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Conversation  |  Artist, scholar and curator, USA

Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi

In Conversation with
Stephanie Bailey
22 September 2015
Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi. Photo: Caleb Kenna Photography
Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi. Photo: Caleb Kenna Photography

Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi is an artist, scholar, and curator of African Art at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, in the States. In 2014, he was the co-curator of the 11th Dak’Art Biennale alongside Elise Atangana and Abdelkader Damani, heralding the event as an opportunity to revisit the history of the twentieth-century Black politics of visibility. The reason the biennale was established in 1989, Nzewi notes, was because of the absence of an international platform for artists of African origins to be seen, and to be heard.

In this interview, Stephanie Bailey talks to Nzewi about the 56th Venice Biennale, Dak’Art, and Black politics in the context of the United States, using as a point of departure a recent group show that Nzewi curated at Richard Taittinger Gallery celebrating the growing impact of African art in the contemporary art world. Titled Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

, the Richard Taittinger show featured works by contemporary African artists Halida Boughriet, Gopal Dagnogo, Sam Hopkins, Onyeka Ibe, Amina Menia, Chika Modum, Aida Muluneh, Chike Obeagu, Amalia Ramanankirahina, Ephrem Solomon, Uche Uzorka, and Beatrice Wanjiku.

Let's start with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? The show was curated with two things in mind: Sidney Poitier’s 1967 epic comedy-drama film from which the exhibition takes its name, and the reference by art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu that, quoting your exhibition essay, "African artists have indeed mastered the realpolitik of contemporary art and can now be counted as legitimate stakeholders." Or in other words, as you write: "They have invited themselves to the dinner table of the international mainstream on their own terms." I wonder if you could talk about how the selection of artists and works reflects the thesis you set out, with these two specific references in mind?

I must say that the “dinner” metaphor is something I have drawn upon in the past as an artist and which continues to fascinate me. Speaking strictly about the exhibition, Poitier’s comedy-drama was an important reference on many levels.

For one thing, the film’s title suggests a certain air of mystery that follows the idea of one having to make guess work about something, about individuals attending an event. I thought that Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, was apt in that sense. It was also important to come up with a title that could hold the public imagination considering that the film is part of popular culture and with some kind of historical resonance. Its central narrative of an interracial relationship, and the historical moment in which the film was made—at the height of the civil rights movement—hold a lot of symbolism and gravitas that can be applied to the contemporary. Thus, revisiting the film provided that intellectual space for one to reflect on what I want to call the art world’s civil rights moment in the 1990s, with the opening up of the international art space as non-western art players (artists, curators, critics, art historians) began to insist on their rights to be seen without being ashamed, to be heard, and to contribute to the artworld ecosystem on their own terms.

Exhibition view, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, at Richard Taittinger Gallery, New York. Image courtesy Richard Tattinger Gallery

In drawing upon Princeton University Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu’s observation, it was important to contextualise the road traveled so far. Okeke-Agulu’s dinner table reference is quite instructive in that the growing mainstream acceptance of non-western artists, especially those of African origins, is no act of benevolence but the result of sustained engagement with the structures of the system. This positive development is still a work-in-progress.

Nonetheless, it was a conceptual, albeit creative leap in melding Poitier and Okeke-Agulu. I wanted to address what I felt was a conundrum; on the one hand, the near absence of African representation in the New York art scene beyond the tight circle of the usual suspects, in spite of the general tendency to address New York as the center of the art world, and on the other hand, the rising stock of African artists at the international level. This informed the choice of the artists in the show who have either gained international recognition, or on that path, but have little or no visibility in the United States. But more importantly, I wanted to work with artists whose work allowed me to reflect deeply on the politics of the dinner table metaphor from different angles.

The exhibition locates a historical starting point in the 1990s: "a period characterised by the politics of representation, in response to the unfolding globalisation and neoliberal multiculturalism." It draws a link to the 56th Venice Biennale, All the World’s Futures, curated by Okwui Enwezor: could you elaborate on these connections? What were your thoughts on the Biennale?

The recurring decimal in the many reviews of the 56th Venice Biennale's All the World's Futures is the exceptional number of artists of African origins in it when compared to previous iterations of the biennale. It is a culmination of the 1990s politics of access and representation in my own view. I remember pointing out elsewhere that the 55th Venice Biennale had an unusually smaller number of African artists than in more recent memory. I did wonder how, when we take a step forward, we seem to make two steps backward.  In a way, the 56th Venice Biennale has restored my faith. It was useful to bear this milestone in mind while conceiving the Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? exhibition.

Exhibition view, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, at Richard Taittinger Gallery, New York. Image courtesy Richard Tattinger Gallery

It's interesting that you say the artists in this exhibition, though known in the international art world, "are not yet well-known in the somewhat insular New York art world." Could you expand on that?

With the exception of Aida Muluneh who has exhibited in a few museum exhibitions in the United States and one or two others who have participated in a few nondescript gallery exhibitions, the rest of the artists in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? were making their debut in the United States. Yet these artists have shown severally at major art events and venues in Africa, Europe, South America and Asia.

