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Archive: Issue No. 40, December 2000

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Olu Oguibe's letter:
Sent: Tuesday, June 27, 2000 1:02 AM
Subject: Sao Paulo and the Africans

Dear friends,

On Wednesday, May 17, a call went out to the international contemporary art community from Sandra Antelo-Suarez, editorial director of the art magazine, Trans, in New York , to solicit support for the Chief Curator of the 25th Bienal of Sao Paulo, Ivo Mesquita. Ivo, who was in charge of contemporary art in the previous biennial under Paulo Herkenhoff, was removed from his position a day before over misunderstandings with the president and board of the biennial. Over the next few days, signatures, calls and entreaties poured in from around the world to request that Ivo be restored to his position. Exactly a week later, on Thursday, May 25, Ivo Mesquita responded with a note of gratitude, announcing that he had, indeed, been restored to his position, thanks to the campaign.

Given that a short while ago, the same kind of campaign had failed to return Whitney Museum curator Thelma Golden to her position as chief curator of Whitney 2000, this was a rare and perhaps unprecedented accomplishment. It indicated that such campaigns are indeed worthwhile, even occasionally effective, and perhaps that politicians and bureaucrats are sometimes more amenable to positive flexibility than their counterparts in the art business.

One finds this positive turn a most auspicious moment to call attention to another regrettable development that might otherwise go unnoticed, namely that as Chief Curator, Mr. Mesquita has decided not to invite an African curator to curate the African contribution to the 25th Sao Paulo Bienal. Instead, he has gone back on the laudable practice begun by Paolo Herkenhoff at the last biennial, and by all indications has appointed European curators to oversee African participation at the forthcoming biennial.

This sad turn of events is unfortunate for several reasons, the first being that it seems to imply that Ivo finds it more comfortable, perhaps, to work with Europeans rather than entrust such enormous responsibility to an African. One may not speculate further on this point.

Second and even more disturbing is the fact that this reversal is not peculiar to Sao Paulo, but rather typifies a widespread proclivity among international exhibition directors and chief curators this year to exclude African curators from their curatorial teams. With the exception of Marta Palau's painting salon in Mexico City and Fram Kitagawa's Echigo Tsumari triennial in Japan, of all the major, team-curated international biennials and art fairs happening this year and next, not a single one has an African curator on its 'international' curatorial team: not Kwanju, not Seoul, not Habana, not Sao Paulo, not the Madrid art fair [ARCO], not Sidney, and not the Biennial of Scotland. In those few instances where the directors have chosen to invite African artists, the responsibility of curating their participation has unfailingly been handed to a European curator, as if to say that there are either no curators from Africa, or they are not competent enough.

Equally important, this apparent return to old habits is unfortunate because it nullifies what only a few years ago, seemed like positive signs of a match toward greater openness and the desire to work together. Besides, it shows no sensitivity whatsoever to how African artists must feel when we create the impression that they are only welcome on the condition that they are brought in by European curators, or that their curators are not good enough or worthy enough to be brought on board.

This renewed habit is also very shortsighted because it forecloses opportunities to discover and encourage talent that can enrich, even completely transform, our experience of our moment in history.

In 1995, two European curators Octavio Zaya and Daniella Tilkin approached myself and Okwui Enwezor to collaborate with them in conceiving and co-curating an exhibition for the Guggenheim Museum in New York that we would eventually call 'Shift'. The exhibition never happened, but that overture was the beginning of a story that would climax less than four years later, with Okwui Enwezor's appointment as artistic director of Documenta XI. Even more important is the fact that Zaya and Tilkin's gesture inadvertently led to the discovery of unarguably one of the most brilliant curatorial minds of our time in the person of Mr. Enwezor. If Zaya and Tilkin had felt more comfortable to merely "consult" with the Africans, but keep them out, that story might have had a slightly different ending.

Two years later when one had the privilege to work closely with Enwezor in putting together the 2nd Johannesburg, we magnified the undoubtedly positive potentials of that collaborative disposition by assembling a truly international curatorial team. Other than simply erecting a new paradigm of representative curating, what was more important to us was that we brought aboard evidently existing talent and expertise from all parts of the world, so as to fully enrich the experience that was enacted in Johannesburg. Also-and this is most relevant in this growing atmosphere of shutting the doors on Africans-we were intent on providing opportunity for such curators to work in a truly collaborative atmosphere which not only exposed them to the wealth of knowledge that the others brought with them, but equally brought their expertise and talent to the knowledge of the greater, international art community.

