Interview with Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi

Interview with Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi

Carlos Garrido Castellano

Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi is an artist, art historian, and the Steven and Lisa Tananbaum Curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. He was formerly curator of African art at the Cleveland Museum of Art as well as at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art, Hanover, New Hampshire. Nzewi has curated major international exhibitions, including the Dakar Biennale, Senegal, in 2014, and he served on the curatorial team for the 11th Shanghai Biennale in 2016–17. He has lectured and given talks at academic institutions and museums around the world. His recent publications include Dak’Art: The Biennale of Dakar and the Making of Contemporary African Art (2020) and Second Careers: Two Tributaries in African Art (2019). As an artist, he has participated in international artists’ residencies and workshops in Africa, Europe, and the United States. He has exhibited internationally and is represented in public and private collections including the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC, and Newark Museum, New Jersey. This interview was conducted on May 8, 2020.

Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi is the Curator of African Art at The Hood Museum of Art
at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Photograph by Caleb Kenna

Carlos Garrido Castellano: You were involved in the Pan African Circle of Artists (PACA), a very interesting initiative that highlights the potential that artistic collaboration can have. To begin, can you tell us a bit more about this initiative?

Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi: I became affiliated with the Pan African Circle of Artists in my last year in art school, at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in 2001. I was taken by their interest in what Pan Africanism can mean, not just in terms of the original idea of engendering political solidarity, which was the initial impetus of the first wave of Pan African engagement during the first half of the twentieth century. Instead, I was more interested in the way in which, at that point, as a student of Pan Africanism, how one can think about the role Pan Africanism could play in the field of art. When I met this group of artists who were mostly art teachers and were interested in engaging what used to be a tepid Nigerian art scene, I was motivated by their sense of a date with destiny and how they considered their own relationship with the rest of the continent. Their agenda was very attractive to me.

Regarding the potential for artistic collaboration, PACA was an artists’ collective that had an ambition that was far ahead of its time. The desire by a collective of young artists to engage with their colleagues around the continent was novel at that time and remained so until fairly recently. Members of the collective wore several hats, as artists, curators, art historians, writers, poets, exhibition makers, critics, public intellectuals, and social entrepreneurs. Notwithstanding the tough economic conditions that they contended with, they were driven to make exhibitions, publish books, and generally stimulate the sparse cultural landscape across Nigeria, and further afield around the continent. In addition to its not-well known Afrika Heritage Biennale, there was the more successful Overcoming Maps series especially between 2001–2007, an initiative that afforded us the opportunity to travel around the continent, collaborating with colleagues in different countries, exhibiting and curating. The study tour, as it was called, began with West Africa, and led to subsequent trips to East and Southern Africa.

Overcoming Maps 3 conference, French Institute, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso (January-2004)

On the Road tour bus, Overcoming Maps 3 (January 2004)

This broad range of activities and platforms was created on a shoestring budget. Members of PACA contributed to organize these events with occasional generous support from funders such as the Prince Claus Fond, in the Netherlands. So, these were the things that sort of formed my practice from the very beginning: as a curator, exhibition maker, scholar, academic, and artist. So, my relationship with PACA was very formative in my career. It is for this reason that I always return to the principal idea that inspired the activities of PACA: Pan-Africanism; what it meant during the twentieth century and how it is still relevant or can be re-imagined to stay relevant in twenty-first century and beyond.

I have addressed other forms of collaboration in my career. We think of our research work as individuated. Yet, our research builds on previous work and ultimately new scholars will build on our work. In other words, there is that appeal to a much bigger context of collaboration with colleagues, dead and alive. When we think about extant literature in an area of study, it could be viewed as the sum of a collaborative gesture among all these various individuals. I tend to see my present curatorial work in the museum in a similar light, as a collaborative venture. Exhibition making involves collaboration with artists and colleagues (scholars, fellow curators, exhibition designers, and a slew of other individuals whose contributions are a critical requirement to the success of any curatorial endeavour). Beyond my work in the United States, I continue to collaborate with colleagues on the continent. Koyo Kouoh is one of the persons I have been fortunate to partner with on a few projects. I also touch base with Raphael Chikukwa, the Director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, and several colleagues in positions of power at institutions on the continent or working independently.

