Ladies’ Paradise: A conversation with Huma Kabakci and Nadja Romain
March 2018 by Federica Tattoli
Talking about Ladies' Paradise, an all women exhibition presented by Open Space Contemporary & Everything I Want that explores the notions of the body and femininity through abstract and figurative works, with the two curators.
Until the 8 April at the Grace Belgravia, a spa and medical centre for women, the exhibition will explore the notion of the body, internal desires, the role of the female and abstraction through different mediums such as ceramics by Clementine Keith-Roach, canvas paintings by Merve İşeri, drawings by Sofia Stevi and sewn textiles by Güneş Terkol. Through variations of material, medium, texture and techniques, each of the five artists’ practices and works overlap through intimacy and form.
The title of the exhibition Ladies’ Paradise is inspired by Emin Zola’s eleventh novel titled Au Bonheur des Dames, which takes place in a department store in the mid-19th century. The modernisation of the store and the different roles of women in the book are intertwined with the structure of the exhibition, which focuses on femininity, the body, the differing levels of society, gender and identity politics.
“I am thrilled to be starting 2018 with this exciting collaborative co-curated exhibition. Nadja Romain and I have been in conversation for a while on how we can work together and the exhibition Ladies’ Paradise. It has been a great way to pursue our conversation into feminist theory, site specificity through four exceptional female contemporary artists. Since its foundation in 2014, Open Space Contemporary has been promoting cross-cultural dialogue between artists, curators and art practitioners in London and Istanbul through a nomadic nature.” – Huma Kabakcı
“Having being working on women’s empowerment for many years it is exciting to engage a dialogue with Huma and this group of young female talents. As a member of Grace Belgravia I am thrilled by the opportunity to open this conversation on the female body in a place where women come to improve their body, health and appearance. It’s a unique opportunity to discuss one of the main topic in our society: the display of the female body and the symbolic around it.” – Nadja Romain
FT: Ladies’ Paradise is a co-curated exhibition of female artists in a very particular space, Grace Balgravia, a health, wellbeing and lifestyle club for women in London. Could you tell me how this project was born and how you both interacted to curate the exhibition?
HK: I met Nadja for the first time coincidentally not in London but in Jakarta, Indonesia, for an art fair two years ago. Since then, we have kept in touch and attended each other’s events. Thanks to Nadja, when Grace Belgravia appeared as an exhibition space, we decided to collaborate. Since we are both women in the arts and have similar curatorial interests we thought it was only natural that we ought to curate an exhibition together.
NR: That’s true, Huma and I share the same interest for female artists and female related issues. Notably how our body is perceived by ourselves and the society, how we relate to our body in term of an object of desire, a sexual object, a body that give birth. All of these notions and questions surround the female body and are so complex to define – as much by culture than our biological determination. I have been a member at Grace Belgravia (a private women’s member club dedicated to mind, body and spirit) for a long time. The location has played a major role in my recovery when I had a serious health issue. Grace is both a place where you grow and a place where you heal. Kate Percival the founder invited me to organise exhibitions and host talks at Grace and this started as a conversation with friends of mine who are collectors and members at Grace. So it was very organic and friendly and the same spirit initiated the conversation with Huma. It just felt natural to engage a conversation together and to collaborate on a project where we would invite emerging female artists and reflect on the female body.
FT: Could you be so kind to tell me something about your respective backgrounds?
HK: I am a second-generation collector, curator and researcher based between London and Istanbul. After completing my MA in Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art in the summer of 2014, I founded Open Space Contemporary and collaborated with different institutions such as; Alt, Artkurio, Block Universe, IKSV (Istanbul Biennial Organisation), Art Department, SALT and Pera Museum, Istanbul. I also contributed to various publications including Guggenheim Blog, SYRUP Magazine and IAN (Istanbul Art News). In the last couple of years I have been involved in the following art institutions and foundations as a patron: AWITA (Association Women In the Arts), Delfina Foundation, Gasworks, Royal Academy (Young Patron) and SAHA Foundation.
NR: I have been working with creative minds all my life really. Either in the film industry as producer or in the art world art as curator and producer. I studied art history at La Sorbonne and École du Louvre in Paris, and in my first year at University I was already working at the gallery Karsten Greve. Contemporary art has always been a driving force in my life and I had the greatest luck to work with many of the most talented artists of our time; from Mathew Barney to Isaac Julien, William Eggleston to the Kabakov, Harmony Korine to name but a few. In the past years my philanthropic commitment to women’s empowerment organisations like Women for Women International, and my activism in the field of gender base violence has made me wanting to support more female artists. I notably have a long time relationship with two English artists Maria Marshall and Chila Burman.
FT: The artists you selected are: Merve Iseri, Sofia Stevi, Clementine Keith-Roach and Günes Terkol, could you tell me something about each of them, about their practices and especially the reasons you choose them?
HK: I had met both Sofia and Clementine last year during my visit to Documenta 14 in Athens. I immediately fell in love with their work, their practices and their personalities. I had worked with Güneş Terkol before and have been following her work for a while now. I also came across Merve İşeri’s works during her first solo show with ballon rouge collective in Istanbul during the Istanbul Biennial. When the curatorial concept was formulated and we knew the space, these four artists were just obvious choices.
NR: I’m very thankful to Huma to give me an opportunity to work with the new generation. Being a bit older than Huma, I tend to interact less with the new generation. Not that I think in term of age, but it is just how things happen. Huma came with suggestions that I would not have thought of in the first place, and I am truly excited about this exhibition and the dialogue among such a diverse selection of artists, all working on different mediums.
FT: Could you briefly comment the works you choose for the exhibition?
