Zoe Whitley/ Interview Karen D. McKinnon

Extrait de woman paper Fiac! édition 2017

« What the exhibition is able to do is to propose a whole series of questions and then a whole series of responses, refutations and rejections. We refute that black artists were only working in one vein at the time. Or that Black Art, where adopted as a category, only had one definition ».

– Dr Zoe Whitley

“Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” is an exhibition at Tate Modern, London that examines the contributions of Black artists to art made in the United States, 1963-1983. I went to see the show before interviewing one of the curators, Dr. Zoe Whitley.
Co-curators Zoe Whitley and Mark Godfrey have given us a show of its time that transcends poignantly to the struggles of today. Dr. Whitley is at the forefront of a group of curators shaping our world. I spoke with her to find out more about her curatorial practice.

Dr. Zoe Whitley is a Curator, International Art at Tate Modern. She is co-curator of Tate Modern’s 2017 exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power (12 July – 22 October 2017). She co-wrote Tate’s revised Africa acquisitions strategy and researches contemporary artists and art practices across the African diaspora. She was special Projects Curator for the 10th anniversary of the Johannesburg Art Fair (2017).

Karen D. McKinnon :  Where were you born?
Dr. Zoe Whitley : I was born in Washington D.C. and I grew up in Los Angeles.

How did you like growing up in Los Angeles?  I guess there is something about moving partly through elementary school where I always felt like I was from somewhere else – this feeling has stayed with me my whole life. So I am not sure I ever felt like a ‘California girl’ until I went to Swarthmore College, back on the East Coast. Because so many of my friends there were born and raised in the region, it’s the first time I could trace certain of my habits and preferences to having spent many formative years in L.A.

How did growing up on the West Coast influence you? My mom and I would go to LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art very often. I remember as a teenager seeing exhibitions like Exiles and Émigrés and Rhapsodies in Black, the exhibition of the Harlem Renaissance that was co-curated by David A. Bailey. I also grew up listening to a lot of music and attended live gigs at the House of Blues, outdoor summer festivals and, as I got older, the Hollywood Bowl.

How did you move into curation? I earned a paid placement as a Getty Summer intern in the Costume and Textiles department at LACMA and for one summer worked with a really inspiring group of women: Kaye Spilker, Sharon Takeda and Dale Gluckman among them. They were the ones who said ‘you really could do this job’. They were frank and honest in saying ‘you’ll work all the hours possible and it’s very badly paid, but I think you can do this; you’re one of us’. I applied for an MA in the History of Design at the RCA based on their guidance.

Can you revisit an exhibition you curated during your time at the V&A? What influenced your curatorial decisions? The genesis of Uncomfortable Truths started with the year 2007: the bi-centenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade here in the U.K. That historic date, 1807, provided a really useful opportunity to think about institutional critique in a very active way. I invited contemporary artists to reflect on not only the occasion of the bi-centenary but upon their own engagement with colonialism and legacies of slavery.

Could you talk more about institutional critique within the V&A? I was always interested in how artists interact with institutions, and then how those spaces are changed from their engagement and their criticisms. I’m interested in what artists have to say, how they express it, and how they provide creative solutions to confront the status quo.

When did you start working at the Tate? After I started my PhD, I came to Tate Britain as one of their curators of Contemporary British Art and ended up focusing on artists’ films while simultaneously doing research travel across Africa for Tate Modern.

How long did it take to bring “Soul of a Nation,” together with co-curator Mark Godfrey? About four years since its inception but with a very intensive two year period of research travel to the United States for studios visits to meet with artists and to identify art works. We were led by the artists.

What were the questions raised when you started to think about the exhibition? What did it mean to be a Black artist in the USA during the Civil Rights movement and at the birth of Black Power? What was art’s purpose and who was its audience? Artists responded to these times by provoking, confronting, and confounding expectations.
What the exhibition is able to do is to propose a whole series of questions and then a whole series of responses, refutations and rejections. We refute that black artists were only working in one vein at the time. Or that Black Art, where adopted as a category, only had one definition.

Did this become a problem in the Black arts community? There were many communities and many points of view. So this necessarily gave rise to disagreements in aesthetic approaches and some very polemical positions taken. That is one of the beauties of ending our exhibition with, Art Is…, by Lorraine O’Grady. You have an artist who is a phenomenally talented Black woman but whose family doesn’t chart what one would think of as a conventional African American journey because she not only came from an upper class socio-economic background but also from a family of West Indian origin. The exhibition brings into account a whole range of experiences to reflect the beauty and depth and breadth of the Black experience — in the plural, rather than in the singular. Each artist’s subjective experience is valid.

What are you most proud of in this exhibition?  Having been able to engage with so many of the artists whose work we respect and appreciate, who, in turn, feel that we’ve done right by them in the exhibition. That we presented their work in a way that they feel was true not only to their wishes today but also to the ethos and contexts in which the work was created at the time that it was made. It’s also my culture, it’s very personal to me. That is a phenomenal feeling.

This exhibition has resonated with the situation that has been going on in America today. The fact it has connected with so many people has been incredibly powerful, and that it resonates so much is down to the strength of the work and the truth of the spirit in which it was made.

What do you think about people calling this a landmark exhibition?
  All we can say is thank you to the artists. We worked exceptionally hard the last couple of years to make it happen. It is very rewarding for us, too. We give all the credit to the artists who have allowed us to show their work here.

I am so appreciative of you taking the time to speak with us. On my visit to Tate Modern’s “Soul of a Nation“, I experienced a dual sense of beauty and pain, ripped from the imagination of the artists. Forced with a truth burning through the body, imprinting the beauty of these artists’ work along with sadness, defiance and hope. I was confronted with the struggles of the time as seen through the eyes of the artists.

            In woman paper Fiac!  édition 2017
Karen D. McKinnon