Curation for the other 90%
Curation is defined as a field of endeavour involved with assembling, managing and presenting some type of collection. Illustrious examples are found in great institutions such as The British Museum, the V&A and Tate. However, these same institutions, the staple of accumulation of knowledge, culture art and history are increasingly put under the microscope for the rationales behind their curated displays. These inquiries beg the question of ownership of historical artefacts, challenge the male gazed and exoticized nature of displays and narratives, and forces us to consider who the curators are and whom they curate for. The Wunderkammern, or cabinets of curiosities, arose in mid-sixteenth-century Europe as repositories for all manner of wondrous and exotic objects. As an early attempt to retrieve, structure and transmit information they can be seen as the precursors to museums. Despite the vast differences found in methodology, there are key similarities between modern curation and the collections of a Wunderkammern, the most outstanding being the structural privilege prevalent. The gaze, be it male, able-bodied, white, upper class and so on define in a great measure of how the content impacts the audience. A talk given by Scott Burell from Create London about their joint study with the Barbican on the diversity of the Arts and culture industry disclosed an increasing disconnection between the content creators e.g: curators and museums and the demographic they are supposedly targeting. Broadly speaking it reduced itself to a lack of diversity and a demographic bubble within the members of the art sector.
Tackling the privilege system left by a colonial legacy is no small feat as it is intrinsically embedded in many layers of our society and most of us are not aware in which ways we passively participate in it. As much as museum and art organisations work towards broadening the scope of their vision as well as creating more diverse curator pools, it is down to every individual to do their bit towards this big conversation. This September I had the opportunity to do just that while debuting as a curator for a segment of the Everything Happens so Much show at LCC during LDF.
This summer I travelled Senegal and worked side by side with local artisans, who not only showed us the unique crafts and their heritage, but taught us a great deal about their ways of working. They shared with us philosophies such as Solutionism, Make, Do and Mend and generally making most of all available resources without compromising great outcomes. This 'come what may' attitude, this improvisation and thinking on their feet really struck us as one of the keys to their success as makers. The country is vibrant and full of potential, and It's long history of cultural hibridity enriches the art and craft produced in the cities, remote villages and streets and the famous 'artisanal villages'. It does however also have disproportionate unevenness of wealth, which directly impacts the availability of education and also the development opportunities for the average person. Arguably this is precisely due to Senegal's own colonial legacy, as the vast majority of the countries in the continent have. This made me and my colleagues feel uncomfortably aware of the vantage point of our perspectives as well as its blindspots. While privilege is usually a silent and invisible to the naked eye, in Senegal it was made evident, even more so when we visited Nguindir, a village where many of the children had never seen a group of white students. It was a beautiful occasion of true and innocent curiosity that had us surrounded by many arms, questions voiced in dialects, french and slurred english. Being put in a position where we where observed as an oddity, a curiosity from a far away place ignited a whole series of questions and debates about our role in the trip, as students, designers and ultimately as cultural tourists. How do we become more than spectators in a performance designed to inform and inspire us, curated to our desire to experience 'alternative' ways of working and living? How do we give back to them when our practice has no impact here whatsoever, because it is as most design we have experienced, western-centric?
When we returned we have had lots of debates, discussions and reflected deeply on how we could best represent and collate our experience and what they taught us through an exhibition. We are the third and most recent instalment and the first to collate the work into a show. This represented a huge responsibility because Route Artlantique itself has evolved and grown, and each individual has contributed different expectations and attitudes to the workshops. Eventually, It was my colleague Celine and I who took charge over the curation and production of the exhibition and got to make some very exciting yet difficult decisions. The greatest question of them all was how to avoid misrepresenting and doing justice to the people we met during our travels and their trades, avoiding the infamous exoticized gaze, yet displaying the objects and materials that impacted our visual and critical thinking in an accessible way. A key referent on our journey to tackle 'the Gaze' as a two-way conversation was a photographic project by fellow router, Joel Karammath. His portraits not only assessed the roles of the observed and the observer by using the traditional framing, but by facilitating them through a series of conversations in a mixture of english, french and body language it produced an intimate link between the two. This ultimately challenged the notion of the picture as the outcome but instead upholds the dialogue as the final and valuable product.
The final narrative running through the exhibition is one that drew from the spectators healthy curiosity and the artists conversation starting pieces.The topics tackled by the works made both during our stay in the country as well as those made after with the philosophies taught by the artisans span from pollution, post colonial legacy, reclaiming materials, to subverting western design and cultural hibridity in local craft. These are some of the many lines of conversations we had with the audience, who was diverse in age, race, class and ability. The key outcome of this experience for Celine and myself as curators and producers was the possibility to create a safe space for reflection and dialogue for such a wide audience. The incredibly positive and energetic reception from institutions and the general public, the tons of good reviews and even more importantly, superb criticism and advice has only broadened our understanding and our practice and our desire to ignite more dialogues. This experience has not made me tip the scales of privilege, but It has certainly changed me in more ways than I expected to change it. I believe that I know now how to keep doing my part as a practitioner for the 90%.
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