Olu Oguibe on 27 Jun 2000 05:49:45 -0000

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<nettime> Sao Pauolo 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 

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 

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 

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

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