How to curate a pandemic

Three prominent curators on how they are (re-)situating their respective curatorial practices in relation to the political moment.

Sabelo Mlangeni, A Selfie with Social Media Influencer James Brown at a Party (from the series "Royal House of Allure"), 2019. Courtesy blank projects, Cape Town

Interview by
Drew Thompson

There is an institutional and cultural reckoning with legacies of racism, oppression, and inequity unfolding within and around global art institutions. COVID-19 forced the mass closure of museums and staff layoffs, exposing the inequalities of the art world and raising questions about the role of museums as institutions of care. The continual and unjust killing of black people by police (especially in the United States), and the widespread protests and calls to action that resulted, have only heightened concerns over the staffing, exhibiting, and collecting practices of the global art market. Longstanding calls for dismantling exclusionary practices and the need to reimagine museums have gained new urgency.

The continent of Africa and the disciplinary field of African art is no stranger to discussions of racism, institutional imagination, and calls for decolonization. Before the pandemic and protests, the Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy Report (commissioned by the French government; Sarr is a Senegalese economist and musician and Savoy a French art historian) called for the return of African artworks held in French museum collections. In tandem, artists and curators based on the continent and in the diaspora spearheaded a number of pathbreaking exhibition platforms that challenged how people think about African art as a field of study, and rethink the role of museums and curators. Africa Is a Country contributor Drew Thompson asked three prominent curators—Antawan Byrd (Associate Curator of Photography and Media, Art Institute of Chicago), Sandrine Colard (Assistant Professor of African Art History, Rutgers University, Newark), and Serubiri Moses (Writer and Adjunct Assistant Professor, Hunter College)—to  comment on how they are (re-)situating their respective curatorial practices in relation to the current moment.

The Way She Looks Exhibition. Image credit RIC.

DT

I know you each had done or planned major curatorial projects. Could you speak to what those projects were and where they stand?

AB

My most recent project was the 2nd Lagos Biennial of Contemporary Art (2019), for which I was one of three curators, working with Oyindamola Fakeye and Tosin Oshinowo. We brought together 40 artists—half based in Nigeria and the others practicing internationally—whose work explored questions of architecture, urbanism, and the built environment. Some of the spatial concerns central to the biennial resonate with several other projects I’m currently working on at the Art institute of Chicago, including a forthcoming solo exhibition of new work by Kenyan artist Mimi Cherono Ng’ok that will open next year. The show will elaborate on Ng’ok’s abiding interest in using photography to bridge experiences of disparate locales and how botanical life informs experiences of place across the Global South.

SC

2019 was a very busy year for me. I curated three shows on three continents. Based on the holdings of the Artur Walter Collection, The Ways She Looks was an exhibition last fall at the Ryerson Image Center about women’s portraiture and female gazes throughout African photography history. The Wiels Contemporary Art Center in Brussels invited me to curate a show with works by African artists who had been in residence. The result was the exhibition Multiple Transmissions: Art in the Afropolitan Age, showcasing Georges Senga, Simnikiwe Buhlungu, Sinzo Aanza, Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum, Jean Katambayi, Nelson Makengo, Pélagie Gbaguidi, and Emeka Ogboh; and, it reflected on the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe’s idea of “Afropolitanism” in relation to the phenomenon of artist residencies, as well as individual artists’ physical and mental mobilities, their artistic legacies, and the transmission of their works. Finally, I curated the 6th edition of the Lubumbashi Biennale, which I called Future Genealogies: Tales from the Equatorial Line. By positioning Congo on the equator and framing the equator as an imbrication rather than an imaginary line, the biennale presented 30 African and other international artists who map new connections and genealogies artistically, politically, socially, and ecologically.

