ICI’s María del Carmen Carrión met in New York with 2014 Independent Vision awardee Eva Barois De Caevel to discuss her curatorial practice and the research she has been conducting in Africa.
María del Carmen Carrión: It sounds that very early on even while pursuing your studies you were interested in understanding structures for production of art, and not so much in a traditional art history trajectory.
Eva Barois De Caevel: Yes, I was interested early on in the structures related to the production of art, but also in the mechanisms that underpin it: how one could make it visible or transform it into something else, something that will be part of the exhibitions concepts in the case of the curator and of the artworks in the case of the artist. I think this is what led me to become particularly interested in socially engaged practices, in non-visual practices, and in some aesthetic devices used in video art.
María del Carmen: You also became interested in the relationship between the discourse of artistic practice and post-colonialism.
Eva: I was interested in it even before starting my studies, certainly because of my personal background. During my Master’s program, I started to study structures for film production in contemporary art and to work for a video art production society, while my interest in postcolonial issues in contemporary art kept growing. It was just two different things that interested me at the same time and were sometimes merging, when I was working on films dealing with these issues. At the end of my Master’s, my idea was to start a thesis on structures for production and exhibition of contemporary art in Africa, and this project had grown in my mind in a very personal way. This was a kind of problem for me because it was difficult to propose this subject while I never worked on it in the academic context and also because the subject implied a lot of interdisciplinary work, which is not something so usual in a French academic context!
María del Carmen: How did you go about it, then?
Eva: I had already developed a strong interest in postcolonial questions and a self-taught knowledge about the concerns that are now central to my work, through readings and by attending exhibitions, talks and lectures. What was interesting to me was the presence on the international scene of places located in Africa, which we knew about in the West through their “international” communication, and especially through collaborative networks and financial support from the West. I was curious to understand how these places functioned, because I was convinced that they had to face the concrete questions that interested me; for example, the revision of curatorial methods according to norms that would not necessarily follow the Western epistemological norms. How could curators work in these exhibition spaces? How did they consider specific contexts even if they had, almost always, learned their trade in the West? So I just decided to continue to work on these subjects by my own and to postpone my thesis in order to make it stronger in the future: my idea was to discuss my subject with professionals during one or two years and to travel in order to have my own experience of these places.
María del Carmen: Tell me about the research that came out of this first trip to Africa. What countries did you visit and what have been the outcomes of those visits?
Eva: I travelled first to Morocco then to Madagascar. In Morocco, I was able to observe what was happening in different places (often managed by expatriates). In Madagascar, I worked with a project supported by an artist financed by the Maison Rouge. And at one point, I had a Skype discussion with Koyo Kouoh, founder and Artistic Director of Raw Material Company in Dakar. Following our discussion she invited me to start a collaboration with the aim of doing a residency.
In the different countries I visited, the presence of foreign cultural institutions was strong, notably the Institut Français. My experiences and observations were all formative. Most of the places were painfully lacking in a consideration of their relationship with the local and the global, and in critical postcolonial thought. This was even catastrophic at times, and it convinced me of the necessity, at my level, to try to treat these questions and to propose a renovated curatorial practice that could correspond to the specific issues of each place. That is what Koyo gave me the opportunity to do, and what we finally worked on together with the Raw team. I am very happy and proud of this collaboration for these reasons. Raw is a very special place, a really unique place, where many things are possible.
María del Carmen: So the field research in Africa gave you the opportunity to reconcile and made the connections between the things you were reading and some of the practices that you were looking at, right?
Eva: Exactly, I started to notice a lot of aesthetical strategies – usually new or renewed – in contemporary artists’ practices that were dealing with these postcolonial questions, such as reenactment or the display of archives. A good example of this combination of topics of interest is a workshop I did at La Cinémathèque de Tanger (1) in Tangier, Morocco a few years ago. The workshop was organized by the video art production structure I was working for and involved two French artists and several Moroccan art, video and architecture students. What interested me the most during this trip was how La Cinémathèque worked. I really had the feeling that what we were doing was useful and rewarding – I mean working with the students who were extremely motivated and eager for knowledge and dialogue, but at the same time, I felt ill at ease about the way the structure worked. At the same time I was fascinated by the work of one of the teacher artists in the workshop, a young filmmaker named Neil Beloufa. He is French from Algerian descent and was working on an investigation of mainstream cultural canons thanks to his video art, using documentary devices but also role play and ethnological techniques (see Kempinski, 2007 and Sans titre, 2011, two great films). So it was not very clear in my mind at this time but I had the feeling that I had something to do with all these elements that totally obsessed me and I think it is still what I am trying to do now: thinking on the structures of production and exhibition in non Western societies, considering contemporary art as a link to deal with otherness and power structures, working with artists that can consider these questions and find aesthetical strategies for it.
