In October The New School's Vera List Center for Art and Politics in New York held a panel to discuss "If Art Is Politics". Some of the panelists included art practitioners such as Maya Wiley, Nontobeko Ntombela, Uzma Rizvi, Koyo Kouoh, Richard Hill and Carin Kuoni, all of whom are renowned for their engagement with the intersection of those two topics. Shortly afterwards Contemporary And spoke to the founding artistic director of RAW Material Company in Dakar, Senegal, Koyo Kouoh about political pursuits in exhibition making, political limits within a globally creative art scene, and the current needs of young artists in Dakar.
Koyo Kouoh: Thankfully there are so many artistic practices that are not self-referential and go beyond the contemplative to tap into political imaginaries and thus engage with ideas and forms that have a relevance for society.
C&: But what happens when art and artists are instrumentalized by curators or cultural institutions to pursue their political goals?
KK: Curators are storytellers that use grammars and vocabularies provided by art and artists. I don’t agree with this toxic idea that they instrumentalize artists for their own political pursuit. First of all, it gives curators a super authority that is generally not real, at least for those of us who work independently with little to no institutional support. Second, it is a disrespectful presumption that denies the artists any form of agency by subordinating them to the will of the curators. We all know that contemporary exhibition making is a dialogical practice that is in constant conversation with the artists. No serious and respectful curator proceeds in any collaboration with artists in disregard of their opinions and intentions about their works. Furthermore, there are so many practices – including from the so called Global South – that are deeply invested in the political as their artistic material and language. It is again presumptuous to suggest that those artists are invested in these subject matters by default. Luckily artistic practice is an open field of expression and experimentation that participates in world-making; and artists are integral to that process.
C&: In 1990 bell hooks wrote that „spaces can be interrupted, appropriated and transformed through artistic and literary practice“. In which ways do you think art can operate that traditional forms of political participation might not be able to?
KK: I am not sure about what you refer to as “traditional forms of political participation”. However, if it is understood in the sense of the French term of “la politique politicienne,” then I believe that trust is an essential element that is determining. The general “traditional political class” has globally sold out in most societies to the forces of neo-liberalism and religious and racial fascism. Art remains that somewhat “open space” of possibilities, propositions, and dialogue. However, art’s limitations in fundamentally transforming societies force us to deal with the fact that there is no escape from political participation in the forms established by any given country and the necessity of continuously challenging and changing them.
C&: In the last years, an immense pool of ideas, experiences, tools, and learning formats in the fields of art, critical education, theory, and everyday practices has emerged. A common consensus is the need for decolonial methodologies and practices, which resulted in an inflationary presence at just about every possible kind of art event. How truly genuine is the demand for such a structural change in the arts?
KK: Let’s be a bit more specific. My practice does not relate to an unidentified spaceship called “the arts” but rather to an environment or territory from which different questions, needs, preoccupations arise in regards to artistic and intellectual practice. It turns out that the situation we are dealing with in Dakar for instance in relation to artistic and critical production demands a mobilization of a set of tools and formats to address and cater to the dire needs for access to artistic knowledge, exposure to research methods, and building awareness for the analysis of artistic and intellectual practice for the construction of society.
C&: Olamiju Fajemisin recently wrote that there is still a double standard in the arts which has to end. She refers to the irresponsible representation of Black subjects by white artists and the blindness of the white gaze. How much work still needs to be done? And what is the role of the curator in such adilemma?
KK: One thing that should not happen is to establish interdictions to artists regardless of their cultural background. However, critics, reviewers, commentators, educators, and any other participant in the discussion of artistic production on any side of the color line can work against the grain by simply discoursing such works out. The curator’s subjectivity, knowledge, and political and aesthetic inclination are useful guiding principles in establishing enlightening debates on such occurences.
Koyo Kouoh is the founding artistic director of RAW Material Company in Dakar, Senegal, a centre for art, knowledge, and society that fosters artistic and intellectual creativity in Africa. She served a educational curator at 1:54, Contemporary African Art Fair in London. Kouoh was as curatorial advisor for documenta 12 (2007) and 13 (2012), co-curated Les Rencontres de la Photographie Africaine in Bamako in 2001 and 2003 as well as collaborated in different capacities with the Dakar Biennial.
Interview by Theresa Sigmund.