“Curating and Collecting Anti-Racism?”: An Online Conversation (RCMC Event)

Ming Tiampo – Curator, Carleton University Museum, Ottawa, Canada

Ming Tiampo – Curator, Carleton University Museum.

Curator and academic Dr Ming Tiampo’s illustrated presentation featured thought-provoking and reflexive case study analysis of two past projects from her portfolio of major exhibitions: (1) “ImagiNation: New Cultural Topographies” (2008/9) – co-curated with Nicole Neufield and Caroline Vanderloo, and shown at Carleton University Art Gallery (2008) and Toronto University’s Doris McCarthy Gallery (2009); (2) “Gutai: Splendid Playground” (2013) – co-curated by Ming Tiampo and Alexandra Munroe for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

The “ImagiNation” project was specifically designed with the 20th anniversary commemoration of the passing into law of the Multiculturalism Act in Canada as its socio-political context. Linked to this narrative were additional questions concerning how people of colour, Indigenous communities (and other ‘minoritized’ groups) have historically been reflected and represented – or not! – within cultural discourses and exhibited object-based narratives about citizenship, identity and belonging in relation to the Canadian nation-state and a sense of national collective identity.

In contrast, Gutai: Splendid Playground” focused on critically interrogating the conventional, problematic nomenclature that has historically been used in the West when periodising and categorising the oeuvres of the Gutai Group of Japanese modernists. Within this context, Ming Tiampo emphasised the importance of revising all racist and ‘erasure-inflicting’ false references to the Group being “discovered” by European arts scholars and anthropologists, in addition to introducing more appropriate, inclusive practices that support cultural pluralisation and multi-vocality within the exhibition’s interpretation literature.

In Ming’s concluding comments she emphasised that the approaches used to pursue decolonial and anti-racist curatorial work within museums should not be solely focused on “inclusion” as the primary objective, but rather on creating the types of narratives that enable us to actively advance racial justice as the overriding motivation and expected outcome. For Ming, she expressed her aspiration as hoping museums and galleries would work towards becoming “places for healing” and also exhibition spaces and institutions through which “building solidarities” with and between diverse communities of stakeholders and visiting publics would become an integral aspect of what they considered pursuing excellence to mean.

Antonia Alampi – SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin

Antonia Alampi from SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin

Antonia Alampi discussed the past decade of creative curatorial projects undertaken by members of the collective at SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin (https://savvy-contemporary.com/) founded in 2010 by Dr Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung (a 2020 recipient of the prestigious Order of Merit (“Verdienstorden”) of the State of Berlin).

A core aspect of Antonia’s review presentation was her characterisation of SAVVY Contemporary as “an insurgent space” – involving artists, curators and activists being fully and collectively committed to sustained engagement with anti-racist practices, as well as active vigilance to resist and reform any attempts to impose historical and colonialist hierarchies of racialised exclusion, marginalisation and erasure.

Towards the end of the presentation, Antonia Alampi posed necessary questions about which members of staff currently have (and should have, in future) the responsibilities for (co-)producing knowledge and supporting equitable exhibition outcomes for all visitors/learners within museums and galleries. Rhetorically, she advocated strongly that the shared responsibilities should always be seen as involving the broadest community of peer-to-peer contributors as possible – not solely those designated/titled as “curators”, but also museum educators, marketing teams, archivists, etc. Associated with this, she also raised very fundamental questions about treating the “impulse to collect” – a foundational trait within Western museum practice – as something that should never be accepted and pursued as benign. This is especially the case in relation to long-standing colonialist practices of ‘exoticising’, ‘othering’ and ‘orientalising’ the artworks and cultural heritage of Black, Brown and Indigenous people of colour.

Staff and boardroom diversification was also discussed as a central commitment when working to decolonise, dismantle and correctively replace the hierarchical, intersectionally racist, elitist and exclusionary governance structures and executive decision-making processes within museums and galleries.

