Saturday 22 July 2017

Kazeem Adeleke: Violence is Antithetical to Curatorial Practice

Kazeem Adeleke
Kazeem Adeleke is an independent curator, writer, critic and artist. Formerly Arts and Review editor at Thisday Newspaper, Lagos, Nigeria, he has written extensively about contemporary African art and culture. He has also written comprehensively about theatre, dance and film. His writings have been published in newspaper, magazines, exhibition brochures and books. 
   His latest book is titled In a New Light: Conversations with Nine Nigerian Artists and Curators. Adeleke has co-curated several exhibitions, including Reach Out (2000), and Space Matters. He has also curated Lines and Words (2004), Stick and Stitch (2003), Miles On (2006) and More Than A Thousand Words. In 2002, he curated Unkind Cut, a web-based exhibition that highlighted the dangers of Female Gentile Mutilation. His artworks have also been featured in many joint and group exhibitions.
   Sean Hughley Interviews Kazeem Adeleke for African Arts with Taj. Excerpts:

  Sean Hughley: I just finished reading your book In A New Light Conversations With Nine Nigerian Artists and Curators. The interviews are very informative. As I read the book, I kept wondering what prompted it.

 Kazeem Adeleke: The idea for the book started when I was at graduate school. It was meant to fill a vacuum. There was a period when I needed materials on artists to
include in a show. Sadly, many of the materials I found were inadequate. They did not provide adequate insight about the artists and their motivation.  Let us take Victor Ehikhamenor, for instance. Many of the materials I found on him were about his career as a writer. Although some materials on the internet reference his artistic calling, they were not enough to help me understand where he was coming from in his ideas and thoughts.

  Of course, that was almost two decades ago.  Now, there are many articles and essays about Victor out there. His works have been featured in major exhibitions around the globe, and critics are taking note of his immense talent. Just recently, he was selected as one of the artists to represent Nigeria during the Venice Biennale

 SH:  If I remember correctly, you included his work in Miles On, a joint exhibition with another Nigerian artist.

 KA: Yes, I did. It was a joint exhibition between Victor and Femi Trimnell. It happened because of my interest in Victor’s works. Before the show, I did a studio visit with him in Maryland, U.S., and was impressed by what I saw. This was perhaps his graffito period. That is how I describe it. The technique included scratching and drawing on thick layers of paint. The result was fascinating. Works like The Other Side of the Story, War, Peace and the Rest of Us, and The Complex Nature of a Forbidden Laughter are some of the outstanding works from this period. When I first saw Victor’s works, I knew I had to exhibit them. I mean, he was appropriating what we used to do as kids to create exceptional works of art.

  Miles On was a huge success and attracted art lovers from all over the place. It was at the Iroko Gallery in Baltimore. I still remember an interesting experience I had when I was planning the exhibition. After admiring Victor’s works and describing him as a great talent, a friend asked me where he studied art.   My response was “guess.” “Yale,” he said. He was shocked when I told him Victor was a self-taught artist.  My friend grappled with the idea that this brilliant artist was self-taught, and that I was showing his works in such an important exhibition. That, I found very disappointing. For me, as a curator, I do not discriminate between the self-taught or the academically trained artists.  History has shown that many self-taught artists have gone on to have exceptional careers in the arts. Therefore, those who continue to discriminate will miss the opportunity to experience exceptional art. I think art should be judged based on merit and not where you were trained or went to school. I am not saying going to art school is not important.  Obviously, it is. That is how you learn about art history, techniques, and the language to formulate intelligent conversations around your art. What I am saying is that there should be that window that allows you to insert outstanding works by non-academically trained artists into the art discourse. Look at how Victor has progressed through the years. His works have been shown at important museums and galleries across the globe.  He is everywhere.  Now, he is going to Venice to represent Nigeria (the interview was done ahead of the opening of Venice Biennale 2017). That is a great accomplishment.  

Although I am very discerning in the selection of works I show in exhibitions, I do not discriminate. Let us look at this from the context of Nigeria. More than two decades ago, people use to talk about members of the Oshogbo art group in very condescending ways.  Their works were discussed as if inferior to those of academically trained artists. That hierarchical relationship was very offensive to me because many of the artists from this group have advanced, becoming famous in the art world.  They have migrated from the periphery of art discourse to the center in a way that discounts the hierarchical relationship perpetuated by some academically trained artists. Jimoh Buraimoh, Prince Twin 77, Murina Oyelami and many others are today very important artists in Nigeria’s art history.  They do not reside in the margins anymore.

 SH: You addressed gender issues as it affects female artists in Nigeria in your book. Since writing the book, do you think anything has changed?