For instance, among the names that I suggested to Enwezor was Chinese artist and curator Hou Hanru, with whom I had served for a number of years on the board of the journal, Third Text. Although Hanru had worked as a critic and curator in France for many years, it was Johannesburg, certainly, that brought his excellent skills to the knowledge of the wider art community even as his brilliant contribution in Johannesburg obviously enhanced our project there. Since then, he has brought those skills to enrich numerous other international projects from the mega-exhibit, Cities on the Move with Hans Ulrich Obrist, to the 1999 Venice Biennale.

When biennial directors and international contemporary art curators hide behind what Whoopi Goldberg has aptly called "deliberate ignorance", and pretend not to be aware that there are African curators, they not only deny us the opportunity to benefit from the experience and expertise of established curators from that continent, they also preclude such possibilities of discovery as demonstrated by the preceding example. For many years this willed amnesia denied us numerous opportunities to acquaint ourselves with contemporary art coming out of Africa, as the big curators without exception dismissed the continent as a terra nullus. Now that they have finally chosen to lift that shadow of dismissal and disdain, they have equally decided, it seems, to shift it unto curators from Africa.

Zaya's gesture in 1995, and Enwezor's signature openness illustrate how feasible it is to work consistently across the divides of the past. Johannesburg was not a mere display of objects and events; it was a message from Africa to the rest of the world, to say that when we work together and duly acknowledge one another, we have the capability to achieve memorable moments and events in contemporary culture. It was a pointed gesture from the Africans, and the question now is; are we able to reciprocate their welcoming gestures and acknowledge their willingness to work with us? Are we able to open up to them, truly and steadfastly, even as they have almost always opened up to the rest?

That we gain when we work with the Africans is in no question, and if that is so, the question, then, must be, what exactly do we lose by inviting the Africans to work with us? What terrible peril is it that we risk by engaging the Africans, that we must shut the door on them or pretend that we're unaware that they exist? That even those who wine and dine with them and call them by first name, should draw a blank on them at the crucial moments, and decidedly fail to notice their absence? That we should feel at all comfortable to step in to legitimize the idea that "there is no one out there" or that they are not good enough? What exactly do we lose by working with the Africans?

One poses the preceding question because many of those who serve on these 'international' teams or readily accept to serve as curators for Africa are undeniably aware that there are capable curators from Africa. Yet they find no problem whatsoever with being complicit in such peculiar undertakings with their deep and far-reaching implications. On a personal level, it is quite painful to think that the people who serve on these "no Africans allowed" teams are our colleagues-one's own friends-and that when they sit to articulate their visions or formulate their strategies, not one of them looks around and asks, where are the Africans?

I strongly believe that we could all benefit from a steady practice-a culture-of working with the Africans, and not as mere outsiders whose brains are to be picked yet who may not sit at the table with the rest. It is a new century, and we must begin to unseat the plaque of old habits and proclivities. In this new century we must learn to work with one another. We must learn to work with the Africans as colleagues, if we have any genuine desire to have them among us. We must learn to feel comfortable with the idea that the Africans have positive contributions to make, and that they have the ability and will to do so.

Now that Mr. Mesquita is back in his seat as Chief Curator of the 25th Sao Paulo Biennial, I urge him to name an African curator to his team rather than appoint a European curator for Africa. It is a fair and decent thing to do. It is the right thing to do. I urge Ivo to return to the legacy that he and Paulo Herkenhoff began three years ago by extending an invitation to African curators. I urge this community to enjoin our curators to open up to their colleagues from Africa rather than shut them out or routinely entrust the curatorial responsibility for Africa to others, as if to say that African curators are incapable or unwelcome. When they do, I urge you to enjoin them to do so with consistency, and conviction in the appropriateness of their action.

One makes this call publicly because it is of concern to far many more people than one biennial director. It has not been an easy call to make, either, and certainly not that one prayed to have to make at the turn of the 21st century. Nor will it go without negative personal repercussions, since there will be some out there who will not respond to it with the grace and sensitivity that it deserves; yet, if this call should make one soul out there among you, pause in their next project and think to themselves, "well, how about involving the Africans?", it would have more than served its purpose.

Olu Oguibe
Editor, Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art.