Curator Koyo Kouoh delivered keynote address at Expo Chicago 2022 –

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

“I think we’ve gotten a little bit of pain in the last two and a half years,” Renaud Proch said in his opening remarks. The Executive and Artistic Director of Independent Curators International, who 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.

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

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It was a fitting introduction for Koyo Kouoh, who was in attendance to deliver the keynote address of the year, 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, had a strong analysis of contemporary museums and curators to share on her first visit to Chicago.

Before Kouoh joined Zeitz in 2019, Kouoh founded RAW Material Company in 2008, an independent art space in Dakar, Senegal, which “was born out of the need to create a space for sharing knowledge, a place which would provide access to contemporary artistic theory and in return generated discourse, ideas and practice” due to a “lack of such spaces” in the region at the time.

Kouoh began calling on patrons to support curators because so few organizations currently support curatorial work with the funds needed 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 nowadays?

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

Kouoh delved further back to the Latin root of the words chaplain and curator –therapy or “to care for” – and argued that the “historical role of a curator as custodian and protector of a particular collection” has taken on new meaning today. To her, this is the ethos of RAW Material Company.

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

When Kouoh became director of Zeitz MOCAA just nine months before the Covid-19 lockdown began in South Africa, 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 perhaps an organic body, something alive, reflexive and generative? Or is it dead?”

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

The pandemic has reshaped how it responds to these questions — and added new ones.

“It can’t be business as usual for me,” she said. “How do we work together? How do we tell stories and remember history? How do we create sites with possibilities? And how might this affect the kind of curatorial work we do?”

Her recommendations for the curators in the room are to reflect her approach to curatorship by focusing on perspectives and geographic areas that are “historically and culturally relevant to you,” she said. “And as I said before, the US is just an extension of Africa.”

Kouoh urged attendees to “challenge yourself and your institutions to expand your curatorial scope and understand the interdependence of practices.”

A clip art image of the African continent with the US, China, Japan, India and Europe superimposed to fit inside.

Koyo Kouoh’s second slide for her keynote address.

Kouoh ended the conversation by returning to her second slide, an image where 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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