Geneva J. Anderson on Tue, 27 Jun 2000 00:01:19 -0700

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Syndicate: Sao Pauolo and the Africans (forwarded)

i've been receiving lots forwarded of art e-petitions lately.
thought this subsequent letter on Mesquita's decision
regarding selecting an African curator would be of interest.
geneva anderson

-----Original Message-----
From: Olu Oguibe <>
To: <>
Date: Monday, June 26, 2000 2:33 PM
Subject: 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
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
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
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
at the last biennial, and by all indications has appointed European
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

Equally important, this apparent return to old habits is unfortunate
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
are to be picked yet who may not sit at the table with the rest. It is a
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.
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
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
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
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
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,
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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