ART AFRICA had the opportunity to sit down with Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi (Curator of African Art at the Hood Museum, Dartmouth College), during his visit to the Center for Curating the Archive in Cape Town earlier this year. Here we learn about Nzewi's curatorial practice, in particular his ideas surrounding 'spaces of familiarity,' and the significance of contextual curatorial practice.
ART AFRICA: As an artist who studied sculpture, how did the transition to curating come about?
Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi: I studied at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. During the first two years of the four year programme you are exposed to the traditional areas of academic art such as sculpture, textiles, print-making, and painting, after which you specialise. You are also expected to take classes in art appreciation and then subsequently in art history. I ended up with a major in sculpture. The convention at the Art Programme at Nsukka is that students flirt with poetry and other forms of writing. In some extraordinary instance, students are drawn to curating and organizing exhibitions. I was fortunate to have that sort of inclination by looking at what some of my lecturers or those affiliated with the Art Programme were doing. I curated my first exhibition in 1999 while at Nsukka. I belonged to a students’ organisation that were interested in humanist-driven activities. One of our projects was the commemoration of the Biafran experience. At that point, there was total amnesia on the biggest Nigerian tragedy, the 1967-1970 civil war, particularly among the student body at my university. Eastern Nigeria – where the institution is located – was the theatre of war and most families lost relatives to the war. Although a lot of us were not born at the time of that great tragedy, it is something that has shaped the Igbo consciousness post-civil war. As part of commemorating the Biafran experience we organised an art exhibition. In a sense, that was my first formal outing as a curator.
In an interview with Artsy you spoke about being very sensitive to the artists and the nuances in their work – trying to use those to place the broader subject. What are some of your curatorial interests when you’re looking for work?
I think it stems from my background as an artist and the importance of not talking over the artist. There is this funny notion that some artists are not articulate, that they are unable to speak the verbiage that comes with the territory. So sensitivity is really about figuring out the best approach to get them to speak and on my part, to try to grasp their creative arguments. Sensitivity is also about respecting their positionality. Curators wield a measure of power in the art ecosystem which is not lost on artists. For an emerging artist, for example, he or she wants exposure and so would, arguably, want to get along with the curator’s position. At the same time, one is aware that there are artists who are curators’ nightmare, those who are very challenging to work with.
I’m here [in Cape Town] to facilitate a curatorial workshop and one of the things I said to the students was in reference to Susan Vogel’s essay, Always True to the Object, In Our Fashion (1991), in which she argued (particularly with regard to the display of African art) about the tough balancing act that (Western) curators contend with in representing non-western art in the Western museum setting. Writing from her own longstanding experience as a museum curator and director, Vogel was mindful of how most Americans – and Westerners by extension – have been socialised in a particular way in their reception of African art. She was pointing out the cultural and epistemic grounds of the Western gaze. I have argued instead that we should be true to the object in its fashion and not “in our fashion,” which is obviously Western, as Vogel’s essay suggests. Along this line, the curatorial argument should be dictated by the object in question. This requires “being in the presence of the object” as a starting point and then identifying what the artist is trying to communicate before we bring other forces to bear.
I am wary of theorising a concept and then forcing the art or artist to conform. From a curatorial position, I think the object should generate the content of its exhibition and the process must be organic. When I spoke about nuances in my Artsy interview, I was relating that to my own experience as a maker of objects and the imperative to try to capture the object in its fashion. You would discover that the art object is no longer allowed enough space to be an object and to make its own aesthetic arguments. Instead it is posited as a tool or unit of analysis for other kinds of arguments.
There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the role of arts administration in creating spaces for artists to play and experiment, while allowing them access to networks and a space for their voices to be heard, through the various gallery systems and such. What is your opinion on the role of arts administration in this regard?