María del Carmen: You were a French curator traveling to former French colonies in Africa looking to understand what infrastructure was available for curatorial and artistic production, and also interested in seeing the continent through a postcolonial lens. Did you feel that you were in a position of power and that you had to retrain the way you navigated the space and the way you thought about art and production?
Eva: It was difficult because it could be very easy to just make profit of my position and this, unfortunately, would have been accepted by the Western world. But I think I have a personal history, a personal connection, with these issues that helped me think about how I “navigated the space” as you said. I was born in France and I grew up totally unaware of what Africa is. But it was a personal issue for me because I am black and as I travelled I was considered as a black or African woman by Western people in some countries, and when I travelled to Africa I was considered as a white and Western woman. I had to define myself in each situation. And I didn’t choose that. It is something simply related to the colour of my skin. And this fact – the obligation to question your own identity – is something that is present, in very different ways, in the work of artists like Mohamed Bourouissa, Salma Cheddadi, Zoulikha Bouabdellah or Adelita Husni-Bey, artists I am currently working with or have worked in the past. So yes, I think you can’t avoid the question of your own position, your own background, while working on any artistic project, and it will help you make it deeper, more challenging and interesting. It could seem commonplace to say, but I know how difficult it is to really accept to consider fully your position: where you come from and where you stand now, what you are talking about and from which point of view, which preconceptions you think through. For instance, for me, the human and work experiences I had in Africa were decisive and they confirmed my desire to build exhibitions that question the power structures behind them, the power relations between people.
María del Carmen: What is interesting for me is that what you encountered, instead of being the usual projection, was something different, that made you think about your practice in a different way. And that’s what I think is fascinating. Instead of just becoming the projection that could be an easy way to get away with things, there was something that clicked in this story you’re telling that made you think about how curatorial practice is related to perception, how it’s related to sight, and to interrelations.
Eva: Yes. Exactly. I started to look at the works of art, at the exhibition displays and at the global discourse of contemporary as Western or non-Western rooted artefacts, environments, and discourses. It is something that became obvious to me, and it gave me the desire to make it visible. So one can say that, by not accepting the different projections about me as an African or a Western woman, I was able to find a new point of approach to my curatorial practice: exhibition concepts and displays that would be able to question what we could call “the unsaid projections.”
For instance, for Who Said It Was Simple, the exhibition I curated last year at Raw Material Company, the most important thing for me was the fact that the exhibition would refuse to conform (from its very conception) to Western discourses, which are essentially forms of evangelization through a moral aesthetic. Most of my interlocutors, before seeing the exhibition, were expecting some sort of naïve preaching, through the works of contemporary art, of Western values in the defence of homosexuality. Yet since we were presenting contemporary art that engaged with ideas about contemporary sexuality to the Senegalese public: works produced by African and diaspora artists, and which had already been exhibited in the West and received in a certain fashion, it was essential to me that they were accompanied by a theoretical and critical apparatus to contextualize it.
(Installation view, Who Said It Was Simple, Raw Material Company, photo by Antoine Tempé)
(Installation view, Who Said It Was Simple, Raw Material Company, photo by Antoine Tempé)
María del Carmen: What was the strategy you used?
Eva: The project focused on sexual relations between same-sex people and their perception in the Senegalese contemporary society. So we decided to start with an analysis of newspapers archives that were in Dakar. And then I figured out that it would be great to present a larger research on sexual practices in Senegal and in Africa and on how some of these sexual practices were seen nowadays, by different groups of the society.
This was under a year-long program with four chapters. The exhibition Who Said It Was Simple was the first chapter and it did not include any artworks in the exhibition room (but there were film screenings and a performance by Issa Samb). This was a conscious decision. With this first chapter I tried to create a platform with all the archives and with a program of screenings and debates, and I did a seminar with people from the university, from NGOs, lawyers, journalists and religious leaders. The idea was to set a mental mapping of the conscious and the unconscious of the society on this topic: I love the idea of “using” contemporary art, your position as a curator or an artist, to organize think-tanks with people who do not usually meet each other, and in a context that is not overdetermined a priori. I thought it was really interesting and important to take this time to listen to people, to make space for the speech of each of them, before presenting contemporary artworks on this topic of “different” sexual practices.
María del Carmen: Let’s talk more on detail about your use of the archives. You started with an extensive research, looking at something like 2,500 articles from 5 newspapers in Dakar, and then you selected 100 articles. Tell me about the parameters you established for that selection process.
Eva: The first thing was time. We focused on the past 10 years because we wanted to start with some recent archive: we wanted to deal with the current situation. The selection year by year was also proportionate to the amount of articles released. For instance, one year there were a lot of articles because there were some trials, some events related to the topic of same-sex relations and some years there was nothing, so I tried to make this apparent and to present it chronologically, like a timeline that made these differences of density obvious.
