Within the past four decades, there has been increased visibility of the ‘curator’ figure within the arts. The appointment of Swiss art historian Harald Szeemann as sole curator and director of the famous Documenta 5 exhibition caused a shift in how curators were perceived. The global art landscape as a whole was being shaken up with far deeper attention awarded to Land Art, Feminist Art, Conceptual and Performance art, away from the more traditional paintings and sculptures worked through the lens of modernism. The curator role also reflected this shift, becoming more open and expansive and garnering more power. Szeemann, in particular, was seen and is often referred to as the “first curator” in the modern sense of the word; “an independent artistic agent, commissioned to make thematic exhibitions.”
Many articles and think pieces have been written about the contentious role of the curator with a strong backlash against the “frivolous” use of the term to describe anything from organizing major exhibitions, taking care of museum collections to selecting one’s outfit of the day and presenting breakfast options for the gram. It’s important to note that I will be using the word within its more formalistic definition as a practice within contemporary art—the politics of who is curating what for breakfast and who has claim over the term are beyond the scope of this text. The text will concern itself with key conceptual and practical issues associated with curation in contemporary South African art (visual and otherwise). As curating is gaining more prominence as a career option and curators are seen as key figureheads in the art industry, we are driven to ask these questions; what is the role that art institutions (for which these curators work) in our lives and how do we renegotiate and re-interpret these relationships in the face of post-post coloniality and decolonial thought? How do curators, artists and other cultural producers communicate meaning and why does this matter?
The meaning of the word ‘curator’ has shifted so much that it no longer denotes one straightforward thing, but a constellation of conglomerate things that often define a process, an approach or a way of being that is sometimes seen to serve a coterie, but is at the same time adaptable enough to be claimed by anyone.
– Nontobeko Ntombela
In his text The Impossibility of Curating Live Art, published in 2019, curator and choreographer Jay Pather speaks of different modes of curating that include thinking through curation as meditation while also questioning notions of theme and crisis. Thinking through the task of curation as meditation allows us to approach the practice as a site of emergence of ideas and critical engagement. It takes the role of the curator beyond administration and programming towards a more contemplative process where the key goal is to provide space, rationale and context behind the organisation of works. The work of Johannesburg based artist collaborative (between Nare Mokgotho and Molemo Moiloa), MADEYOULOOK, can serve as a case study for this type of practice. MADEYOULOOK takes reference from everyday innovations and aspects of city life that find solutions to ordinary challenges. In 2018 they cast their eyes on the archive and organised an intervention; EJARADINI. The project sought to explore education spaces, collaborative infrastructures and knowledge dissemination systems through the black urban gardening experience–an exhibition linked to the project was presented at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Artist such as Thuli Gamedze who traverses between writing, curating and ‘producing things’ also provide ideas of extensive models of what curating can entail.
In 2015, Amy Watson and Mika Conradie founded POOL; a platform for curatorial and artistic production, reproduction, experimentation and research, working with artists to support and commission new work. This type of collaborative organising seeks to investigate (from a curatorial perspective) the question of what it means to institute in a South African context. The project space follows in the footsteps of other organisations such as the Asiko Art School (founded through the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos) and Njelele Art Station in Harare in contemplating experimentation within art practices and pedagogies.
Curators’ participation in the art ecology can take many forms. From Koyo Kouoh, Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Thelma Golden who work for large institutions such as Zeitz MOCCA in Cape Town, The Serpentine Galleries in London and The Studio Museum in Harlem to curators working on large exhibitions, fairs and Biennials; Tumelo Mosaka, Olu Oguibe and Ralph Rugoff to emerging curators as well as those working in alternative and independent spaces; Khumo Sebambo and Kabelo Malatsie. All of these curators are working within precarious, complex and contested spaces—their work carries weight that not only reflects realities but also shapes those realities. The act of curating has a canonising effect and therefore becomes political. Curators have the power to include or exclude artists into cultural memory with the ability to challenge inequalities related to gender, race, sexuality and class—widening access to opportunities and institutions of power. Curated exhibitions such as Black modernisms in South Africa (1940 – 1990) (Wits Art Museum, 2016), A Black Aesthetic: A view of South African Artists (1970 -1990) (Standard Bank Art Gallery, 2019) and Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power (Tate Modern, 2017) can inform the discourse on how specific artists are viewed and written into history. They have the ability to valorise artworks and artists by causing a rupture in the art historical canon—subverting assumptions of what otherness is and how it is constructed.
Curating and the role of curators opens up a space for us to consider discourses of power, struggles of power and power dynamics. Curatorial strategies employed can shift and redirect power but they can also perpetuate lethargic and problematic hierarchies of value. Curators who are aware of this reality often seek to situate themselves outside of normative standards and conventional process of practice. They prioritise interactive and multimodal practices that are rooted in alternative knowledge systems and processes. These curators are exploring the field as a way of wayfinding while meditating on useful and effective approaches such as using curating as a political act, the refusal to curate as resistance, inspecting embodied paradoxes within the practice and approaching curating as one of many languages of history, memory, knowledge and value systems—a vector of power, performance and politics.