In Case You Missed It
An educational reflection of When We See Us
with Zeitz MOCAA
Programmed event | Zeitz MOCAA experience
Contributors: Koyo Kouoh, Zandile Tshabalala and Ashraf Johardien
Key outcomes of day’s programme
- Slow factories, museums are an integral part of the contemporary art ecosystem because beyond the media and market frenzy, an institution like Zeitz MOCAA offers the public a deeper and lasting understanding of what is happening in the sphere.
- Ingrained in the urgency of presenting an exhibition like When We See Us is making black joy a significant outcome of contemporary art.
- From the perspectives of a curator and an artist, consider the impact that patronage has on encouraging expansion, agency and growth.
On 1 April 2023 BMW Young Collectors Co. members were invited to Meet the Curators + Artist + Collector at Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art. One of the most representative collections of contemporary art from Africa and its Diaspora, the museum’s mandate is to collect and preserve contemporary African art for Africans.
To start, members enjoyed a curator-led walkabout of the group exhibition When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting that one member in attendance described as “gratifying and fulfilling”.
Following the walkabout, Ashraf Johardien facilitated a conversation between Koyo Kouoh and Zandile Tshabalala. Describing the premise of When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting, Koyo Kouoh says, “We have been so force fed what does not belong to us, with ideas that do not represent us, with imagery that is not ours, with aesthetics that are not ours. Whilst at the same time, our ideas, our aesthetics, our philosophies have been consistently and continuously disparaged.”
An exchange offering BMW Young Collectors Co. members insight into Kouoh’s curatorial practice, the role of Zeitz MOCAA on the continent and the sensibilities central to Tshabalala’s approach to black figuration, below are some of the key takeaways from the panel.
The problem + solution
Over the last decade there has been a resurgence of the black figure in contemporary art. In spite of this attention, there were no meaningful institutional conversations and curatorial interventions addressing the topic on the African continent. As exhibition makers, curators and art historians, Zeitz MOCAA saw it fit to address this through an exhibition, publication and various conversations under the When We See Us umbrella. After Kouoh took over directorship of Zeitz MOCAA in 2019, the museum’s role expanded. “Initially, the plan was to have this museum as a receptacle and showcase for the collection of Jochen Zeitz,” explains Kouoh. “What we are now doing is building a museum of modern and contemporary art. Our aim is not only to be a premium institution to see, study and preserve contemporary practice but to have conversations that embed different temporalities including African modernity and classical art.”
To start, Kouoh and her curatorial team spent two years looking at work by black artists where there is black life. As a museum, Zeitz MOCAA approached the frenzy with the hopes of providing a differential and deeper understanding of what is happening. “Museums are slow factories, they are no newsrooms that have to be on top of the latest happenings. We take time to reflect and research in order to cement the impact of practices,” expands Kouoh. A conscious study of the black portraiture and figuration canon, the conversation positioned When We See Us as putting black figuration in perspective for audiences to understand and see where the canon comes from, where it is, as well as its potential development and evolution. Representing the group exhibition’s artists on the panel was Zandile Tshabalala.
The practice governing the artist
A young artist, Tshabalala’s practice is centred around depicting her perspective of what it means to be black in this time. For Kouoh, Tshabalala embodies the idea of artistic genealogies in “what I call the Kerry James-Marshall effect where artists are taking guidance and inspiration from Kerry James Marshall and making it their own”.
Giving further context to this, Tshabalala explains how “it started in art history class where I was seeing all these artists and not really knowing where to place myself. I found myself gravitating towards artists that were celebrated for representation, specifically Kerry James-Marshall. Seeing the way he portrayed Blackness made sense to me. I felt seen in his paintings and it made sense to carry on this depiction. “
Citing Pablo Picasso’s “Good artists copy. Great artists steal,” Tshabalala looks at the ways she references James-Marshall as heeding the call to turn her artistic lens onto the black Canon because “studying art and being bombarded by Western depictions, I had the urgent need to familiarise myself more with the black canon.”
Ingrained in the urgency of presenting an exhibition like When We See Us is making joy a significant outcome. “The debate of what art does or is meant to do is endless and always renewed. For me an exhibition like this is uplifting. We can never have enough of seeing black experiences presented in a loving, caring, joyful, emancipatory, triumphant and autobiographical way.” For Tshabalala, the youngest artist presented in When We See Us, the exhibition asserted there being room for learning artists amongst established practitioners. “The assumption is that you would first need to be seasoned in a space like this. But being the youngest artist in such a show is very affirming. It was a reminder that there is no one way to make art and represent womanhood.”
The director of an institution that preserves and presents their collection and loans to the public, Kouoh asserts the importance of buying and collecting art on the continent as urgent and essential in the ecology of artistic practice because “Even though practices are very much occupied by Africans, even though curatorial spaces have been very much occupied by ourselves, patronage is still largely non-African. We have to address it very urgently, very quickly”.
For Tshabalala, patronage allows her the confidence to avoid compromise. Answering a question around whether the black figuration affected or pressured her output, Tshabalala admitted to being overwhelmed by opportunity. “It’s one thing to make and distribute work just for the sake of it. But I’m working with such delicate matters so it’s important to consider where I am showing work and why a lot. I have to respect not only myself but the people who need to see more of themselves being depicted in the ways that I do. It’s difficult because you lose capital and you lose opportunities and become unreliable. But that’s a big part of honouring the work being intentional. I believe it will be worth it in the long term.”