Deepening the African Narrative: Larry Ossei-Mensah
In SWAG high profiles #3
August 2020
Interview Rebecca Anne Proctor

The curator and cultural critic of Ghanaian heritage has been spearheading a movement for change in Africa through cultural and artistic production.

Nothing stops Larry Ossei-Mensah. From challenging institutions, cultural misperceptions, and now coronavirus, the show always goes on. “Art and culture can bring about a social movement they can bring about change,” Ossei-Mensah, 40, tells me over the phone from New York. The curator, cultural critic, and teacher was born in New York to parents of Ghanaian origin. Growing up in the Bronx, music was his first love and in high school and university he interned at various record companies. “Music was really my introduction into the art world,” he tells me over the phone from New York.says. “It was through music that I saw the potential of creative production to change the world.”

Through his various exhibitions, writings, events, and his collective,  ARTNOIR,  Ossei-Mensah aims to put the voices of African and African diaspora artists first. “For me, it’s crucial to listen to the artists and what they have to say,” he says. This sensitivity to the artist’s message came after much art historical research and traveling. Ossei-Mensah realized that the story of the African and his or heris place in western history and particularly, art history, was missing. It was a blank page waiting to be written and documented.

Ossei-Mensah was determined to understand and pay tribute to this largely forgotten part of Africa’s history. “I began this journey of studying and learning the information for myself and then wanted to make sure that our stories were being heard, celebrated, and not pushed aside and not given just a footnote,” he says. “Black and brown, LGBT, what would be considered the margins for me is central.” 

Based in the Bronx, Ossei-Mensah has an undergraduate degree in Business Management from Clark University. After working for several years in media and advertising for the likes of Sony Music, ClearChannel, Fox TV, Carat Media, The World Economic Forum, and Viacom, he obtained an MBA from Les Roches School in Switzerland. It was then that he had the opportunity to travel around Europe, visiting countless museums and institutions on the continent,  but what he began to see more and more was a lack of representation ofr understanding of Africa’s place in European history. Where was the celebration of black and brown bodies? 

“If you go to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence you will see portraits of people that are clearly of black lineage. The presence of black and brown people during the Renaissance is well-documented,  so it’s not like we just appeared we have always been present but that information hasn’t been lifted it’s something we still have to discover.”

You may get a line or a phrase in history books on the African’s place in western history but not much more, he notes. “That is why Shakespeare’s Othello is interesting to me, because the main character is black,” he says. He recalls the time he was in Spain, viewing a Velasquez painting in Spain of the painter’s black studio assistant, and no one could tell him who the person was. Why was the story behind these figures missing from western history? Why could no one give him answers?

“It’s always been there African art and history and, for me, there’s this joy in discovering these overlooked stories,” he adds. Determined to give this part of African history a platform, Ossei-Mensah started writing about what he saw, researched, and discovered and about the contemporary African artists working today. Through his writing, he has profiled some of the most dynamic visual artists working today, including Derrick Adams, Swizz Beatz, Mickalene Thomas, Kehinde Wiley, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Toyin Ojih Odutola, and Meschac Gaba

His writing then led him to curating. “Contemporary art and culture cultural production can act as vehicles to redefine how we see ourselves in relation to the world around us,” he explains. “Art has the power to change our perspective.

Ossei-Mensah has organized numerous exhibitions at commercial and non-profit galleries throughout New York City and around the world, highlighting a roster of critically acclaimed emerging and mid-career artists, including Derek Fordjour, Firelei Baez, Ruby Amanze, Hugo McCloud, and Brendan Fernandes.

“The way the mainstream works is that it picks a handful of artists that are what many consider to be the best representation of the times,” he says. “I felt this wasn’t fair because there were so many voices and so many stories and so many perspectives.”

