Time Africans told their stories
The arts in Africa are being transformed and creative trend-setting is no longer being left to those in the Diaspora.
Young art professionals desire to be an integral part of this continentâ€™s second renaissance and are constantly seeking ways in which they can acquire new skill sets and make their disciplines more relevant in this shifting world.
It is against this backdrop that the National Gallery of Zimbabwe (NGZ) decided to start the year by empowering such professionals through hosting the first ever Curatorial Forum and Workshop in the Southern African region. This workshop has taken place in the same year that the African Union marks its jubilee celebrations (50 years). It has also been just over 50 years since the first ever International Congress of African Culture (ICAC), which took place at the NGZ.
The Curatorial Forum and Workshop encouraged cross-pollination of knowledge to occur between individuals from Harare, Mutare, Bulawayo and other parts of Africa. I was honoured to have been a participant of this event.
The four-day Curatorial Forum and Workshop took place in Bulawayo from February 25 â€“ 28, 2013. The event was organized by the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in partnership with the National Museum and Monuments and was sponsored by the British Council.
This platform engaged 20 participants working in a diverse range of art and museum organizations from various parts of the country, as well as one South African participant.The purpose of this event was to create a firm foundation on which emerging curators could build strong African centred curatorial practices.
As someone who has been working in the administrative side of the arts, it gave me a sober insight into the world of curating, thus challenging me to discover new ways in which I can grow.
During the past 20 years, the role of a curator has dramatically shifted from simply being a keeper of a collection of art works to a cultural activist, one who tells a story by highlighting relevant concepts using objects. More often than not, this includes fund-raising, extensive networking and documentation.
Until recent times, Africans were silent about their stories. We allowed others to interpret and remix our narratives. We were silent for many reasons. Some suggest that we lacked the means to tell our own story because oral tradition meant that solid documentation was scarce or non-existent. Others, however, suggest that we chose to remain passive, as long as somehow, our exoticized art work made it to the corners of the world and we basked in short-term gratification.
Simon Njami put it this way:
â€œOn a continent where voice is a privileged means of expression, creativity does not speak. Or long refused to, that is. The silence might have been an act of defence and timidity, a sign of stupor which the world kept on producing with its speeches and machines. A refusal to lay itself bare, to give in to rules devised for and by othersâ€¦â€¦.All interpretations contain an inherent misunderstanding. A silent mask cannot contradict an interpreter, it just lets him comment.â€ (Njami 2007)*
Eventually, African curators such as Njami, Okwui Enwezor and Bisi Siliva began to rise up in order to defy the status quo. No one can contest that their work so far has been highly commendable. â€œAfrica Remixâ€, â€œArt at Workâ€, CCA Lagos and Enwezorâ€™s work through the JoBurg Biennale and â€œDocumentaâ€ have put Africa on the map, suggesting that there is a new Africanity. Clive Kellner suggests this in his essay, â€œNotes from Down South: Towards Defining Contemporary African Practiceâ€.
However, in spite of all of these efforts, there are still vast gaps that need to be filled on the continent regarding the visual arts. Strategically themed, â€œNew Ideas and New Possibilitiesâ€, this forum and workshop was truly ground breaking and aimed to develop ideas and install skill sets in young professionals like myself.
As a participant, I was able to sit under the mentorship of cultural movers and shakers who have made significant curatorial contributions in various parts of the world. This was because internationally acclaimed curators were flown in to Bulawayo to present special topics on curating or on the visual arts as whole.
These curators included, Tessa Jackson, the Chief Executive Officer from Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts) London; Jimmy Ogonga, Curator and Project Owner of the Nairobi Arts Trust/ Centre for Contemporary Art of East Africa, Kenya; Suzana Sousa, Curator of the Luanda Triennial, Angola, Thembinkosi Goniwe, an Independent Curator and Art Historian , Vaal University of Technology/ Curator of the South African Pavilion at the Venice Biennale; and Candice Oâ€™Brien, an Independent Curator from Cape Town, South Africa.
Local facilitators and presenters included, Doreen Sibanda, the Executive Director of the NGZ; Raphael Chikukwa, Chief Curator and Deputy Director of NGZ; Voti Thebe, the Regional Director of NGZ in Bulawayo; Lilian Chaonwa, a Conservation and Collections Manager NGZ; Clifford Zulu, Curator of NGZ in Bulawayo; and Dr Moira Fitzpatrick, the Regional Director of the Natural History Museum.
Various topics were presented in order to challenge the participants and deliberate on possible solutions that affect the practise on the continent. Topics included The Role of the Curator and the Issues Pertaining to Biennales in Africa; Meaning and Aesthetics in Curating; and Curating Contemporary African Art.
The Forum and Workshop enabled me to obtain practical information about how to drive a curatorial vision and engage new audiences. Drafting of curatorial concepts, conservation of artwork and skills needed to approach key institutions were among the many subjects discussed.
Plans regarding synergies between scientific/ historical museums and contemporary art institutions were made since much time was spent brainstorming with other participants from different institutions. I was reminded about the importance of documentation through publications and journals. Sadly in the past, African professionals in the curatorial field have had little to refer back to because of failure of their predecessors to adequately document exhibitions, artists and artefacts. We were also introduced to new ideas such as Online Curating and ways that social media can promote gallery or museum programming.
Why host this Forum/Workshop in Bulawayo? I think that hosting this event there gave us an insight into historical art events or organizations that fostered art in Zimbabwe and beyond. Participants were able to tour Cyrene Mission and attend the opening of the â€œRemembering Pachipamweâ€ exhibition.
The mission school was founded by Canon Patterson in 1940. His emphasis on visual art in the school curriculum helped to equip some of Zimbabweâ€™s top stone sculptors such as George Nene. Frescoes depicting dark skinned mythical and Biblical characters embellish the walls of the Cyrene Chapel, which still stands. It was important for the participants to tour the school to create a better understanding of the impact that art education can have on a society. In a similar vein, the works in the exhibition were the product of The â€œPachipamwe Workshopâ€ that took place in 1992 in Bulawayo. Having these works displayed exposed the young professionals to the possibilities that can occur when there is effective networking and collaboration within their practises.
I think that this Curatorial Forum and Workshop were well organized and a wonderful platform for all those who attended. All agree that there is aneed forthis to evolve into an annual event since it had such a tremendous impact.
Documentation of the event is being compiled by the National Gallery of Zimbabwe and will appear in one of their publications this year. â€œThank you British Council, National Gallery of Zimbabwe and National Museums and Monuments for making this platform an enormous success.â€
The pictures shows some of the participants at the curatorial workshop
– By Tandazani Dhlakama