Emerging South African curators Nomusa Makhubu, Nkule Mabaso and Amy Watson speak about the theory and practice of making exhibitions.
The opportunities for freelance curators in South Africa are, at face value, dismal. Public institutions are teetering. The country’s robust retail galleries chiefly sponsor stable-focussed group exhibitions. The indie scene (non-profit galleries, project spaces, open studios) is middling. And yet, almost in spite of all this, 2015 saw independent curators, most of them women, stage insightful and exploratory multi-artist showcases at a host of venues.
It started with Carolyn H. Drake’s The Poetry In Between: South-South, a kind of conversation through objects featuring, amongst others, South African artists Turiya Magadlela and Haroon Gunn-Salie and Brazilian’s Sonia Gomes and Paulo Nazareth. The speculative and uneven nature of this show, held at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town, set the tone for further group shows sponsored by this gallery, notably Tegan Bristow’s Post African Futures (in Johannesburg) and Natasha Becker’s Speaking Back in Cape Town). Both these latter exhibitions staged ambitious and necessary conversations with artists across Africa and in the diaspora.
Along with curator Ernestine White’s superb work on painter Penny Siopis’s career survey at Iziko South African National Gallery, two independently curated shows – Fantastic at the Michaelis Galleries in Cape Town, and Sightings at the KZNSA Gallery in Durban – stood out amongst the bunch. Inspired by Indian anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s notion of “the imagination as social practice,” Fantastic curators Nomusa Makhubu and Nkule Mabaso gathered works by artists from Botswana, Nigeria, South Africa, the United States, Zambia and Zimbabwe, proposed the term “the fantastic” as a fulcrum for understanding how power is mediated in images, and introduced South African audiences to Nigerian performance artist Jelili Atiku and US filmmaker Terence Nance, amongst others. Similar to Fantastic, Sightings was biased to lens-based work. Curated by Amy Watson, the show foregrounded film. It included Bianca Baldi’s film installation Zero Latitude (2014), about a custom-made piece of travel furniture designed by Italian-French colonial explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, and Kemang Wa Lehulere’s Ukuguqula iBatyi 3 (2012), a performance document that shows the artist unearthing skeletal remains in a yard.
Sean O’Toole: The forms in which art is spoken for and about vary greatly: from the unseen conversations between artist and curator to the various ventriloquising acts (wall text, guided walk, catalogue essay, symposium presentation and press interview). Given that you’ve probably been involved with all, which is your preferred way of speaking around and about an artwork?
Nomusa Makhubu: We approached Fantastic as academics. It came out of a research project, my doctoral thesis, which was titled “The Fantastic Subject”. The exhibition was in a university space. Students were involved in installation. The aim was not only about showing but the processes of showing. It was a learning process for both Nkule and I. I wouldn’t call the discursive platforms ensuing from the exhibition (catalogue essays, symposia and interviews) ventriloquist acts. We do not seek to speak in place of the artists but recognise that as researchers we can also evoke theoretical material in relation to artworks. Artists remain important in all of those processes.
Nkule Mabaso: The best way of speaking about an artwork is by allowing it to speak for itself. Works of art have a life and presence that goes beyond themselves. This transcendence allows the works to be placed in different conversations in relation to themes and other works.
Amy Watson: The conversations that are primary to me are the on-going conversations with artists. It isn’t always possible to make these entirely evident in exhibition making. I would like to think a strong exhibition does in fact begin to demonstrate, to some degree, these conversations. I prefer, wherever possible, speaking to audiences directly, and, better yet, artists discussing their respective works themselves. This isn’t always possible, given budgetary constraints, and I guess one could argue that art works speak for themselves. It perhaps goes without saying that the forms of speaking around and about work can and should shift depending on the content and context. At its best, text about artworks shines a light on practice, at its worst, it’s reductive. The risks of not communicating include alienating audiences. Personally, I’d like to give audiences more credit. Too often audiences are underestimated.
SO: Why a group show? We know the pitfalls – curatorial ego and concept versus artistic agency and the autonomy of a work of art, flighty sampling versus deep immersion – but what, in your views, are the potentialities of a group show? In simpler terms, what compelled you to explore this option? Is it that you wanted to explore the nitty-gritty of an idea and its kinship to a group of artists you like?
