Initiated in 2016 with ‘Consuming Us’ (curated by Professor Ruth Simbao and Azu Nwagbogu), Tomorrows/Today has grown into a mainstay highlight of the Investec Cape Town Art Fair. ArtThrob sat down to chat to Simbao, Nwagbogu, and Tumelo Mosaka (who has curated all subsequent installments) to reflect on four years of Tomorrows/Today.
ArtThrob: Azu, you co-curated the very first version of Tomorrows/Today with Ruth in 2016. Can you talk a bit about the thinking behind the name ‘Tomorrows/Today’ and how the platform was initially conceived?
Azu Nwagbogu: It really does feel like so long ago… We are all obsessed with this idea in contemporary art of being prognosticators of the future based on knowledge of the past and present, and I guess what we were trying to do at the time was to identify artists that we felt were promising and with a strong young contemporary voice. Artists with something relevant to say.
AT: Tumelo, you picked up the mantle in 2017, and have overseen it ever since. How do you feel that the Tomorrows/Today section has grown and shifted over the past 4 years?
Tumelo Mosaka: Well, I think it has been a gradual growth with each year becoming more dynamic, as well as anchoring its presence at the fair. When I took over in 2017, it still had the feeling of uncertainty. But with the level of consistency and quality, it has flourished. This year we received quite a number of applications from outside the country. Furthermore, we’ve consolidated the cash prize with an exhibition at Zeitz MOCAA, to demonstrate our commitment to supporting emerging artists. This development has also raised the stakes making it more competitive for artists to be selected.
AT: What is perhaps unusual about Tomorrows/Today is how much it has become such a central feature and preeminent highlight of ICTAF. The priorities of other art fairs don’t necessarily lie with giving emerging artists that much featured airtime. Why do you think that Tomorrows/Today has been so successful?
AN: Art fairs offer the collectors and artists a meeting point, but with Tomorrows/Today we have a curated selection that is not based on commercial interest. It offers an opportunity for the art world to see future tales without the pressures of buying.
TM: We see ourselves as the gateway to contemporary art on the continent. As such, it is important that our function within this eco-system is multifold, especially when resources and opportunities are limited. Our commitment is towards expanding the market, dialogue and art education. Tomorrows / Today has gained this attention because it offers a particular view point that does not necessarily comply with market interests. Participating artists demonstrate a certain political consciousness while experimenting with new ideas.
AT: ‘Emerging artist’ can be such a nebulous term, and the selection of Tomorrows/Today artists is certainly not limited to recent art school graduates. What do you understand the term to mean?
Ruth Simbao: I agree that the term ’emerging artist’ is nebulous, and in many ways it’s problematic. The Tomorrows/Today platform is meant to act as a forecast of sorts, so it excludes artists who are already very well-known such as El Anatsui or William Kentridge. However, besides artists who are obviously big names, it is a relative term that is open to interpretation. For example, I don’t necessarily think of Tomorrows/Today artists Sandile Zulu and Joël Andrianomearisoa as emerging as I saw their works exhibited in very established museums in the USA over a decade ago. Similarly, an artist like Tanya Poole is very established in Germany, and as such her status of established or emerging is situational and might be viewed differently in different art markets. The positive thing about including artists who are, in my view, actually quite established, is that it keeps our terms fairly loose. There is no knowable line that one crosses to move from emerging to established, so I think in terms of this platform it is a curatorial choice.
TM: I agree with you that such terms are problematic and very limiting. It’s often associated with young artists fresh out of college. This definition I find to be very narrow. For me, emerging also represents someone in their early stages of their career. Someone who hasn’t yet established a solid reputation among collectors and galleries even though have been involved in the art world for some time. I’ve also said that the section is also for under-represented artists, which means artists who have a track record but for whatever reason have not gained significant attention.
AN: You can’t make a demarcation by age so it really needs further context. Within a local framework working with the galleries who represent these artists it means something different. I suppose we got guidance from the galleries in this regard.
