South Africa’s Star Curator Questions The Role of Museums and Curators in Chicago Keynote

The Curatorial Forum at the 2022 edition of Expo Chicago began with a reminder and a call to action.

“I think that in the last two and a half years, we’ve gotten a little sore,” Renaud Proch said in his opening remarks. The executive and artistic director of Independent Curators International, which helped organize the forum, explained that he thought curators had fallen into “curatorial muscle memory,” or the habit of simply doing what one has always done.

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“We have to reset our bodies and our muscles and let go of curatorial muscle memory, so the Forum in my mind this year is particularly important because of it is our Pilates session fashion and it will reset our curatorial body,” he said.

It was apt introduction for Koyo Kouoh, who was on hand to deliver the year’s keynote address, which she titled “Institution Building as Curatorial Practice: How to Go From 100 Square Meters to 6,000 Square Meters.” Kouoh, the executive director and chief curator of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, South Africa, on her first visit to Chicago, had a strong analysis of contemporary museums and curators to share.

Prior to joining Zeitz in 2019, Kouoh founded, in 2008, RAW Material Company, an independent arts space in Dakar, Senegal, that was “born out of the necessity to create a space for sharing knowledge, a place that would provide access to contemporary artistic theory and in return generated discourse, ideas, and practice” because of a “dearth of such spaces” in the region at the time.

Kouoh began by calling on patrons to support curators because so few organizations currently support curatorial work with the funds necessary for residencies or grants for research, exhibition production, and publications.

“That’s a real question, and that’s something that bothers me deeply,” she said. “Curators are essential.”

What is a curator today?

To discuss the role curators play now, Kouoh offered her own interpretation of the term. At a time when everything is curated—from hotels and workouts to menus, playlists, and clothing stores—Kouoh said she instead prefers to think of herself as an exhibition maker, a producer, or even a midwife. She noted that in French “There is no verb for our practice, which somehow suggests that there is no action in what we do.”

Kouoh delved back further to the Latin root of the words curate and curator—cura or “to care for”—and posited that the “historical role of a curator as caretaker and protector of a particular collection” has taken on new meaning today. For her, this is the ethos of RAW Material Company.

“Their curatorial practice is their way of caring for the society and its citizens to ensure their well-being and vitality,” she said. Art institutions then “are not only products of their environments, but also active and invaluable agents capable of shaping their societies in return.”

When Kouoh became the director of Zeitz MOCAA, just nine months before South Africa’s Covid-19 lockdown began, she said she asked herself several questions about her new role: “What is a museum? Is it a fancy location like ours? Or is it a concept, a project, an idea? Is it maybe an organic body, something that is alive, reflexive, and generative? Or is it dead?”

As the collectors and interpreters of objects, museums “preserve and protect” our shared memory, she said. And though “the museum has always been first and foremost a building” and like any container “it is only worth the value of its content.”

The pandemic has shaped anew how she is responding to these questions—and added new ones.

“For me, it cannot be business as usual,” she said. “How do we collaborate? How do we tell stories and recall history? How do we create sites of possibility? And how could this impact the type of curatorial work that we do?”

Her recommendations for the curators in the room is to echo her approach to curating by focusing on perspectives and geographies that “are historically and culturally relevant to you,” she said. “And as I said earlier, the U.S. is just an extension of Africa.”

Kouoh urged those attending to “challenge yourself and your institutions toward expanding your curatorial scope and understanding the interdependency of practices.”

A clip art image of the African continent in which USA, China, Japan, India, and Europe have been superimposed to fit inside it.

Koyo Kouoh’s second slide for her keynote address.

Kouoh ended the talk by returning to her second slide, an image in which the United States, China, India, and much of Europe all fit into the African continent.

“Everything is a matter of perspective, and from my perspective, the world looks like this,” she said.


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