When Sohrab Mohebbi was offered the opportunity to curate the 58th Carnegie International for Carnegie Museum of Art, his response was “Oh my god this is amazing,” he says over coffee last month at The Café Carnegie. “It’s a great honor to work on one of the longest-running international art exhibitions in the world.”
Mohebbi gave notice to his employer, the SculptureCenter in Long Island City, New York, and began planning a move to Pittsburgh. That was in early March of 2020.
A few days later the global landscape collapsed when pandemic lockdowns began.
Suddenly his exhilaration shifted to the realization that he had left his job and was likely without a new one.
That grim scenario didn’t materialize and on Sept. 24 the 2022-23 Carnegie International will open over a weekend packed with events for local, national and international visitors, media, artists, collectors and representatives of a bevy of global arts institutions. That includes an Opening Celebration Party in partnership with NEXTpittsburgh on Sept. 23. The International continues through April 2, 2023.
The first exhibition of what has become the International was held in 1896, intentionally signaling to the world that Pittsburgh was a cultural as well as an industrial player.
It was founded by steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie a year after he established the Carnegie Institute and a year after the Venice Biennale debuted in Italy. They are the oldest exhibitions of international contemporary art in the world and were the only two for decades. The prestigious exhibition, which requires years of travel and research, has recently been held every three to four years. The 57th took place in 2018.
The first International exhibited paintings like American Winslow Homer’s “The Wreck,” a realistic and tense coastal scene inspired by a shipwreck, now in the museum collection. Internationals since then have evolved as the art world has and this year’s will include work unimagined a century ago.
Outside the museum walls, a mural has already been painted on a Hill District building by Pittsburgh artist James “Yaya” Hough, an architecturally-scaled work was installed by Cuban-born interdisciplinary artist Rafael Domenech in the museum’s Sculpture Court in time for the beginning of the summer event series Inside Out and a tree that will have legal rights has been planted by the German collective terra0 at the Community College of Allegheny County. Soon four digital billboards by American artist Tony Cokes will light up the Route 28 commute.
Each International has its own footprint and personality, but this one will be vastly different having been birthed during an unprecedented global health crisis. While travel and in-person meetings were limited, technology facilitated research and communication.
Another factor that uniquely informs this International is a break from traditional curatorial lineage — personal and institutional — that Mohebbi and Associate Curator Ryan Inouye represent. Curators heretofore were of European heritage and had generally come to The Carnegie from mainstream institutions.
Mohebbi was born in 1980 in Tehran, the huge cosmopolitan metropolis that is Iran’s capital. He frequented the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and when the 1979 Iranian revolution closed down most galleries, his mother showed local artists in their home. He earned a BFA in photography from Tehran Art University.
In 2008 Mohebbi emigrated to the U.S. where he earned an MA from the Bard College Center for Curatorial Studies in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, and he became a U.S. citizen.
He is also a singer and guitarist for the band 127 with whom he toured the West Coast and SXSW in Austin, Texas. The band played the Brillobox in Bloomfield in 2008 and was described in the Pittsburgh City Paper as “gypsy punk.”
Inouye also came to Pittsburgh in 2008 where he saw his first Carnegie International, Life on Mars. It made him realize how ideas and art from a variety of sources could commingle in one place and inspire larger conversations, he says.
He was born in 1983 in Sacramento, California, and is a fourth-generation Japanese-American on his mother’s side of the family. He earned a BA from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a Master of Research from Goldsmiths, University of London.
Mohebbi was SculptureCenter’s curator-at-large when he was tapped for the International, and he will return to serve as its director. The institution — touted in progressive art circles — exhibits, commissions and interprets contemporary sculpture.
Inouye was most recently senior curator at Sharjah Art Foundation in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, and previously served as associate curator of the Sharjah Biennial 12 (2014-15).
The curators cast a wide net as they considered what constitutes “art,” and even “international,” in today’s world, and this large exhibition features work by more than 130 artists and collaboratives.
The pandemic has a presence but doesn’t dominate. “We are living through the pandemic now,” Mohebbi says. Some artists have had an immediate response as with Pittsburgh native LaToya Ruby Frazier, who photographed city healthcare workers in Baltimore. As to others, “I think we’re going to look back in five or ten years and really be feeling it.”
Other artists were chosen for the historical perspective they present, and how those relate to today’s connected world.
Examples are Karen Tei Yamashita’s project that addresses Asian American activism in the Bay Area from 1968 to 1977, and Manila-born Pio Abad, who was inspired by Andrew Carnegie’s political objections to Philippine annexation.
Inouye says these are the kinds of less-referenced artist actions that “will be lost if we don’t work to sustain them, to remind people that they existed.”
The curators appear to be particularly suited by practice to organize an International for this time and place. They see it as a two-way street.
Mohebbi says that there is currently “more openness to divergent ways of thinking about art, to different artistic traditions. It’s an interesting moment to be engaging in this dialogue.”
“It’s a really global world,” Inouye says, “and the show should be global. This is the art world we entered.”
The title, Is it morning for you yet?, encapsulates the exhibition’s fluidity of time, space, voice and concept. It’s a Mayan Kaqchikel expression Mohebbi learned of from indigenous Guatemalan artist Édgar Calel, who was commissioned to create a new work for the International. Does the question refer to geographic or clock time, to personal or metaphysical concerns?
Mohebbi doesn’t want to limit interpretations, and hopes people will bring their own readings to the conversation.
“We built a great team,” Mohebbi says. “I think we managed to build an exhibition that brings some very strong works together. We wanted to make sure visitors experience it as an exhibition, not just as a group of artworks.”