Chris Spring: It’s really interesting looking back. I suppose for me it began in the early 80s in London at the old Commonwealth Institute (now long closed) where my wife Yvonne Ayo worked as a curator. Two galleries there showed work by African and Caribbean artists; these shows led me to private galleries such as the October and Sonny McNorthey’s Westbourne Gallery. I think I probably met Magdalene Odundo and Sokari Douglas Camp around that time – I remember seeing Sokari’s work at one of Prakash Deswani’s African Music Villages in Holland Park near the CI.
Years later, when I joined the Africa section of what was then the Department of Ethnography of the BM, based in the Museum of Mankind in Piccadilly, I was given the job of ‘covering’ North and Northeast Africa – to my intense disappointment at the time, though it turned out to have been the best thing which could possibly have happened to me. There wasn’t much engagement with contemporary African art until Africa ’95, though I remember a show called Lost Magic Kingdoms curated by Eduardo Paolozzi which I found very exciting as it suggested ways of seeing which were quite different from any of the exhibitions which the museum had put on.
Africa ’95 was definitely a watershed, partly because Sokari Douglas Camp was commissioned to make several pieces for the exhibition Play and Display, setting a precedent for the acquisition of contemporary art, partly because I had a hand in putting on a small display of Magdalene Odundo’s work in the museum, but mainly because I became aware of many great artists working in ‘my’ region of Africa – remember we were very territorial as curators! I immediately set about planning some fieldwork in Tunisia, ostensibly to study urban textiles but also with a view to meet some of the artists whose work had thrilled me in Africa ’95. Instead of writing to museum curators I contacted Nja Mahdaoui, Khaled Ben Slimane and Rachid Koraichi (who was working in Tunisia at that time). Following two periods of fieldwork in Tunisia, I co-curated with Julie Hudson a substantial exhibition at Bloomsbury featuring the work of these artists (the Museum of Mankind had closed by this time); it was also at this time that we acquired works by artists such as Farid Belkahia and particularly Chant Avedissian.
A couple of years later the newly opened African galleries at the BM included works by Nja, Khaled, Chant and a specially commissioned work by Magdalene Odundo, establishing the primary importance of the contemporary in the displays. We’ve gone on from there…