Nomusa Makhubu: One of the functions of an art historian was curating – this was before curating became about the “cult of personality”. I don’t call myself a curator. I am an art historian and curating is one of the ways in which I realise research. The exhibition is not about artists we like, or don’t like. Works were selected based on how well they open up questions and enable debates about the concept of the fantastic and bio-politics. I engaged with some of the artists for my doctoral thesis way before we even thought about the possibility of an exhibition. And the exhibition ended up expanding on the grounds established in the thesis.
Nkule Mabaso: Groups shows tend to have many pitfalls, but if the integrity of the artwork is kept intact and not laboriously forced to entertain new meanings, then there is the possibility to encounter the artwork anew within the questions proposed by the group staging. The work alters with the telling and the showing, and within a group show set about a certain theme the elements with the selection of works begin to propose certain readings. Perhaps this is one of the things that make group shows an adequate response for particular sets of questions/ investigation. The works however remain integrally themselves, yet offer responses to the thesis being forwarded. We have been very conscious of not using the works as examples, or exemplars in any fashion. Rather, they are quotations and ellipsis in the writing of a new or different proposition. The works are read as inscriptions, which, with new settings or contexts, can illuminate or offer help decipher questions.
Amy Watson: I have always understood the conceptualisation of an exhibition as beginning with artists’ practices, and from these on-going conversations and engagement with artists’ works an exhibition or project unfolds and evolves. The driving force, as I understand it, is artistic practice. Any conceptions I may have are in some form, whether latent or explicit, derived from and developed in response to an artist’s practice. Exhibitions where a curator has “shopped” for works to illustrate a “theme” or “idea” tend to be reductive and instrumentalising of artists and their respective practices. I too, as much as artists, take issue with this way of working. The potentials of the group exhibition can be interesting, working with artists operating in and across different contexts and different generations through an exhibition allows for the conditions for their respective practices to be placed in conversation, and in tension, with each other. This can be the catalyst for new readings of works and thus has the potential to be generative. New knowledge can be produced; conversely, received knowledge can also be critiqued.
Nomusa Makhubu: As a practicing artist, I think whether one’s work is included in group shows that are either flighty sampling or deep immersions, those conversations (deep or shallow) are important. If one only had to see work as solo it would be like being confined to having conversations only with oneself. It’s healthy for a work to exist socially, to be included in different types of conversations with other works, to be framed differently, each time. That for me is the measure of an artwork’s impact.
SO: I’m intrigued by your decision to show a work by the US artist and filmmaker Terence Nance on Fantastic. What prompted you to show You and I and You (2015)?
Nomusa Makhubu: He’s brilliant! This work for us articulates the relationship between the power of imagination and politics. The interest in this theme began with an interest in film, so the inter-relation between photography, video art and film was key. I, personally, like how Nance’s work cannot easily be explained away. The same can be said for all artworks, I suppose. With Nance there’s an intriguing intersection of many readings, others related to textured narratives that locate the reproductive heteronormative family within broader ideological systems, inter-generational crisis, the horrendous disregard for Black life in America, particularly Black men. The road is a wonderful metaphor. Also, we started to see an inter-reading between Nance’s You and I and You and Jelili Atiku’s Eleniyan (2012). For Atiku, drawing from egungun [Yoruba masquerade] is a decolonisation process. The masked dancers in Nance’s work are similarly an intricate allegory.
SO: A central thesis of Sightings is that media such as photography and film are complicit in assembling the present. Did you develop this in a scholarly context like Nomusa? Or did you come to it differently?
Amy Watson: Sightings emerged from an on-going engagement with the artists themselves wherever possible, and with their works. It is difficult to condense the central thesis of any exhibition into one line. The works included in Sightings all variously resist linear explorations of history, suggesting rather the multiple alternate experiences of historical events. Working primarily in lens-based media (16 mm film, video and photography) and archival research methods – media and practices that are often afforded a claim to truth – the artists variously demonstrate the construction at work in producing official and commonly held accounts of history. The works question the integrity of photography and film in evidencing and omitting the past, destabilising lens-based media as technologies of remembrance.