Ephrem Solomon Tegegn, Untitled from the series Forbidden Fruit, 2014. Oil, woodcut on panel, 25.2 x 25.2 in. (64 x 64 cm.) Image courtesy Richard Taittinger Gallery

You are the curator of African art at Dartmouth College's Hood Museum of Art. I wonder if you might talk about your experience of working with and teaching African art in the context of America, especially with the current issues surrounding race in the country? Did you have the racial tension in the United States in mind when conceiving the show?

These are tough times given the spate of extrajudicial killings and with critical light being shined on police brutality and unsavory style of law enforcement in the Black community. The current situation is not to be trifled with. Having said that, it is also important to bear in mind that such racial tensions are not limited to the United States. They manifest in other ways in other places. Take for example the poor treatment of African immigrants in Germany and parts of Europe, not to mention the spate of xenophobic attacks in South Africa, all which show that we have our work cut out for us. In my work as a scholar, curator, or artist, I aim to keep with the pulse of the time but shorn of rhetoric which I find less useful.

I have always considered the weight of history in thinking through these contemporary events, hence the recourse to Poitier's film, for example, with Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? My class in the last spring term at Dartmouth focused on twentieth century African art. It addressed how colonialism, anticolonial struggles, and the logic of decolonisation shaped the outline of modern and contemporary African art. My recent exhibitions at the Hood Museum, particularly The Art of Weapons and Auto-Graphics: Works by Victor Ekpuk, were critical contexts to flesh out aspects of my class. The Art of Weapons, among other things, drew attention to the ways in which the collection of African weapons by mostly white male collectors in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was tied to a certain Western imperial imagination connected to the colonial enterprise. Some of the works by contemporary Nigerian artist Victor Ekpuk in his exhibition at the Hood Museum explored the memory of the Middle Passage and its echoes on the Civil Rights Movement in mid-century and more recent events, such as Ferguson, among others.

Aida Muluneh, The Wolf You Feed (Part Three), 2014. Digital chromogenic print on cotton rag paper, 31.5 x 31.5 in. (80 x 80 cm.). Ed. 1/5. Image courtesy Richard Taittinger Gallery

You were the co-curator of Dak’Art 2014 alongside Elise Atangana and Abdelkader Damani. This is the oldest biennale on the continent: what was the experience like for you, and what did you learn? Were there any shows you thought of in the process of producing the biennale, and were there any that you thought of in hindsight?

I have stated elsewhere that Dak’Art 2014 was an opportunity for us to revisit the important history of the twentieth century Black politics of visibility. The reason the biennale was established on that fateful day in October 1989 via a presidential pronouncement was because of the absence of an international platform for artists of African origins to be seen and to be heard. Dak’Art’s role in the last twenty-five odd years was preeminent in our mind as we conceptualised the eleventh iteration. Therefore it was very crucial to use an African lens in addressing the global art world without running the risk of ghettoising the biennale. Our theme of "Producing the Common" was very effective in that regard.

But to be honest, it was also a bitter-sweet experience for me. While I am very proud of what Elise, Kader and I achieved; the amount of energy we put to bear toward the success of the biennale, I was also disappointed with some of the challenges which have been there since the biennale’s inception that remain unresolved but can easily be fixed. Chika Okeke-Agulu mentioned some of them in his review of Dak’Art 2014 for Artforum. If there were more resources, perhaps, we could have done some things differently although the bumbling bureaucracy and lack of capacity on the ground are deep-seated problems. We tried so hard to bury such monsters but with limited success. But overall, I think we were able to re-position Dak'Art, placing it at the very of centre of the international mainstream in May-June 2014, and drew the much needed critical attention to it. Arguably, it was a major highlight of 2014.

Halida Boughriet, Les enfants de la République from the series Pandora, 2014. Chromogenic color print, 32.6 x 50 in. (82.9 x 127 cm.) Ed. 1/5. Image courtesy Richard Taittinger Gallery

In 2014, you noted that it was an exciting time for African art, as it is now: but in your opinion, what are the challenges facing African art today, within the context of the global art world, and all its fairs and biennial exhibitions?

Well, the structures of the global art world are still basically "Euro-America-centric," which is why a lot of African artists seek validation in the West. The system of value of the international art world still locates Africa's cultural production at the bottom of the value chain. It is something that should be remedied but it is not lost on me that such work must be undertaken by Africans themselves. The small success that has been recorded thus far is the result of sustained engagement by African operators. We have also seen the rise of an important African art fair, promoted by Africans themselves, but staged in the West. It is an anomaly in a way but I understand its politics of visibility and the opportunity it provides for African artists. However I hope that in my lifetime I will be fortunate to see Western art fairs, the Art Basels of the world (often styled as international or global), staged in Africa. It will not necessarily mean much or be gratifying but at least it might show that we have made some progress with the realpolitik of decentering the art world. —[O]

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