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Distant Encounters

I must admit, after being cooped up in a room for the major part of five months, I was sceptical about encountering the RCA2020 degree show online. I have been hankering for the phenomenological experience of feeling and being in the same physical space with art. But as I found myself perusing the pages of RCA2020, I found that minutes turned to hours and subsequently into days; I was transfixed by the potential to spend significant amounts of time unpicking and researching the work of this year’s graduates at my leisure.

Although there are outstanding works across every discipline, I found myself first enraptured by Jiamin Jiang (Architecture), whose animated video proposal for what I can only describe as a ‘shoe sanctuary’ tickled my imagination. Few will know that while a student at the RCA, I supplemented my income by working as a shoe salesman on the weekends. I recall getting caught up in the ritualistic gesture of arranging and displaying shoes as I would artefacts in a museum. Then came the human interaction and with it, the attendant process of almost bowing, bending down and revealing the brand-new shoe to the customer. Jiang’s proposal imagines a kind of interior panorama with its layered wooden panel walls and its labyrinthian feel; it is a shoe shop as a form of cinematic experience.

Jumping back and forth across disciplinary boundaries, I was struck by Filippos Georgiou's paintings, magnificent contorted images on canvas. These brash paintings reveal an array of references, merging street art with Salvador Dali. For me, they harken back to the counter-Pop movement of the Chicago Imagists – a collective of artists who unspooled onto canvas visual representations of gender, sexuality and the comedic possibility of the human imagination. I found myself especially entrenched within the virtual walls of the Painting programme this year.

Kaiyan Chu's representation of 14-year old heartbeats literally captured my heart with its abstract, sultry colours and its divisive line break. This could have been a work by the late Lebanese modernist, Huguette Caland. Sae Yeoun Hwang reminds the viewer that the practice of painting and the internet are now intrinsically inseparable. Appropriation Art is a form of practice that traverses the boundaries of any discipline and the internet as ever is a forum and platform that releases content that is open to continual re-imagination.

In the virtual corridors of the Sculpture department, I spent a significant amount of time with Frederik Nystrup Larsen’s whimsical collection of multifarious forms. Their use of narrative indexicality plays with sculpture’s role within the realm of museology, but somehow, it also eschews those precise boundaries through the tactility of the sculptures, which are produced in an abundance of delicate hues and materials.

Across the expanse, Mayssa Kanaan (Contemporary Art Practice - Public Sphere) has produced something of great political importance and significance. Reflecting on the loss of archival histories in her native Lebanon, Kanaan has virtually re-imagined how history can be collectively authored using the space of the internet. Kanaan’s graduation projection seeks to suture the ruptures of war by creating a platform that produces, invites and disseminates a range of contra-historical narratives into the world. This virtual library I believe could have the potential to change the way in which the next generation of Lebanese citizens conceive of their own social, political and economic history.

Awc Wang (Contemporary Art Practice – Moving Image) had me intrigued and, at times, in stitches with their performative video Conversation I. This absurd video plays with both popular and art historical tropes such as the superhero, chaos, boredom and the very act of repetition. It is a hallucination from the millennial subconscious with a proliferating body mocking us with archetypal hand gestures.

Bobby Monteverde (Photography) has taken a variety of age-old techniques alongside new ones to re-consider the compositional elements that form aesthetic photography. Purposely, he takes religious materials such as Holy Water from Mecca and transforms it into oxidised visual forms. These images took me back to my first pilgrimage to the Kaaba in Mecca with my grandparents as a young teenager. This Holy Water was meant to suture our souls. If only we could have some of it now?

Closing out my curated selection are Anabela Pinto's photographs. The hyper-staged photos felt akin to a post-feminist melange of Christopher Williams and David Lynch’s work twisted on their head. These seductive pictures could indeed be movie scenes or cut-outs from Life Magazine. I was reminded of what was hastily perhaps referred to as the Pictures Generation, and how photographic artists such as Laurie Simmons and Cindy Sherman attempted to contort the hyper-masculine formal dominance of photography: like all great things, it set me thinking and asking questions long after the after-image had sedimented into the back of my mind.

This cursory set of encounters are part of a larger whole; a collective imaginary fostered by a generation of artists, architects, designers, photographers and many others who are changing our world – the way that we see it and engage with it. Distant or near, their propositions never lose their impact.

Dr Omar Kholeif

Dr Omar Kholeif

Dr Omar Kholeif, FRSA, writer, curator, cultural historian and humanitarian advocate, currently serving as Director of Collections and Senior Curator at Sharjah Art Foundation, United Arab Emirates.

Dr Omar Kholeif, FRSA is a writer, curator, cultural historian, humanitarian advocate, lobbyist and university professor who has curated more than 100 exhibitions and authored/or edited more than two dozen books. At the heart of his work is a mission to change the way that people engage with hidden histories in an era of hyper-mediated social and political change brought on by rapid technological evolution. He currently holds the position of Director of Collections and Senior Curator at Sharjah Art Foundation, UAE. Over the last decade, he has held senior curatorial positions in some of the world's leading visual arts institutions, including Manilow Senior Curator and Director of Global Initiatives at MCA
Chicago; Curator at Whitechapel Gallery, London; Senior Curator Cornerhouse, Manchester and Curator at FACT, Liverpool, among other organisations. His writing in books, magazines and newspapers have been translated into 12 languages and his publications have sold over 100,000 copies. He has curated exhibitions at the Venice Biennale, the Liverpool Biennial and the Sharjah Biennial. He has been a visiting professor at the University of Chicago and Hunter College, City University of New York and a tutor at the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford, as well as elsewhere. He is a Trustee of SPACE, London, where he chairs the Diversity and Inclusion Action Group. He also supports a range of mental health charities, where he is actively involved in supporting research, development and awareness.

At the Royal College of Art, he met his late mentor, Professor Jean Fisher, who inspires everything that he does today.

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