Thinking Collectively and Creating Things
Now that we have so many Curtain interviews profiling curators around the globe, sifting through them can be overwhelming. But it’s also a good way to absorb and make connections between the things they said, revise some of my favourite interviews, and take note of traits these art practitioners share in common—which seems to happen especially when it comes to work and life human values. Sifting through this material is also a way for me to attempt to sense the particular music, to which curators dance. They are at once active entrepreneurs and dreamers, advocating for artistic expression. Generalities are just that of course, but say most curators I spoke with, have some kind of international perspective, even when they focus on their own region or local scene. And so many of them are initiators, people who have created non-profit and experimental platforms to help artists develop and promote their practices, and/or took initiatives to gather, facilitate, connect practices they love and respect. As it turns out too, curators are agile and resourceful, and find ways of coping rather constructively (for the independent ones, not stably attached to an institution) with the consequences of this long period of pandemic crisis, often sharing resources with others. Below some points that emerged from a selection of past interviews, as well as exciting updates received after following-up with some of the curators interviewed in the past. And because it is good practice to be open to the unknown before starting any project, we’ll start with a palette-cleanser prompt for just that.
Expanding our mental structures. We were poetically reminded by curator Natalia Valencia Arango, that art remains a place to look into the unknown, “a space of experimentation, freedom, and emancipation, a vehicle for expanding the possibilities of language”, she shared in Curtain, also adding that “through art, you can look at things that are hidden, including opaque or unlikely connections between disciplines. It is a way of addressing the unknown, and our mental structures”. That is precious.
More Unknowns, the Element of Surprise. Being open to possibilities means that “you can’t expect that you exhibition will turn out exactly the way you envisioned it on day one,” said Ikon Gallery’s Curator Melanie Pocock, pointing at what she calls a paradox in curating, where the curator chooses an artist whose work they know will be strong in the exhibition space, but trust them and the process to welcome transformations along the journey, which ultimately can result in a different exhibition from what was nicely planned on paper.
Pushing boundaries. From the institutional world, Sean Kissane, Curator of Exhibitions at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), and Taylor Bythewood-Porter, Curator at California African American Museum (CAAM), showed us exciting examples of exhibitions that fight representation biases and look at history to highlight its untold narratives, offering museum-stage to artists and influences that have been disregarded by history until now. Another curator who creates space for more varied voices and viewpoints in institutions, but who also initiated his own platform is Adjunct Curator of First Nations and Indigenous Art at Tate Modern, Pablo José Ramírez. In Curtain, he speaks of curating as a nomadic practice that draws from commitment and ethos rather than from internationalism and self-affirmation, and where connection and living together should be core values. In par with this point of view, José Ramirez co-founded Infrasonica this year, with publisher Eloisa Travaglini and writer Sam Simon, as “a piece of tangible joy that takes aim at thinking, sensing, presenting and introducing non-Western sounds to a worldwide audience”.
Creating Dynamic Photography Archives and Exhibitions. Another curator who make things happen for the acknowledgement of a more inclusive and realistic art history is Cuban Aldeide Delgado—who said in Curtain that if she wasn’t curating she may be pursuing a career in politics—and who founded the nonprofit organization Women Photographers International Archive (WOPHA), in 2018. The project started as a database showcasing the singular stories of women-identified Cuban photographers, and expanded into a space for research, promotion, support, and education on the role of women in the photographic arts, including photographers from Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and artists of Latin American descent living and working in the United States.
Enterprising Curators. Creating a new platform can indeed open the space needed to push boundaries in art. Italian curator and producer Davide Quadrio created the first not-for-profit independent creative lab in Shanghai, the Bizart Art Center, in 1998, aimed at fostering local contemporary talents. Then in 2017, along with curator Defne Ayas, they founded Arthubasia as a platform to develop innovative in contents and form collaborative art projects. Ever since he has facilitated many projects in China and abroad, in museums, but also through collaborations with companies, via agile and adaptive models. As he said it in Curtain, one has “to work towards getting to the edges of the art field, and to push its boundaries—even if not understanding doing so while doing it”.