Your question is slightly confusing. But to formulate an answer, I think that, primarily, artists generate the art that is administered.So they sit pretty tight at the top of the chain.Every other activity that happens around the art and artists are geared toward providing that space for art to flourish and for artists to gain or enhance their voice. When you say the artist’s voice in the gallery – the work of the artist is already speaking in the galleries. If you mean the artist as a critical stakeholder in the museum, the key to how a museum articulates itself to the public, that’s another kind of conversation. I know that in many institutions in North America, artists are on museum boards, helping to shape the image of them but not directly involved in the quotidian behind the scene shenanigans of running institutions, except in situations where they are formally employed as staff.
From a contemporary perspective, the museum caters to all segments of society. These different constituencies have a say in how the museum articulates itself. The museum is a bastion of human experiences which it brokers to the public. The artist and artwork are a vital cog in that wheel but there are other material experiences that are also facilitated by the museum. To return briefly to the origins of the museum; you must note that the artist was not the most important component in the traditional conceptualisation of the museum as a space of civic education. It is in that context of understanding that the museum helps society to invent and reinvent itself. With the advent of art museums, the artist plays a key role in that civic education through his or her art. At the moment of its creation, an artwork mirrors its society and thus helps the society to see itself, warts and all, in the immediate term, and serves as a document of history in the long term.
Maybe we can talk a bit about your experience as Curator of African Art at the Hood Museum, Dartmouth College. Their collection is extensive and dates as far back as the nineteenth century. How do you attempt to preserve, document, and translate these various and extensive histories into a contemporary context?
The first exhibition I did upon arriving at the Hood Museum was ‘The Art of Weapons,’ an exemplary selection of historical arms and armaments from Africa, drawn from the museum’s extensive collection. The exhibition emphasised the beauty of the weapons and considered their significance in the social, political, economic, military, and spiritual organisation of societies in Africa in the past. At its inception the Hood Museum, like most museums at that time, was an ethnographic museum, but has since transformed into an art museum. As such, it was important to aestheticize the African weapons beyond their utilitarian or ceremonial functions in the past.
A critical consideration for the exhibition was to use the lens of history in engaging with the objects, given their present position as museum objects and also that the cultures that produced them have equally transformed from the time they were collected. Through the installation design and didactic emphasis, the exhibition considered cultural interpretations of masculinity and warriorhood as embodied in African weapons and Western display practices in the historical past. It also highlights the ways in which the weapons have been transformed from their original context and use into aesthetic objects in a museum setting.
In an attempt to historicise the objects, the exhibition display evoked the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century’s ethnographic displays of African weapons as trophies in private homes and museums, which inferred a triumphalist narrative of conquest, invincibility, and cultural appropriations steeped in the Enlightenment notion of the imperial Western male. Many of the weapons came into the Hood’s collection during the colonial period and were collected by a rash of individuals; including colonial administrators, missionaries, military officers, explorers, and big game hunters. They were mostly male and were inclined to collect weapons as extensions of their masculinity. I have dwelt at length on this particular exhibition because of its historical impetus. In dealing with historical African art, it is important for me to historicise these objects as a way of negating the ethnographic present that often colour the interpretation of objects that fall under this category. It also enables me to look at the objects with contemporary eyes and to take into account how society has evolved. In sum, the objects are historical documents with which we reach to the past to understand our present. It remains a healthy challenge and a great honour to be put in charge of the works and cultures of an entire continent. Through the artworks, I aim to capture the complexity of the continent presently and to reflect the ways in which Africans see and imagine themselves in the world.
We did an interview a while back with ruby onyinyechi amanze in which she says that “More and more it’s being put on me – or highlighted in relation to my practice – that I’m from Africa. It’s not a lie, I absolutely am… But what’s the conversation after we make that distinction? I’m from Africa, now what?” You touch on the problematics of ‘Africaness’ quite a bit. I’m thinking here specifically of your exhibition at Richard Taittinger Gallery, ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.’ How do you, and how should we, navigate this going forward?
