Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi / Interview Faridah Folawiyo

In something we Africans got issue 5

« I think the pressure of operating in the West is that you are expected to be the African voice. It can be a good thing because you could be in a position to change misconceptions but that can also come with immense pressure. Whether we have the requisite experience, knowledge, preparation, or exposure is immaterial to what the expectation can be at times. You contend with the received knowledge of Africa as a space of anomie in the Western imagination, for example. There is a way to discuss, consume, or receive Africa and the museum is one of such places. The other is the media machine. « 

– Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi

Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi was the most assuredly calm man I met during the Dakar Biennale and its festivities. In a sea of opportunities and opportunists, he seemed to have no young artist to sell, no new projects to push, no networking to undertake, he really just wanted to come back to a city that he holds dear, and to experience somebody else’s take on the Biennale, an exhibition that he had first written his dissertation on and then curated. Smooth had the air of someone who had seen it all and done it all before, and he had done it before Africa became the new frontier for the rest of the world to explore. When we met, I was decidedly un-calm, panicking about the project I was participating in for the OFF Biennale, but both off the record and on the record, he exuded experience and rationality. He spoke purely and concisely about the state of African art both on the continent and off, and the ways in which a curator can shape and contribute to public appreciation of art. Most of my questions were met with critically considered monologues, which I eventually understood to be an essential blueprint of how to think deeply about and present African art in varying contexts. At times, his knowledge, eloquence and self-assuredness were almost intimidating, then he would say something so human, so relatable to members of the African diaspora trying to uphold the sanctity of our culture wherever they might find themselves.

Faridah Folawiyo : I guess we can start with a bit of background for everyone. So, how did you get into curating?

Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi : How did I get into curating? I got out of college, and I completed my art training in 2001, and I became associated with an artists organisation called the Pan African Circle of Artists, and what PACA, for short, was doing was trying to make things happen in Nigeria when nothing was really happening. At that point, what you had were basically art shops where people sell art, there were no real galleries. There were no art initiatives that were really intellectual or ground-breaking, so to say in Nigeria that time. So what PACA was doing was trying to create a situation where some kind of robust conversation around the business of art can actually happen. And so I began to work with this organisation as a member and the organisation had what it called the African Heritage Biennial, it was modelled after Dak’art. So I began to work with them seriously, making this biennial, and also making other kinds of exhibitions. I was also involved in visual orchestra, which is an artists’ club as well, and I also curated exhibitions. So in a nutshell, I started curating because there were no curators in Nigeria, and I always make this argument that as much as I can place work together and see how they relate to each other, I lacked the vocabulary to describe the relationship between objects, between pictures. And so, that led me to begin to think much more deeply about curating, in a nutshell. But my first exhibition actually was in college in 1999. I curated an exhibition around the Biafran experience. I had involved some of my classmates at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. I put together that exhibition in conjunction with the memory of Biafra. So really, my first outing was as a college student in 1999. The first thing I really did was that exhibition.

In college you were studying art, right? Yes, I trained as a sculptor.

What do you see as the relationship between the two? Do you still work as a sculptor? Well I mean, I’m an artist, so I wouldn’t say I am just a sculptor. I mean my medium much later was really installation as opposed to sculpture.  And also I made works on paper. And the reason for works on paper was that I couldn’t afford a studio in Nigeria, so I would only make art when I travelled. So I would make installations and sculptures when I did residencies and workshops and I had studio spaces available. But then I would make works on paper because it was the easiest thing to do. I developed an expertise in working in pastel because it was easier. So was that your question?

I mean in terms of as a curator, and an artist, how do they link, if they do at all?  I mean at the very basic art is a means of self-expression. Curating is also a means of self-expression. You’re trying to engage with society through art, to address issues with art. You’re trying to understand the arc of history through objects, through cultural productions. So, it’s both a form and a means of self-expression. The same way one can describe art-making as being self-expressive. But the connection between the two for me is when I work with artists. As an artist myself, I am interested in the psychological space that inspires artistic production. I am interested in the artist’s psychological condition. So, to have a deeper understanding of the artist’s work, it is crucial to understand the mental and physical space from which the work derives, hence the necessity of studio visits. In addition, it is equally important to meet the artist in an informal setting, when the artist is relaxed or not trying to impress you, socialising being one of such contexts, to get a better sense of the artist’s thought process, how the artist conceives the relationship with the art form or object or the space in which the object circulates. There is this mask we wear as humans (artists and curators inclusive) especially in a formal setting. I like to put the artist at ease so that we can have a richer conversation and I gain a deep understanding of the way the artist’s mind work which takes form in the art. The other thing I’m interested in connects to the visual experience. I believe no matter how one thinks of the role of an exhibition as either a political statement or social engagement, I believe that it should deliver on the visual experience as well. One should be able to feel elevated by seeing an exhibition. My background as an artist allows me to pay greater attention to the visual experience because it connects to how we understand the art and how we make aesthetic judgment.

