Artists (Are Us)

I’m currently brainstorming ideas for my final show piece at the Barbican’s Young Visual Arts Group (YVAG) event next month. Being a theatre lover, I love visually stunning set designs, such as my hero – Leslie Travers, so I’m scrambling through my theatre archives in hope I can create some sort of miracle (I believe in miracles though). Watch this space!

I joined the Barbican YVAG to explore visual arts, expand my creative portfolio and discover new skills whilst meeting the practitioners. Throughout the course, we’ve had exclusive access to those successful artists, including Kosha Hussain.

We visited his exhibition, Toys (Are Us) at the Crypt Gallery last year and I was fascinated how visual art can enable us to share our identities whether it’s on a wall or floor or through a speaker or projector. Having no boundaries or rules, I witnessed the snapshots into the artist’s life. There was a sense of belonging and acceptance between the artist and observer. Whether the objective is to shock or sympathise, visual art is always an intimate eye encounter.

Wanting to find out more about Kosha, I was so grateful and honoured to interview him.

Tell us more about yourself.
I’m a curator and exhibition maker, currently based in London. I’m a British-Kurd who was born in the Iranian part of Kurdistan in 1989 to parents who are from the Kurdish region of Iraq. Besides art, I like to geek out about technology and all things space-related, by that I mean outer-space…

What inspired you to become an “exhibition maker, curator and artist”?
Failing. Yeh, I basically became a curator and exhibition maker largely as a result of failures and frustrations. I was fresh out of university in 2012, equipped with a scattered array of passions, lack of confidence and zero mentors. For the first year after graduation I found myself looking in all the wrong places to exhibit my art. I was a bit of an outsider; even though I had friends and people generally seemed to like me, I noticed my peers forming art collectives, going out to exhibitions together and seeming to always be in the right place at the right time and I just didn’t manage to get into that circle.

I Am Interrupted
Kosha in the back row with his team of artists at his first show as curator, at TestBed1

As frustrated as I felt with my inability to integrate into that world and my unwillingness to imitate the workings of these art circles, I knew that I wanted to make art. So the following year in 2013, I teamed up with a friend of mine to make a group exhibition in support of an NGO. It featured 17 artists, including my own work; many were our friends; a few we found on the Internet, and I just dived right in. I took my naivety and ignorance and turned them into an audacious act of adventure and discovery.

I very much worked with my intuition at that point in time, and actually I still do now. It’s a big driver in pretty much everything I do, it guides me to where I need to be and who I need to be with, and I find great inspiration through it.

Do you approach the artists first or do they approach you?
Currently a bit of both. Of course in the very beginning I was pretty much unknown and without much merit and so no one really came my way offering me work. But these days I have artists and other art professionals call me up asking for my services. It’s definitely nice when work finds you and I wouldn’t say I’m in the stage of my career where I can be very picky either. However, as an independent curator I will always be meeting with inspirational up and coming artists and will continue to develop projects with them.

How do you spot talent?
I usually meet talented people by simply introducing myself. I know it sounds ridiculous, but quite often I’ve met some of the most talented people I know by crossing that social divide between myself and a stranger. Further to that, I’ve learnt that you have to be attentive to the world and the opportunities around you. A recent example, I was on the tube back home one evening when I felt like doing a spot of life drawing. There was a guy sitting opposite me reading a book (prime suspect – they don’t move much) so I began drawing him. I don’t usually show the subject my drawing, but since we both got off at the same stop I decided to make an exception.

Stephen Ying
Portrait of world DMC champion DJ Stephen Ying by Kosha Hussain

And anyway, it just so happens that he is a world DMC champion DJ! He subsequently came and performed at the live music shows I produce and even played a bit of flute. And we’ve become friends since. I think if you want to make connections with people you need to tune yourself in to the world they inhabit.

Being a curator, it’s quite a ” selective” role and could seen as “subjective”. Would you agree? If so, how do you achieve objectivity?
Oh yeh, totally. Stereotypically speaking, there’s something really dictatorial about being a curator. People have this image of this uncompromising character, pointing here and there and generally being a bit up their own backside. And while there are a bunch of these real-life archetypes out there, I tend to prefer to be more down-to-Earth.

Curator Stereotype
Kosha and co-curator Chloé dictating over Miyuki Kasahara’s Fracking Go at Toys (Are Us) exhibitions. Photo courtesy of Ari Murad

My method to achieving objectivity in a practice that is inherently subjective is by facilitating dialogue between all parties and attempting as much as possible for all sides to be represented. For this to work out I find it’s important to be compassionate, transparent and cooperative.

What makes an exhibition great? Any examples?
Wow, is it bad that I think this is a tough question? There’s an indefinite degree of factors that play into whether an exhibition is successful or not. Some of these include having a coherent team where each member has a unique skill but who together share the same passion for delivering an excellent and well rounded event; good research and organizational skills, long hours, being able to liaise and have access to a supportive network of people and organisations, the willingness to sacrifice your social wellbeing in order to see the project through. I mean the list continues. It sort of depends on how disciplined and successful you want to be. Toys (Are Us), One of my largest exhibitions to date, took me over a year to organize and I dedicated everything towards making it happen.

What is more important the work or the venue?
For me the work usually comes first, insofar that I initially form a professional relationship with the artists and their work and from there I try and find a venue that’s most fitting. However it is also possible to make an exhibition in the reverse order of that, for example if a gallery approaches you. In this case the venue is more important.

I stumbled across this quote on your Tumblr: “All you need is an open and wondering mind; then the whole universe will inspire you”. Can you expand on this? Any experiences or memories on what your “wondering mind” can do?
Oh yeh, that’s something I wrote. Your readers are free to quote me on it! I tend to have a wandering imagination, and a wild sense of curiosity and I’ve learnt a lot that way. Around the age of 8 one of my primary school teachers told me that I ask a lot of questions; I thought she was going to go on to say how annoying I was, but she instead told me to keep it up. I think this has stayed with me ever since.

You’ve worked with Saatchi Gallery, Southbank Centre and Mosaic Rooms, who would you love to collaborate with next? And why?
Right now I’m working more closely with the Kurdish community. I haven’t really worked much in that area, most of my practice up until now has broadly been on an international level. There’s a lot I want to contribute towards my ethnic culture. Besides that I’d love to work with non-artists, maybe an anthropologist, scientist or philosopher. Art usually compliments the sciences very well.

What was your thought process behind Toys (Are Us)? Did the exhibition have any aims and achievements?
I think a lot of people tend not to talk about how they’ve failed and only talk of their successes. But most times you succeed after failing in something prior. My Toys (Are Us) exhibition was just that. It came as a result of a previous exhibition failure. In fact that previous exhibition failed so badly that it didn’t even materialise. But what it did produce however was the foundations of what would become Toys (Are Us).

Toys (Are Us) Poster
The official Toys (Are Us) exhibition poster designed by Kosha, featuring his hand. Photographed by Ari Murad

I had generated some interesting ideas while working with the artists of the prior exhibition. They demonstrated a youthful sense of playfulness in their work. So I took that as a loose starting point and began a new independent research-led exhibition project. I defined the idea into what would become the study of how toys and the wider industry influences human development, the construction of identity; how it affects our psychology with respects to gender politics and the environmental impact of the industry. It aimed to be a sort of anthropological study into these objects.

Toys (Are Us)_13_
Exhibition view of Kosha’s Toys (Are Us) exhibition at Crypt Gallery. Back To Formlessness by Georgiana Mihai. Photo courtesy of Ari Murad

The show happened November 2015, featured a group of 21 international emerging, mid-career and established artists, displaying more than 60 works of art, including 2 new works of art from myself, and attracted over 500 visitors in the three days it was open.

Why the Crypt Gallery?
The Crypt Gallery was actually a recommended venue. I loved the raw and cavernous ambience of the place; it has a really unique feel. The dark overtones of the Crypt Gallery architecture complimented the exhibition’s stance on the implications of toys. I enjoy working in challenging places and this space certainly had its moments.

Toys (Are Us)_5
Kosha and co-curator Chloé discussing Tim A Shaw’s Splice, a taxidermy fish turned table lamp at Toys (Are Us), Crypt Gallery. Photo courtesy of Ari Murad

How do you deal with criticism/feedback towards your work and exhibitions?
I feel flattered that one would take the time to formulate an opinion and then communicate it to me! Especially when there’s a lot of noise out there.

Can you tell us about any interesting or challenging exhibition spaces?
Currently I work as curator and exhibition manager at ArtsLav, a former Victorian public lavatory. It’s a Grade II listed building, which poses curatorial challenges. But I love working there. It’s quite a hidden gem, very affordable to hirers and full of local history.

Exhibition view of Darren Evans’ exhibition My Mates From The Pub at ArtsLav, curated by Kosha Hussain

What do you consider to be your most successful show or artwork?
Toys (Are Us) is my latest and most successful show and it featured one of my favourite works of art that I’ve made. The artwork is titled Playing For The High One; Dancing With The Devil (2016).

Playing For The High One
Installation view of one of Kosha’s most political work of art Playing For The High One; Dancing With The Devil at Toys (Are Us), Crypt Gallery. Photo courtesy of Ari Murad

It is a work of installation art that features black and white photocopied images of the moment Saddam Hussein was hung in 2006. The image is a screenshot from a YouTube video of his execution during the 2003 Iraq war after he was captured and sent to court for crimes against humanity. A very loud looped soundtrack of Motorhead’s Ace of Spades accompanies the installation, finished off by a strobe light, making the whole thing very disorientating. The work comments on the power mass media has on our perception of reality, with its repetition of images and rhetoric. What relates this work of art to the overall subject of toys, is down to when during the war, the Bush administration created a ‘most-wanted deck of cards’ that depicted Saddam’s government officials. It was a very smart visual device used to communicate to the general American public the hierarchy of Saddam’s government and who they were out to get. So Saddam Hussein of course was the ace of spades, Ali Hassan Al-Majid (also known as Chemical Ali to the Kurds) was the king of spades and so on. This has been my most political work to date.

How do you measure your success?
I think success is value given to you by others. That definition is more related to commercial success; it isn’t so much measured by you. To me, personal success comes by setting out your goals and achieving them. I think you can measure personal success by the opportunities that follow thereafter.

Any advice for those wanting to pursue careers in curating? Or desperately wanting to share their artwork?
Work with me! But honestly speaking I think it’s purely down to how much time you’re willing to invest in your career. Search for the people who you want to work with and who you look up to. Surround yourself with people that are better than you and don’t be afraid of reinventing yourself.

What are your next projects? 
I have several shows in the pipeline this year. I’m very excited to be working with this start-up charity organisation, ReBuild , in making a fundraising photojournalism exhibition in London. It will feature some striking works of photography taken by some of today’s most prominent photojournalists, who have been reporting on the current events in Northern Syria and the surrounding regions. Sticking to that region, I’m also working with an Iraqi-Kurdish artist on a new body of work that brings together Jewish and Islamic identity. I have a show later this year displaying a retrospective of works by a fantastic emerging London-based conceptual artist whose current body of work looks at the notion of human branding. Then there’s another exhibition I’m curating which will display metal-point drawing works by one of my favourite and most active Israeli performance artists working today. All these shows will be happening in London in 2016.

Big thanks to Kosha Hussain. If you would like to hear more about his work or would like to collaborate with him, you can contact Kosha via social media.
Twitter: @KoshaHussain
Instagram: kosha_h


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