As the art world becomes globalised with bigger galleries, newly built public and private museums, international art fairs and biennales, the curatorial field has been revolutionized. The last decade has seen the ascent of the “curator.” The world’s first “independent curator,” the enigmatic and celebrated Swiss curator Harald Szeemann who devised the modern thematic art exhibition, once declared, “In order to entertain certain ideas we may be obliged to abandon others upon which we have come to depend.” Today, curators have fully transformed exhibition-making into an art form and are influencing and driving the discourse around contemporary art.
Paris’ ‘anti-museum’ Palais de Tokyo recently unveiled Nouvelle Vagues (New Waves), its current show selecting 21 international young curators hailing from 13 different countries to conceive an exhibition within its walls showcasing ‘artists, ideas and situations’. This heralded a new platform for the exhibition maker, with the curator becoming an added subject taking centre stage, alongside the artist.
New York-based curator Dexter Wimberly belongs to this new school of curatorial practice that is inventing a new vocabulary and transforming the ways of exhibiting. The independent curator is part of a generation no longer confined to the rules of an academic establishment or of belonging to an institution yet embracing identifying interactions, and experiences between art and culture.
Wimberly enjoyed critical acclaim for the recent co-curated exhibition – with fellow curator Larry Ossei Mensah – Crossing the Line: Contemporary Drawing Artistic Process at Mixed Greens gallery in New York, while, also garnering praise for his show: Pattern Recognition, currently on view at MoCADA in Brooklyn. He collaborates with emerging and mid-career artists from different backgrounds, responding to artistic practices and process while at the same time bridging the gap between artist and audience.
Bomi Odufunade:You took an unusual route into curating. Until recently, you were the former director of communications at the Museum for African Art in New York. Tell us about your path and how you became a curator.
Dexter Wimberly: I started my first company, August Bishop, in 1995 at the age of 21. We offered our clients public relations, marketing and research services. I had no plans to enter the art world or to become a curator. For 13 years I ran the company representing clients such as Adidas America, Benetton USA, The Coca-Cola Company and Virgin Mobile. Around 2001, I began meeting freelance graphic designers and photographers who were actually fine artists doing commercial projects to pay the bills. This really fascinated me. As I got to know these artists better, I realized that many of them could benefit from sound business management. I knew that my entrepreneurial background would be helpful to them. I had no idea that my desire to “help” would drastically change the course of my life. I began curating exhibitions for my early clients simply as a way of getting them exposure to potential collectors. I was the Director of Communications at the Museum for African Art in 2011. I was there for one year, but did not work in a curatorial capacity.
BO: Talk us through how you conceive a show. What were the beginnings and ideas behind Pattern Recognition at MoCADA and Crossing the Line: Contemporary Drawing and Artistic Process at Mixed Greens? How did you find the artists featured in the shows?
DW:Pattern Recognition came into existence for two reasons, the first reason being that up until recently, I’ve been primarily interested in figurative painting. I started to broaden my curatorial interests and became quickly intrigued by abstract painting. Curatorially, I wanted to do something new, and the institution where the show is being presented, MoCADA, has never presented an exhibition completely dedicated to abstraction. Pattern Recognition was a dual opportunity to do something unprecedented. I’ve known all five of the artists featured in the show: Rushern Baker IV, Kimberly M. Becoat, Hugo McCloud, Duhirwe Rushemeza, and Sam Vernon, for less than three years. As I regularly conduct studio visits with new artists, I keep a mental catalogue of what I have seen. The title of the show is borrowed from one of my favorite science fiction novels, Pattern Recognition, written about 11 years ago by Canadian author William Gibson. The book is sort of a modern take on post-9/11 global branding and conspiracy theories.
Drawing is a very under-exposed area of contemporary art, especially within commercial galleries. When Larry Ossei-Mensah (co-curator of Crossing the Line) and I conceived the exhibition, we knew that we wanted to show women artists from cultures and countries under-represented in the mainstream art world. It made sense to us that if we were going to present an exhibition about drawing, we needed to find a unique and compelling perspective that people would find interesting. This was a truly collaborative effort, and we selected five international female artists that we’ve come to know over the years, whose art work and studio practices we admired.
BO: Both shows illustrate a discourse between the artistic process from abstract painting, drawing, printmaking, and sculpture and contemporary art. There is an engagement with a very broad range of styles within all their practices. Were you intentionally exploring the relationship of artistic materials and technique?
