Curating as a Nomadic Practice and How to Find an Ethos
Curating is a practice contaminated by a kind of schizophrenic approach to knowledge. When I began curating, I honestly wasn’t sure what I was doing. My learning experiences have had a strong aesthetic imprint, but not necessarily one related to art. I grew up in a Maya K´iche´ town, and left Guatemala in my late 20s. It means that an important part of my education as a person was in a country with an incredible lack of access to specialized education in art history or curating, with no museums and with not much going on when it comes to cultural events. However, Guatemala is one of the most vibrant and complex countries I know, and that messy, turbulent history, colonial pain, and inspiring ancestral culture informed my curatorial practice and gave me some sense of purpose. What drives my curatorial practice is the possibility of not being restricted by a discipline, which grants me some license to go ahead and just do things while not always knowing what the outcome might be.
A polyphonic art world. I took the position of Adjunct Curator of First Nations and Indigenous Art at Tate, in 2019, as part of the Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational, a department at Tate Modern that through cutting edge research aims at looking into non-normative narratives of art history. Tate has had a leading role in decentralizing art historical canonic narratives and this position posits a great and exciting challenge to my own practice.
Remote work to background beats. I’m lucky enough to spend a significant amount of time at my home desk with a fresh cup of coffee and background music. Lately, I’ve been listening to punta, gqom, and post-reggeaton––I have to confess, I cannot stop listening to DJ and visual artist, Kelman Duran. The pandemic will definitely redefine work dynamics, office time, and cognitive work––and by that I mean all the work that is not manual, the labour of the mind––won’t ever be the same.
Writing near Lake Atitlán. On the spectrum between spontaneity and premeditation I am a bit of a disaster that somehow always manages to get things done. For better or for worse, I need some spontaneity in order to find my work rhythm, which means that sometimes I work much later than I planned to. It is very unhealthy. I’ve found it extremely useful to take some kind of short retreats, which I’m fortunate enough to be able to do, so normally when I have to deliver a big project, an exhibition or a text, the way forward is to take my laptop, a bottle of wine and tons of chocolate to somewhere quiet. If I’m in Guatemala, I go to the Maya T´zutjil´ region, at the Lago de Atitlán (in the Guatemalan Highlands of the Sierra Madre mountain range, the views of the lake and the mountains are stunning. It’s a place I hold close to my heart for many reasons). I shut off my phone and work until it’s finished. The pain of writing needs to be balanced with some kind of joy and quiet. Also an important part of my life learnings are in that place.
Non-Western sounds. Infrasonica is a project that grants me a level of freedom and experimentation that I’m grateful for. We started conceptualizing the project a few years ago in a pub in London’s New Cross, with my brilliant accomplices, publisher Eloisa Travaglini and writer Sam Simon. Since then, we have worked slowly but surely, eventually launching earlier this year. Infrasonica is an experiment, an idea, an exercise in theory-fiction, a piece of tangible joy that takes aim at thinking, sensing, presenting and introducing non-Western sounds to a worldwide audience. The sonic realm is perhaps one of the most powerful and least understood mediums when it comes to art, but it hides some of the best kept enigmas of non-Western and indigenous cultures.
Curating is always a nomadic practice––the real challenge is how to find an ethos. How to make of distance and movement something that takes us closer to our place, our home, our collective history, and to our ancestors. Curatorial practice is much less about internationalism and more about situated practices and commitment. It is less about neurotic self-affirmation and more about the attempt of connection to a sense of a nos-otros (Us). This is the challenge when working either independently or with an institution. When it comes to ethnicity and race, I want to understand the big picture, I want to see how my own ancestral history relates to the world as a planetary ecology, how we all live together, and how we make life possible despite the odds. Despite a world that insists on the negation of change, the cancelation of the future and the annulment of life.
With the pandemic we were suddenly confronted by our own vulnerabilities, while political change is not anymore an option, but a necessity. Vulnerability and intersectionality have to become our strength and create from there. Doing the kind of work I do, means to spend a lot of time working alone, so it wasn’t that difficult to adapt myself to the new social dynamic. What was perhaps harder was the impossibility of moving and traveling. Not because I love to travel, but because you learn a lot. Seeing places, artists at their studios, meeting new random people, is something that fills me up with creative energy.
