Ask the Curator: Joseph Gergel

Joseph Gergel on Curatorial Strategies During the Pandemic

Joseph Gergel received his Master’s degree in modern art: critical and curatorial studies from Columbia University, and his Bachelor’s degree in photography and the philosophy of images from New York University. Before moving to Lagos, Gergel assisted in the curatorial departments at the New Museum of Contemporary Art and the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, both in New York. He has served as co-curator for three editions of the LagosPhoto Festival, as well as a curator for the African Artists’ Foundation. Gergel presently serves as director of kó, an art gallery in Lagos, and director of leading Lagos-based auction house Arthouse Contemporary. He also co-founded ARTOJA, an online marketplace for contemporary art in Africa.

How has your varied educational background and work experience prepared you as an independent curator with a focus on the art of the African continent and her related diaspora?

I first moved to Lagos in 2012 to work with LagosPhoto after finishing my graduate degree in art history and curatorial studies in New York. I initially planned to work in Lagos for six months but have continued for eight years. In Lagos, I have had the opportunity to work with many other different art organisations, including LagosPhoto, African Artists’ Foundation, Art Twenty One and Arthouse Contemporary. I co-founded ARTOJA, the online marketplace for contemporary African art, and have managed the Arthouse Foundation, the non-profit artist residency programme. Most recently, I have helped develop kó, which launched in 2020. I am honoured to have worked alongside so many in the contemporary art community in Lagos and to learn from different sectors of the art world, including non-profits, galleries, an auction house, and start-ups.

A Conversation with Joseph Gergel on kÓ Art Space - Omenka Online

Joseph Obanubi’s residency project with the Arthouse Foundation, presented in kó’s group exhibition in December 2020

What conversations about curating or African art does the present moment allow for, and how do recent events influence the curatorial initiatives that you will pursue in the future?

Since I began working in Lagos, I’ve witnessed the rise of new galleries, independent art spaces, art fairs, a biennial and the opening of a new museum. There has also been a new generation of young people that have entered the art scene who are exploring different kinds of conversations. This all makes for exciting energy, which has been accompanied by a rise in curatorial engagement across many art platforms. The pandemic hasn’t changed this. With recent events, the art world in Lagos has often shifted online, as has the rest of the art world. While we are all yearning for a return to normalcy, some opportunities come with online engagement as well.

Today, the Internet, specifically social media platforms like Instagram have become essential not only for artists and curators but also for collectors. How important to your work have they been in discovering artists and in identifying new collector bases?

Social media is a great way for an art organisation to communicate its projects and grow its audience particularly during the Coronavirus pandemic when many collectors are increasingly engaged with virtual platforms; it often becomes the marketplace itself. It is also a great resource for artists to communicate directly, which allows one to learn about new artists firsthand.

Joseph Gergel on Curatorial Strategies During the Pandemic

Ngozi-Omeje Ezema’s exhibition, Boundless Vases, at kó, 2021

Unexpectedly, kó opened amidst the pandemic and has gone on to regularly stage exhibitions. What informed the opening of the gallery in this period, what difficulties have you experienced and what innovative strategies have you introduced to keep interacting with visitors, your immediate community and the global audience?

kó was in its nascent stages before the pandemic began, which forced us to shift gears and re-strategise with our new realities. We decided from the outset to prioritise the online presence of the gallery so that the audience could engage with exhibitions in multiple ways. Online visitors can watch exhibitions in VR and move around virtually through the gallery space. For each exhibition, we produce a video and a catalogue with critical text, that are accessible online. kó’s digital presence has helped to connect us with a new group of international collectors, as well as former clients who are not in Lagos but can experience the exhibitions online. The physical gallery opened in Lagos in September 2020, so the physical exhibitions have observed social distancing guidelines to control the visitor flow. All visitors book appointments in one-hour time slots, with a maximum of four visitors per hour. So far, this system has worked quite well and allows visitors to engage more deeply with the exhibitions here at kó.

Joseph Gergel on Curatorial Strategies During the Pandemic

Yadichinma Ukoha-Kalu’s exhibition, Saffron in the Desert, at kó in November 2020

How would you define the relevance of art to society especially in this period of the Coronavirus pandemic?

Art has the ability to bring people together and spark conversations. Art is a social experience, be it in a physical or virtual space. This is particularly important now during these pandemic times when people are seeking connectivity.

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Ladun Ogidan is the Deputy Editor of Omenka Africa’s first art, business and luxury- lifestyle magazine. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mass Communication from Covenant University, Nigeria. Ogidan is also Operations Manager at the Omenka Gallery, and Chief Operating Officer at Revilo Company Limited, a leading art publishing company in Lagos. She has co-ordinated several exhibitions at home and abroad.

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