Transparent Process. Olivia Poloni is another dynamic, resourceful, and creative curator. She is the brainchild of INTERVAL, a beautiful online visual platform she created in reaction to the pandemic, in support to the artists whose projects were being canceled. In addition to this, she’s a member of the Image Collective, whose declared primary interest is to question and develop up-to-date discourses about our contemporary relationship to the image. If you haven’t seen it yet, check their Dialog page, a sort of mind map where the discussions between the members of the collective are visible for all to see and participate. “I am definitely a team player” admits Poloni, confirming the recurrent theme of collaboration among curators. As an update on her activities in this round-up, check one of her most recent projects, Fertile Ground, an exhibition that brings artists who use food as an entry point to discuss urgent political, societal, and environmental issues, curated with Sarah Bond at the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Australia. Although it is currently under covid lockdown, you can see a virtual tour of the show, discussions, and panels here.
Agility between projects is a recurrent trait of the curators profiled in Curtain. Mumbai-based Devanshi Shah not only became a writer despite being dyslexic—a win she shares with her students to encourage them to pursue a career in writing—but she is also intertwining careers of education, writing (including about architecture, design, and performing arts) with a curatorial practice particularly interested in large installations and the tridimensional.
Writing is essential for curator Madeleine Filippi, who considers her curatorial practice as an extension of her writing and theoretical research, with very porous borders. Her recent work revolves around the aesthetics of the fragment, theme that she explored in a soon-to-be published book called “Fragments” with Naima Editions. Also practical, Filippi stresses that the role of a curator should include the needs of artists, not only in terms of exhibition contents but also in term of career needs, something she says she often disagree about with other curators. Something to think about.
Writing, and switching between academic and curatorial hats, is an exercise in equilibrium that curator and Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore, David Teh, practices through his various endeavours. One of his projects, which I will expand on in a future article as it deserves a special focus, is a gallery he ran for a few years in Singapore. But in this intriguing interview in Curtain, he ponders on the multiple facets of his work, local politics, mentions the preparations for the now postponed Istanbul Biennial, and describes curating as a way of learning things he can’t learn in any other way.
Foundational work. Lesotho-born, Johannesburg-based gallerist and curator Lerato Bereng, launched the “Conversations at Morija”, a conversation-event in lieu of an exhibition that engages with Lesotho’s community. Albeit creative, the enclave doesn’t have the institutional structures to see and experience contemporary art, or fully comprehend the work of a contemporary curator, which sparked Bereng’s initiative. The last edition, which was in 2017 (things are in-flux since, due to the pandemic) resulted in an exhibition abroad, “How to make a Country”, that Bereng curated at the FRAC Poitou-Charentes in France, in June, 2021. Reaching out to Bereng for this round-up, as she was coming back from last week’s Art Basel, she mentioned that albeit some details are yet to be ironed out, the FRAC show will in turn result in a new series of “Conversations at Morija” in early December 2021, which will also coincide with the launch of the exhibition catalogue and a two-way zoom between Angoulême and Morija.
Dreaming of a National Art Gallery for Kenya. I followed-up with Lydia Gatundu Galavu, Curator at the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), who had mentioned in her Curtain interview her actions towards the creation of a National Art Gallery. She was glad to report some fresh developments! “The National Museums of Kenya (NMK) is hosting and curating a series of exhibitions as a precursor to the launch of the National Art Gallery of Kenya (NAGOK)” she shared, adding that the aim is to provide a platform for dialogue on the need for a NAGOK and “a glimpse of what to expect once NAGOK is open to the public: a combination of Kenya’s finest contemporary artists, in addition to historically significant pieces from NMK permanent collection”. The first project, “Marejeo: Renaissance of a vision” (‘Marejeo’ means the ultimate goal for which something is done in Kiswahili / Swahili), which is just closing this September, included a Kenyan residency of 40 emerging young artists from 26 counties, who were mentored by pioneer Kenyan contemporary artists, the same who led the most significant campaign for a NAGOK from 1979 to 1981. The exhibition includes artworks from the residency alongside works by the pioneer artists, and select works from NMK’s permanent collection. We wish them the best process towards the opening of National Art Gallery for Kenya!
