Curating in Africa symposium

This symposium brought together leading curators involved in some of the most active areas of artistic production in Africa to address the current state of curatorial practice in this region

The Curating in Africa symposium, organised by Kerryn Greenberg (Curator, International Art, Tate Modern) in collaboration with Tate National, and funded by the World Collections Programme (WCP), brought together seven leading curators involved in some of the most active areas of artistic production in Africa to address the achievements of and challenges facing curators working in Africa today.

The participants were Meskerem Assegued (Zoma Contemporary Art Center, Ethiopia); Raphael Chikukwa (National Gallery of Zimbabwe); Marilyn Douala Bell (Doual’art, Cameroon); N´Goné Fall (Independent Curator, Senegal); Abdellah Karroum (L’appartement 22, Morocco); Riason Naidoo (South African National Gallery) and Bisi Silva (CCA Lagos, Nigeria).

Day 1 – symposium

The first day was attended by approximately 100 invited curators, artists, graduate students, art historians and collectors and consisted of 30 minute presentations by each of the speakers on the context they are working in and a recent curatorial project.

N’Gone Fall

emphasised the importance of exhibitions that deal with history, geography and politics. She also talked about the benefits of collaboration, particularly with regards to Contact Zone an exhibition at the National Museum in Mali.

Raphael Chikukwa

focused on the history of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe and its resilience during times of political instability. He talked about the challenges of fundraising and developing new audiences, as well as the importance of opening the debate and increasing the visibility of Zimbabwean artists internationally.

Marilyn Douala Bell

spoke about the role of site-specific projects, especially in a city without museums. She talked about some of the ways Doual’art has supported artists and engaged the local community over the past two decades. She also mentioned the SUD triennale which is organised by Doual’art.

Bisi Silva

spoke about Nigeria’s recent history and the infrastructural, physical and intellectual deficit Nigeria was left with after the dictatorship. She talked about the importance of professional development opportunities and the challenges of limited publishing in Africa. Silva presented several exhibitions she has curated at CCA Lagos, including the inaugural exhibition Democrazy, Like a Virgin, and Art, Fashion and Identity.

Riason Naidoo

gave an overview of the South African National Gallery (SANG). He discussed the importance of creating discursive spaces and talked in detail about 1910–2010 From Pierneef to Gugulective, the first exhibition he curated as Director of the SANG.

Meskerem Assegued

discussed the impact of the military government on the Ethiopian art scene in the 1970s and 1980s. She presented on Temporary, a public art happening in Meskel Square in Addis Ababa and Green Flame, an exhibition in Vienna which included Julie Mehretu, Stephan Vitiello, and Elias Sime. Assegued also mentioned future projects including a major exhibition of Elias Sime’s work and seminar Where do we go from here scheduled to take place in Addis Ababa in January 2011.

Abdellah Karroum

talked about studying abroad and not knowing one’s home on returning. He introduced various projects that he organized which enabled him to reconnect with Morocco. He discussed the genesis of L’appartement 22 and the challenges of financing independent spaces.

The day ended with a roundtable discussion which touched on the following topics: arts education, censorship, the development of local audiences, and the internationalisation of exhibition programmes.

Day 2 – a closed workshop

The second day was a closed workshop attended by approximately 30 curators. The day was structured around four sessions:

  • The Current State and Future of Art Museums in Africa
  • Alternatives to the Museum: independent spaces in Africa
  • The history and sustainability of biennials in Africa
  • How to shape the future

Two or three of the guest speakers were asked to lead each session.

The Current State and Future of Art Museums in Africa

Raphael Chikukwa and Raison Naidoo led the first session on museums. Out of this conversation it emerged that the National Gallery of Art in Zimbabwe has several masterpieces in the collection, including works by Rembrandt, Rodin and Caravaggio. All works in the permanent collection are currently in storage, where they have been since the theft of two artefacts in 2004. Chikukwa is actively seeking to redress this situation and hopes to find a sponsor of CCTV cameras in the near future so the permanent collection can be put back on display. Various fundraising strategies were discussed. All those present agreed that the collection needed to be visible, even if only virtually, through the profiling of works on the gallery website.