The second thing was to focus on the words used to describe same-sex relations. I tried to make a selection in which you could see all the different words that were used to describe what we call, in Western countries, homosexuality or lesbianism. This was the second criterion, and a very important one, since studying the words that are and have been used is very informative in terms of imperialist influences and the loss of traditional social structures and habits (something due to monotheism and colonization). For instance, I was very interested in the word “goordjigen” that is now used in the sense of “gay” but that historically means something much more specific: it described a kind of special group of very respected drag-queens, who were advisors for important ladies.
María del Carmen: Did it lose that kind of sense of the advisor? Is it used now in a pejorative way?
Eva: Yes. And I tried to understand what was lost and why. I love this kind of situation where you can understand a lot and make people understand a lot by studying something very simple: vernacular things that are in our daily life, like the words we use. I believe it is what an artist or a curator can do: try to understand and help others understand what is happening and what had happened.
María del Carmen: There is definitely a lot of presence of archives both in the practice of artists but also in the practice of curators. And sometimes the presentation of those archives can become really problematic, because in some occasions it becomes hermetic and offers little to no access for the viewers. But I think that in this case you are describing, you presented the archive as chapter one, before presenting contemporary artworks as a way of people to have an entry point that was part of their culture and their daily life. Am I correct in my perception?
Eva: Yes. Exactly. And after that, in my opinion, we could show contemporary artworks that were about how people try to define themselves now as something new because what they experiment with today is, indeed, new. I mean, to be a homosexual like Zanele Muholi shows it in her pictures, this is new – the existence of same-sex relations between people is not. This is a crucial difference to understand. And this “new” is linked to post-colonization, to globalization, and I think it is extremely important to explain these kinds of processes. It is something that can really avoid tensions, much more than any imperialist promotion of Western values. And the big issue for me is that sometimes non-Western art promote these Western values without being aware of it.
María del Carmen: Lets talk about the exhibition you are currently working on, Body Talk—Feminism, Sexuality and the Body in the Work of Six African Women.
Eva: It is a project I am working on with Koyo Kouoh. It focuses on a generation of African women artists who started to work in the early 1990s and in whose practice the body is central. The artists are Zoulikha Bouabdellah, Marcia Kure, Miriam Syowia Kyambi, Valérie Oka, Tracey Rose, and Billie Zangewa. The first question is: why this focus on the body? And what does it mean to be a woman today in the contemporary arts, now that African artists receive more critical and economical attention? And what does it mean to be an African woman artist and to work with your body?
For the exhibition I am writing an essay titled “Bodies who repeat, bodies who speak.” The text analyses the articulation between the treatment of the female African body by the artists in Body Talk (and generally by most prominent women African artists) — that is always announced as a political intervention and as an emancipating gesture — and the presence of contemporary imperialist tensions within this treatment itself. What I am attempting to achieve with the text is a critical response to representations; for instance, of the veil and of sexuality in contemporary African art and art from the Diaspora, is that, even when we say that we are opposed to a national thought deemed archaic, patriotic and anti-emancipation, we can still reproduce imperialist discourses, and in this way perpetuate an internal divide in society. A divide we produce, and which produces in turn imperialist politics and behaviours. A simple example of this process is the one I suggested in critiquing representations of the veil by women artists in the Maghreb and the Middle East. These representations are directed against specific states and societies, but they are also tantamount to interiorizations of positions of domination. They reactivate the imperialist politics these societies were subjected to (for example, the ceremonies of deveiling in colonial Algeria). What does not seem productive in these artistic propositions is the fact that their discourse settles for adapting to the West, without suggesting anything, and without changing anything, within the non-Western societies that they are concerned with (all it produces, ultimately, is division and conflict within these societies).
María del Carmen: Which is another of the things that you’ve mentioned that you’re interested in: the idea of mimicry.
Eva: Yes, and mimicry is present in so many things! When I was talking about the places and the new structures for contemporary art in Africa, it is the same issue. You create a new place and you have to think about this notion of mimicry, you have to! Same goes for the curator and the artist. I think it is really important. I am interested in the fact that many contemporary artists are doing works that are, in a way and in my opinion, interiorizations of imperialist structures or discourses. And of course you can do it without being aware of it and the issue is that it is seductive to Western people so it is difficult to get rid of it. Because, I think, it is easy, and because people understand: “okay, the poor Muslim women who have to wear a veil, this is bad and the artist who is saying it is wonderful, she is speaking about freedom.” And it is not that. It is more complex. And maybe you can’t understand. And above all, you don’t know what the veil is exactly. And while you are doing this as an artist, you are doing something that is about mimicry, but in a very dangerous way.
(1) “The Cinémathèque de Tanger’s mission is to develop film culture in Morocco. In 2006, this non-profit organization took over the premises of Cinema Rif, est. 1938. It aims to provide Tangier’s public with quality programming that reflects the diversity of film production, without the hegemony of commercial movies released in Moroccan theaters.