AT: Tumelo and Ruth, ‘Emerging artists’ seem to have been a recurring source of interest to you throughout your curatorial careers. What do you get from working with emerging artists that you don’t get from more established artists?
TM: I like to think of my work as collaboration with an artist and the research involved is a journey that is most often undefined. This way I am open to learning and sharing and the feeling is mutual. I like to feel that I too am growing with the artist. With established artists, I tend to want to explore uncharted territories where the unknown is a challenge for both of us. I guess for me it comes down to wanting to learn and pushing against what is known.
RS: In my job as a professor, I strongly believe that I have a lot to learn from my students, and when I work as a curator I similarly think that artists, whether very established or not can teach me things about their practice and about ways of seeing the world through creative eyes. The best experiences I have had as a curator have been when artists have allowed me to try and understand their work beyond the one-liners that are so often simply repeated from one online platform to another. Sometimes artists simply feed you information that other curators, writers or critics have said, but when artists allow you to take new paths with them, then more meaningful ideas can come out of the collaboration between an artist and a curator.
While it might be harder to do this with a very established artist, this is not necessarily the case. I think it is about humility and the desire to see things in new and more meaningful ways, and this can happen with any artist at any level. That said, I don’t have a strong desire to align myself with very ‘big name’ artists as I resist the commercial hype that often accompanies work that is deemed fashionable. So for me, a more honest engagement that digs deeper into the work is often easier and more enjoyable with a less established artist.
AN: To me, ‘emerging artists’ means nothing really. The more established artists that I like to work with stay humble and are motivated by ‘making’ so I don’t see much of a difference. I generally do not care to work with unpleasant artists no matter how important.
AT: How do you decide on who to include in Tomorrows/Today? Do you start with a clear idea of which artists you want to work with or does the selection emerge from research? Is it challenging to remain on the continental pulse while working abroad?
TM: The process is very organic; it always starts with the work of art. I research those artists I’m interested in and also look at all the applications that were submitted as part of the open call. Then I narrow the selection, by eliminating those I am not interested in. I then look for connections thematically and also research the materials used. So the process is long and requires careful examination of each individual artist’s proposed project. Along these lines, Ruth and Azu, would you consider curating ‘Consuming Us’ differently, knowing what you know now?
RS: I don’t think so. I really enjoyed all the artists Azu and I worked with, and I have continued to work with Thania Petersen, Masimba Hwati and Rehema Chachage on other projects. I really value the ongoing engagement, as to me curating is more about building ongoing relationships with artists than it is about simply producing a “product”.
AN: I don’t think we can really think in that way. We keep learning and building on knowledge.
AT: Azu, among the numerous impressive hats that you wear is Acting Chief Curator of Zeitz MOCAA. There has been a notable spotlighting of emerging voices there too, both in terms of the curatorial team and the exhibition content (Ruby Swinney, Banele Khoza, the numerous collaborators in Michaela Limberis’s ‘The Main Complaint’ project, etc). Do you view this as an extension of the Tomorrows/Today project?
AN: In a sense I have to be grateful to Tomorrows/ Today for tempting me to visit this great country. I had several invites before then to curate shows etc and sometimes I suggested a member of my team from Lagos out to curate and execute the project. I was too biased by the weight of history to even give South Africa a chance, but I really couldn’t refuse working with Ruth and the team at the Cape Town art fair and I have since repented my prejudice.
The 2019 installment of Tomorrows/Today was curated by Tumelo Mosaka and includes Zyma Amien (South Africa), Medina Dugger (US/Nigeria), John-Michael Metelerkamp (South Africa), Troy Makaza (Zimbabwe), Chris Soal (South Africa), Azael Langa (South Africa), Armand Boua (Ivory Coast), Ihosvanny (Angola), Aimé Mpane (Democratic Republic of Congo), Michael Cook (Australia).