I wouldn’t say that working with artists and engaging artistic practice isn’t scholarly, but that scholarly texts were not the primary starting point for this exhibition. My approach to exhibition practice is to allow the process and form of the exhibition to emerge from what Elena Filipovic describes as the “material intelligence and risk of the artworks”. In other words, the exhibition is generated by and in conversation with the artworks and the artists themselves.
This is not to say that the exhibition and its connected conversations are divorced from cultural and social theory, in fact the artists, artworks and therefore the exhibition are entirely embedded in contemporary discourses. All of the artists included in the exhibition are variously interrogating questions of history, archive and their respective media. But the exhibition is not arrived at through a conscious or deliberate prior engagement with text.
SO: The works on Sightings suggest that the past is many things: a resource and raw material, a conceptual prop, a memory that still needs to be narrated, a terrain that resists cartography. From your standpoint as a curator, what is the attraction of working with memory and the past?
Amy Watson: I have always seen my practice as wholly embedded in the urgencies of what is taking place here and now. Of course, the past is never really the past; it is always implicated into the present. There is this cyclical tendency to turn towards archives and histories, particularly as we see the spectre of the past haunting the present. I would describe many of the artists whose work is included on Sightings as Uriel Orlow describes himself, and others, as “archival thinkers”. While these artists may look at the construction of archives and undertake research into existing archives, many are primarily concerned with deconstructing the notion of the archive itself.
A number of the works that Sightings drew together could be read through current anxieties about processes of de-materialisation that we are experiencing now. It is interesting that in a time when material connections between subject, object and representation are destabilised that there is resurging interest in the materiality of objects. What happens when we lose the tangible material document and are left only with its digital proxy? A number of the works resist a singular or stable image, disallowing resolution or fixity, suggesting rather conditions of partiality and contingency, it is the urgency of this for our current moment, more than memory or the past that I am compelled by.
SO: Fantastic includes a still photograph from Tracey Rose’s Ciao Bella (2001) video. It is a pity that you didn’t include the entire video. Nonetheless, it struck me that this work – a kind of moving tableaux that foregrounds excess, pageantry, maskery, role-playing in a very DIY way – offers a way to relationally think about the work of Dineo Bopape, Jelili Atiku, Zina Saro-Wiwa and Kudzinai Chiurai. How did you assemble the works? Was there a core group of works that you then added to?
Nomusa Makhubu: We chose prints because they presented moments that spoke volumes. So, opposite Rose’s Maqueii (2002) was a print from a short film, Saro-Wiwa’s Phyllis (2010). This conversation enabled us to loosen those ghettoising discourses that obscure similar issues of systemic power beyond South Africa. The relation to space and home in Saro-Wiwa’s work, which deals with the politics of hair, opens up discussions relating to class and dispossession. Similarly, the government-built RDP homes that form a backdrop to Rose’s portrait texture that conversation in light of neoliberalism, race and the illusions of upward mobility. How do we think about a conversation between Nigeria and South Africa in the broader international/ transnational global economy? The fantastic is about the illusions, the deceptions, the traps, and the enigma of capital, to use David Harvey’s phrase. Both works portray masks and wigs. They are powerful metaphors for the deception of capitalism that I feel would have been lost if we showed the video versions of the works.
SO: Are there any curators you consider important to your own practice as a curator?
Nomusa Makhubu: Bisi Silva, Gabi Ngcobo and Elvira Dyangani Ose. They’ve brilliantly shown that art is a process, a socio-political phenomenon, and an inclusive on-going intellectual exercise without being confined by conventions, institutions and market trends.
Amy Watson: Currently I am drawn to Maria Lind’s work, particularly her sustained interest and writing regarding rethinking the potentials of art institutions. Closer to home, curator Mika Conradie’s on-going research into institutional rhythms is of particular interest, especially given the current lack of independent arts organisations in South Africa. I’m interested in curator Nontobeko Ntombela’s practice, in particular her exhibition A Fragile Archive (2012), which re-examined the positioning and practice of artist Gladys Mgudlandlu through restaging Mgudlandlu’s first solo exhibition.
Sean O’Toole is a writer and co-editor of CityScapes, a critical journal for urban enquiry. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.