Katchka: The question of geography resonates on many levels. With respect to curatorial practice at my most recent post at the North Carolina Museum of Art, the museum made a very deliberate decision to build the collection of contemporary African and African diaspora art. This decision was based on the increasing attention to and loan requests for Skunder Boghossian’s Night Flight of Dread and Delight (1964), acquired under the purview of Rebecca Nagy.

Part of the discussion when I arrived there was what that meant, and how to go about it. Among the considerations were complementarity to the existing collections (African, contemporary, and others on occasion), thematic orientation, versatility (these all related); regional diversity to some extent; track record and promise of the artists’ ongoing development; and affordability—this last in large part because, apart from relatively few “contemporary African” artists whose work commands high figures, many that fall under this rubric remain within the price range of a museum with modest acquisition funds, particularly those artists who don’t (yet) have representation in the US and Europe. This speaks to Karen’s earlier practical point about money. Modest means had a bearing on collection development.

Budgetary constraints also allowed for creative reconsideration and reflection on geographical framing: for instance, seeking funding for the acquisition of Acha Debela’s Song for Africa (1990). After much discussion with my curatorial colleagues we agreed and proposed to draw on funds devoted to the acquisition of artists from the state of North Carolina, as Debela has lived and worked in Durham, North Carolina, for 20 years. While Song for Africa added the work of another NC-based artist, it also contributed to the missive of expanding the contemporary African art holdings. The fact that this single work did both was not lost on the acquisition committee, and reinforced one of the driving principles for diversifying the geographic reach of the contemporary (African) collection, and it complicated notions of origin and geography.

As a regional institution in the American South, one might expect the museum (and its audiences) to be somewhat removed with respect to the art world. With major universities and a rapidly growing number of corporations establishing headquarters and centers in the immediate area, though, the population is becoming increasingly international, diverse, and cosmopolitan. The Museum has actively sought to keep up with the dynamic community it serves. This population is highly mobile, and this notion of displacement and dynamism had a bearing on many of my acquisitions, including Debela’s work. My first exhibition at NCMA was called Far from Home (2008) and focused on artists who live and work outside their homeland, and/or come and go.

Song for Africa was brought in for this exhibition–other acquisitions that resulted from and contributed to that exhibition include work by Lalla Essaydi (Marrakech/New York), Seydou Keita (Bamako), Ledelle Moe (Durban/Baltimore), Lorna Simpson (New York), as well as work by other artists of diverse backgrounds including Youssef Nabil (New York/Paris/Cairo), Ghada Amer (New York based, American, French and Egyptian), Renee Stout (DC), Jose Bedia (Miami, Cuban origin), Jane Benson (New York, from UK), Brigitte NaHoN (New York at the time, formerly France, now Israel)…and others of diverse backgrounds. Displacement, relocation, and contested terrain are not unique to a particular region; they are very much shared and cut across regions, cultures, and histories. This resonated with diverse audiences here.

Regional diversity in terms of an artist’s heritage, origin, background was a consideration to some extent, but not a primary concern. Though there were initially questions about whether artists on the African continent were more desirable than those not, in ongoing discussions about artists I considered to be of interest, it became clear to all that it isn’t always clear cut. Ultimately, it was not a determining factor given the fluidity of spaces and regional affiliations. That said, Debela’s work did lend a modicum of regional diversity with respect to the NCMA’s African collection, which is devoid of material from eastern Africa (the core being art from western Africa).

Normally I am somewhat wary of works of art and titles that invoke “Africa” writ large, and look closely to see how it takes shape in the work. I take active steps to undo the notion of a singular, monolithic Africa (this persistent problem mentioned by Clive). In Song for Africa, Debela’s evocation of the continent as opposed to Ethiopia (his homeland), rings true, as he has lived not only in Ethiopia, but also Nigeria and Ghana, and there is imagery related to those regions’ traditions. Rather than simply employing iconic African imagery to make something that looks “African” (as some artists have done), it stems from his own engagement with the continent, with the diverse regions. It’s organic and personal, while also having broader cultural affinities.

