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Stories from our Programme Visual Arts

Christa Dee: Reflections on Contemporary Curatorial Practice

Christa Dee

Is a Johannesburg-based writer, curator and designer. She joined a participated in the inaugural Curatorial Intensive supported by our office during the second Lagos Biennial in November 2019.
The programme looked to foster collaboration between art practitioners on and off the continent and provide emerging curators with expert advice for on-going or future project.

The programme was facilitated by leading curator and thinker N’gone Fall (Chief Facilitator/Moderator) (Senegal), and co-facilitated by Patrick Mudekereza (DRC), Dana Whabira (Zimbabwe) George Mahashe (South Africa) and Kwasi Ohene-Aye (Ghana). Basel-based curator of the SALTS project space and Art Basel Parcours programme, Samuel Leuenberger also joins the team of curatorial mentors and facilitators. Guest lecturers included Kathryn Weir and Antawan Byrd.

Through workshops and discussion sessions participants were invited to share their world view while re-assessing popular terminologies and trends which are used to situate Africa in the global art discourse.

Here, Christa shares thoughts and insights gleaned from her experience.

Christa Instagram

The inaugural Curatorial Intensive took place concurrently with the first week of the 2nd edition of the Lagos Biennial. The word ‘curate’ comes from curatus meaning ‘care’ or ‘to take care of’, with a reference to the spiritual. This etymological context conjures a more nuanced understanding of the curatorial role in the art space. Considering that art often makes a direct call to emotional or spiritual states, the evolution of curatus to curate speaks to the larger positioning of art and its role in our minds. Curating stemming from care was mentioned more than once during the Curatorial Intensive, emphasising the expansive role of curators. This was coupled with carrying the spirit of Bisi Silva in the back of our minds, with Lagos Biennial Founder and Director Folakunle Oshun mentioning her multiple times during my time Lagos; initially during his welcome speech to open up the Biennial, and again at the introduction to the Intensive. Folakunle articulated how her attitude towards the artistic and her curatorial approach were seminal to his own practice and the presence and manifestation of the Biennial, and the idea for the Intensive.

I am a woman with a background in Social Anthropology and experience as an arts writer. I am also a woman who is beginning the curious and layered work of translating my own writing practice into one tied to curatorial endeavors with a strong connection to academic contemplations. Therefore, thinking about this experience through a strong female presence, was an empowering one. Her moves to demystify, uncover and make space for artistic production, critical encounters and explorations of the politics of aesthetics in Lagos, and elsewhere, filtered through my own engagements and contemplations while in the city.

Christa Dee

Informal conversations during the Intensive brought comfort to my own reflections on the title curator and attempt to frame my own positioning and future visions within the art space. A number of participants, particularly those whose practice is based on the continent, expressed a discomfort around describing themselves as curators, opting for alternatives such as artist, writer, researcher, revealing a connection between traditional understandings of art curation and traditional art spaces (gallery, museum, etc.). Through our discussions throughout the week, definitions and connotations of ‘curator’ were dissected and expanded  opening up of the concerns of contemporary curatorial practice for myself and the rest of the group.

At the Intensive each participant was given the opportunity to deliver a short presentation on a project being worked on or one to be worked on in the future. My own project related to my MA in Contemporary Curatorial Practice in 2020, specifically the research element which will later inform my exhibition proposal. My work considers the connection between contemporary curatorial practice, urban imaginaries and spatial narratives. With my brief presentation being the first articulation of my ideas to others outside of the university space, the attentive feedback from the facilitators and the other Intensive participants allowed for me to be exposed to how those outside of the development of these ideas would process and critique this work. I was also offered more on the ground references and suggestions to translate my work from academic research to exhibition or spatial experience. Visiting the Lagos Biennial itself also presented the possibilities that stem from a praxis firmly embedded in an understanding of urban historical and social aspects partnered with artistic intention.

Collectively, our presentations offered insight into the critiques and curatorial curiosities reflective of a generation and moment in time – pointing to the importance of archival and institutional critique, and the development of new strategies for engagement and display that can be formed through practice. Conceptually, the politics of the gaze, and considerations of racial and colonial imprints on the world, and the art industry, connected the foundations for most projects, revealing to me how my own project is situated within current academic and curatorial moods.

Apart from the attentive and direct engagements with our individual projects, the presentations made by the facilitators offered an opportunity to engage with their own work directly and intimately. Photographer and lecturer George Mahashe shared the details of his artistic, curatorial and teaching journey through the development of specific projects. He highlighted the situatedness of his own work, and the necessity in making one’s presence work to be articulated clearly. In particular, the project Defunct Context, a series of interventions hosted by the Wits Anthropology Museum during his time in the department, offered strategic and conceptual avenues that connected to my own work, and the larger concerns of the group. Explaining the history of the Wits Anthropology Museum, he pointed out how the museum no longer has any “artifacts” and that these are now mostly housed within the Wits Art Museum. This is connected to the department’s attempts to actively engage in decolonial work and intervene in its own history.

George’s project, however, spoke to the practicalities and questions around how to engage with and curate a museum without objects. As a way to think through this, an intervention was made in the unused courtyard near the museum with the collective MADEYOULOOK, making a kind of plant exhibition, drawing from the gardening practices of Black people in South Africa. This intervention allowed for a remapping of the museum space in the minds of those who frequent it, making the unused courtyard an active location point in their minds and expanding their imaginary of what is recreational/leisure/walkable/inhabitable space. This expanded the work of the curator in my mind, and connected to my own research considerations on the relationship between curatorial practice and spatial practice, making the curator akin to an urban or spatial practitioner. It further outlined, the significance of post project footprints, emphasising what possible relationships to space can be engendered once an exhibition or intervention is completed or taken down.

This connected to the thinking behind the Biennial, highlighting architectural and historically significant buildings within Lagos through art, translating this from a Biennial to an urban intervention. With the aim of moving to different buildings in Lagos for each Biennial, it becomes a kind of mapping practice, constructing art-inspired location points. It also opens up parts of the city, placing art and curation as a kind of access point.

Another facilitator, Samuel Leuenberger, an independent curator and founder of SALTS, shared his experiences as Curator of Art Basel’s Parcours. Within this program, sculptural works are displayed outside of the fair grounds, dotting the city with alternative artistic expressions. This again spoke to the idea of curation as a mapping or spatial practice, offering new ways of interacting with the city. This also spoke to one of my other key questions around audience(s), allowing for the expansion and integration of two types of audiences – city residents whose access to specific parts of the city is expanded, and established art audiences who get to experience art outside of a traditional art space.

The Winging it workshop, facilitated by George and the Intensive’s chief facilitator N’gone Fall, used the metaphorical story of the trickster to think about the more practical aspects of curatorial practice. Here I took away key questions to ask myself when putting together a project. We were also presented with the importance of changing one’s mindset to think more intimately about what resources are already available and what is immediately possible, and how this provides steps for how to get a project or idea off the ground despite conventional rules. George’s insertion of the reading of “the gift” and its different iterations in communities and cultures, pointed out the importance of understanding the structures that hold or inform limitations, as well as understanding the nature of reciprocity and contexts for exchange.

Overall the Curatorial Intensive not only provided the opportunity to engage with others about my personal work, but also offered an opportunity to connect with others exploring in curatorial practice in some form, and bringing a tangible awareness of the concerns and conceptual interests of other young curators and thinkers.

Curatorial Intensive 2019