You have been working in the US since 2007, what do you find is the difference between curating and working in Nigeria versus curating African Art outside of Nigeria? The Nigerian art scene has evolved in leaps and bounds in the last ten years. Nigerian art has become more open. In this past, there were few internationally-active artists working from Nigeria such as El Anatsui and a few others. Ten years ago, there was the concept of ‘art wey dey move market’, a statement, I think popularized by Ahmadu Bello University Professor Jerry Buhari and echoed subsequently in an essay by Ozioma Onuzulike, a professor of art at University of Nigeria, Nsukka.  Art wey dey move market simply means that artists think about survival first, and so make works that are sellable.  I had use myself to make an example in the past in elaborating this concept. Fresh out of College in 2001, I made works that sold well in the Lagos market. When I decided to expand my purview to the international, of course my practice changed and I stopped selling locally.  Ten, fifteen years down the line, the artistic landscape has evolved. There is a greater embrace or acceptance of more critical approach to art making, one invested in ideas or attuned to a rigorous examination of existential conditions. Stock imageries of urban scenes, genre paintings and decorative art are no longer defining local art practices in Nigeria. Such living room art as one is wont to refer to them now constitute a slice of a diversity of artistic practices that one now encounters in Nigeria. Increasingly, collectors are open to other ways of making without being dismissive of them. So also, the audience, there is the sense that they are becoming receptive to the unfamiliar or unusual. The market is evolving in terms of what they believe should be art and what should be sold, and you also some artists now pushing their visual vocabulary. There is more international focus on Nigeria. There are now a lot of new art spaces. In the past, like I said, there were just shops selling art, now you have attempts to create a robust art scene. There is also a secondary market in Nigeria, which shows the progress that has been made so far. I often say when you develop a secondary market for your art in the national space, it also translates to the international. And so, you’re beginning to increasingly see that, such that if you want to talk about robust art scenes on the continent, you have to think about Nigeria, Lagos, Dakar, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Douala and also Nairobi. 

What do you think is the role of the curator in the building of the audience? Because now in Lagos, there is an art fair, there are galleries, but still no contemporary art museum in Lagos. I guess I’m talking about non-commercial art, and the role of the curator within that. What is the role of art education through museum and curatorial work? That’s actually a very impossible question. What you find a lot in Nigeria…I mean Nigeria is a space of fads. When something becomes the order of the day, it goes overboard in Nigeria. Take for example, curating, there are several self-styled curators without the training or knowledge because being called a curator is cool.  At the same time, one of the things you must give to Nigerians, is that they are very good at quick study if they put their mind to it. So, you bet that those I have described as self-styled, no offense meant, would be reading up and familiarizing themselves on curatorial practice. There are those with formal training like Bisi Silva who has been on the scene for a while and has taken people under her wing.  What you have with Nigeria is not the state creating the art infrastructure – museums, galleries, effective art schools with rigorous academic curricula and the curatorial pipeline, if you will. Instead, it is individuals taking it upon themselves to create a space, to self-improve and by extension, improve others. That Nigerian factor is not new, it is actually the history of the development of the Nigerian art world which has been privately-driven from Aina Onabolu to the present. I have suggested elsewhere that the Lagos art scene and market was invented by the likes of Aina Onabolu and the Lagos elite class at the turn of the twentieth century with the state playing no role. It is the Nigerian capitalist mindset that catalysed the local art world. The introduction of arts education in Nigeria in the 1920s was also by Onabolu, who then lobbied the colonial government. In essence, private initiative as opposed to state intervention is ingrained in the Nigerian character. I am not saying this to absolve the lack or rather miniscule state involvement in the art sector. I imagine with Omooba Yemisi Shyllon’s private museum currently under-construction that in the future you will see more of such undertakings in Nigeria given our disposition to what is the trend.  proclivity.  

Our acclaimed film and music industries have no real state involvement. Individual commitments spurred their growth. It was organic and driven by market-logic.  The pop culture that thrives with film and music is beginning to rub off on the visual art. The emergence of Art X, the Lagos art fair, and the intense buzz it has generated feeds from this celebrity mentality driving the Nigerian music industry and Nollywood. While art fairs by their very nature are elite spaces, Art X Lagos is revolutionary in the sense that it is creating a pop culture buzz that is bringing in different segments of the society to its doors.  It is fashionable to go Art X as one of the pop cultural events on offer in Lagos. Its talks program can serve as a catalyst in plugging some of the missing gaps in the arts education curricula in Nigeria, and serve as a local and international interface. I hope the Art X charm can be sustained and that it remains attractive to a broader audience, and that it can be leveraged upon to deepen the Nigerian art ecosystem. 