His focus turned to emerging artists of color. In 2013 he co-founded ARTNOIR, a 501(c)(3) organization (the portion of the US Internal Revenue Code that allows for federal tax exemption of nonprofit organizations) that is a global collective of culturalists who design various experiences aimed to engage and foster the present generation’s diverse and dynamic creative scene.

“ ARTNOIR was a way to amplify the message of giving a platform to these artists and their stories,” he says. “Operating as a non-profit, the focus is to celebrate black and brown creatives  – and not just the visual artists but also the literary arts, dancers, and musicians.” It also tackles numerous social and gender issues. For example,   ARTNOIR’s inaugural event as a formal organization in 2015 was in the form of a conversation on art and gender justice featuring Wangechi Mutu, Julie Mehretu, Wanja Muguongo, and Adrienne Edwards.

Ossei-Mensah is the former Susanne Feld Hilberry Senior Curator at MOCAD in Detroit. He recentlyIn 2019, he co-curated,  in 2019 with Dexter Wimberly, the critically acclaimed exhibition at MOAD in San Francisco entitled Coffee, Rhum, Sugar, Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox in Spring/Summer 2019.   Ossei-Mensah currently serves as guest curator at BAM’s Rudin Family Gallery. He also will be co-curating, with Omsk Social Club, the 7th Athens Biennale in Athens, Greece in Spring 2021.

Now to 2020. The challenging months of lockdown in New York have not deterred Ossei-Mensah and his work. Every Thursday, from 5 to 5:30pm, he and his team at ARTNOIR have been conducting virtual studio visits. “For me as a curator, one of the biggest joys, which is almost like therapy, is doing a studio visit with an artist and learning about their practice,” he says. “We then thought: What would it look like to bring this to a public space? We are really trying to expand how the arts are embraced and engaged with the wider community these days.”

The studio visits have morphed into numerous positive interactions for artists, educators, and collectors. “For some artists, they are a source of networking and sales but. most of all, they are always a source of creative exchange.” Ossei-Mensah and his team at ARTNOIR have also launched the Jar of Love Fund, a microgrant initiative intended to provide relief for artists, curators, and cultural workers of color affected by Covid-19.  

“The big question now is what can we do in Ghana?” he asks. It’s more and more important to bring the African cultural dialogue back to its place of origin back to its roots. 

“Art is what we as human beings do naturally, but in terms of visual art [in Africa] there’s more of an appreciation for it,” he explains. “We are seeing more collectors on the continent. You are seeing more infrastructure to support artists something that has always been a challenge.” 

Today, there’s the added advantage of technology that allows for greater connectivity between Africans based on the continent and the diaspora. “With technology, you don’t have to travel in order to have visibility, interest, and collectors,” he says. “The number of figurative painters that I have been introduced to digitally is big. We are now seeing more of an [arts] infrastructure in Africa but still more needs to be done.” 

“We need to get to the point where there are enough resources for artists in Africa exhibition centers, funding, andeducation so that artists in Africa don’t need to go to the US and Europe to show their work,” said Ossei-Mensah. “There’s now an opportunity to be nimbler and to create structures different from the western structures. To come to the continent and try and make a museum as you do in New York or London doesn’t make sense. That’s why I like what Ibrahim Mahama is doing in Tamale, Ghana with The Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art (SCCA).” 

Ossei-Mensah says that we will be seeing more and more of the development of new models for showing contemporary African art. “They will be more interdisciplinary and not just spaces to show art but centers for artistic and cultural engagements. Look at the Nubuke Foundation and what they have been able to do in Accra, for example, through exhibitions, talks, and performance art, and more. The same goes with Nana Oforiatta Ayim’s ANO art space and her mobile museum.”

It’s time to do African art in new ways and break out of the established narrative. That’s Ossei-Mensah’s message. Think Africa, its heritage, history, and present day multi-cultural landscape. “It’s about doing what we have always done and elevating it to the next level,” he adds.(…) Find the full version of  this interview in SWAG #3

in SWAG high profiles #3
August 2020
Rebecca Anne Proctor