  KA: That is an interesting question.  Indeed, a lot has changed. I can confidently tell you that many female artists are making their mark in the global art circuit. A lot has changed from when the book was first published. About a decade ago, female South African artists dominated the Western art world and they set the parameters for judging the success of female artists from other African countries. Tracey Rose, Berni Searle and others were always in one show or another in the West, including the United States, United Kingdom and Germany. Further complicating issues was the difficulty of accessing materials related to Nigerian female artists, many of who were just getting a foothold in the West.  That was my experience when I was curating More Than A Thousand Words. I intended to include works by Nigerian female artists in the show. Painfully, I could not get the works I wanted. Consequently, I had to use works by South African artists.  Obviously, this was in addition to other issues.  Things are different now.  Many female Nigerian artists are competing in the global art space and making their mark.

 SH: What about their works? Do you see any difference in what they are creating?

  KA:  Absolutely. Nigerian artists— male and female — have embraced global art practice and are creating exceptional works. If you go to Nigeria or galleries in Western metropolises, you will see remarkable works by Nigerian artists. From photography, to sculpture, painting, and installations, Nigerian artists are creatively adventurous and engaging.  Just like the male artists, Nigerian female artists are also forcefully inserting themselves into the global art discourse and arena. Look at Peju Alatise: She is one of the exceptional female artists coming out of Nigeria. Her works are engaging and thought provoking. When I look at her work, I am impressed by her independence of expression.  She joins other artists like Marcia Kure, Ndidi Dike, Nkechi Nwosu Igbo and many other young Nigerian female artists who have made their mark in the global art space.

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  Having said that, I think many female Nigerian artists are still reluctant to insert their bodies in their works. You do not see many works in which they are using their bodies to generate art discourses on issues of gender, feminism, and womanism.

  SH: Really? Why?

 KA: Yes.  I think it is because the Nigerian art experience has not grown to the point where people will appreciate female artists inserting their bodies in their work.  Culturally, there are people who will condemn such art practice. I have no doubt that many female Nigerian artists are aware of that and are reluctant to create works where their bodies become the site of inscription for topical issues.  When you look art works by Tracy Rose and Bernie Searle, for instance, these artists explore their bodies to address gender and race issues. Many young female South African artists are also following that path.  I have not seen a lot of that with Nigerian female artists.  
  SH: What about art groups and art societies? 

 KA: Nigerian female artists understand the strength in working together, and are forming art groups to articulate their agenda. An example is The Female Artists Association of Nigeria. Some are even joining international art groups devoted to women artists and their success in the global art space. I am absolutely delighted by what they are doing. As you may know, I was a journalist for many years, and I saw what was happening. For years, art groups in Nigeria were dominated by men.  AKA, for instance, did not have female artists as members for many years. I remember there was a year when the group was looking for a new member. I thought they were going to pick a female member but that never happened. I am not even sure if they have a female member now.  Evidently, there is a history to the exclusion of female artists from art groups. This is not just a Nigerian experience as you may know.  If you go back in time into the history of Western art, you will find that many of the art groups were male centered.

 SH: In the context of Nigeria’s art history, the Zaria Rebels or Zaria Art Society was dominated by men?   Do you think the Zaria Art group was male centered?

 KA: I am not sure that was the case: If you examine the structure of the Zaria Art Society, then the answer is yes. I know many people will disagree with me but it was clearly a male dominated group.  You have Yusuf Grillo, Ogbonnaya Nwagbara, Demas Nwoko, E. Okechukwu Odita, Simon Okeke, Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya, and Oseloka Osadebe.

Some people have argued that the group was dominated by men because when it was formed in 1958, there were few female artists. That argument has been debunked many times. Several years ago, I wrote an article for Thisday Newspaper, where I was Arts & Review Editor that contested that notion. I am not saying that the founders of the Zaria Art Society were biased in having only men in the group.  All I am saying is that they should have reached out and included some women. An important thing to remember about the group is the immense contribution of its members to the growth of what is now known as Nigerian art.

SH: You interviewed Okwui Enwezor for your book. Let me first ask how it was interviewing him. Were you intimidated?

KA: Intimidated?  That is very funny. No, I was ecstatic and I continue to be thankful because it was a rewarding experience. My background in journalism prepared me for the meeting.  Before we met, I read almost everything I could find about him.  I looked forward to that moment with so much excitement. You have to remember that when this interview was conducted Okwui had just finished curating the blockbuster show, The Short Century.  In addition, he had been selected as director of Document 11. Therefore, I was elated that he could take time out of his busy schedule to have a conversation with me. We met at the Mercer Hotel in New York.  He bought espresso for us.  Okwui was welcoming, candid, and open. He talked like a friend and colleague. I still listen to the recording of the interview and it takes me back to that moment.

