“When I have an answer, I write; When I have a question, I curate.”
by Naomi Jennings O'Toole
16th December 2019
At the Business of Art Society
The Courtauld's Business of Art Society (also known as BoAS) might immediately give the impression that it is a society very focused on the commercial careers of the art history world. BoAS does organise events based on the classically commercial: auction housing, advising and dealership. Yet, alongside this runs a thread of lectures that broaden the whole idea of what the business of art can and does include, like careers in law. Their most recent lecture was given by Osei Bonsu, curator at Tate Modern since September this year. As somebody who was excited to talk to us, as budding art historians, his lecture was a fantastic culmination to this term's (and 2019's) BoAS events.
Fresh into his new job role, Bonsu launched into the timeline of his career path, explaining how he ended up at his current position as Curator of African Acquisitions at Tate. It was largely due to his interest in the conditions and problems surrounding African art. How should we locate Africa on a world map? What are the conditions of Africaneity? Since completing his Master's degree at UCL, a university he chose over the Courtauld due to the lack of African art course modules offered here, Bonsu allowed his passion for his field to navigate the tricky career-formation phase; all that networking and unpaid internship work (thankfully illegal for us now). But it was attending events, meeting new people, and spending time with artists that upheld the curation motivation.
A piece of advice? Hang out with artists. Visit their studios and you will unconsciously begin curating. In fact, it was in a studio that Osei made the connections to jumpstart his career with an internship at the Saatchi Gallery, exhibiting an artist he knew there.
Osei Bonsu at the Courtauld (Photo by Sieun Lee)
At the Saatchi Gallery, Bonsu worked on an exhibition titled Pangaea II: New Art from Africa and Latin America (2 April 2014 - 2 November 2014), displaying the artworks of many emerging artists to open up the dialogue on the environment of their homelands and the complexities of their present day. The featured artists particularly reflected on social and political issues related to the atmosphere of a changing city, rapid urbanisation, and economic expansion. Exhibiting this art to the London public audience raised curatorial issues. African art exhibitions were usually about pieces made in Africa. What would be gained by disrupting this and displaying these works alongside objects from elsewhere? Latin America and Africa, two continents once united under the landmass Pangaea, were returned to their prehistoric friendship through the marrying of their art within this exhibition.
A similar issue presented itself to Bonsu while working at the Institute of International Visual Arts, (aka Iniva). The appeal of this position lies in its opportunities to explore international artists, a definition that was usually based on merely having a different background. An example of these artists are the children of immigrants, who had lived in the UK their entire lives but held roots in another cultural tradition. A space was needed to look at what internationalism actually meant and how this played a role in art history, curating, museum display, and institutional investment.
For me, the most interesting part of Bonsu's talk was his work at the 56th Venice Biennale, All The World’s Futures (2015), under Okwui Enwezor. Enwezor’s idea was that art is always made in social conditions and can never detach from this, a theory heightened by exhibiting works made in relation to cultural memory. As President of the Venice Biennale, Paolo Baratta states, this was “a global exhibition where we may question or at least listen to artists coming from 53 countries, many of them from geographical areas that we paradoxically insist on defining as peripheral. This will also help us uncover the latest tendencies regarding the geography and routes taken by contemporary art.” Such issues are strikingly relevant to the direction art history is taking today. The display of a new definition of international artwork unveils issues with the traditional curatorial methods. For example, Karo Akpokiere’s contribution to the Biennale, Zwischen Lagos und Berlin (2015), was undertaken in pencil, pen, markers, and gouache to represent the social, political, and personal experiences of walking through the cities of Berlin and Lagos.
Karo Akpokiere's drawing series, Zwischen Lagos und Berlin (2015), in the Arsenale at the 56th Venice Biennale. (Photo Courtesy of the Venice Biennale)
At this point, Bonsu directly addressed us in the audience and asked us to think outside of what is typically displayed in museums, whether this is an encompassing definition of art. The art of graphic artist Akpokiere was used as an opening to this discussion. At the end of his lecture, an audience member asked whether museums, built on the foundations of a distinctly Western notion of art, could ever be appropriate for the display of African art. He responded by thinking discursively; it is not that museums are not suitable as their very concept is flexible. Museums and galleries are not just about taking care of objects but can also be a civic place for cultural regeneration and inspiration. Museums do have a complex relationship to empire, beginning with an encyclopedic display of ‘oddities’ and ‘exotics’. Therefore, it is vital that such institutions do work in a responsible and ethical way.
Saying that, the appointment of Bonsu by Tate speaks to a redefining of museum and gallery principles, to something that can be wielded to challenge, teach, and provoke the general public’s thinking of art. The Tate has a recent expansion called the Switch House, which is a new space that can allow Tate to extend the stories of art history that it has been telling for a long time. Bonsu spoke about his role as one bringing discomfort to a comfortable environment, raising problems on how artists are represented by institutions and how the public responds to this.
More advice: tune in to what artists are asking. Bonsu does mainly work with living artists and likes to spend time with them before exhibiting their work in order to accurately represent them to the public. He further explained how it is necessary to ask how you can serve them, rather than the other way around. Personally, I have heard many stories from artists fresh out of university who had to adapt their work to suit a particular exhibition theme, and consequently felt as if a part of themselves was lost in the process. Working closely with artists can be tricky in a gallery institution, where projects are fast-moving to outpace the art market. Joining an environment like this can make a budding curator feel like a paper bag in the wind. So, be sure to build your passion and establish a direction. Be bold about the kinds of projects or exhibitions you want to work on. This way, the institution will support you and your goals. For Bonsu, Tate’s objects have a claim to the question of demapping African art. Moreover, he is aware that he represents a community that wants to have this conversation. Both require destabilising, an exciting process which drives his work.
Bonsu speaking to a few students (Photo by Sieun Lee)
Bonsu lead his presentation with images of artworks he particularly engaged with, speaking with enthusiasm about the philosophical engagement embedded within their work while commenting on the complexities the artists usually liked to reveal. The lecture was largely based on dismantling the canons and alternative ways of thinking about and displaying art to the public, and in turn provoking gallery-goers to reconsider how they view artworks. In this, I see so many links to the agendas that the Courtauld is aspiring to incorporate in its syllabus, which is taking an increasingly disruptive attitude towards canons. The Courtauld is also expanding the range of modules in terms of era, geography and medium, to broaden what is considered as ‘art’ - think about the From Shiraz to Beijing: Persian Arts in the Global Fifteenth Century course, or Chair that was offered as a topic course for the BA1’s last year. The BoAS lecture by Osei Bonsu seems like the perfect trigger for students to think about the ways we will move art history forward as we approach the new decade.
Naomi is a second year BA student and is a co-editor for the Events team. She has worked at gallery events at a variety of institutions including the Holburne Museum, Easel arts fair and at the Courtauld too. Most recently, she curated her own exhibition and accompanying festival events. In her writing, she aims to express art’s potential as a viewer-led interaction, while celebrating London - a city brimming with events, artistic performances and unique experiences. instagram @naomi.j.otoole