A Conversation with curator Tamar Garb

“The past is there for us to try to understand in relation to our own desiring gaze…”

Our author Gürsoy Dogtas talks to Tamar Garb, curator of the exhibition „Distance and Desire: Encounters with the African Archive“.

Zanele Muholi, Miss D’vine I, 2007. Courtesy The Walther Collection.

Zanele Muholi, Miss D’vine I, 2007. Courtesy The Walther Collection.

Gürsoy Dogtas: During the opening week of the Venice Biennale I had a look at the Belgian Pavilion which has been curated by John Maxwell Coetzee, the South African who won the Nobel Prize in Literature. But I noticed that the role of the curator is changing (and will probably always change). Some curators now call themselves dramaturges. Your exhibition, which is divided into three chapters, is also reminiscent of the classical division of the drama into three acts. How would you classify your curatorial practice? Are the figures of the writer and dramaturge helpful in this respect?

Tamar Garb: I come to curatorial practice as an art historian. My background is really in thinking about the specificity (historical and material) of art objects as well as the relationship between objects and theory or politics. But as a curator, I don’t like to approach objects/images with an over-elaborate theoretical or literary concept in accordance with which objects have to behave. And I think that the conceptualisation of the curator as a dramatist, or somebody who comes with a very developed conceptual framework from a discipline like literature, can be productive, but it might also mean that objects (often unwieldy, disobedient things) have to become subsumed into and subservient to a framework that can destroy their specificity, their materiality. They risk getting lost. On the other hand, this kind of approach can sometimes make us see them in unexpected ways. It depends on the subtlety and refinement of the thinking.

From my own perspective, I would say that my approach to curating comes from the dialogue between a number of elements: a regard for the integrity and materiality of the objects themselves; a consideration of the architectural spaces and physical environment that I have to negotiate, and then, a theoretical set of questions or a research question which I think is appropriate to make sense out of that dialogue, that relationship between objects, ideas and spaces. So to talk about three acts as stemming from classical drama would, for me, be a false start, a false beginning. The fact that we have three parts in ‘Distance and Desire’ is more a result of the three exhibition spaces (each with its own character) that are the physical framework for the installation. Out of that an idea of three parts emerged, and this fed into the sequential arrangement of the three separate shows in the New York Project space that culminated in the show in Burlafingen. Of course we had an over-arching theme for the show but we had to think it through in terms of three spaces. So we came up with a conceptual structure that would make sense of the splits between these different environments at the same time as link them together thematically and conceptually. And what went where was determined as much by the physical character of the objects as the conceptual issues they addressed.

Dogtas: Archive, atlas and album are different sorting techniques for a very large, if not almost uncountable number of images. George Didi-Huberman, who curated the Atlas Exhibition in 2011, characterised the difference between the atlas and the archive as follows: While the atlas uses montage to relate the images to each other and to give rise to associations between things that at first appear not to be there, the archive depends on order. It is alphabetical, chronological or encyclopaedic, and assumes that one knows what one is looking for. For Didi-Huberman, the political implications of an atlas consist in the montage emancipating the image from its own stereotypes. How would you, in turn, highlight the political implications of the archive?

Garb: I think Didi-Huberman draws a very interesting distinction, and it certainly works for him, but I find it a rather limited conceptualisation of the archive for my own purposes. I can see how the idea of the archive as a systematic ordering mechanism can work conceptually and in relation to particular projects, but I think it doesn’t speak to the potential of the archive to harbor chaos and the irrational deposits of history. The traditional idea of the archive as a classificatory, systematic ordering mechanism is of course one aspect of the archive. We can all think of physical repositories of objects which are arranged according to those very determinants, but we need also to acknowledge the failures of these kinds of systematisations. We can think of the archive as a machine of order which actually inscribes disorder, because of the failures, the gaps, the ideological constraints, the erasures, the accidents of history it betrays; all the sorts of things that happen to archives make them very unreliable resources when understood in those terms. So, to talk about the archive as systematic, encyclopaedic, and organized in this very rational way, is also to invoke its opposite in the sense that even though it assumes that kind of order or pretends to have that kind of order, we know that archives are very flawed and fallacious and problematic storehouses of information. In fact they often need to be read against the grain, read for their silences and omissions or repressions as much as for the treasures they may contain. I am fascinated by the archive as a mechanism of order and disorder. The archive’s failure, so to speak, or in reading it against the grain, uncovering its unintended or repressed meanings, or seeing it as symptomatic or as a repository of feelings that escape or exceed its documentary and objective imperatives.

But I am also interested in the ‘archive’ as a more capacious category that can encompass the accumulation of past representations that coalesce around events or categories.

