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A Conversation with Olivia Fahmy

episode 40
Oct 21 2022

Olivia Fahmy tells us about her background as an art historian in relation to her curatorial work, the co-founding and running of the independent art space Tunnel Tunnel, and the question of heritage, particularly attached to her recent curation of African contemporary art.

About our guest

Olivia Fahmy is an art historian, curator and author. She is specialized in contemporary art, particularly photography, and is the author of several texts published in scientific catalogs, specialized art magazines and exhibition catalogs. She was the curator of exhibitions and assistant to the collection of the Musée d’art de Pully, and then she was responsible for Publishings at the Center for Photography in Geneva. In 2015, she co-founded the independent art space Tunnel Tunnel, where she pursued curatorial projects. Olivia holds a Master of Arts in art history and history, and a Bachelor of Arts in political science and art history from the universities of Lausanne and Bern in Switzerland. She is currently doing a postgraduate specialization in post-colonial studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She is also the curator of the collection of contemporary art and diaspora art at the Fondation Gandur for the arts in Geneva.


Fondation Gandur pour l’art
Tunnel Tunnel

Olivia Fahmy

“We have to continue to confront ourselves”

Tunnel Tunnel :
Exhibition view
In Between Uneven Stairs, Tunnel Tunnel, Lausanne, 2019, curated with Max Hauri © the artists, from left to right: Johanna Odersky, Philippe Daerendinger, Mire Lee
Photo © Julien Gremaud

Inside Out:
Exhibition view, Inside Out, artgenève - salon d'art, Geneva, 2022 © the artists, from left to right: Aïda Muluneh, Vitshois Mwilambwe Bondo, Mary Sibande, Tessa Mars © Fondation Gandur pour l'Art, Genève.
Photo © Lucas Olivet

Dominique Koch, Holobiont Society, exhibition view, Futurs Incertains, curated by Olivia Fahmy, Victora Mühlig and Bernard Vienat, Musée d’art de Pully & Cantonal Museum of Geology Lausanne, 2019

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Olivia Fahmy begins by tracing back to her roots: how she developed an interest in art history which propelled her to current career, explaining that she initially didn’t have encouraged exposure to the art world. She goes on elaborating on the question of heritage and legitimacy, having Egyptian parents. She co-founded an independent art space, Tunnel Tunnel, and talks about the experience of this collective and what they strive to achieve through their projects, with a highlight on diversity and multiplicity. She speaks about the relation between curatorial work and societal changes, being a woman in her field of work, the reshaping of education, discrepancies in matters of equality and identity, the panel discussions on photography she has created, and women photographers. She mentions artists such as Sim chin Yin, Leobang Thlako and Sabine Weiss. Finally, Olivia ends off with a word of advice for artists to fight against inequality and to be empowered.

Conversation Highlights:

  • Origins, heritage, legitimacy
  • Tunnel Tunnel and how curating exhibitions contributes to changes in society
  • Intersectionality, identity and diaspora art

Origins, heritage, legitimacy

We start again at the beginning, the inspiring moment that pushes a person towards a defined trajectory in their career. What got Olivia interested in art history and what got her started in her career in the arts? Olivia traces back to her parents. “I grew up in a family that was quite modest, economically speaking,” she says, “and that was not really sensitive to culture. (...) And so my first contact with culture, I guess, was with pop culture.” Olivia begins by quoting the French author Leïla Silmani to make a parallel with her experience, in her essay titled Le Parfum des Fleurs la Nuit.

“She wrote that while being invited to stay for a night in the Museum Punta della Dogana in Venice, where she was actually sleeping in the middle of a collection,” Olivia continues. “And she would say that she felt impressed and quiet and comfortable just being in the museum, not knowing the codes and feeling a lack of freedom of mind, and of critical spirits.”

Olivia tells us that it took a long time for her to feel legitimate in working in a museum. She tells us she questioned the concept of heritage early on, her parents being from Cairo and being Egyptian, and Egypt being filled with “so many temples, monuments and everything.” Her interest and sensitivity to world heritage, to artistic heritage probably came from the stories her father would tell her about climbing the pyramids at night with friends in the 80s, when there was still little security on these historical sites.

Curating has stemmed from Olivia’s involvement with other people and artists while studying history of art, and their common interest in experimentation and being truly in contact with a scene. “I began by working in the Musée d’art de Pully. That was the first professional experience,” Olivia says. “And very quickly after that, Tunnel Tunnel.”

