The artist as citizen

An interview with Abdellah Karroum is the artistic director of the Biennale Regard Benin 2012, which premise is “Inventing the World: the Artist as Citizen.”

Abdellah Karroum (Image via L’appartement).

Abdellah Karroum is the artistic director of the Biennale Regard Benin 2012.   Born in 1970 in Morocco, he is artistic director of L’appartement 22, an experimental space for exhibitions and residencies in Rabat, Morocco, which he founded in 2002. Other than that, he has an impressive CV. He was associate curator for Dak’Art in 2006, a member of the Golden Lion Jury at the Venice Biennale in 2007, co-curator at the Gwangju Biennale in 2008, and curator of the main exhibition at the 2009 Marrakech Biennale (see images here). In 2011 he curated Working for Change, a project in the Rif Mountains and at the Venice Biennale. Earlier this year he was an associate curator at La Triennale in Paris.  This is an interview with him about the Biennale Regard Benin 2012.

The premise of the biennial, “Inventing the World: the Artist as Citizen” is very interesting to us. There are a number of different models of citizenship, according to neighborhood, state continent, world. How does the biennial address these?

The notion of artist as citizen is inspired by the specific situation when the artist has to also create the context of visibility of the work. That means the artist works in the studio or just in his or her head. In the context where there’s a deficit of investment from the politician or the institution, the artist has to create the space for visibility of the work in order to share a project.

The notion of involvement or engagement of the artist in society is to also act as a citizen, to create this space beyond the artistic project as writing, or formulating an artistic vocabulary. It’s an idea, a form and also a container. The artist becomes a citizen when he or she has to also create this container, making it possible to share the work. In Benin, for example, we have met this example and situation where the artist has to create the conditions to share the work. It can be public space, it can be private space turned into public. The artist meets the context and not only defines the space, they transform existing spaces for encounters. It’s how they engage in citizenship, but it’s also how they can have this awareness of their responsibility as an artist. So the responsibility of the artist, or this awareness, makes them decide to engage some other forms of activity or activism, more than just formulating an artistic project … the artist has to also respond to existent powers of the institution.

You curated the Marrakech Biennale in 2009, can you talk about the difference between curating a biennial in your home city and, now, in Benin?

The two situations are completely different. The Biennale Benin is based on the artist’s initiative and campaigns by certain institutions.

In Marrakech, it was a business initiative. It wasn’t an institution. It’s private and it’s more connected to tourism. The content becomes a commission unlike in Benin, where the content is coming more from the ground and from what artists initiate already.

The approach I suggested to the curatorial delegation was this: to take what is already there [in Benin] and to amplify it. To take the artist-as-citizen initiative as the departure point and to make these initiatives more visible — to make the work not only presented in an exhibition space, but to make the activity of the exhibition fit into the existing work. There was no existing space before the artist’s initiative. When the work appears, it creates the space at the same time.

At the biennial in Benin this year, we transformed a supermarket as one of the venues and exhibition spaces. The continuity is in the artistic approach: the artist created the work, and showed and activated them in public spaces: sometimes at a crossroads, or in a market space. We transformed the supermarket into an exhibition. But these exhibition spaces are led by the artists, the activity defines the space.

In Marrakech it was completely different. You had a private initiative financing private production and showing them in existing spaces, even if it wasn’t a museum. It could have been a palace, a theatre. But still, it was an already existing space for culture.

In Benin, it’s based on transforming living spaces into encounter and exhibition spaces. For the activity of the work.

Are there any tensions – difficult or productive – around the fact that some of the artists in the biennial work in the diaspora and some on the continent? Does the biennial program address this difference?

I didn’t see tension between artists or between projects. I think that when an artist works, they are usually responses to suggestions. They are not reactions to other works. It can be an artistic work in response to many realities, to history, to society. To political situations. Artists engage and invest. It can be formulating a different vocabulary.

But the tension is not between local and global. It’s not between the home or the diaspora. The tension is between the artist and society, between an investment of an artist and the deficit of investment from the state. It is between the openness of circulation or the open possibilities of people: for artists and non-artists to circulate.

In Africa, for example, if you look at Emeka Okereke and his group Invisible Borders, the tension they have is not with the other artists. It’s not between diaspora and local. It takes a critical political position with the borders.

Is there an issue of legitimacy over who can assume the position of an African artist?

Legitimacy today is a globalized concept. Every artist working on an issue concerning the world has legitimacy to be critical of the issue, to formulate a project. An artist from Venezuela working on the issue of global warming at the same time an artist from Ethiopia working on the same issue as concerns those in Canada or Benin. Even if the issues addressed are very localized to African countries, the issues addressed also concern America and Mexico.