Being radically inclusive. The journey into the unknown through a curatorial practice seems to be what curator Anca Rujoiu wholeheartedly embraces. In her beautiful interview in Curtain she showed that letting go of curatorial control is a surprising and rewarding on-going exercise, which she seems to apply in all of her relationships. With artists, her connection is based on trust, listening, and care, and in her collaborations—since her early days in art school to her independent and institutional roles, notably at the NTU CCA Singapore. And while there, she and curator Vera May invited grassroots organisations takeovers, who in trun taught them “radical inclusivity”.
Working closely with artists and other art practitioners, is both critical and exhilarating for a certain number of curators. “I find that forming strong collaborations that lead to long lasting relationships is one of the most rewarding parts of being a curator”, emphasises Ariana Kalliga, who collaborates with the Athens-based platform Space52, and who through the pandemic still co-curated an exhibition via discussions online with curator Kisito Assangni. She also share valuable thinkings on space, as a formal and conceptual construct, some of which she explains by her background in urbanism and architecture.
Collective thinking—another ‘we’, which isn’t anthropocentric. Many curators like to think, work, and speak, as a collective, as well as shift the grounds from which we think in the first place. Bangkok-based curator Abhijan Toto announced it upfront, “I always like to speak in the collective where ‘we’ stands for Forest Curriculum“, he says, mentioning the collective he co-founded in 2018 with California-based media theorist, scholar, and activist Pujita Guha. The platform is dedicated to thinking about collective ecological futures from a decolonial perspective, outside the western-centric idea of the Anthropocene and the frameworks of the nation state, and thinking nature as multiple and from the perspective of indigenous forms of thoughts rooted in the forests of Southeast Asia. Refreshing.
Using the collective to create original curatorial narratives together. Berlin-based curator Lauren Reid, and her colleagues at insitu collective Nora Mayr, Marie Graftieaux, and Gilles Neiens, use their platform to explore their interest in scenography and storytelling. “When we work independently, we do different shows, but when we are together we play on how to create an immersive environment and ring people to a otherworld they would not experience in their daily life”, says Reid of a collective who has become like a family to her, and which creates exhibitions taking the traits of a particular characters or produce alien atmospheric environments.
Respecting local perspective, but thinking collectively through international partnerships. Collectives created by curators abound, just recently in Curtain, Charlie Levine mentioned her projects in England and India, and her emphasis on building a network of close-knit art communities and friendly collaborations. They think locally but befriend internationally. Other beautiful projects that propose a research drawing from local interpretation but exchanges through thinkings beyond borders, include the innovative work of Andrea Torreblanca, Director of Curatorial Projects at INSITE. Torreblanca invites curators to edit and participate in the INSITE Journal, but instead of answering questions specific to Mexico and the US-Mexican border, where INSITE dwells, she invites them to reflect on their own history, from their own place. This is an attempt to prompt a different engagement and dialogue in each region that could potentially enrich the ideas of in-situ and the site specific. I am eager to follow the unfolding of this project which initial interactions include the participation of curators Gabi Ngcobo and Miguel López.
Building upon this notion of respectful transborder collaborations, curator Biljana Ciric asked to be described as an interdependent curator, a term coined by curators Elena Sorokina and Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez during the first lockdown. It is about acknowledging that curatorial work isn’t done in isolation. “The pandemic has been a really important reminder of our interdependence, and I think it describes much better what curators do” says Ciric. She also shares about her current three-year long project, with artists, anthropologists, and architects, that looks at the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, and actively proposes to unlearn old ways of working together, based on more solidarity and multiplicity of viewpoints.
Finally, the ultimate form of collaboration comes through the duo composed by artist Liu Ding and, art historian and director of Beijing Inside-Out Art Museum, Carol Yinghua Lu. If you haven’t read it yet, it exposes their life and work alliance were personal credit melt to the favour of their couple, see it in the most recent article on Curtain.
Liu Ding & Carol Yinghua Lu
Lydia Gatundu Galavu
Pablo José Ramírez
Natalia Valencia Arango