SARAH RIFKY, SENIOR CURATOR & DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS
Last month, we at the ICA officially welcomed our new senior curator and director of programs, Sarah Rifky. A career art historian, curator, and writer, Rifky joins the ICA team after completing her Ph.D. dissertation on cultural infrastructure in Egypt at the History, Theory and Criticism program and the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
After a career working and studying in—among other places—Egypt, Germany, and Sweden, Rifky developed a globally minded, yet location-specific, curatorial vision that seeks to advocate for artists and foreground process.
In the words of ICA Executive Director Dominic Asmall Willsdon, “She brings a transnational perspective, she thinks deeply about the nature of institutions and, fundamentally, she is an educator. Her motto is ‘every artwork is a school.’ I endorse that. I could not be more thrilled that she is joining us.”
We talked to Rifky about her varied background in art and academia, which Instagram meme-maker occasionally lures her into the world of social media, and what projects she’s most looking forward to at the ICA in 2022.
Can you tell us about your background and how you ended up working as an art curator?
This is bordering on being an art historical question: The first time I became aware of what a curator is was in the early 2000s in Cairo, Egypt, where a contemporary art scene was only just starting to happen. I was an art undergrad and art was everything, except I had no idea what role I would play in its world. I didn’t quite get what being a curator meant.
I could sense the surge in Islamophobia and anti-Arabism that followed from the 9/11 tragedy reshaping my art world. Suddenly, there was a surge in shows about place and identity, about Islam this and Arab that, all curated by curators hailing from other mindsets, continents, institutions. I was surrounded by artists who felt stifled by how their work was being framed and represented. It was during a heated moment of a public meeting when artists were expressing their exasperation with shows such as Contemporary Arab Representations by Catherine Davide when I realized what we needed was curators, but also institutions, who would advocate for artists, and be able to flip the script. I spent two years working on my MFA in Critical Studies at the Malmö Art Academy in 2009 where I worked on what I would now describe as “decolonizing curating.” I started identifying as a curator shortly after that.
What initially drew you to Richmond and to the ICA?
The Otolith Group: Xenogenesis.
Can you tell us about the project or exhibition you’ve worked on in the past that has meant the most to you?
Beirut was an art space I conceived and co-founded in Cairo in 2012 and co-directed for four years. We had a residency program, worked on new artist productions with renowned artists including Adelita Husni-Bey and Lawrence Abu Hamdan. Personally, I was interested in what it means to build an institution as a curatorial act. What did it mean to think about curating in Cairo and other cities like her? Beirut was an immersive heuristic experiment, I learnt not only how to finesse my skills as a curator but also how to build an institution from the ground up, curatorially, meaning, with care.
What are you most excited about at the ICA in 2022?
So many things! I am super excited about Test Pattern, a public program curated by David Riley. He has conceived a program that is an experimental production space for performance, music, dance, activism, and deep conversations. We invite artists to the ICA for a week at a time to work with Richmond-based collaborators on a new work or reinterpretation of an existing project in the ICA Auditorium. It is inspired by Fred Moten’s ideas of rehearsal as a form of study and past experiments in public access television, including DCTV in Dale City, Virginia, the first community-operated closed-circuit television channel in the United States, and other things. Artists he is in conversation with for the series include DeForrest Brown Jr., shawné michaelain holloway, and Moor Mother.
Outside of work, what media and culture are you currently consuming (books, TV, art, social media accounts, film, etc.)?
Well, I am spending most of my time working toward the final stages of my dissertation on Cultural Infrastructure in Egypt, arguing how postcolonialism, hydroelectric energy and art are all connected. While I stay off social media, I sneak glimpses into memes by the collective @dank.lloyd.wright, they are coming to the world from architecture, and clearly study and care about history but also problematize it, refusing to get stuck in it. They provide access into how to navigate issues of aesthetics and power. In the last month, I have spent time with Alaa Abdelfattah’s book You Have Not Yet Been Defeated (2021). Alaa is one of my love and life entanglements and he has been in a maximum-security prison in Egypt since September 2019. He is a techie, writer, and activist. The book is a collection of essays translated from Arabic and introduced by Naomi Klein.