Importantly, the need to prioritise empathy, feelings, affect, respect and care were seen as the most essential qualities for effective anti-racist practice to ultimately result in racial justice for all.

Paul Goodwin – University of the Arts, London

Professor Paul Goodwin, University of the Arts, London

Curator and urbanist Professor Paul Goodwin concluded the formal panel presentations by picking up on Antonia Alampi’s comments about “insurgent spaces” – primarily in order to contrast the successes of a progressive, radical and ‘politically aesthetic’ space like SAVVY Contemporary with the limitations of mainstream ‘white cube’ exhibition spaces. He openly expressed considerable scepticism as regards the capacity for curators working within elite ‘white cube’ galleries and institutional spaces to ever fully “curate anti-racism.”

Drawing on extensive archival research that he has undertaken over many years to interrogate the work of radical and pioneering scholar-activists and artist-curators – including prominent members of the BLK Art Group and others within the British Black Art Movement of the 1980s, involving luminaries such as Keith Piper, Marlene Smith, Eddie Chambers, Sonia Boyce OBE (RA), and Lubaina Himid CBE – Professor Goodwin discussed how these creative art-political activists developed and curated within alternative spaces (small provincial galleries, local authority museum services, and community centres, etc.) to support anti-racist and decolonial exhibiting practice, created and led by people of colour for diverse audiences. In particular, the stalwart lobbying and negotiation work undertaken by artist-curator Rasheed Araeen, specifically when trying to secure a mainstream arts venue through which to showcase the group exhibition “The Other Story” (1989/90), was foregrounded to exemplify just how hard people of colour from the UK’s African, Caribbean and South Asian diaspora communities had to work to negotiate access to high-profile spaces through which to showcase their work to general arts audiences – such as via Tate Britain and the Hayward Gallery, Southbank, London.

To bring the critique up to date, contemporary collectives of Black and Brown artists based in Europe – such as “Black Blossoms” – were discussed as noteworthy successors to the pioneers of the 1980s in pursuing radical and resistant exhibition narratives, and diverse curated content grounded in anti-racist, decolonial practice.

Concluding Q&A

For my part, I submitted a question seeking the panelists’ perspectives on what could be done – now, and in the future – to embed and centralise anti-racism as core to evey aspect of object acquisition, cataloguing, display and art/artefact interpretation within museums and galleries. Having observed the way that several national arts and heritage institutions in the UK, as well as throughout continental Europe, have tended to ‘out-source’ their commitments towards embracing diversity and decoloniality by commissioning high-profile ‘guest’ curators and/or renowned artist-curators of colour from the global South and the excluded North to work as temporary researchers-in-residence – to develop archive-related projects that interrogate institutional connections to empire histories, colonial violence, eugenics, other forms of (so called) ‘scientific racism(s)’ and their legacies today – I was hoping to discuss how such approaches might be improved and further developed to ensure sustainability.

Although the specifics of my query were not addressed in detail, I nevertheless felt that all the formal presentations did contain very relevant general guidance to help those of us working with/in (with and in) museums in Europe to take forward a range of alternative, sustainable strategies to release the structural ‘choke-hold’ that hierarchies of white privilege, racist stereotyping, pervasive anti-Blackness and legacies of colonialism, continue to have on the sector. These stifling restrictions, discriminations and inequities continue to ‘do violence’ – in the form of ongoing traumas and injustices within mainstream museums and galleries – especially in the slow-to-change, long-established encyclopaedic museums and collections of ethnography located in Europe’s cultural capitals.

REFERENCES AND WEB LINKS

D’Sousa, Aruna (2018) Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts, with illustrations by Parker Bright and Pastiche Lumumba. New York: Badlands Unlimited.

Cahan, Susan E. (2019) Mounting Frustrations: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power. Duke University Press.

English, Darby (2019) To Describe a Life: Notes from the Intersection of Art and Race Terror. Yale University Press.

Reilly, Maura (2018) Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating. London: Thames and Hudson.

Research Centre for Material Culture (RCMC): https://www.materialculture.nl/

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