Ask the Curator: Folakunle Oshun
Lagos-based curator and artist, Folakunle Oshun, is well known as the founder and director of the Lagos Biennal. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in visual arts and a Master’s degree in art history, both from the University of Lagos. His vision as a curator is to stage artistic interventions in curatorial mind-spaces acting as a mediator between various parties in the contemporary art scene. Oshun’s work investigates the ramifications of politics and history on contemporary life. Using sculpture, he explores alternate dimensions of human sensibilities with emphasis on sound and the interrelationship between forms. In 2017, Folakunle Oshun won the first ever Curator in Residency Prize, to earn the position of curator-in-residence at Potsdam. In this interview, he discusses his residency programme and the forthcoming 2019 edition of the Lagos Biennial.
As the founder of the Lagos Biennial, established in 2017, your approach must have involved improvisation, coincidence and local collaboration. How would you evaluate the success of the biennial so far?
As rightly stated, the entire build-up to the first edition of the Lagos Biennial was a compendium of accidents and half chances. In all, the team achieved its set objectives despite all the challenges, and I think this is what is most important. It’s a bit difficult to evaluate one’s own work, as a team we put in everything and just had to wait to see how events would pan out. The success of the biennial was hugely dependent on the participating artists who were more like collaborators. I don’t think in the history of art biennials there has ever or will ever be an edition like the 2017 edition of the Lagos Biennial. There isn’t enough space here to elaborate on this so it’s best for other people to give their own opinion or critique, which is most welcome.
The second Lagos Biennial will take place from October 26 to November 30, 2019. What improvements can we expect?
For the second edition there is a curatorial team of three curators; Tosin Oshinowo, Antawan Byrd and Hansi Momodu-Gordon. This is a departure from the first edition where I served as the sole artistic director working with guest curators Kwasi Ohene-Aye and Kelvin Haizel. I think this edition will be quite different from the first as all three curators come from different backgrounds and bring totally disparate sensibilities and processes. I have faith in them and give them total freedom to make whatever decisions they deem fit. On a more practical note, I believe this edition will be more accessible to the public, which would mean wider visibility and attendance. Before I get ahead of myself, I must admit that this team is probably more erratic than the first – I honestly do not know what to expect from them. I wish to preserve my reserve for surprise. The word improvement becomes relative in this scenario as the first edition of the biennial was held in peculiar circumstances. Like I said earlier, all the goals were achieved. It was a piece of art. A collaborative piece of art. But yes, if what you are asking about is the organising of the biennial, I would say that’s the easy part. That’s something anyone can do, but the actual contextualising of an entire city with all her dynamics and the engaging with a multitude of artists from different societal and political contexts is the real hard work
You won the first-ever Potsdam Curator Prize, to earn the position of curator-in-residence at Potsdam. Please describe your entry for the competition, which involved staging spaces beyond the conventional exhibition setting, as well as the impact of this experience on your overall practice.
In June 2017, I was selected from among 15 emerging curators from across the world who had been nominated to apply for the position by the Potsdam City Council. The jury was made up of 5 art professionals, and I guess it’s safe to say I was the lucky guy. My proposal was to go into private homes and stage dinners while asking questions about the history of the city in relation to its contemporary life. I made it clear that this was unfamiliar territory and that I was keen on learning about the city through unconventional spaces which are less curated than public institutions such as museums, libraries or galleries. A huge part of my artistic practice revolves around gastronomy and that is probably the best way to drive conversation. The process involved meeting random strangers at bars and restaurants on a daily basis and making acquaintance. Let’s not forget that Potsdam is an extremely conservative city in Germany, so this was a big struggle for me. These meetings would eventually end up in private homes where I would be invited by a family who would host me at dinner. The dinners started off slow owing to the presence of my film crew but at the endings, people would set aside all inhibitions and bare their minds. That I think is the power of food.
How did your background in fine art (sculpture) and art history at the University of Lagos prepare you to serve as curator of the inaugural Lagos Biennial, and subsequently curator-in-residence at Potsdam?
My relationship with the University of Lagos is one of love and hate. The art department at the time was not a proper out and out visual art school, but rather a holistic arts programme with theatre arts, music, and visual arts units. For two years, I had to attend theatre production rehearsals, dance rehearsals and performances, vocal training and concerts, coupled with painting, drawing and sculpture assignments. It was a disaster. I hate to admit it but those experiences shaped my artistic and curatorial practice. Being in the same space with talented minds who knew things you didn’t even know existed was quite humbling. This environment created a special type of interdependence and knowledge barter.
How has winning of the prize encouraged you to raise more awareness about African art, while challenging various stereotypes thrust on Africa by the West?
Now, this is a topic I find extremely disturbing. I would be lying if I told you I gave a thought to “African art”. I am an artist and I am proud of my heritage as a Nigerian and as an African but that is where it ends. The brandishing of the term ‘’African art’’ plays to the essentialism, exoticization, and commodification of people of African descent. I believe there are a multitude of other things that define my existence and human experience beyond being African. Unfortunately, this labelling of art created by Africans is heavily fuelled by commerce and offers a seat at the table to ethnic minority groups who are more than happy to be there. On the flip side of things, it creates even more money for Western art institutions who are able to present to their uninformed public a foreign art aesthetic from a faraway land. You may want to ask why no one talks about European, American or Asian art in the 21st Century.
