In Conversation With Tumelo Mosaka
by Ladun Ogidan
South African independent curator Tumelo Mosaka’s projects have explored global and transnational artistic production especially from Africa, the Caribbean and North America, examining themes such as racial injustice, migration, and identity. For the past decade, Mosaka has worked independently in New York curating works pertaining to migration, identity, and racial injustice. His significant exhibitions include Andrew Lyght: Full Circle, Dorsky Art Museum (2016); Poetics of Relation, Perez Art Museum (2015); and the 1st International Biennale of Contemporary Art (BIAC), Martinique (2014). Here, Omenka talks to him about the impact his involvement as curator in the recently concluded 2017 edition of the Cape Town Art Fair (CTAF) had on global perceptions of African art.
You recently served as contemporary art curator at the Krannert Art Museum (KAM) in Champaign, Illinois. Can you tell us how this experience prepared you for your role as curator of the 2017 edition of the Cape Town Art Fair (CTAF)?
I don’t think life works in a linear way. Sure, sometimes it may look that way but life experiences are never that simple. This new role is simply a matter of choice and how it informs your state of being at that moment in your life. The Krannert Art Museum was more about working within an educational environment, overseeing a collection and connecting local publics to broader regional and international issues through contemporary art. This already is different from what I’m doing at the art fair, but there are similarities too. So it doesn’t feel all that strange but also requires some adaptability as one learns about the business of art. So the preparation is all in the mind and how you’re willing to make it work. Every position has its challenges the question is whether one is up to making a difference. Like I’ve said before, working for the Cape Town Art Fair is like a homecoming for me. I thought about it for a while till this opportunity came just at the right time. Even though it is different from the traditional of role of curating within a museum, there is still a lot that is similar such as liaising with galleries, developing public programmes, and working with artists and collectors. What matters most for me is that I’m learning something and contributing at the same time. You have to immerse yourself in the work to benefit and grow as a person.
By what criteria were the galleries for CTAF selected?
A selection committee composed of three South African galleries; one foreign gallery and an independent curator from Uganda, made the selection for the main gallery section. This has been the way the fair has engaged galleries in affording them some influence in the way it is shaped. My role through this process has been to ensure that there is a balance in the selection between the young and established galleries, as well as the quality of work being selected. Although it is very difficult given the diversity of works, I generally aim to encourage the committee to be more receptive to works that are sometimes challenging because of their medium or subject.
What plans were put in place to make the CTAF more accessible to new collectors attending the fair?
One size can’t fit all, so our strategy was to offer some tools to help those new collectors visiting the fair. We had early viewing hours for those collectors who wanted to spend more time talking with galleries. A networking breakfast with curators and gallerists was another perfect opportunity for this kind of engagement. For others, signing up for a Walk About during the fair hours was a way to hear from experts about certain works in the fair. The Talks programme has been a big draw for many as it provided a platform for discussion about the market place and other issues related to artistic production. It is always great to hear from experts about what it means to collect or make art. These are just a few ways we try to offer some access to new audiences.
What impact do you think your involvement in CTAF had on global perceptions of African art with particular reference to your inclusion of a special Tomorrows/Today project, which featured approximately 10 solo presentations by emerging artists from Africa and its diaspora?
How do you even begin to measure such impact? What metrics do you use? These are difficult questions as art is not something that can be measured based on immediate outcomes. What I can say is that Tomorrow/Today was about broadening our understanding of artistic production from this continent. It was about working with artists who might not necessarily be young or emerging but for me, rather remain unrecognised given the very strong work they make. Reasons for their lack of recognition are many to list but being African is one of them. I wanted to examine how these artists explore challenges facing their cities as we face increased inequality, urban poverty, environmental disasters and mass migration. Cities like Lagos, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Nairobi and Luanda, among many have been experiencing a rapid process of urban transformation that is uncontrollable. The speed and scale of urbanization has exposed the frustrations and struggles of millions of people living on the continent and abroad. These artists express ideas and sentiments that channel life struggles in Africa and the world today.
How much has the South African art world with Cape Town in particular shifted since the first installment of CTAF, and what role has the fair played in this, including its impact on trends and currents?
I can’t really talk about what has happened before, as this is my first experience of the fair. What I have observed is that the fair has become a necessary event in the cultural life of the city. Not only is it a place for buying art, but it has also become a place for networking and for dialogue around issues affecting culture on the continent. As the cultural landscape continues to struggle with limited resources from governments, the fair is able to initiate and foster greater dialogue that is transnational and bring not only art but also conversations to Cape Town. I think this makes the city unique, as it has become the gateway to the world.
What can you attribute to the increasing global interest in African art, as well as the rising phenomenon of art fairs all over the world?
There are many reasons why African art has become so fashionable today. We can attribute this interest to the way information is disseminated today. I think technology has offered greater accessibility to distribute what is happening in the most remote places on the planet. Artists no longer only rely on curators to discover them, they seek out new audiences and find ways to show their works in alternative spaces using different platforms. I also think as the world has become more globalized, Africa continues to be this distant place of traditional existence. While the reality is different and dynamic, I think the world is finally awakening to Africa’s presence in the world. Black people have always been part of global history and only now are we seeing an awakening even though how it is sometimes framed is problematic.
Regarding your second question about fairs, it seems that galleries are now spending more time doing art fairs, which have become their main source of income. I think the bigger question is what kind of future lies ahead for galleries if this will be the new model? What kind of support will artists have if galleries no longer have physical exhibition space and support artists in the traditional way? The syndrome of the fairs has also to do with new markets and shifting the buying power to new places that begin to generate a healthier and dynamic artistic community. Whether this is sustainable, only time will tell but what is certain is that it’s contributing economically and culturally to places like Cape Town.
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