Find your own voice. It sounds a bit cliché, but as I alluded to above, it is important to shape ones own curatorial style and voice, in order to make sense of what we do. There is perhaps an impulse within the arts to copy or mimic work that you appreciate and that has proven to be “successful”. What we don’t normally have access to when admiring the work of others (an invaluable aspect of any art form) is the process that helped that person or persons arrive at the finished product that we are in admiration of. I would say that the best advice I ever got was to remain singularly focused on the creation of what I want to do as a curator, what drives the basic instinct of doing and in this case, doing-for-and-with-others. You may be able to find some short-term interesting experience through mimicry but to continue to grow and develop, you’ll need careful and honest excavation of your approach to the curatorial work you envision yourself doing. I’m not sure if i’m always doing that, but it is good to think in those terms.
I never curate a show without good people and vibrant souls involved.
The book that still haunts me is “El Animal Humo” by Kʼicheʼ Maya poet Humberto A´kabal. This is a beautiful and haunting short stories book from the perspective and tradition of the K´iche´ Mayan story telling, that entwines depth, cosmological thinking and daily life in a powerful way. Ak´abal is one of the great writers of our time.
When I travel I always take with me my reflux pills and a pair of wishful-thinking running snickers that always stay packed.
I have a weakness for the so-called popular crafts and I have many at home, a good number from great artisans I’ve known. I also have a fascination for smart stand up comedy, just because I believe comedy is quite a unique form of language and one of the most sincere expressions of consciousness.
If I ever need to reset my mind I wash dishes or clean something. Ps: my apartment is pretty dirty now, so maybe…
When little gestures have a life of their own. When I was 5 years old, I needed to build this fortress for a turtle I had. She was lonely so I decided to cut tiny tree branches and to spread soil in sporadic mounds around the turtle’s makeshift terrarium, inside my grandmother’s garden. The turtle disappeared one day (sometimes they just bury themselves and never come out), but one of those tiny tree branches grew greener and larger, eventually growing into a big-ass tree. The biggest in the garden. I was sad that the turtle disappeared, but the tree remains a reminder to me of my efforts to protect it and care for it. Sometimes little gestures have a life of their own, beyond the human purpose and will, and all we can do is be sensitive enough to perceive those enigmatic plans of the things that are out of our control. My grandma said I had “buenas manos” (good hands), which would mean that your hands are literally good for making things grow. To be honest, I have never tested my growing plant abilities again, but someday maybe I will.
Let’s suppose that I’m both a curator and an art collector. As a curator/collector I would selfishly collect the pieces that have haunted me the most, from each of the shows I’ve done or seen. Not necessary the ones I liked the most, but the ones that still present for one reason or the other. The idea would be that my collection would serve as a living, breathing archive of my sensitive experience when it comes to art, not at all as some kind of homage to my taste or to nostalgia, but as an accessible, beautiful, and haunting way to track where life has taken me, in a not-so-subtle reminder of the gratitude that I have for the work I am able to do. Especially for those long nights when the wine bottle runs dry and my store of chocolate has crumbled and melted into its foil wrapper.
I imagine my 10 years older self is visiting me from the future today, and they tell me: don’t come here, the far right is still ruling.
If I wasn’t curating I would be a ramen cook.
Pablo José Ramírez
Adjunct Curator of First Nations and Indigenous Art at Tate Modern
Amsterdam, Netherlands and Guatemala
Curator and Cultural Theorist. Pablo José Ramírez is a curator, art writer and cultural theorist from ancestral Maya-Ki’che’ territory. He is the Adjunct Curator of First Nations and Indigenous Art at Tate Modern. His work revisits post-colonial societies to consider non-western ontologies, indigeneity, forms of racial occlusion, and sound. He holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from Goldsmiths, University of London. In 2015 he co-curated with Cecilia Fajardo-Hill the 19th Bienal Paiz: Trans-visible. He was a Guest Curator at Parsons/The New School in New York and at the CCA in Glasgow. Ramirez was the recipient of the 2019 Independent Curators International/CPPC Award for Central America and the Caribbean. Ramírez is the Editor in Chief and co-founder of Infrasonica and is part of the curatorial team of the 58th Carnegie International.