SM

I worked previously as a curator with the Berlin Biennial of Contemporary Art, and Kunst Werke Institute for Contemporary Art in 2017 and 2018. It’s hard to historicize this project, but when asked about it, I often talk about the effort at working primarily through commissioned artworks and artist residencies. Work produced in this method made up about three-quarters of the final exhibition. In such a case, the 10th edition invited many artists to Berlin, where they spent several weeks prior to the exhibition, working on the site; though some residencies took place outside Germany, such as in India. As an exhibition, it brought a strong focus to practitioners in Latin America and the Caribbean. It was an ambitious exhibition, which intentionally pulled back the scale of production that we have witnessed in the past two decades. I am currently working towards a survey of contemporary art at MoMA PS1, as a guest curator working alongside curatorial staff at MoMA and MoMA PS1, and that work is only at the beginning stages.

DT

As you executed or conceptualized your respective projects, what most surprised you about interest in and audience reception of contemporary African art?

AB

When I returned to Lagos in 2018 to pursue biennial research, I was blown away by the city’s range of new art and cultural initiatives, particularly experimental art platforms like Treehouse founded by Wura Natasha-Ogunji, and the growth of a subculture/skate scene cultivated by WAFFLESNCREAM. I could sense that the city’s art public had changed, partly spurred, I think, by a recent influx of Nigerians returning to Lagos after living abroad. Such perceptions helped mitigate some anxieties I had about particular commissions I wanted to pursue. One of these was South African artist Sabelo Mlangeni’s Royal House of Allure (2019), a phenomenal photographic essay produced for the biennial during the artist’s six-week residency in Lagos. The series chronicles the daily activities of LGBTQIA+ subjects who live together in a safehouse designed to provide support and shelter for members of this community. Given the conservative, and at times oppressive, regard for LGBTQIA+ subjects in Nigeria, we were keen to include work that spoke about the crucial role that housing plays in extending social protections to marginalized groups in the country. Mlangeni’s photographs achieved this in such a critical way, the reception was great and took me by surprise.

Antawan Byrd.
SC

While curating the Lubumbashi Biennale, I was continually mesmerized by the pure and

undeterred energy deployed by the local community of artists to pursue their practice and make

the event possible, in spite of all the difficulties. The Biennale was founded by PICHA!, a collective of artists, including the photographer Sammy Baloji. The number of artists for a city of two million people, and the quality of their work, is truly amazing. Other artist-based initiatives have flourished, such as Centre Waza, KinArt Studio, and Eza Possible in Kinshasa. All these spaces have become central to the dynamism of the Congolese arts ecosystem, and have stepped in where government assistance is absent. This was the 6th edition of the Biennale, and it

benefited from the works of all the curators who came before me. It has grown tremendously, and this time it was extremely rewarding to see the expansion of its international audience. I think more and more people realize that you cannot be interested in contemporary African art and be content with seeing it only in New York City or Paris.

SM

A crucial aspect for me as a curator was the question of becoming, which was borrowed from psychoanalytic readings of Chilean biologist Francisco Varela’s term “Autopoiesis.” These readings emphasized that while “sameness” is a dominant theme in Sigmund Freud, difference operates more directly in this process of becoming as a part of un-making and re-making. I think this implied a direct confrontation with historical anxieties about “being”, and assumptions about various forms of subjectivity. This definitely includes categories of art. It was important to recognize the erasures. An example that was central to the curatorial team of the 10th Berlin Biennale was the empty plinth on which the Cecil Rhodes statue had sat for eighty years, after its removal during the #RhodesMustFall campaign in 2015. As Gabi Ngcobo, the convening curator asked in their catalogue essay, “What future possibility does this open space hold or enable us to foretell?” This was not about championing the postcolonial as a monumental break from white rule, or indirect colonial rule; but rather it was about interrogating the conditions of participation. It was also an opportunity to reflect on events that led to the fall of the Berlin wall, this reflected in artworks notably by Dineo Seshee Bopape. Elsewhere, we wondered if the planting of Mugumo trees, symbolic in their spiritual and cultural significance in Kenya, signified an alternative history?

DT

Where in the field of curating African, African-American art, and diaspora is there room for development? What kinds of questions have plagued the field and how are you and the artists you exhibited grappling to break free of these questions and/or chart new lines of sight?