CGC: I also wanted to ask you about your art training at Nsukka. To what extent were the models of art educations that start to be configured after independence alive when you were in college?

USN: One good place to begin with is Uche Okeke’s superb influence, not just on the arts program at Nsukka, but also on modernist art in Nigeria. The art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu details the trailblazing role of Uche Okeke in the well-received book Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria (Durham: Duke University Press: 2015). Okeke explored the role of the artist in the imagining of post-independence Nigeria, and the outlines of a decolonization agenda, at the very beginning of the postcolonial era in the late 1950s and 1960s. Okeke’s philosophy of natural synthesis, the idea of purposefully drawing from indigenous and foreign aesthetic traditions, was a logical approach to addressing the postcolonial predicament. The colonial encounter was not something that could be wished away by mere utterance. Instead, it was a reality to be grappled with in the postcolonial dispensation and in the imagining of a cultural path going forward.

In the early 1970s Okeke was invited by the university administration at Nsukka to help revive the arts program. This was after the Nigerian-Biafran Civil War. If you are familiar with Nigeria, the university is in the Igbo country in eastern Nigeria, which constituted the short-lived Biafra. That defeat was something that shaped the Igbo imagination. It equally helped to galvanize the Igbos in the reconstruction efforts following the civil war. So, when Uche Okeke was invited to Nsukka to revive the arts program, he could draw on the creative experiments with the Igbo body, and the Igbo mural art called Uli, that he’d developed in his own practice during the late 1950s and 1960s, as well as among his circle of friends, who were former members of the Zaria Art Society. An ethos of natural synthesis ran throughout all of these experiments. Okeke was also part of the experimental Mbari artists and Writers Club in Ibadan, southwestern Nigeria. It was established by the late German cultural entrepreneur Ulli Beier, who played a pivotal role in the Nigerian art scene in that period as the editor of the influential Black Orpheus magazine and catalyst of the Oshogbo artistic movement. Okeke would later create his own Mbari Art Center in Enugu based on the Ibadan model. This was before the Civil War broke out. In a sense, Okeke expanded on his natural synthesis at Ibadan and Enugu, and when he was invited to Nsukka, the aesthetic ideas espoused in this philosophy became the basis of his vision for the arts program. Over the years, this vision blossomed and is variously referred to as Nsukka Art School or modern Uli movement.

So, when I arrived as a student in the arts department in 1996, the spirit of Uli was still strong. Although Okeke retired as a professor in the mid-1980s, the school’s philosophy was firmly entrenched due to his influence. It was a natural course for me to imbibe this philosophy, although during my time things had already gone south with the educational system in Nigeria. It was during the dictatorship of Sani Abacha, and morale was low. Some of the lecturers in the arts program who had been persecuted by the Abacha administration had left the country for the United States. But the institutional memory was still there and so I benefitted from that.

CGC: I also want to ask you about your theoretical ideas on art collaborations. In New Spaces for Negotiating Art (and) Histories in Africa, the book you co-edited in 2015, you develop the idea that by understanding how different art spaces work we can also rewrite art histories in different fashions. This seems to me very important, as it also helps rewriting art histories from the past. Can you expand a bit on this topic?

USN: Well the question regarding art history from an African perspective and theoretical ideas on art collaborations are things that I have grappled with personally and with close collaborators. Two years ago, I partnered with Koyo Kouoh and the Raw Material Company, Dakar, to organize the Condition Report 3 symposium that focused on art history in Africa. The outcome of that conference is a forthcoming co-edited volume. Condition Report 3 builds on two previous eponymous symposiums which Koyo Kouoh organized that respectively addressed independent art spaces and arts education in Africa. New Spaces for Negotiating Art (and) Histories in Africa that you mentioned, which I co-edited with Kerstin Pinther and Berit Fischer, was the outcome of a workshop that examined independent art spaces in Africa. It was organized by Pinther and Larissa Förster in partnership with Point du Sud, Bamako, in March 2012. Pinther was also part of the inaugural Condition Report 1 symposium in Dakar, in January 2012, which I attended. The point I am making is that I have been invested in this line of thinking and work for some time.