DW: Yes, the artists in Pattern Recognition use abstraction to present concepts that range from the personal to the geo-political. Their paintings, drawings, prints and mixed-media works are a testament to the continued evolution of abstract art making within the African diaspora. There are several conceptual parallels amongst the exhibiting artists’ creative processes, including the use of found materials, and the meditative repetition of patterns within their work. Moving comfortably between materials and methods of production, these artists refuse to be bound by one medium or means of creating as depicted by their multidisciplinary studio practices. Instead, they opt for the freedom of abstraction as a means of breaking boundaries.
With the exhibition Crossing the Line, each artist explored drawing within the context of his or her dynamic artistic practices, re-defining how drawing fits into the broader global contemporary art conversation. We selected new works by a group of emerging female artists including, Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze, Firelei Báez, Oasa DuVerney, Sanam Enayati and Heeseop Yoon, who all came from varying national backgrounds that include Nigeria, the Dominican Republic/Haiti, South Korea, Trinidad, Iran and the United States. The exhibition presented distinct approaches to representational and abstract drawing, as well as experimental, site-specific mixed media and video installations that were equally influenced by drawing.
BO: Your exhibitions so far have featured primarily emerging African-American and African artists, yet you also worked with many artists from across all backgrounds in Crossing the Line: Contemporary Drawing and Artistic Process at Mixed Greens. Would you describe yourself as a curator tackling contemporary urban history and geopolitics in contemporary art? I am thinking in particular about the two recent shows you curated: Crown Heights Gold: Examining Race Relations and Healing in 2011, and the current Pattern Recognition at MoCADA, which looks at the tradition of abstraction in painting while simultaneously underlining the lack of attention given to non-Western abstract artists.
DW: I am interested in all areas of contemporary art. However, my particular curatorial focus is on contemporary urban history. Long before I become interested in art, I studied American 20th-century history. I turned to curating because I realized the power of art in telling important and under-exposed stories. My first high-profile public exhibitions were The Gentrification of Brooklyn in 2010 and Crown Heights Gold in 2011. Both of these exhibitions were inspired by dramatic occurrences in my borough. The Gentrification of Brooklyn used contemporary art to explore the ongoing, rapid demographic shifts taking place in Brooklyn, while Crown Heights Gold marked the 20th anniversary of a deadly riot that took place in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.
The five emerging artists featured in Pattern Recognition were selected because of their thought-provoking creative processes and their consistent exploration of non-representational art making. The exhibition also pays homage to the long tradition of abstraction in Black art making by artists such Betty Blayton, Frank Bowling, Ed Clark, Herbert Gentry, Sam Gilliam, Bill Hutson, Al Loving, Sam Middleton, Joe Overstreet, Thomas Sills, Merton Simpson and Frank Wimberley (no relation).
BO: The exhibition When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013 was the “star” attraction at this year’s 55th International Art Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia. A recreation of a seminal exhibition conceived and organized by Harald Szeemann at the Bern Kunsthalle in 1969, it went down in history for the curator’s radical approach to exhibition practice. How do you think the role of curator has evolved in recent years, with audiences demanding new ways of exhibiting and thinking about contemporary art?
DW: I am a curator due to my passion for art and my desire to create new experiences. In my view, there is an opportunity for art exhibitions to be both academically rigorous and wildly popular. Major art museums are interested in generating more visitors, and commercial galleries must continue to find ways to excite new and existing collectors. The role of the curator is critical.
BO: What is the one exhibition that had the most profound effect on your curatorial practice?
DW: That it is very difficult question to answer. It seems that every six months I see an exhibition that knocks me off of my feet. Some of the more exciting exhibitions I’ve seen in recent years are de Kooning: A Retrospective at MoMA, Jean-Michel Basquiat at Gagosian in New York City and 30 Americans at The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
BO: If you could curate a show with just one artist you have never worked with, whom would you choose?
DW: For several years I have been fascinated by the work of artist Yinka Shonibare MBE. It would be wonderful to collaborate with him on an exhibition.
BO: Complete the sentence. A curator is …
DW: …an administrator, a diplomat and a visionary.
BO: Are there any upcoming or future projects that you can tell us about?
DW: My next show is entitled Doin’ It in the Park: A Fine Art Exhibit inspired by the film Doin’ It in the Park: Pick-Up Basketball, NYC co-directed by Bobbito Garcia & Kevin Couliau. It just opened at RUSH Arts Gallery in New York.
Pattern Recognition curated by Dexter Wimberly is on show at Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) in Brooklyn until 6 October.
Bomi Odufunade is director at Dash & Rallo, a bespoke international art advisory specialising mainly in contemporary art from Africa and its Diaspora. She advises on all aspects of establishing and building art collections, providing art consulting services for art collectors including estates, not-for-profits and corporations. Previously, Bomi has worked at Thames & Hudson, Tate Modern and Haunch of Venison gallery in London. She is based between Paris, Lagos, and New York.