Tunnel Tunnel and how curating exhibitions contributes to changes in society

Straight from Olivia’s words: “It’s really a collective and we engage a lot with each other, we co-program but we also have many different discussions. (...) It’s this idea of trying to have a space as open as possible, and as flexible as possible for the artists we invite. We will try to make many connections with different practices, people that didn’t know each other, artists that didn’t know each other, before working together to try to create a conversation between them or to see if they have things to actually speak about together, or works to produce together, and so on.”

Right now, there are six of them in the Tunnel Tunnel collective. They were invited for the first Jardin d’Hiver at the Musée Cantonal des Beaux Arts, this exhibition takes place every two years, “its purpose is to show a bit the local scene”, Olivia adds.

Olivia speaks her mind about how she thinks curating exhibitions contributes to changes in society. She compares this to watching a good film. “Probably you can relate to the world and to yourself, maybe more accurately, or you can keep looking for whatever you’re looking for.” She gives meaning to curating by believing that a good exhibition has the power to trigger change, and at least recognition in an audience. “So if that happens, it’s the best,” she stresses. “This is the best output you can have.”

This doesn’t go without challenges. Olivia has a unique outlook on this. “I think caring is a great challenge,” she explains, “caring in a relevant way about the people you invite, the time you take, the way you focus your attention on the things that matter for the artist, but also be generous about the topic you want to approach.”

Olivia agrees that being a woman has been more challenging for her career, “I would quite automatically say yes (about it being more challenging), without really thinking.” It’s in not having been offered the same possibilities as men, it’s in the difficulty of feeling legitimate in her standing. We discuss the discrepancies: noticing the gaps for more inclusivity and less discrimination within society, yet a lack of resources and time and education to fully arrive there. “It’s challenging on my side as a curator,” she tells us, “it’s challenging to try to fill this gap somehow.”

Intersectionality, identity and diaspora art

Olivia mentions her keen interest in intersectionality. She puts forth the fact that we are in the middle of this conversation, “there is more and more consciousness around these issues,” she says. We quickly link this to her work at the Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, the Gandur Foundation for the arts in Geneva, where Olivia has decided to curate the collection of contemporary African and diaspora art. This is a project that began out of curiosity, “and also out of an interest towards visual languages, and probably also political questions, or societal questions that these artists would bring in the conversation in contemporary art,” Olivia explains.

She underlines though, that “using this label (‘contemporary African art’) is quite restrictive, considering that we are talking about a continent with 54 different countries, and hundreds and thousands of different cities and areas and cultures. (...) It is important to emphasize that we evoke this imaginary and that we have to dismantle it a bit, and to question a bit what we are talking about. So this is also quite restrictive because many of the artists in the collection are raising questions around identity issues, and are trying to actually open up a bit the way you can envisage identity.”

She elaborates on how this can be restrictive in other ways too, like the philosophical question of Africa being a Western invention. “These are the types of contradictions I’m dealing with everyday that are really interesting,” Olivia concludes.

We link this to an essay Olivia wrote in the newspaper, in which we quote what she wrote: ‘From colonial society to contemporary consumer society, we are not replaying a story whose foundations are however well known questions, it seems to me that this reversal of gaze is one of the most interesting things that works of art can do on the audience.”

Olivia untangles this notion of gaze reversal further in our interview, painting the metaphor of how the work is gazing back at the public, particularly with a collection such as African contemporary art. This is the effect of studying art history and history through a Western perspective, and suddenly being surrounded by artists and their works “that would approach their perspective of the world, the way they see globalization, the way they see inequality systems, the way the gaze returns towards Western issues and the way there are so many things in the process that have been invisibilized, through specific and very mainstream narratives.”

She raises important questions:

“How does it operate a change on us as well, in the way we suddenly consider it? Western history, imperialism, colonialism? And what do we really face in this society that we haven’t been able to look at really until now? (...) Why is it always the same type of narrative? Why don’t we speak about issues seen, actually, by people who are facing and living it and so on?”

Olivia also mentions her work, commissioned by the Swiss Arts Council, to create the conception and presentation of a series of panel discussions on photography. She mentions three women from different generations as part of the panel: Sabine Weiss, Sim Chi Yin, Leobang Thlako. She tells us about her experience speaking and interacting with these artists, and agrees with the feeling that there is some kind of movement right now towards more consciousness, “a kind of reshaping at least, or orientation somehow,” she says.

Olivia Fahmy’s final tip for women artists and professionals in the arts to fight against inequality and to feel empowered is to listen to other women who are inspiring to you. “Also, we have to continue to confront ourselves.”


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