The M Blog

The M Blog is an online space for us and for you — artists, museum staff and curators, guest writers, and community contributors — to discuss issues and ideas related to the many experiences of being American today.

Conversation: Artist Moheb Soliman

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

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.