Drawing from separate encounters in form of joint dinners, your final presentation Potsdam is Potsdam, a film documenting your exploration of the Potsdam. With regards to inspiration, technique and process, kindly tell us more about this project.
I made the film in collaboration with 414 Films, a film crew based in Potsdam. The basic idea was to capture my interaction with the city and the dinners in which I was hosted. On a broader plane I wanted to capture the essence of the city but not without the privilege of my tourist goggles. I wanted to see the city the way everyone else sees her and not as a researcher. Potsdam is definitely one of the most beautiful places on earth. That said, the entire city is staged − some sort of façade which keeps you in a nostalgic loop of baroque and classical architecture. My intention was to live an ordinary life and blend into the city as some sort of spy. It’s difficult to blend in when you are a different colour from everyone else and don’t also speak the language. If I have a single gift I think it would be the ability to be inconspicuous, just the guy passing by, but this was hard. I needed to hear those silent conversations and see people while their guards were down to properly gather enough deductions to make my film. The film should be available for free on the Internet later this year.
What were the challenges you faced in production?
The first challenge was definitely the obvious − having a different skin colour in Germany is always going to be a struggle. I think the biggest part of this was that people could just not come to terms with the fact that a Nigerian was coming to town to make research about their city for an entire year (with taxpayers money of course!). On many occasions, people asked me for drugs on the streets so I went and bought myself a fancy coat and scarf. It stopped. Also, just the idea of a stranger bringing a video camera into a German household and shooting a dinner is quite a myth.
What curatorial directions and stylistic changes do you foresee in research, production, display and dissemination of contemporary art from Africa?
I think there needs to be a larger conversation about art institutions and art spaces on the continent. More importantly education, both formal and informal. The problem is that art does not exist in a bubble, it is one aspect of society. You can count the number of professional curators you have on the continent, I for one learnt most of what I know on the streets so it’s difficult to talk about curatorial directions. More of what we see is pseudo intellectuals fantasizing about things that have no direct bearing on everyday life, case in point -– Afro-Futurism. Maybe it’s also important to break this continent into at least 54 parts (barest minimum). There is intriguing stuff happening in Uganda both politically and artistically, you can’t’ just hammer all that away as African art. There are realities in Johannesburg that I cannot relate to as a Lagosian. The artists who operate in these spaces have a completely different understanding of the world from mine. Somewhere in the midst of all this madness, people still brandish the term ‘’Sub-Saharan Africa’’, which is an issue for another day.
In your opinion, how can the current global attention on African art be sustained?
By dropping the term “African Art”, period. Then people can focus more on the artists and realise that there are living artists like Emeka Ogboh, Jelili Atiku, Eric Gyamfi, Mawuenya Amudzi, Ayo Akinwande, Lineo Segoete, Yara Mekawei, Ibrahim Mahama, and many more who are making incredible work that will shake the world for centuries to come. I know these names because of the work I do but if the only tag we choose to present to the world is ‘’African Art’’ then it indeed is a big shame. I don’t’ lose sleep over Van Gogh because I no longer have to cram stories about his practice to pass examinations which were based on Eurocentric curricula. The artists whose realities I connect with and whose works resonate with my being are the ones mentioned above, at least a few of them. African art is not an art form, style, ideology, or movement and should not be approached as such.
To a large extent, trends in contemporary African art, are still dictated by Western patrons, and by scholars who though of African descent, may not be directly influenced by stimuli from the continent. In your view, is this an anomaly and how can a balance be achieved on the African continent?
This is a contentious one, and I think it feeds into my earlier arguments which essentially assert that Africa is beyond geography or a label that can be used to contain an entire race. There are so many different layers to this but the reality is this: people have their different experiences and connections to the very idea of being African. You cannot deny anyone of feeling a sense of belonging but it is clear that certain terminologies are used by different ethnic minority groups as a matter of convenience. An example is the Black American community in the United States who until recently had some hesitancy with identifying as African American due to the extra baggage that comes with that. On other occasions, the tag African would be just perfect especially if it guaranteed a position in an institution or a spot in a big show. So yes, economics is also a big driving force in the business of art. Institutions will adopt whatever tag or title they feel will best secure funding or sell tickets. In the world of contemporary art, the tag ‘’African Art’’ remains the safest and most profitable name to brand art and artists of African descent and art from Africa. This is shallow.
How can contemporary culture in Africa be explored through such relatively new media like photography and film?
I don’t think photography or film are as new as you suggest, if people have been practising a craft for a hundred years then that is a long time. Considering other artistic media which might have deeper roots in Africa, you tend to wonder why they also have not fully evolved. So I don’t think this is about a particular medium, it’s more vested in ideology and the urgency to reinvent and re-imagine one’s existence.
What future projects would you like to share with us?
I’m currently taking a break and focusing more on my studio, I like to call it early retirement. I was recently appointed to the Advisory Committee of the Season Africa 2020, to formulate the framework for celebrations along with three other curators on the continent. It’s an incredibly controversial project seeing that a single country, France, is attempting to take on an entire continent, but fingers crossed, we just might be able to sneak in a Trojan horse or two.
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