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World View

By Thomas Connors

Photography by Mike Killion

11.28.17

Omar Kholeif goes global at the MCA.

OMAR KHOLEIF LIKES to dig. And dig deeply. “It’s become my mission to unearth practices that are rarely seen,” says the senior curator and director of global initiatives at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Formerly curator at London’s renowned Whitechapel Gallery and a prolific writer, the Egyptian-born and utterly transnational Kholeif (he’s lived in London, L.A. and Lebanon, among other places) is a man for whom the global is a given. Whether identifying and contextualizing work from the Arab world and Africa, or championing local artist Paul Heyer (whose paintings go on view next month in the exhibit Chicago Works: Paul Heyer), Kholeif strives to balance the personal import of the artist’s gesture with a broader understanding of how that expression reverberates in the larger world. “The art I show tends to address social and political issues,” he says, “but art should not be read like news.”

Kholeif’s ambition is to make the MCA “the most global museum in North America.” To that end, he’s spearheaded The Global Visions Initiative, which has resulted in exhibitions of work by Egyptian Basim Magdy and Chicago-based Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz, as well as additions to the permanent collection of pieces by Arab-German artist Marwan and Iran’s Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian.

“One of my next shows is Otobong Nkanga, an artist from Nigeria, who is huge in Europe but almost completely unknown in the U.S.,” says Kholeif. “If I create the appropriate context for her to be seen, I can really make a statement. That’s what I always try to do: make a statement through the programming I create.” Paul Heyer exhibit Jan. 16-July 1