SH: Are you still in contact with him?

KA: We have not spoken in a while. You must know that he is a very busy person. I am sure you know that.  When I was working on the book, he was very helpful. In spite of his very busy schedule, he responded to my emails, questions, and requests for help. He is very cool.

SH: Cool? What do you mean?

KA: Yes, he is. Many people may not know this because they see him from the distance. If you get close to him, you will understand what I mean.

SH: What about Professor Nkiru Nzegwu? 

I love your interview with her.

KA: She is an amazing woman. We first met many years ago when she visited Nigerian in the early 90s. She guided my career in some ways, and was a major source of inspiration for me. My interview and subsequent conversations with her opened my eyes to new ideas.

SH: You talk about Okwui and Professor Nzegwu with glowing tributes. Are they the major source of inspiration for you?

KA: They are very inspirational for me and my ambition as a curator.  One person I also admire very much is Bisi Silva. I remember my first year in graduate school. She gave me a shoulder to cry on. We got together in London soon after, and we went to all these exhibitions. We also went to the Tate. Her depth of knowledge was illuminating.  I look forward to working with her one of these days. 
  SH: Are you thinking of curating any shows soon?

  KA: I am thinking about it. Last year I decided to go back to curating. I have been teaching and building my business for the past few years.  I recently set up Artcentron, a global media company dedicated to the arts. That has taken more of my time. There is an aspect of Artcentron that is focused on curating innovative exhibitions.  I hope to build on that platform to curate some shows. I am also working on collaborating with different art institutions to curate some shows. I have some exhibition proposals I am working on right now. In addition to the company, I have also been working on my second book. 
  SH: Can you tell me more about Artcentron?

  KA: It is a media company dedicated to the arts. The main idea is to develop new and innovative ways of experiencing art. We intend to develop projects that will be engaging and inspirational. Our focus for 2017 is to empower and educate young artists on ways to have a successful art career.

SH: What is the new book about?

KA: It is a collection of poems I wrote through the years.  It will include paintings and illustrations. My hope is that it will be published by summer.

SH: Do you have a title yet?

KA: The tentative title is Dangerous Games.

SH: Why Dangerous Games?

KA: The title is from one of the poems in the collection addressing issues of the heart. I chose that title for the whole book because it encapsulates issues raised in many of the poems.

SH: Curators are always traveling from one place to another to organize exhibitions. What do you think is the major problem facing curatorial practice today?

KA: I am concerned about all the violence erupting across the globe. All the violence is antithetical to curatorial practice.  The spate of carnage across the globe is a major issue curators have to contend with as they travel the world organizing shows. Wherever you turn today, there is one form of violence or protest happening. How does one operate in such a situation of uncertainty?  Instability makes things difficult. While it is okay that artists are appropriating the images of global unrest in their works, I think the violence happening around the globe is somewhat detrimental to curatorial practice. However, this is not just for curators alone. Artists are also affected by the violence and the killings happening across the globe. No one wants to be caught in all these tribulations and instabilities.

SH: What about in the area of practice?

KA: Curators are very innovative and you can see it in exhibitions happening in galleries and museums across the globe. Many curators are borrowing from new developments in technology to present innovative shows.  These adaptations are necessary because enterprising artists are engaging technology in their works as well. I am from a background where exhibitions serve as narratives about important issues. And, that experience continues to inform my practice. In that way, I am like Okwui, Bisi Silva and many other curators who, sometimes, explore a didactic approach to curating.  From The Short Century to Document II, Okwui, for instance, made great effort to address significant global issues. Shows of this nature are very encompassing because in addition to issues, there is theory and technology.  

SH: You have consistently talked about art in Nigeria. What about Africa? What is your view about art in Africa in general?

KA: I have been very specific about Nigeria because I lived in Nigeria for many years. More importantly, you cannot discuss Africa as a homogenous entity. It is always baffling to me that people continue to talk about African art as if Africa is a country or something. Africa is a continent with many countries, and artists in these countries continue to create works that challenge our understanding of art. Like Nigeria, artists in African countries are projecting themselves in the global art arena. Additionally, many African countries are also developing new institutions to help art flourish. It is safe to say that the establishment of some of these institutions is not through the effort of governments, but the commitment of individuals and Western foundations that are collaborating to provide opportunities for artists.  I am not saying governments in some of the African countries are not doing anything. It is just not enough or perhaps below expectation of what is happening in the Western world. I actually discussed this issue with Okwui in my book. We were talking about some of the problems he was facing in his effort to take The Short Century to different African countries. The major problem, he explained, was that many African countries did not have the infrastructure necessary to accommodate the show. Even where there were infrastructure, they were inadequate.  

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