I wasn’t making much of a new argument but to underscore the prevailing system of value in the art world. Artists with ties to Africa are expected to embody or act as vectors of an entire continent. I do not want to over theorise this but it is what I have described as the burden of Africanness. If that is the inclination of the artist than I have no problem with it, yet such a framework of encounters and engagements flattens individual subjectivities and myriad experiences of African artists. The categorisation of European artists in contemporary art, or even Asian artists as a broad category of identification does not exist in the same way that African artists are framed. It is instructive, for example, that Japan’s population does not come near that of Nigeria or that of Britain to that of Egypt. Yet the category of Japanese or British has so much purchase in the way value is allocated in the art world’s system, which is something I think must be addressed. I am no big fan of the current configuration of nation-states in Africa but it is what obtains and the art world should be aware that there are fifty-four countries in a continent that is the second largest in terms of population and land mass.
Simultaneously, in the last few years contemporary African art has increasingly received critical attention in what some people have described as the rising African art brand. There is that sense that African art is doing well in the art market; a lot of artists are gaining visibility and featuring in major international art events, biennales, exhibitions, and art fairs; or having important museum and gallery shows. We see a similar spark of interest in popular music from the continent, particularly the so-called “Afrobeats” from Nigeria that have captured the international imagination.
The point one was trying to make with the exhibition in response to the dialectic of the burden of Africanness and the rising African art brand, was to suggest that Africa is not a label of identity and identification. Rather, we should focus on the subjective responses of African artists to the world around them. The subjective contexts that these artists produce their art from or respond to through their art is what I referred to as a space of familiarity. Artists from all walks of life create (basically) from their comfort zone. The exhibition took Africa as a reference point in arguing that the space of familiarity can be territorial, physical, psychological, imagined, philosophical, or psychogeographic. I was more concerned with highlighting how the participating artists articulate their individual spaces of familiarity in relation to Africa.
Do you think the digital age we’re stepping into is helping to broaden up those ‘spaces of familiarity,’ to make people more aware of artistic narratives outside of any given locus?
I think of spaces of familiarity as deeply personal – an artist’s individual space through which he or she engages. What you are now describing might be more in keeping with some of the ideas that framed Okwui Enwezor’s ‘Intense Proximity’ for La Paris triennale in 2012. In my understanding, Enwezor was thinking about networks between artistic practice and the writing of culture in the last two centuries. In a sense he was focused on the ethnography of cultural connections as articulated by artists. With regard to your question, I think one can look at the ethnography of virtual connections, how cyberspace creates a degree of familiarity even while we hide behind keyboards. We can take Facebook, for example, where friendships are whimsical; a friend of a friend adds you, and you accept through what might be likened to a transfer of familiarity. It suggests this idea of a globalised commonweal. You may never have a single conversation with the individual, yet you are friends on Facebook.
My idea of a space of familiarity is more intimate. It’s all about selfhood. It is the artist’s sense of self as s/he interacts with the world around. And for sure, our sense of self stems from the way in which we have been socialised from childhood to adulthood and what we expose ourselves to in the course of life’s journey. So for African artists, their sense of self is also informed by their individual connections to the African countries they claim as their heritage. This emerges in their work, one way or the other, in the same way Jeff Koons’ work is typically American and Ai Weiwei’s work is Chinese. Yet they do not get beaten into submission by the burden of “Americaness” or “Chineseness.” Both artists do not stand in for North America or Asia. They are individuals in ways that artists from Africa are not usually addressed.
There are artists who address Africa specifically in their work. Such focus should be engaged with on its merit. Aida Muluneh, for example, one of the artists of ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,’ addresses Ethiopian history and traditions in addition to other things. I would expect someone from elsewhere to want to understand what Aida Muluneh is about as an artist who examines the history of a specific place in Africa than to think of her as a vector through which Ethiopia, and Africa by extension, is encountered. The problematisation of Africa as a concept is not new, but there could be productive ways of re-thinking some of the old arguments. For me, I like to think of the space of familiarity as a more helpful frame, because African artists do not deny or disavow this relationship with Africa. I think what they expect from an audience is: “This is the way I think of Africa in my work; I’m not a vector for Africa,” and that, I think, is basically the argument that ruby was trying to pass across, that we do not have to begin the conversation with my biography or narrow it down to just that. If my practice is about identity politics we can speak about that, but if my making has nothing to do with identity politics then don’t make it the core of the conversation. I think that is what most African artists expect.
