Curator of the Month: Olivia Ahmad

Olivia Ahmad discusses curating and celebrating the UK's rich history of illustration and graphic arts.

Name and job title:

Olivia Ahmad, curator at House of Illustration in London.

What inspired you to become a curator?

My undergraduate degree was in illustration at Cambridge School of Art – it involved a lot of drawing from observation and making books. That’s when I started looking more closely at museums and galleries – I visited to draw objects and find sources of stories, too. I was fascinated by historic pieces from countries that were formerly under colonial rule – the ethical question of how they’d been collected and especially how they’d been interpreted in dramatically different ways over time. I thought ‘who gets to make these decisions’ – the idea that our record was being constructed by someone rather than somehow being reflected ‘objectively’ in museums and galleries really grabbed me.

What was your first job in the art world – and how did you get to where you are now?

After I graduated I was extremely lucky to be accepted onto the Museums Association’s 'Diversify' programme, which offered an MA studentship and two years work experience in a cultural organisation to people from backgrounds that were (and still are) under-represented in the sector. I was hosted by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums – I first worked in central documentation and development departments, followed by a year with the Shipley Art Gallery, which has fantastic collections of decorative art and contemporary craft. After that I worked at the Northern Design Festival, where I curated events and exhibitions in public spaces, like Baltic and the National Glass Centre, but also in disused spaces around the North East of England. Next, I worked on the touring programme at Seven Stories, National Centre for Children’s Books, before joining House of Illustration.

What has been the highlight of your career – and the biggest challenge?

Those two things are closely connected for me. Arriving at House of Illustration just before it opened in summer 2014 was really exciting, but daunting too. There was the task of programming 10 exhibitions for each year and finding artists, collections and institutions to collaborate with (the fun part), but also things like finding suppliers and setting up all the exhibition-related procedures and policies from scratch; environmental monitoring, loans, insurance, touring and so on. Nearly three years on, it’s really gratifying to see that we are able to be more and more ambitious with our programming and that our audience is building.

If you had one piece of advice for aspiring curators, what would it be?

To keep an open mind about the kind of material you work with. You might have a specialism in a particular discipline or time period, but the sector is competitive and there might be limited relevant posts out there when you’re getting started. I have a particular interest in illustration, but I worked with craft and design for years before working with graphic arts again, and that experience has been so valuable.

What’s special about working at your gallery?

British illustration has an incredibly rich heritage and really exciting work is happening here today, but we're not always so good at celebrating that in the UK, particularly in comparison with Japan and the USA, where there are lots of illustration-led museums and galleries. House of Illustration is the first and only public gallery in the UK that is dedicated to historic and contemporary illustration – so we are often exhibiting work that has never been seen in public here before, or giving an illustrator space to exhibit their original work for the first time. We also have a really broad remit, and so the type of material we’re working with is always changing – sometimes we might be working on reportage from conflict, and then at other times illustration for theatre design. One of our galleries is dedicated to artist and illustrator Quentin Blake (our founder) – for many people, Quentin is the definitive illustrator and his work for children’s books is especially treasured, but he has done and continues to do so much other work. It’s great to be able to select from his archive of 35,000 pieces and surprise people.

What are your favourite objects in your current exhibitions and why?

We have three exhibitions on at any one time, each representing completely different aspects of illustration. At the moment we are showing Anime Architecture, which looks at background art from iconic cyberpunk animated films from the late 1980s and early 1990s. The paintings in the exhibition appear static on screen with moving elements animated over the top. They only appear on film for fleeting seconds, but they are the result of painstaking work by lots of different specialists (location photographers, draughtspeople with engineering expertise and painters), and so it’s great opportunity to be able to ‘pause’ to look at them more closely. These paintings are by Hiromasa Ogura for the film Ghost in the Shell (1995) – they are only about A4 size, but have to translate to the size of a cinema screen so they are incredibly dense and detailed. Although the work we’re showing is from films made more than 20 years ago, their themes are really pertinent – they deal with anxiety about corporations owning public spaces and the vulnerability of our virtual networks to malicious hackers.

We are just about to install an exhibition about the work of illustrator, fashion designer and entrepreneur Jacqueline Ayer. Ayer grew up in a Trotskyite co-operative in the Bronx alongside designer Milton Glaser, and from there travelled all over the world. My colleague Katie Nairne has been researching the work that Ayer did in Thailand where she set up fashion brand Design Thai. This illustration from her children’s book A Wish for Little Sister (1960) is based on drawings that Ayer did of Bangkok’s canal-side silk-weaving communities, while floating in a canoe and sitting on the steps of her friend Jim Thompson’s house.

Away from work, how do you spend your free time?

Sometimes free time looks suspiciously like work! I really still enjoy going to museums, galleries and arts festivals more than anything – though sometimes I’m looking more at frames and mounts than what’s in them these days.

What is the best exhibition that you have been to recently?

Queer British Art at Tate Britain – I went for a couple of hours and only saw half of it, I think. The pieces on display were fascinating, but the stories about the artists and makers that accompanied them were completely absorbing.

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