The lines were also very blurred in the way people approached it as well. There was a large amount of people between 18 and 30 there that were never going to buy any art but were just there because it was happening. And it will help to put more art in homes, and more art in the public consciousness in ways that we have not been able to do in the past.

Can you tell me about the shows you’ve curated first in Dartmouth and now in Cleveland, and also the difference between working in Nigeria and working in America? Well, I think whoever is working in Nigeria, I salute the person because it’s a very challenging space. For me, when I was back home I was mostly an artist and exhibition maker if I can put it that way. However, the challenges are the lack of intellectual gratification and the constraining socio-economic conditions that impact your ability to function. Therefore, I applaud anyone working in Nigeria because it is not easy. Yet, I think that the space itself is so organic and rich and very generative. In that space will find things to address quickly, you find interesting inspiration. In all that madness and chaos, there is a steady supply of inspiration. The late Chinua Achebe was known to say that his life in America did not inspire him to produce, that it was not generative enough like the Nigeria he had to leave behind due to a debilitating car accident. Africa is a critical space. As the subject of so many of us, addressing Africa from abroad is far from being the ideal situation. But what being abroad gives you is a critical distance and a space that insists on more intellectual rigor that you may not necessarily find in Nigeria because you are a product of your environment. Intellectual rigour is not always high on the priority list; you have to work with the card Nigeria deals you.   I remember back then having to catch the moment when electricity was available to snuck in an email. Then you have to go to an internet café, there were no modems or network at home, and at the internet café, emails took ages to send. This is no longer the case. There is a lot of infrastructural improvement but still there are other outstanding factors.  I also think being elsewhere breeds its own anxieties and pressures. You always second-guess yourself, you often wonder if you meet the standard, whatever that standard is. So, in a way, it keeps you on your toes, pushing your game because it’s very competitive and merit-driven. You have to constantly push your thinking, push your work, push your ability to produce and contribute knowledge in a rigorous way, which is not always the case in Nigeria or on the continent. But the difference is that in Nigeria or around the continent your ideas are always fresh, fresher than they will ever be if you were abroad. So that’s the difference. So I think the way one tries to bridge that, to have the best of both worlds, is to make more trips back and forth because the inspiration is here, the work is here. A colleague of mine will often describe our status abroad as that of as  » labour migrants », we’re there because the conditions here mitigate against being the best one can be. When I feel guilty I ask myself; do you want to be able to do what you do effectively with the commonweal in mind or be sentimental about not working from home? I’d rather stick with being objective – do the stuff I believe I should do, and let history and posterity be the better judge whether I made the right decision.

As a curator working with objects and art but also knowing that you have a very different type of audience, how does that affect the way you curate the art? In terms of knowing that the audience may not be at all familiar with any of the work at all but may also have their own biases and prejudices? I have used this anecdote before. So, my first exhibition at the Hood Museum was The Art of Weapons. Fifty young Africans were invited to Dartmouth College under the auspices of the Obama-Mandela Washington Fellowship, the initiative created during the presidency of Barack Obama to provide about six-week of immersive entrepreneurial experience and cultural exchange for young African entrepreneurs in the United States. About 500 of them are invited to the USA and divided across selected universities and colleges and attached to the business programs. I gave the fifty that came to Dartmouth College a tour of The Art of Weapons. It was instructive to see them easily identify with objects originally from their home countries and talk freely about them. During the walk-through, I realized that out of the lot was one lady who showed no interest in what I was saying or any of the objects.  At the end of the tour, we broke the group into sub-groups to have a conversation with K-12 teachers drawn from the area. We wanted to engender an honest conversation around African stereotypes of the United States and vice-versa and that each group, Africans and Americans, can talk through the way in which the other was imagined.   Out of the blue, the one lady who was disinterested with my exhibition blurted out « I couldn’t find myself in your exhibition. » For me that was a profound statement that taught me not to take anything or anyone for granted just because they look like me or are from Africa. I want my audience to be able to find themselves in my exhibition. I work in a Western setting. While my primary audience is Western, I do not lose sight of the fact that I am an ambassador for Africa and that what I present is African. I want anyone coming from Africa, be it from Nigeria, Kenya, Botswana, etc., to Cleveland or wherever I have an exhibition to recognize himself/herself in the exhibition.  In that sense, when I am working on an exhibition, I bear two worlds or audiences in mind; the African audience because the objects come from them; the American audience, my primary focus, and a general audience. It is important that the exhibition is multi-vocal, meeting the needs of folks from home, but also addressing pre-conceived, ill-advised notions of Africa that these objects are often burdened with in the Western context. It is about providing a learning moment, a teachable situation for the viewer and presenting Africa in ways that are recognizable to folks from home (…) Find the full version of the text in something we Africans got issue 5. 

Get the full PDF

                                                                In something we Africans got issue 5                                                              Faridah Folawiyo
                                                                  June 2018