Are there responsibilities specific to the curator? Are they the same as those of the artist-as-citizen?

In Benin there was no given form for an exhibition — my responsibility was to highlight what was there already, as artistic projects for the artists, and to contribute to making the artwork visible. This is my responsibility, which means also to avoid the confusion between art-works and a new space, which is the editorial space.

The editorial space is the space which is able to keep the work active. Even after the studio and even after the street. Even after the production. The post-production cannot cancel the artistic project. That is my responsibility. That means the curator’s responsibility is to keep the initial character of the work. There is no curatorial form, there’s no traveling imagery. But there is a curatorial position that can be open enough to accompany artistic projects. So this what we tried to do in Benin. This is why we had this curatorial delegation I was the director, and my four colleagues worked on special projects based on production with local associations and artists with their encounters based on intellectual exchange and observing the local context.

The entire project of the curatorial delegation and the position of the curators in this case would give us the possibility of negotiation with this context. The goal was to really respect, to keep the artistic project intact.

How does your curation approach the question of representation — of the continent, of the diaspora?

Which Diaspora? Do you mean the Diaspora of my Portuguese artist who was in residency in Benin, working for six months in Brazil as a Portuguese Diaspora artist? Producing artwork in Latin America, addressing the impact of colonialism in Africa and producing work in Africa about ecology, about the relationship to the landscape, about the impact of the machines, the industry of the landscape — the work the artist produces concerns people in Benin or in Angola, but they are artists originally from Portugal. So they are of the Portuguese Diaspora working in Africa. Can we consider them members of the Portuguese Diaspora?

At the same time, you have artists like Meschac Gaba working in Amsterdam addressing an issue like travel, or voyage, with flags from different countries around the world. Do we consider him as part of the Benin Diaspora in the Netherlands, when he is addressing work to the audience in the Netherlands about a global issue? With this issue of Diaspora we have make it very relative, be careful using the term to apply it globally and fairly.

Do you sense, within artists working on the continent, a North-South divide? Does he feel that certain regions are under-represented? If so, what are the reasons for this.

These two artists [Françoise Vincent and Elohim Feria] who did a project called “Qui va au nord, va au sud” who goes north who goes south, this is also about teaching the art work. Especially today when an artist is informed by what’s happening in every part of the world. Art offers issues that concern the entire world so this project means the artist is addressing or proposing ideas and work for all of the continent and countries. In Benin, we did not have this problem because the curators were from all continents. We had the curator from Europe, two from Africa including myself. And the curator from the Caribbean and Olivier Marboeuf coming from Guadeloupe and France. And we were in dialogue with professionals from different continents. From India too. So the thinking about the large scale exhibition, Biennale Benin, was thinking globally, but not in a non-space. From a specific position, localized positions from other continents.

Is the biennial intended to revitalize art in the country, or to recognize what is already happening?

I think Benin is a country where certain artists are very present in the international level. For example, Meshec Gaba, Dominique Zinkpe, who have been present in the art world for a long time, both in the market and in non-commercial spaces, like biennials. The Benin Biennale is a biennial made by the artists. More than 60 artists [around a quarter of all those involved] are from Benin. Benin is a country with hundreds of artists.

How does the relationship between pedagogy and pleasure exist for the artist-as-citizen? How do you map an ethical role onto an aesthetic idea?

I don’t know if I can answer the question directly, but in the biennial we wanted to deal with the issue of education and we had an exhibition which dealt with encounters. One of the encounters, the subject of a three day discussion, was recovering an art school. To think about the conflict between the artist with a project and the artist as a teacher. Most of the artists we worked with especially in Benin had this dimension of pedagogy, but in the sense of not only sharing or proposing an aesthetic form, but also sharing a position as actual teachers.

Art is a space for learning and teaching. In Africa, where there is a deficit of art schools — like in Benin there is no art school — it’s not important because the art school was there even before the art school in Europe. But the position of the artist as a teacher is not addressed in the same way as it is in Europe. The art school is not something framed in a global way. The schema is not the colonial one.

For example, in some countries in North Africa, you have some art schools in French, some in Spanish, and they have different methods of learning. In Africa, even in Sub-Saharan Africa, you have different schools. The art school is not a building, it is about activities and production. The continuity of this production depends on this system on what you call pedagogy. It’s inclusive of the people who are able to learn and others who are able to teach and understand and to continue. It’s there, it’s part of the society.


Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.