grouped near the bottom edge. The image could represent an overhead view of a coastline. [Blank] Near the top edge lies [Artist omitted]’s signature horizon line, a thin dark green line between the orange and purple layers of paint. [Blank] The foreground is comprised of rocks of various sizes, wet and gleaming from the lake. The sun is low in the sky and in the distance the water and sky converge. [Blank] A horizon line is visible a quarter of the way down from the top, while a light blue line is drawn across the middle of the work, amidst a sea of purple. [Blank] Above this line the painting is colored with blues and greens, while varying blocks of purple, blue and red fill the bottom portion of the work. [Blank] The church is located on the bank of a body of water. The foreground of the print is an open grassy area. There are trees in the background, behind the church. [Blank] A small road leads up to the houses. A tall pole (electrical?) extends in foreground right. [Blank] The upper half of the painting is colored red, while bands of dark blue, red, and purple form a horizontal strip across the canvas, about a quarter of the way from the top. The lower portion of the work is filled with wavy patches of pink, green, and orange. [Blank] The areas of color are separated with a horizon line. [Blank] In the foreground are rock formations and to the right is ice formation over the rocks from the lake. [Blank] The top half surrounding a large rock is lighter and foggier. [Blank] In the center of the work, a clump of grass rests in the middle of a frozen stream between two spotted rocks. number 3 of 30 The sky is blue with a perfect yellow circle as the sun at the top. The land is painted in shades of red and in the foreground is a tilted tree with red and maroon leaves. A red flower bush takes up the left side. [Blank] The stem of the tree is twisted, while the branches and leaves take up the upper left corner of the work. Attributed to [Artist omitted], 19th century Similar to the other three in the series, the work is colored with a minimal palette of muted red, orange, and purple and has a horizon line drawn a quarter of the way down from the top. Number 5 of 30 Below this horizon line, in the middle of the pastel, is a thick line of bright orange. Number 1 of 30