We can think of the way in which complex concepts and constructions may appear to have a certain coherence. And that is because various objects, materialities and representations over time coalesce around a category or indeed construct a category. If we look at an apparently amorphous accumulation of ideas, representations, objects and images, we can talk about those as a kind of archive. That means they are not limited to this kind of systematic ordering that needs to be housed in a specific place, but rather suggest a much more amorphous, but nevertheless coherent accretion of associations and concepts that are materially conveyed and object-specific. One can talk about discourses as accruing over time and helping to construct categories, but where ‘discourse’ is bound closely to language and text, ‘archive’ presupposes material history, encompassing both the detritus and the records of history. It is object-bound. So I am thinking of the ‘African Archive’ as something that has been formed historically and materially through an accretion of images/ideas that are materially embedded – not virtual. When we think of archives we think of them as collections of things – letters, photographs, prints, documents, pictures, paintings, of all sorts of objects –, and it gives us a sense that history is something that is formed through the material residues left over time. This doesn’t mean that they are not related to text, of course many of them are absolutely permeated/saturated by text, and they are all understood through language, but the idea of the archive helps us think of history as something that is made materially. And as for photographs, when you are looking at photographs and representations, the idea of the atlas for me is not sufficient. I love the idea of the atlas as a montage, which has this kind of liberatory political dimension to it, but it doesn’t quite speak to the temporal qualities of the archive, which really give us a sense of the historicity of objects and materials and the past. Whereas the atlas seems much more spatial, invoking a series of negotiations that are happening synchronically, rather than as a storehouse of historical memory and experience.

The album on the other hand, raises other issues and can be used specifically or loosely, in the way that Santu Mofokeng does in his project ‘Black Photo Album, Look at Me’, in which the idea of the album structures a research project and a collection of photographs without reproducing a physical album itself. All of these concepts can be remade and re-used afresh. The way in which we have used the word ‘archive’ is fairly open. On the one hand, you could say that the Walther Collection constitutes an archive, compiling and creating a coherent set of objects which speak to the preferences and taste of an individual collector. But we are also thinking of it in a much, much broader sense in terms of the way in which this grouping of objects and images relates to a much broader conceptualisation of how ‘Africanness’ is understood and materially embedded in objects and images (from vintage prints to albums, books, cartes de visites and postcards) and has come to gain certain kinds of meaning over time. It is this broad construction of ‘Africa’ as conveyed in past representations that is the source of much contemporary work produced in Africa and the African diaspora, creating a productive dialogue between the politics and poetics of present and past.

Dogtas: In the second part of the exhibition “Contemporary Reconfigurations”, you show the series “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried” by the artist Carrie Mae Weems. The artist appropriates the photos of the Swiss-American natural scientist Louis Agassiz from the period around 1850, with which he intended to prove the inferiority of Africans. Pieces of other artists employ the means of parody or re-enactment. In these kinds of works, possible forms of the past are negotiated through “repetition” and not, as is customary, possible forms of the future, with which utopias otherwise deal. Repetition seems to be triggered by desire (a term from your exhibition title). How does historiography change, when desire is incorporated?

Let us start out with this idea of repetition and come to desire and historiography later. I think that you are right to point out the uses of re-enactment, repetition, détournement by many contemporary artists, allowing us to think about the way in which the past is remade and in a sense re-imagined through mimicking or reproducing previous forms, protocols and conventions in order to create a gap between the reiteration of something and the putative original. Repetition and replay, mimicry, re-enactment are ways, I think, for artists to manage what is a very problematic and painful and vexed ‘archive’. I am using ‘archive’ in the broadest sense of the word to convey a series of representations which constitute a notion of ‘Africanness’ located in the hyper-visibility of the African body. This image comes out of the extremely painful history of colonialism, slavery, and Apartheid, and so artists now have a huge resource of archival images and objects about which they feel extremely ambivalent. These are objects many of which seem to enshrine, endorse, and contribute to the former objectification and servitude of populations, they speak to ongoing racist attitudes, and they comprise what is still an open wound. So the question for artists now is, how do you relate to those overdetermined relics, what do you do with them? Carrie Mae Weems reclaims them, she appropriates them in order to remake their meaning.

About desire and historiography: I am firmly of the belief that all history is written as a history of the present. I have no illusion that what we do is tantamount to producing an adequate account of the past that will have the kind of longevity that means that it will never change. Desire is absolutely part of the historical project in so far as we are constantly trying to understand our place in the world, and one of the ways we do that is through the narratives of history. That does not mean that I think that all history is fiction, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that all forms of historical writing are purely fictitious but there is always a careful negotiation between the desire of the historian and the obdurate materials, events and objects of the past in relation to which we have to measure our desires and our fantasies. So historical writing is a negotiation, it seems to me, of the desire, which, if we take our psychoanalysis seriously, is always going to produce a kind of lag, it is never going to produce the kind of resolution giving us the feeling that we finally clinched it and understood the past. The past is there for us to try to understand in relation to our own desiring gaze, but it is always a negotiation. So I think that is as true of curating as it is of writing history.



Tamar Garb is the curator of the exhibition „Distance and Desire: Encounters with the African Archive“ and Durning Lawrence Professor in the History of Art at the University College LondonHer research interests have focused on questions of gender and sexuality, the woman artist and the body in nineteenth and early twentieth century French art and she has published extensively in this field.

Gürsoy Dogtas is a fine artist, freelance curator and author, and since 2006 editor of the artzine Matt Magazine. He is in the post graduate programme ‚“Assemblies and Participation: Urban Publics and Performance“ at Hafen City University Hamburg.


Distance and Desire: Encounters with the African ArchiveThe Walther Collection, Neu-Ulm, 9 June 2013 – 17 May 2015. 




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