Curator: Friend or Foe of Art

By Dominic Muwanguzi

There has been a raging discussion on the curatorial practice for the Kampala Art Biennale (KAB18) undertaken by internationally renowned curator, Simon Njami, on social media and international art platforms. The conversation emerged in the aftermath of the biennale with online art publications publishing a series of articles. First a critical review by Enos Nyamor and later a response to that review authored by Simon Njami in Contemporary And, and shortly thereafter a critical essay by Kwasi Ohehe- Ayeh, a artist, curator and writer based in Kumasi-Ghana, on the success and failures of the biennale. Of course the tradition of attaching praise or blame to the curator of an exhibit is evident here, and does unfortunately isolate the artist(s) who is the creator of the artwork mounted or supervised by the curator.

The role of the curator

The role of the curator is to supervise and not undercut the work of the producer of the artwork. Here it goes without saying that the curator and artist need to work side by side, or rather complement each other in their independent positions.

Njami’s opening speech at KAB18 (image courtesy of KAB18)

Njami’s opening speech at KAB18 (image courtesy of KAB18)

Arrogant?

In the context of the KAB18, the curator, Simon Njami, proposed a master/ apprentice model to respond to the question posed by the organizers of how the biennale can be made sustainable and more so, invoke government support of art. This was a well deserved intention but was soon perforated by a section of local artists who accused the curator of hand-picking masters from outside the continent (although most of the masters proposed for the biennial by Simon Njami were from the continent, they live in Europe) as if Uganda, the venue for the biennale, has no masters.  Some interpreted such action by Njami as arrogant. According to them he had no audacity to claim there are no masters in Uganda. It should be noted here, a few years back, the same curator had controversially announced that there’s no art in Uganda something that left a sour taste in the mouth of the artists!

The KAB poster with Courbert painting

The KAB poster with Courbert painting

Was the choice of artists deliberate or a lack of understanding of the local context?

The curator went on further to select a painting by Gustave Courbet The Painter’s Studio, 1855 for the festival poster. The image served the purpose of emphasizing the tradition of the studio where master and apprentice reside as not only a preserve for the west but also Africa.  But its significance in drawing that comparison was again missed.  If Njami had been egoistic in his decision to “import” masters to the KAB18, this time he had totally negated the idea of any good art produced in Uganda. Why didn’t Njami easily – although he had already concluded that there’s no art in Uganda – prefer any artwork of the “local masters” like Sanaa Gateja, Fred Mutebi or Francis Nagenda for the exhibition poster to localize this concept of the studio tradition? 

Who receives credit for the art?

Yet another critique by Enos Nyamor titled “From Missionaries to Artists”[i] published in Contemporary And, says that the young artists’ names in the exhibit were not given due prominence. According to the critic, the praiseworthy for the artwork went to the curator and the masters and not the apprentices. Thus he writes “All the works are credited to the master, which works towards obliterating the urgency and expression of the emerging artists”. In the exhibit therefore, the names of the artists fall under the ostentatious identity of the masters an element that somewhat destroys the ownership of the artwork by the artist.

The power of selection

The furor meted out on Njami is understandable although can be contested like the curator himself wrote in his “Letter from the outsider”[ii] published in Contemporary And.  Nevertheless, his justification for his curatorial practice in the biennale still deserves scrutiny. In the essay, Art without Artists?[iii], the writer Anton Vidokle, contends that there’s a growing trend in contemporary art of curators owning so much powers in the exhibitions they mount. The writer gives a background of such powers emanating from the fact that the curator does more than mount an exhibition, but also selects what is made visible in the show, contextualize and frame the production of artists and sometimes oversees the distribution of production funds. This according to the writer inspires resentment for them from artists, and are (curators) perceived egocentric, ignorant and controlling of the artists’ work. He further gives an analogy of the relationship between the workforce and management to emphasize this argument. The workers often times accuse their managers of mistreatment and mismanagement.

Should we opt for artists’ curated shows?

But is it possible for the producers of art (artists) to curate their own work and do away with the activities of the curator? Anton Vidokle in his essay gives several examples of shows that have been curated by artists as a result of the hostility of curators towards artists and vice-versa. He further claims that these shows where successful because they “demonstrated that curating can become a part of artistic practice as any social form or activity”.

Discourse and conversations

On the local scene, it is difficult to venture into such a discipline by artists. Why? Because the institution of curatorial practice is still nascent and the “curators” are yet to understand the dynamics of the profession like Simon Njami does. Njami does more than select artworks for an exhibition or mount it; most importantly he builds authentic and sustainable conversations around the theme of the exhibition. This is evident in the ensuing debate ongoing about the KAB18 concept of the Master which after all is a good experience to immortalize the event given its ephemeral and irregular characteristic like most biennials happening across the globe in these contemporary times.  


[i] https://www.contemporaryand.com/magazines/from-missionaries-to-artists/

[ii] https://www.contemporaryand.com/magazines/simon-njami-the-masters-acted-as-mentors-big-brothers-uncles/

[iii] https://www.e-flux.com/journal/16/61285/art-without-artists/

Dominic Muwanguzi
Art Journalist

Dominic  Muwanguzi is former editor Startjournal.org and  a freelance art writer/ researcher on the Kampala Art Scene.

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