You recently gave a lecture at the Michaelis School of Fine Arts under the auspices of the Centre for Curating the Archive, Cape Town called The 1980s: Art Under the Shadows of Structural Adjustment. Please tell us more about this?
I am currently working on a major exhibition that examines the impact of the socioeconomic and political realities of the 1980s on artistic modernism and modernity in Africa. When you cast your mind back to the 1960s and 70s, in most African countries that attained independence in that period, the spirit of cultural nationalism coloured the vocabulary of modern art. There was a strategic investment by pioneering modernist artists at that time to engage the zeitgeist of the approaching or emergent political independence, and that was outlined as the logic of decolonisation. A close example in the context of South Africa, decades later, would be Albie Sachs’ 1989 speech Preparing Ourselves for Freedom. At the time he was thinking about what might become the artistic identity of postapartheid South Africa. In the 60s and 70s a similar anticipatory vision held sway. The ideas of Pan-Africanism were signature, and provided an outlet for reimagining the modern in art in the context of Africa. The many Pan-African festivals of that period were venues for those sorts of cultural work. By the 1980s, the promises of independence had faltered. The language of art making began to reflect the unfolding disillusionment in different African countries. So the exhibition explores such dynamics.
I went to an exhibition that Paul Weinberg curated at Commune1 last year called ‘The Other Camera.’ One of the photographers on show, Ronald Ngilima, had been living in Wattville, Benoni in the 50s, working at Dinglers Tobacco Company. In his spare-time he took incredibly beautiful portraits of people in his community. Many of these photographs were never developed until long after his passing, when they were found by his grandson, Farrell Ngilima. Often when one thinks about photography of that time one thinks of resistance photography, naturally, but the fact that these other photographs existed provides quite a fresh perspective on daily life during this period.
I think so. I know there is a standard narrative of resistance art in South Africa. It is important to reflect that strain in an exhibition focused on the 1980s, a very critical period in the anti-apartheid struggle. Yet there were other things that were happening at that time that add clarity to the state of things, instead of the singular focus on the struggle narrative. Essentially, one could argue that the main reason the apartheid system collapsed was the economic weight that was brought to bear on it. There is a particular work by Sam Nhlengethwa titled Unemployment (1985). In the collaged painting, you see a group of individuals milling around an entrance, some seated while others are standing. Looking closely at the individuals, you could say that there is a diversity of race represented in the work. This goes to show that unemployment in South Africa at that time cut across the racial lines though we know, of course, the black majority were the most affected. As such, I am paying a lot of attention to the economics of the 1980s. I think of the realism of the 1980s in more economic than political terms. For example, in Senegal, Ghana, or even Zambia, there were structural adjustment programmes, mandated by the IMF and the World Bank, which reshaped the relationship between the state and its citizens. The many bread riots in Algeria in that decade, the major highlight being that of 1988, were the result of austerity measures. The resulting economic nightmare that followed the shift from the Keynesian model to Neoliberalism enhanced the political fault lines in many (not all) African countries. One cannot only blame the IMF and World Bank for the spate of austerity measures in that period. African governments were also culpable in that they were punching above their weight in terms of fiscal spending, and for economies that were reliant on commodity export, the fall in the international prices of commodities such as peanut, oil, and copper in the 1970s had an adverse effect on several economies and thus opened them up to the international multilateral institutions that exploited them in the 1980s. For the exhibition, it is important to pay greater attention to what some art historians have described as austerity aesthetics of African artists who were responding to the unfolding postcolonial dystopia of the 1980s.