The Artist and the Curator

As an artist, I perceive my work as constantly negotiating its place and relevance in the world of images and ideas. Dominique Berthet offers a more pointed description when she writes, “it [the work] takes the risk of offering itself up for viewing, for emotion, for analysis; a risk which is repeated at each meeting”.1 Her use of “risk”  highlights the precariousness inherent in the idea of exhibiting one’s work in the public space since the art work will always be subjected to references beyond itself: these could be existing ideologies, representations and dogmas which the work may affirm, denounce, or perhaps acquiesce to. There is a further complexity regarding his or her public when the artist shows their work: every member of what composes this public is coming into the exhibition encounter equipped with their own baggage of biases or prejudiced voices which influence the meaning-making process. This multiplicity of perspectives homed in the public domain therefore behoves the artist to open him or herself up to the welter of views and interpretations that their interventions in the world elicit.

I once had a conversation with a Ugandan writer in Senegal about [art] criticism on the continent. At the time he had observed that the artists he had critiqued rebutted with biographical or self-referential arguments about their work which made criticism redundant in that sense. I agreed with him that artists ought to bring themselves to a certain level of accountability for the independent decisions that altogether form what is perceived in their work but this in no way should come to mean subordination to the critic’s position. The critic, whose theoretical preoccupation is reading other worlds and meanings into an artist’s work, may not be plagued with the narcissism of his or her own centrality as the artist is. They may be assessing based on intentionality, experience, material and formal choices in addition to speculating on what the signs and symbols connote in the artist’s work. The artist’s investment of meaning should define the starting point into the dialogical interactions their work initiates — his or her voice cannot be made extrinsic to the discourse. The imperative here, regarding the artist, is to recognize that their work participates in a much broader conversation beyond their initially singular point-of-view, which goes back to the point made earlier about the artist accommodating other readings of their work.

Exhibition making as curatorial practice – the moment in culture where concrete artistic practice meets theoretical constructions to produce aesthetic experiences – has brought the curator into a relevant and prominent position. There is often a power narrative between the curator and other practitioners — the artist in particular. Simon Njami, in his text for the South Meets West exhibition which took place at the National Museum in Accra, Ghana at the turn of the 21st century, addressed this by identifying a new type of king in the the contemporary art world. He asserted that this new king was a naked king who “has the power of inclusion or exclusion” but whose power “is a loan, and can be called into question at any time, either by the artists or by the institutions behind their position”2. The emergence of artist-curators further complicates this power narrative brought about by the dichotomy.

I can conceive of a situation where I would submit my work to adjust itself to the stipulations of a curatorial project in order to examine how the work functions in this new context and the sorts of acquired meanings and interpretations the new environment confers onto the work. However, it would be difficult to conceive of a situation where my voice is not active in the conversations, given the new conditions defined by the curator. The decision to participate in the said curatorial project would only happen out of interest and willingness to move beyond my position and the parameters I as creator had initially defined for the work to exist in. This should be seen as a way of further extending the life and relevance of the work or collection of works in question and not be understood solely as a validation of my practice by the curator.

I think of the relationship between the artist and the curator as that of a working collaboration. The term connotes shared responsibilities, active dialogue, negotiation and respect. There is also the aspect of collaboration that leaves room for impulse and brilliance on the part of the actors which borders on trust. El Anatsui, in a talk at Art Basel with Bisi Silva3, stated that respect was a key component shared between him and the curators he had worked with throughout his professional practice. The artist is at liberty to think through possible curatorial contexts and see how the core ideas inherent to both artwork and theoretical project relate to each other and what possibilities can be realized through a given engagement. The exhibition curator contextualizes or re-contextualizes an artist’s work for the purpose of an exhibition. This constitutes, at any given moment, only one of many possible modes of [re]presenting the artist’s work.

Non-European practitioners (artists, curators, intellectuals) — who have been regarded as lacking language and history; as lacking the ability of enunciating our position and have, as a result, been spoken for for so long — are compelled, in the 21st century, to begin to create new societies through our artistic and theoretical endeavors. Is it possible to imagine a future with societies not hoodwinked by its past (so as to solely distinguish between things in terms of binaries — either this, or that) but rather these societies as spaces enlarged by the interactions with other cultural influences which have been an insistent feature in its history? In this new future, we will begin to interrogate phenomena with a logic which is paraconsistent; fit for elucidating the paradoxes and/or contradictions we encounter.

Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh (2015)


1 Dominique Berthet’s essay titled “What should we expect from art criticism?” in the 11e biennale de l’art africain Contemporaine, DAK’ART 2014 [Catalogue], p. 338

2 Simon Njami, The Curator as a Naked King — Contextualisation and Decontextualisation, South Meets West [Exhibition Catalogue], November 9, 1999 – June 25, 2000, p.52-5. The exhibition took place at the National Museum in Accra, Ghana.

3 The talk titled The Artist And The Curator organized by Contemporary And (C&) with El Anatsui and Bisi Silva. Watch interview here: