The Art World at Home: Curator Maya Allison Is Organizing the UAE’s Pavilion for the Next Venice Biennale and Making Sourdough

The curator is working on projects from her home on the campus of NYU Abu Dhabi.

Maya Allison at Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim's studio. Courtesy of the National Pavilion of the UAE to the Venice Biennale.

The art world is slowly coming out of lockdown, but many decision-makers and creatives are still staying close to home. In this series, we check in with curators, historians, and other art-world professionals to get a peek into their day-to-day.

After a long curatorial career in the US, including posts at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum and the Bell Gallery at Brown University, Maya Allison moved to the United Arab Emirates to head up the art galleries at New York University Abu Dhabi. Currently, she’s also curating the UAE’s pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale, which will feature the art of Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim.

Allison spoke to Artnet News about how she’s managing work from home and the artists that are keeping her inspired.

What are you working on right now?

Opening an online exhibition for smartphones—titled “not in, of, along, or relating to a line”—of what we like to call “born-digital” art work. The idea is that this is not a virtual exhibition, but an exhibition of work that lives in the virtual world, naturally.

Walk us through the when, where, and how of your approach to this project on a regular day.

Emails. More emails. Testing the new exhibition venue (website) on my smartphone. More emails. Thinking about what makes something art, and what doesn’t.

What is bothering you right now (other than the project above and having to deal with these
questions)?

The usual things, meaning: cruel people and impossible quandaries. And, if we fix the pandemic, will we return to the same pace of global warming? Will we have the grit to change?

What was the last thing that made you laugh out loud?

My nine-year-old!

What is your favorite part of your house and why? 

Our view from the NYU Abu Dhabi campus onto the desert and saltwater marshes. I never tire of our sunrise. And, because I live on the campus, I can count its main plaza as my front yard.

The desert marsh sunrise.

Are these any causes you support that you would like to share? If so, what, and why is it important?

Diamond Blackfan Anemia—it’s a rare blood disorder that needs further research, and affects some close to me.

What is your guilty pleasure?

I try not to feel guilt about pleasure, which, itself, is a guilty pleasure sometimes. Also, insomnia and the
quiet of 3 a.m.

What’s going on in your kitchen these days? Any projects? Any triumphs or tragedies?

I’m a victim/beneficiary of the pandemic sourdough movement, and there is bread underway tomorrow. My husband is the cook, though, particularly of Chinese food, and he has started making tofu during the pandemic.

What’s your favorite work of art in the house and why? (Please send a picture)

All of our art is by friends of ours, so I try not to play favorites, but I am fond of the ceramics by artist Alison Owen.

Are there any movies, music, podcasts, publications, or works of art that have made a big impact on you recently? If so, why?

Every month I visit the studio of Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim to prepare for his solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale’s UAE Pavilion. He chooses to live in his home town of Khor Fakkan, a quiet place far from the cities, where the rocky mountains of the UAE meet the east coast, facing toward India. Seeing his painstaking, hand-made sculptures come to life, and his playful discovery process, over time, always nourishes me. This is even more true during a pandemic.

Which two fellow art-world people, living or dead, would you like to convene for dinner, and why?
Bonus: Where would you want the dinner to be?

Judith Tannenbaum, once curator at the ICA Philadelphia and later the RISD Museum, who first trained me, and Bana Kattan, a curator now at the MCA Chicago, who was the first curator I hired in the UAE. I think we’d all like to have oysters. Because we are in a pandemic, just seeing our cherished colleagues who are elsewhere for a simple meal feels like a fantasy.


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