AB

Recently I’ve been obsessed with the history of exhibitions in Africa. The importance of this is something that the much-missed curator Bisi Silva stressed in her work and to the many curators she influenced. While there is fairly ample scholarship and documentation on African art exhibitions that occurred in the West, there is a lot of work to be done on the history of exhibitions on the continent prior to, say, the 1980s. Exhibition documentation offers critical knowledge about audiences and the kinds of ideas and narratives imputed to artworks at the time of their public debut; it’s very easy for this insight to become divorced from objects over time. Moreover, such histories are essential to reorienting exhibition canons, which tend to focus on shows in Europe or America. Fortunately, there’s some exciting work being done, especially in the realm of archives and anthologies. Lately I’ve been studying the impressive FESTAC ’77 compendium that Chimurenga published last year with the arts publication Afterall as part of the latter’s Exhibition Histories series.

SC

When it comes to curating African art, and Congolese art in particular, I have constantly worked to correct the under-representation of female artists. The contingent of Congolese women artists for this edition of the Lubumbashi Biennale has been one of the most important so far, and I am very happy to see some of them gaining international recognition for the works that they showed. Gosette Lubondo is a nominee for the CAP Prize; Pamela Tulizo has just won the prestigious Christian Dior Prize from Arles Photography Festival. Others, like Hadassa Ngamba, were able to come to Europe to pursue an artistic education. But I also strongly resist the gender pigeonhole, and an exhibition like The Way She Looks was precisely conceived around the idea of turning on its head the sort of perpetual focus of women artists as working on exclusively feminist issues and the question of the body. Artists like Lebohang Kganye and Mimi Cherono Ng’ok are great examples of that. I am a big admirer of the work of the American painter Jordan Casteel, and how she, as a black female artist, paints the black male body.

Sandrine Colard.
SM

Curating as a practice is still under revision. American art historian Hal Foster’s recent book, What Comes After Farce? (Verso, 2020) on Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist is a good example of the debates that are emerging from recent analyses. Foster and others use specific disciplinary tools to try and categorize the work Obrist is doing, without much success. Between Obrist and American art historian Bruce Altschuler, there is a major difference in approaches and methods to the question of curating. Methods in curating African art vary greatly and are hard to place. Constantly keeping abreast of the field and studying both its history and its present is crucial.

DT

In recent weeks, we have been barraged by images of police brutality and the cruelty of COVID-19 on communities of color. We have also been inspired by the protests in the wake of police brutality in the US and elsewhere. How do you read and situate these dramatically differing images? Also, how are these images informing how you think of your roles as scholars and curators?

AB

As a curator of photography, I’ve been really interested in the kinds of violence and transformations that images endure in the process of exposing and redressing anti-black racism. At the Art Institute, I recently co-curated an exhibition of anti-apartheid political posters by the Medu Art Ensemble, which is the subject of a forthcoming catalogue I co-edited with Felicia Mings. I spent a lot of time thinking about the history of anti-apartheid iconoclasm and how, during the ‘70s and ‘80s, Medu’s posters participated in a visual economy of protest that was partly driven by the reworking and recirculation of images of violence. I think about this today, when I see stills from the George Floyd video appearing on placards during protests, or when one looks at how the quality of the video degrades as a consequence of its widespread circulation. So, beyond efforts to personally reckon with these images and the systems of oppression that produce them, I try to situate such imagery within a broader historical continuum. Elizabeth Alexander’s classic essay, “Can You Be BLACK and Look at This?” is exemplary of this kind of work, with its linking of the Rodney King video to images of Emmett Till and 19th century narratives of violence written by enslaved subjects.