HK: The selection process was a very unique experience for Nadja and me – since all of the artists were based in different locations, and depending on each case, we were either commissioning new work from them or incorporating already existing work – we went through different processes with each artist. With Güneş Terkol, as I worked with her before and she is based in Istanbul, it was easier for me to visit her studio and then liaise with Nadja afterwards. Güneş's gallery was very supportive and ensured everything went smoothly. For Sofia, as neither Nadja or I were in Athens it took us a bit longer to communicate through email, but in the end we were delighted to include four ink and gouache paper works. It was a special moment visiting Merve's studio with Nadja, and the in-person site-visit provided a wonderful opportunity to discuss and select the works. As for Clementine, we met up with her over tea, where we agreed to commission two ceramic vases made for the exhibition, which is very exciting. Each experience for me was very special.
FT: Both of you have an association, Open Space Contemporary for Huma Kabakci, Everything I Want for Nadja Romain, could you tell us more about these two projects and what they promote?
HK: Open Space Contemporary is an itinerant contemporary art platform that promotes cross-cultural dialogue and multidisciplinary exchange through international projects with artists, curators and other practitioners. It responds to the site-specific qualities of different spaces, and its projects range from exhibitions to performances, talks, symposia, screenings and publications. Open Space Contemporary is also an ideological space that accommodates the needs of different practices and media, with the aim of advancing artistic and curatorial discourse through collaboration.
NR: Everything I Want is my London-based company. We develop, produce, curate projects in the field of visual and performing arts. We also work as an advising entity, supporting foundations, brands and individuals in their journey as collector and in the commissioning of works. A lot of our work is to brainstorm ideas and transform them into a reality, we are a laboratory and a production venture dedicated to creativity and engaging the audience with art and thinking practice.
FF: Woman, feminism, gender issues, woman body, needs and desires are hot topics at the moment, what is your position and why do you choose to make it an all woman exhibition?
HK: The fact that men are restricted to come to the Grace spa centre is very interesting to me and makes more sense to do an all-female exhibition, especially in times like now…
NR: Well I think there is nothing new here. What you are entitled to or excluded from as a woman has always been a topic for women, either or not discussed in the news. The suffragette movement itself started more than a century ago and that has been preceded by centuries of literature that testifies how women have reflected on their gender, their body, their role in society. As for the current debate, it is a revolution. It’s like the assassination of Francois- Ferdinand, this event that could have been, should have been just another tragic act of terrorism became the starting point of the most devastating conflict at the time. Here the accusations and revelations about the misconduct of one man have opened a pandora box. Why now? Historian will have many explanations and we can already identify a few, like the presidency of Donald Trump or the fact Weinstein was in decline anyway and many wanted his skin, but in any case why now is a big question mark? The Bill Cosby affair didn’t start a revolution last year. The Weinstein’s revelations did start a revolution. I think as any revolution it has its abuse, it has its craziness and it might have its backlash as well. There is a lot of work to do before we create harmony in the world. Patriarchy is the root problem of all the wrong in our society. From the devastation of the earth, to gender discrimination, it’s a system of abuse and exploitation, where everything that can be controlled and create value – i.e. from nature, the female body - is treated as a commodity. How can we create peace and harmony in the world if half of humanity is discriminated? Women are the other half and they are still fighting to gain their full share. It is unbelievable that we walked on the moon but still perpetuate an archaic system born from an archaic mindset that doesn’t serve us at all.
Female artist are as discriminated in the art world as any woman in any other industry so it worth sometimes to think of all female projects. But that said I don’t like communitarianism and we are in this world altogether in despite of gender or race, religion or political standard. But sometimes it’s great to unite in sisterhood. After all it’s women’s day March 8th month celebration.
Huma KabakcıGraduated from BA Advertising & Marketing at London College of Communication in 2011 and an MA in Curating Contemporary Art at Royal College of Art in London, Kabakcı worked at various galleries, museums and auction houses, both in the UK and Turkey, including Sotheby’s New Bond Street (Contemporary Art Sales department), The Albion Gallery (London), Pera Museum (Turkey), as well as three major collection exhibitions in museums during the 2010 Ruhr & Pecs Capital of Culture project. Since graduating from Royal College of Art (London), Kabakcı founded Open Space Contemporary and has been collaborating with different projects and organisations including Alt, Artkurio, Block Universe, IKSV, Pera Museum,The Art Department and SALT. She also contributed to publications such as the Guggenheim Blog, IAN (Istanbul Art News), Past meets Present Exhibition Catalogue and SYRUP Magazine. Kabakcı has been involved in the following art institutions and foundations as a patron: AWITA (Association Women In the Arts), Delfina Foundation, Gasworks, Royal Academy (Young Patron) and SAHA Foundation.
Nadja Romain, has vast experience in art, media, luxury and lifestyle working with artists such as Ron Arad, Emilia and Ilya Kabakov, Chila Kumari Burman and Maria Marshall. Receiving MAs from both La Sorbonne and École du Louvre. Her credits as a producer include films Mister Lonely by Harmony Korine , documentaries No Restraint: A portrait of Matthew Barney, By the Ways a Journey with William Eggleston, Film installations Zidane by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, Ten Thousand Waves by Isaac Julien. Since 2010, Romain has devoted her time to supporting human rights organisations that address women’s rights and empowerment, as well as children’s education and protection. Nadja sits on the International Advisory Board of Women for Women International. Romain’s ambition of collaborating with artists and human rights organisations to develop a discourse of awareness and lasting change has sparked the launch of her most recent initiative Art, Action, Change.
For all the images: Installation view of Ladies' Paradise, at Grace Belgravia, 2018. Photo credits: Fenella Mett. Courtesy of Everything I Want & Open Space Contemporary.