In response to Clive’s query, that perhaps Africa is an idea or space rather than location, or a discursive field rather than a singular space…I’d say it is all of those things, depending on site, context, frame and position. People in Soweto may not ask “Am I African?,” because they live it and inhabit it, there is no question. The reality of certain aspects of one’s identity doesn’t always become clear until one leaves the source–for example, I never thought of myself as American, or what that meant, until I left and lived abroad the first time. For many African artists living abroad, even if they don’t want to be pigeon-holed as African professionally, they still have a sense of what Africa is and means, to them and to others. And, the manner in which artists identify themselves, and wish to be identified, is not fixed; it is situational, and often shifts over time and, certainly, over space.

A Song for Africa also dovetailed with the Museum’s special collecting interest in photography (film and digital) and new media. In this way, its acquisition was not based solely on its relation to the continent, but to wider relevance to the collection. (regarding Clive ‘s comments, do others also find it is true that western curators and critics still consider works in new media by African artists inauthentic due to the technological aspect? Do others find that to be the case among your colleagues? This seems terribly outmoded, even among those who aren’t specialists. )

Though my own work and scholarship are anchored in African art, in the past I have felt constrained by the confines of a geography that doesn’t necessarily correlate with a particular space (this points to Clive’s comments about Africa as a discursive space). As a curator working with both the modern/contemporary collection AND African collections, I had a great deal of freedom to reconfigure the space of the museum so that it dispensed with some of the firm boundaries and associations often imposed on Africa, both spatially and conceptually; inside the museum and out.

The reinstallation process that took place during my time at NCMA provided a laboratory for (re)considering geography, both of the continent and of the museum galleries. In the redesigned galleries, I played with geography, materials, temporality, and thematics to transition between (that is, back and forth) from the contemporary and African galleries, and from the African galleries into the European (via Yinka Shonibare’s Eleanor Hewitt (2005), a corseted figure on stilts in dialogue with Yoruba masquerade, on the one hand, and the European Grand Tour, on the other). The discussions among the curators throughout the process was regular and ongoing and, I believe, laid a foundation for continuing dialogue and experimentation, and sharing of alternative, and enriching, perspectives. I find that the creativity in curating is framing subtle challenges to the status quo while leaving space for people to find their own way (this seems very much akin to Karen’s philosophy). And for me, curating is very much a creative process and practice.

Post script

One thing I didn’t delve into, and wasn’t sure how it fits in., but has come up in conversations in recent years: are African curators more qualified to exhibit contemporary African art than others?  Certainly Okwui, Simon, and some others have curated significant exhibitions (including biennials) that have propelled the genre of “contemporary African art” into a more mainstream and globalizing contemporary art history. Given the hesitance and discomfort with the material (on the part of institutions, I mean), this may have been the only way it could have entered institutions…but on an ongoing basis, should African curatorial visions be privileged?

My sense is that notions of “contemporary African art” would be enriched by varied perspectives and cultural approaches to the artwork. Of course, one can’t deny that, historically, African art (and Africa overall) has been represented predominantly from the outside. But I wonder whether it is possible to have an “over correction”…and one that perhaps reinforces divisions and othering. Also, it is interesting to consider who perpetuates different cultural stances.

Also, African curators curating African contemporary art…is that not conflating the continent’s diversity? (somewhere in the discussions someone, I think Clive, mentioned African curators and scholars). I’m not arguing against, mind you. It just seems we are having a hard time getting away from using the very things we are speaking against. Or, perhaps this is the case: there is a certain coherence that does not preclude diversity. Also, there hasn’t been talk about regional specificity within the continent…North Africa is an obvious example, where there is a more heavily Arabic influence, and conventional geographic references to it are not just Middle East, but also African (I had an article on this in a past issue of Critical Interventions).

Just some reflections, not declarations.