SC

I keep being torn between the amazing power that the video of Georges Floyd’s murder has had on the expansion of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and the renewed consciousness of racism and police brutality over black people, and at the same time, the sort of ease and uncriticality with which these violent images have been looped on every imaginable platform, which worries me. I was based in Europe at the time of the video’s first broadcasting: little restraint was shown on TV channels, and it was even worse on social media. I cannot help wonder about this spectatorial “comfort” with black suffering and its connection to the long lineage of images from slavery, lynching, colonialism, and apartheid, and in which photography played a particularly important role. If showing these images has been, and continues to be, of cardinal importance to understand the aberration of racism, then I also believe it has had the perverse effect of naturalizing that pain by constantly re-inscribing it, and therefore in dehumanizing the black people undergoing it. It is no surprise that at first, almost no European broadcast I was following was saying the name of George Floyd, as if mentioning that he was black or African-American was enough information to understand his assassination by the hand of a policeman.  So, these reflections made me go back to the various cases when there is a pure refusal of the naturalization of that iconography. The case of Tamara Lainier suing Harvard University and claiming back the infamous slave daguerreotypes by Louis Agassiz as family members has been very interesting to me. It radically refuses the anonymity and the unquestioned ways of circulation and profit made from these images in the past, to literally claim them back as Lainier’s people. I was also brought back to the formidable case of Frederick Douglas as the most photographed man of the 19th century. I keep being fascinated by the fact that he made this very conscious use of the camera as a tool to create a lifelong and nuanced series of self-portraits that would force viewers to see him as a man, not merely a freed slave. For me it goes beyond the intent to create a dignified portrait that showed him as literate African American subject, but rather contains his lifelong endeavor “to make feel through eyesight” the texture of black humanity. The subtle changes of his expressions and his growing into old age. Douglas’s portraits are neither images of protest nor of suffering, but the stuff of “black life” and the myriad of things happening between the two. As a curator, I am particularly sensitive to balance both breeds of images. I think putting forward images of black joy, love, and beauty, is as political as any other.

SM

A graduate student of mine at Hunter College was working on the topic of documentary photography last semester. We had this conversation about reporting on apartheid in South Africa, and the divide between, on the one hand, more standard and accepted reportage on the townships depicting various forms of violence and, on the other hand, more humane images by photographers like Omar Badsha and Santu Mofokeng that depicted a notion of “Life is going on,” as Brenda Fassie sang in 1983. Since the outbreak of BLM’s countrywide protests, I have been interested in this visual gap. The photographer Roy DeCarava continues to inspire me as an articulate artist-thinker, who merged the 1930s Black literary modernism with the medium of photography, triggering inspiring and meditative images.

Raul Jorge Gourgel and Sandra Poulson, “Plastic Broken Chairs, Juxtaposed”, 2019, garment installation, 2nd Lagos Biennial of Contemporary Art.
DT

There is a cultural reckoning inside museum institutions and the larger art world in the global North. But, these questions are not new to curators, like yourselves, and the field of African art, more broadly speaking. Is there a particular art history and/or historical explanation that helps you process and situate yourself in relation to conversations happening in art institutions at present?

AB

The current confluence of state terror, police violence, and urgent calls for equitable reform in cultural institutions is chilling—especially when you throw into the mix the pandemic and its impact on people of color. I find myself dwelling on different historical models that entwine health advocacy and anti-racist institutional reform with cultural work. Huey Newton’s notion of “survival pending revolution” feels quite timely in this regard. The Black Panthers used this slogan to articulate the urgent need for wellness and social programs to support the vigor of black communities during the civil rights struggles. This influenced the health campaigns and art workshops that the Medu Art Ensemble carried out in the ‘70s and ‘80s in Gaborone during apartheid; the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition’s contemporaneous work in New York prisons also comes to mind. This is all to say that I think wellness and compassion is an important part of the conversations I’ve been having with colleagues, generally, but especially in the current context.