Chikukwa discussed some of the ways the gallery has tried to build its audience through Art Moves (a truck taking exhibitions to the rural areas), Live and Direct (an awards exhibition for emerging artists) and Tata Camera (an exhibition inviting people to share their own photographs).

Naidoo discussed fundraising difficulties for museums in South Africa and the need to expand the culture of collecting and philanthropy in South Africa. He contrasted the South African National Gallery with the Johannesburg Art Gallery, which is struggling to attract visitors and retain staff. It was pointed out that the Standard Bank Gallery (a corporate enterprise) is taking over the functions of the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

The architecture of museums was also discussed, noting that imposing facades of many museums built during the colonial era in Africa may deter people from visiting.

Alternatives to the Museum: independent spaces in Africa

The second session on independent spaces was led by Meskerem Assegued, Bisi Silva and Marilyn Douala Bell. Douala Bell established the first independent space in Africa in 1991. Several artists have subsequently set up their own spaces as there are no museums in Douala. Doual’art is not an alternative to museums because they do not collect. Site-specific public works in Douala are the legacy of the organisation. Silva spoke about the importance of developing libraries for independent spaces. She also mentioned the need to do something that the museums (where they exist) do not do. CCA Lagos focuses on photography and video because the museums in Nigeria do not. Robert Loder talked about the history of the Bag Factory, the first studio space of its kind in Johannesburg. Danda Jaroljmek from Kuona Trust in Nairobi also shared her experience of running an independent space. She noted that there are no professional curators in Kenya and that artists curate for themselves. N’Goné Fall talked about the role of the French Cultural Centers, Goethe Institute etc in Africa and the power these organisations now yield in many countries.

The history and sustainability of biennials in Africa

The third session on biennials was led by N’Goné Fall and Abdellah Karroum. Fall gave an overview of the various biennials in Africa, some of which no longer exist. Fall predominantly talked about the Dakar biennale and proposed several reasons the quality of artworks submitted in response to the open call has been dropping in recent years.

Karroum explained the genesis of Arts in Marrakech and his involvement. Upcoming festivals and major exhibitions like SUD in Cameroon (December 2010), the Luanda Triennale (November 2010) and a photography festival in Addis Ababa (December 2010) were also discussed.

How to shape the future

The day concluded with a roundtable discussion about possible outcomes and how to shape the future.

The importance of collaboration was acknowledged as critical to future developments. Everyone agreed that collaborations need to be mutually beneficial and that organisations like Tate have a great deal to offer and gain from working with organisations in Africa. The possibilities of curatorial and conservation exchanges, touring exhibitions, sharing collections and developing reciprocal relationships for the dissemination of catalogues were also mentioned.

The closed workshop was audio recorded for research purposes only.


The Curating in Africa symposium received an enthusiastic response from the participants and invited guests and was an important step in the nascent development of Tate’s relationships with curators and institutions in Africa, as well as artists, curators and art historians in the diaspora. This symposium also provided an important occasion for Tate curators to engage with colleagues at WCP partner institutions.

The participants had the opportunity to meet each other (some for the first time), present their projects to UK peers, discuss the challenges they face and gain exposure and access to networks in London. Tate offered a platform for sharing expertise, developing knowledge and generating ideas for innovative and purposeful collaborations and exchanges with and between curators working in this region.

The Curating in Africa symposium led to a curatorial residency exchange between Tate and CCA Lagos (January – March 2011) and the collaborative exhibition project Contested Terrains (July – October 2011). It also resulted in a conservation residency exchange project between Tate and the National Gallery of Zimbabwe (NGZ) (February 2011 – March 2012), which resulted in the conservation of three works by Chris Ofili in the NGZ collection.

Further resources

See also