Interview with Fertile Crescent Curators Judith K. Brodsky and Ferris Olin

The Princeton University Art Museum serves as a host venue for The Fertile Crescent: Gender, Art, and Society, an exhibition conceived by Judith K. Brodsky and Ferris Olin, codirectors of the Institute for Women and Art at Rutgers University. The idea for the project, which features artwork produced by women of Middle Eastern descent, was sparked by a trip Ferris took to Turkey in 2007. While there, she attended the Istanbul Biennial, which primarily showcased works by women artists. “I was so taken by what I saw that I came back [to the Institute] and I said ‘we’ve got to bring some of the work over. If it’s new to me, it’s going to be even newer to others,’” Ferris explained. And so, with Judith’s support, the five-year project was born.

Creating the Fertile Crescent Project

After conducting research by traveling, looking through catalogues, and scanning the internet, they were able to narrow their choices to twenty-four contemporary feminist artists of Middle Eastern heritage. “We selected work on the basis . . . of what did we think was really good artwork [that] addresses particular situations, that transcends the particular, that will last and have something to say,” Judith explained. “We also wanted to show diversity of approach along the lines of precarity and unavailable intersections—what typifies the group as a whole are their differences as much as their similarities.”

Judith added that their initial vision of the exhibition changed because they have moved beyond being “bound by our own cultural stereotypes and landscapes.” Ferris further explained that, although she was well read in issues related to the Middle East, it wasn’t until she connected with the artists that she was able to fully understand. “To hear them speaking in their own voice really brought tears to my eyes and, I think, made it much more real,” she said. “We assume, but we don’t know these experiences in that kind of way and that brought it home for me.”

The cocurators have formed relationships with the artists. “The interaction [between curators and artists] results in something that is much closer to what the work is about, so I think the interaction was a very meaningful experience,” Judith said. Through connecting with the artists, Ferris explained, they were able to curate a show that recognizes “the aesthetic and intellectual impact of women on cultural landscape.”

Community Support

Judith and Ferris have been amazed at the level of community engagement they received. “I’m surprised and heartened by the support we’ve engendered,” Ferris said. In addition to various locations at Rutgers University and the Princeton University Art Museum, work is on display at the Bernstein Gallery at Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University; the Paul Robeson Gallery, Arts Council of Princeton; the West Windsor Arts Council, Princeton Junction; the East Brunswick Public Library; the Princeton Public Library; the New Brunswick Public Library; and The College of New Jersey Art Gallery.

Deciding Where to Place the Artwork

With five different venues in which to exhibit the artwork of the Fertile Crescent Project, determining the location for each piece was a challenging endeavor. “One of the things we tried to do was make sure each venue had an assortment of points of view and representation from different cultures,” Judy said. Because of that goal, works by Parastou ForouharMona HatoumSigalit LandauShirin Neshat, and Laila Shawa were chosen for the Princeton University Art Museum.

Through attending programming organized by the Fertile Crescent Project, visitors will have gained a broader perspective on the diverse cultures it represents. Judith said that she hopes people gather “a more nuanced understanding of the Middle East so that they move away from the stereotypes and move away from just believing the latest thing they read in the New York Times.” Ferris added that she would also like the project to open dialogues across cultures and communities, so that “people can learn more about all of us.”