SC

I believe that the discussion about the restitution of classical African art has had a more profound effect upon museum institutions than anticipated. This is not a new debate, and requests from African countries for the return of these artworks are longstanding. For instance, historian Sarah Van Beurden has written extensively about the claims of Mobutu’s Zaïre for pieces to return from the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium, and this, since the 1970s. However, the release of the Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy report coincided with the decolonizing movement and now the growing tide of the BLM, and it is forcing museums to reckon with the implacable power dynamics in their walls in general, not just when it comes to classical African art. The separation of African art objects, classical, modern, and contemporary, from African people and people of African descent—be it curators, artists, communities, audiences—has become impossible to ignore and to accept. One of the reasons I was eager to accept the invitation to curate the Lubumbashi Biennale was to connect my research about Congolese photography to a Congolese audience. Too often, Africa is the field of research which is then published and consumed elsewhere. So, it was very important to me that in addition to curating contemporary arts there, I could also share the historical research that I had conducted.

SM

The curator Yesomi Umolu recently said it well in a recent article, museums were designed to collect knowledge about the “other” and in so doing have participated in an implicit and long durée of colonial violence. It reminded me of my belief that exhibitions were colonial inventions. It has always been my mission to explicitly reveal these historic power dynamics at play in exhibition-making, and particularly in museums and international perennial art exhibitions. Exhibition making in Africa and elsewhere continues to experience this flux between highly diplomatic and “civic” work on the one hand, and, on the other hand, this other work of dismantling the discourses that uphold whiteness as the standard for art.

Serubiri Moses. Image credit Alex Lyons.
DT

What kinds of conversations about African art or curating does the present moment allow for, and how do recent events influence the types of curatorial initiatives that each of you will pursue in the future?

AB

I’m engaged in several projects at the moment that involve a focus on Pan-Africanism. Although the emergence of these projects preceded the current racial upheavals, these events have naturally influenced my thinking around the subject and its heritage. I’ve been closely following the response of citizens and governments outside of the US in order to better understand the unwieldy trajectories of pan-Africanist thought and cultural production—pushing myself to ask more sophisticated questions, for instance, about the African response—on the part of artists and governments—to the civil rights crises in the US during the 1960s.

SC

This past June the exhibition “Congoville,” which I curated for the Middleheim Museum in Antwerp, was supposed to open and it featured 15 contemporary artists who reflected on the traces of colonialism in Belgian public space and what it is to be a 21st century black flâneur in an environment heavily impregnated by such colonial legacies. The show is very timely, as Belgium has not been exempt from the campaigns of removal of colonial statues and monuments. In fact, the BLM crystallized in Belgium around public spaces and sculptural representations. One very interesting conversation that these recent events have made possible has been the place of artists from African descent in the public sphere. If the diversity of European societies has only just started to be reflected in museums, this is something that is still completely absent from the public space. Next September, a Truth and Reconciliation Parliamentary Commission will start in Belgium about the colonial past. Interestingly, the State Secretary of Urbanism and Built Heritage in Brussels will assemble a task force on the decolonization of the public space. The fate of the colonial monuments is at the heart of the preoccupations, but in my opinion, going one step further by commissioning new ones by African artists is even more exciting and potentially very transformative for European societies.

SM

I have been interested in the question of solidarity in terms of its history. I don’t mean here the symbolic solidarity art exhibitions that are being re-made to boast about the Non-Aligned Movement. I mean individual solidarity and care person to person. In my recent research I learned that the Black feminist theorist and poet Audre Lorde actually founded an organization called SISA, Sisterhood in Support of Sisters (SISA) in South Africa. I’m equally curious about how black South African women became central to her thought in works like the book Apartheid U.S.A., and some of her famous poems. I’m interested in fracturing the provincial status of discourses, and next year, I will co-convene a panel for the international conference, Feminist Readings in Motion? organized by the University of South Africa, College of Human Sciences. The conference will address reading as crucial for feminist political and creative practice. The panel will consider Black feminist citational practices and US-South African solidarities in the visual arts.

About the Interviewee

Antawan Byrd is Associate Curator of Photography and Media at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Sandrine Colard is Assistant Professor of African Art History at Rutgers University—Newark.

Serubiri Moses is a Ugandan writer and curator based in New York, and currently Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Hunter College.

About the Interviewer

Drew Thompson is a writer and visual historian, who teaches at Bard College.

Further Reading