Creating Ways of Engaging, and a Love for Language
How I got into curating. I applied to this young curators programme, CAPE Africa Platform’s Young Curator’s Programme, after my BFA at Rhodes University. I knew very little at the time about curating. It was an 18-month traineeship for South African curators. We were about five. I was the youngest one and the only one from Lesotho, which is an exception they had to make. Grahamstown, in South Africa where I went to university, is a very small town with no galleries and very few museums, and so moving to Cape Town opened my eyes to what was happening nationally and internationally. We were asked to curate a project for the Cape ‘09 Biennale, like a graduation project, and I did an exhibition on minibuses taxis throughout the city of Cape Town. Artists were invited to respond to this context and the audience consisted of regular commuters. I always knew that I wanted to be in the art world in some way, and I knew with certainty that I had no interest in being an artist myself, but I was really curious about other artists. I was very interested in creating ways of engaging, and thinking about where I come from. Lesotho has no art galleries, and just one museum that functions more as an archive. So the question I was asking myself was, “how do I engage with an audience that is not a cultivated art audience?” And that’s how I got interested in curating.
Curator or gallerist semantics. I joined Stevenson gallery in 2011 after being invited to curate an independent project. Oh my gosh, it’s been 10 years! I’ve learned a lot and I’ve grown a lot. The gallery really supports us delving into other projects that give us joy. I did my Masters while I was already working, and the kind of interest I had at the time, and something that continued as my curatorial interest, is art and accessibility and questions of language. Language as gate keeper, and how it’s used in the arts. After working with the gallery for so long, you wonder if you are still a curator or a gallerist, but I think it’s semantics, and it depends on the projects. I do everything at the gallery, working with artists, sales and art fairs—that’s how we stay afloat. But I have also curated group shows with artists who weren’t represented by the gallery and less commercial shows.
As a curator you are told to think about the conflict of interest between curating and working for a commercial gallery, but I haven’t been challenged personally. I think in South Africa the idea of curator is so young and it’s still being defined. For lack of a better word, that’s the word for what I do, but I am not strongly passionate about being defined as a curator. Also, until recently, they were very few museums here, and so the private sector ended up crossing over with the function of museums. For instance, the gallery was the first to introduce artists such as Thomas Hirschhorn, Francis Alÿs, or Glenn Ligon, not only to South Africa, but to the continent. That’s why there was a role called curator when I started, because we were doing very ambitious projects. We had a foreign exchange programme for instance that was really focused in bringing artists here for the first time. That’s why curator from an African context is a little flexible as a term. I do think it was a little bit unhealthy that galleries had to play this role, it’s nice if we want to, but for a large part it compensated for the few institutional opportunities. That has changed in the past 5 years, and I am so excited about this terrain. New spaces came up, as well as private museums, like Zeitz Moca. There’s a much better institutional balance and galleries can get on with commercial work now, without this weird, ambiguous space. For me, it has been great to be part of a gallery with such an international programme; the artists are amazing and wonderful to work for. I do believe we work for the artists. So there is a crossover and I am wearing multiple hats at the same time, but I am not too bothered about it, and let it develop quite organically.
Curating in Lesotho. Besides the work I do with the gallery, which is very important for my understanding of curatorship, I also do a project in Lesotho called “Conversations at Morija”. Last edition was in 2017, and the next one was supposed to be in 2020, but it got postponed given all the Covid-19 complications. Everything stems from where I am from, a place that doesn’t have a cultivated art audience, but where there is a lot of creativity. How do I translate my work at home? How do I explain what curating is? I was really fortunate that my parents were pretty open to not understanding why I was studying Fine Arts and what it was, and letting me do it anyway. When I was becoming a curator they were asking even more questions. In order to explain, I had to really understand it for myself. So for my Masters project I decided that an exhibition was not going to matter, what I believed was more pertinent was a conversation. I invited creative practitioners from Lesotho’s diaspora in South Africa and elsewhere in the world to have conversations via Skype for an audience that could speak to them directly from Morija, Lesotho’s cultural hub. Historically it’s where the French missionaries have set up a printing press in the 1800s, that still continues today. It is also where the only museum in the country is, the Morija museum and archive. I crafted conversations with prompts and Q-cards that people could read if they were feeling shy and didn’t have their own questions. People spoke and people asked questions, and one such was actor Desmond Dube, who is very famous in South Africa, but is actually from Lesotho, who got asked by the then Deputy Minister of Finance, “When are you going to come home and repatriate?” to which the actor’s answered: “When are you going to build a theatre for us?”. For me it was symbolic for many reasons. That project taught me that curating is not only about hanging things and making them work in relation to one another, it’s about creating dialogues and opening platforms for people to engage in broader social conversations, about existentialism, politics, etc. We had 3 editions so far, and I hope to continue it further.
