Since the departure in 2018 of Klaus Biesenbach as its director, MoMA PS1 has felt adrift. That impression deepened this June with the abrupt and unexplained resignation of his replacement, Kate Fowle. Given the rough transition—the Covid pandemic derailed two of her three years on the job and included other staff losses—the multidisciplinary exhibition programme became a scattershot affair attracting diminishing public interest and a lukewarm reception for its Greater New York 2021 survey show.
Happily, the immediate future for this once energetic and inventive institution looks much brighter. Thanks to the enduring director of curatorial affairs, Ruba Katrib, this month will bring solo shows by three distinctive artists from other cities who have yet to establish a foothold elsewhere in New York—exactly the sort of programming that made MoMA’s experimentally inclined stepsister in Long Island City a wavemaker in the first place.
On tap are shows that introduce new works by Frieda Toranzo Jaeger and Umar Rashid, from Mexico City and Los Angeles, respectively. Perhaps most anticipated is the New York premiere of Foragers, a haunting film by Jumana Manna. With a second film, Wild Relatives (2018), and 14 concrete-and-ceramic sculptures, the exhibition marks the Palestinian-raised Berliner’s first major museum show in the US.
The narrative of Foragers turns on za’atar and akkoub, two herbs native to Israeli-occupied, Palestinian territories and coveted by Arab populations as heritage foods that signify nationhood. But the Israeli government has made it a crime for them to pick the plants, which are listed as endangered. Israeli farmers face no such restrictions. In classic, coals-to-Newcastle fashion, they harvest, package and sell the herbs to their Arabic-speaking neighbours, who defy the law even if it means a jail term and a stiff fine. For Palestinians, foraging is not a business. It’s personal.
If Manna were an investigative journalist instead of an artist, Foragers might make a good exposé of politically fraught agrarian practices that scar the Middle East, where violent confrontation seems as natural an occurrence as a sunset.
Like Foragers, Wild Relatives is less a documentary than a touching provocation. Shot in Lebanon and Norway (where Manna lived as a student), it is a deep dive into one of several storage facilities across the world that preserve centuries-old seeds that are essential to sustain human life. After the war in Syria forced the abandonment of the seed bank in Aleppo, Syrian refugees in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley planted farms with seeds from a duplicate bank. Norwegians think of their facility as a doomsday vault that will save the world; for the Syrians, it represents a future they will build for themselves, piece by piece.
Though it’s hard to tell, both films are mostly scripted and performed by a deft mix of actors and non-professionals. The Foragers cast includes Manna’s parents and aunts, but I only know that from Katrib, who has known Manna since 2008 and worked with her twice before: in 2014, when she was a curator at New York’s Sculpture Center, where she gave Manna the idea of showing her sculptures together with her films, and at Site Sante Fe in 2018. This time, sculptures based on the remains of obsolete structures for storing grain in the Levant will be installed in an elaborate, immersive layout with screening rooms for each film.
Meanwhile, the museum’s search for a new director continues. Rumours abound that its wish list includes prominent names such as the current Venice Biennale’s artistic director, Cecilia Alemani, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s former chief curator of Modern and contemporary art Sheena Wagstaff. A high-profile hire like this would then leave Katrib as the public face of PS1. Certainly, the PS1 board, which is separate from that of MoMA, needs a crack fundraiser of its own in the director’s chair to increase its miniscule operating budget. But whoever gets the position will do well to listen to Katrib. “It’s my job to look beyond the usual suspects,” she says, adding, “There is always more to know.”
• Jumana Manna: Break, Take, Erase, Tally, until 17 April 2023; Umar Rashid: Ancien Regime Change 4, 5, and 6, until 13 March 2023; Frieda Toranzo Jaeger: Autonomous Drive, until 13 March 2023. All MoMA PS1, New York