The last edition of “Conversations at Morija” gave rise to the exhibition, “How to make a Country“, that I am curating at FRAC Poitou-Charentes in France, as part of the Africa 2020 Season, in June 2021. I started looking at Lesotho’s independence and what independence meant, really. I found a WikiHow on how to make a country in four steps: land, language, population, and ideology. And so for me those are the core subjects of this exhibition, 4 elements explored through the work of artists who have been dealing with these ideas within their practices for a while. For instance there is South African artist Dineo Seshee Bopape who has been working with the ideas of land and territory for some time. She has these earth sculptures almost like islands that she embeds with what appears as little objects or herbs, that are ritualistic references to voodoo. Voodoo being an African religion that symbolized a resistance to colonialism—a refusal of the Christian dogma. Another artist is Lineo Segoete from Lesotho who does this literature festival-like project called Ba Re Literature. For the exhibition she put together with her team an expanded dictionary of Sesotho, Lesotho’s main language. We have been thinking about these ideas of living languages and trying to find ways to express what we are currently doing in our mother tongue. For instance, at this juncture in time I can’t express ‘curating’ in Sesotho. Also because the activity doesn’t exist in the country. There is also Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, who is looking at gymnastics and how it was used as a tool for white supremacy in South Africa, following the teachings of a Danish instructor who travelled to the country and had sworn allegiance to Hitler. He promoted it as a way to strengthen the whites, the ‘ubermensch’, against the ‘strong blacks’. This work looks strongly at ideology, but also at other ideas of nationhood, being a team, and being an individual in a collective structure. Out of the 5 artists on the show, 3 aren’t represented by the gallery (the others 2 are Zineb Benjelloun from Morocco and Frida Orupabo from Norway, just because their work relate so strongly to these ideas, and because I really love working with them).
My interest has always been people, so that’s interesting in a time where you cannot see many people. I am so drawn to exhibitions where I can engage with the artists and we can invent together. I come with my ideas as a kind of seed, not a finished grown fruit, then I come to the artists and have the most interesting conversations. It teaches me so much, the curatorial practice becomes a way to enter a particular subject matter. The seed is always geographical, this where I am, and it’s from where I think. Also, this is the audience that I am first responsible to. It starts form a geographical curatorial scope, but it’s not limited to it. Curating is a tool to engage in really unexpected ways, across languages and terrains, what you cannot say—you can create a space for.
Life-work balance, what’s that? Last year was unique. It was my workaholic year, We were incredibly busy and honestly, since I couldn’t do anything else but work, it help me not to lose my mind. Geographically we are challenged, as a lot of the gallery’s audience is outside of our borders, so it’s important that we travel. In the absence of being seen elsewhere we had to think laterally. The digital became an obsession, and so informally I am co-lead of the digital department of the gallery: social media, online viewing rooms and art fairs. That’s what we needed to survive. I gag even saying it but we really had to think in terms of ‘curating’ our social media, creating focuses for our artists, keep speaking with our audience while making things a little slower, palatable, and interesting. It’s a weird world now, I am saying things about social media that I wouldn’t have two years ago, but now it’s my life.
My favourite thing is music. I listen to music all the time and my taste is very eclectic. I guess this week’s obsession is funk, blues, jazz, and soul. For instance Zapp & Roger, which is some fantastic funk, I am really loving that vibe. Some Curtis Mayfield. I spent a lot of time with my dad recently, and he’s been teaching me about jazz, so we listen to Dizzy Gillespie or jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. All incredible musicians!
But the one thing I do to de-stress—and you need it in the art world—is go to Lesotho. That’s where I draw my strength from. I just go to the mountains, my favourite place is Semonkong (a small highland town), it’s so beautiful, and I spend time by the water. I don’t have conventional fun, I never go out to parties, unless I am travelling for work,
but that’s fun for me.
These days I sound like a Lesothophile. All my life I never read Sesotho, but in the past year I went to Morija print works and I bought a bunch of Sesotho poetry, and I recently discovered that my grandfather had made a book of poetry printed in 1931. It was the first book of poetry ever printed in the language, “Lithothokiso Tsa Moshoeshoe le Tse Ling” by D.C.T Bereng. So I am working my way through that, it’s impossibly difficult. It’s really deep Sesotho, but understanding some of the nuances and meanings is incredible.
I read African literature quite a lot. I love the work of South African writer living in the US, Zakes Mda. He writes very beautiful magical realism books. They are part fiction, part reality, where he changes the narrative using existing historical narrative and does very interesting things with them.
I am always so grateful that I am not a collector. The first time I went to Art Basel, I was so blown by the sheer number of artworks there. My fair eye has subsequently been trained but now I am biased because I love so many artists we work with! But outside of the gallery, so I give a less biased answer, there is Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. I fan-girl her… I have a framed poster of her work in my house, best I can do. I can also think of incredible artists whose narratives make me weep such as Ana Mendieta. There are so many, I am glad I don’t have to make those choices.
If I wasn’t curating I would probably do something with words. I am so drawn to language, I am so drawn to the formulation of language. I can’t say that I would be a writer because I guess I would be writing right now, but I really enjoy language and I really enjoy seeing how it’s used to create meaning. It might be part of my genetic build-up because my grandfather was a writer and my father is somewhat of a wordsmith.
Director and Partner at Stevenson gallery
Johannesburg, South Africa
Lerato Bereng was born in Maseru, Lesotho and lives and works in Johannesburg. She is a curator, and a partner at Stevenson gallery, Johannesburg, Cape Town and Amsterdam. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Art and a Masters of Fine Art majoring in curating from Rhodes University, Makhanda. Curated projects include Conversations at Morija (Maeder House, Morija, Lesotho 2017; 2015; 2013); SEX, Stevenson Johannesburg (2016); Nine O’Clock, the National Arts Festival, Makhanda(2015); Out of Thin Air (Cape Town, 2012) and Featuring Simplicity as an irrational fear (Cape Town, 2010). From 2008 to 2009 Bereng took part in CAPE Africa Platform’s Young Curator’s Programme for which she curated Thank You Driver, as part of the Cape ‘09 Biennale. In 2021 Bereng will curate How to make a Country, at FRAC Poitou-Charentes, France, under the umbrella of the Institut Français’s Africa Season 2020. She is on the Art advisory board at the University of the Freestate and part of the advisory committee for the Visual Arts Network of South Africa (VANSA).