Elmina Castle, Eastern-Cape, Ghana, Overcoming Maps 3 (January 2004)

Group exhibition at Henry Tayali Visual Center, Lusaka, Zambia, Overcoming Maps 5 (2008)

Meeting with HE Kenneth Kaunda, former President of Zambia, Lusaka, Overcoming Maps 5 (2008)

At the core of such thinking is that when you look at the historiography of African art history, the nuts and bolts of it, firstly, Africa and African cultures are engaged with as objects of enquiry. Second, Africans are not always or fully considered as active producers of academic knowledge about Africa, nor is their intellectual output considered credible enough if it doesn’t comply with Western frameworks. What you find by looking at the historiography of African art is that Africa is a space where people go in and take things. This has been ongoing since colonialism. In the very beginning it was the extraction of resources and then the extraction of knowledge. The beginning of African art as a sphere of knowledge ownership is tied to the activities of European art dealers at the turn of the twentieth century who established the formalist framework for its reception in a global context. The happened simultaneously with European colonization. The invention of African art as an academic field occurred much later, through the pioneering activities of such individuals as Roy Sieber, Bill Fagg, and others. When the field emerged, those who invented it imagined Africa as a space of knowledge extraction, and arguably, Africans were not imagined as co-owners of the intellectual outcome. Instead, they were addressed as native informants, an abhorrent tag that has evolved over the decades. Conversely, with modern and contemporary African art which emerged at the crucible of colonial modernity and anti-colonial pushbacks, African artists as knowledge brokers and social entrepreneurs were very much involved in establishing its interpretive frameworks. As such, initiatives of PACA and the activities of contemporary figures such as Koyo, is part of a mid-century tradition of producing, negotiating, informing, and producing art history from an African perspective. When you pay close attention to the language deployed by the Pan-African Circle of Artists or listen to Koyo, Raphael Chikukwa, or your colleague Nomusa Makhubu, it was always about offering an African viewpoint on knowledge production. We must note that the process of knowledge production reflects the cultural background of the producer in spite of such arguments, especially with regard to the West, that it is anchored by a universal perspective.  The point here is that no perspective is universal ab initio. Instead, it is first informed by one’s socio-cultural exposure. For these folks who operate from the African continent, it is a question of what should our response be to these constellations around art history? In that sense, what informs some of these intellectual activities on the continent is precisely that we want to see ourselves, the way we produce our subjectivities, in what we write or what is written about the continent. It is a question of agency, something that I have always returned to.

CGC: Does this also imply a revision of the biennial format and large-scale exhibitions?

USN: Yes, you could say that. One of the things you have to say about biennials like the Dakar biennial in Senegal is that it was established because of the activism of Senegalese artists. It was created to serve as a platform through which artists in Senegal can engage with the rest of the world. That was basically what it was about from the very beginning. By 1996, when it became a pan-African biennial, it became a question of offering our own perspective, an African perspective, on international contemporary art. Generally speaking, it is often the case that universal assumptions are made when the West speaks. Conversely, it is typically assumed that the non-Western context offers ethnographic perspectives. Hence, when you have that sort of conversation on the continent, it is about finding a way to speak that adds value and agency to one’s sense of being. In other words, in this conversation Africans project a universal sense of self as members of the human community, a position that recalls Leopold Sedar Senghor’s idea of the Civilization of the Universal.

CGC: Could we zoom into your curatorial experience at the Dakar Biennial, which I think moved far beyond the original model of the biennial, to introduce activist and socially engaged initiatives?

USN: There are a couple of things to unpack here in respect of Dak’Art 2014. First, is the understanding that the Dakar biennial was a gift from Senegal to Africa and indeed, the Black world. It also suggests the idea of sacrifice by Senegal in offering this platform of visibility, which has social implications. I understand the role of the Dak’Art biennial as a form of social practice at national, transnational, and international scales. When I was invited to co-curate Dak’Art in 2014, having written about the biennial for my doctoral dissertation, I was clearly aware of the ideological commitments of the Senegalese state to the rest of the continent and indeed, the Black World. We put this right in front of our thinking of the 2014 edition of the biennial. The other thing that was important for us to think about was what regionalism meant, given Dak’Art’s geopolitical approach and how other regional biennials such as Manifesta are not tagged as such but fully vested with the international. It is this hierarchy of power and relevance that seemingly props up events in Western spaces above their counterparts elsewhere. do not seem to exhibit a similar set of concerns.

11th. Dak’Art Biennale (May 11-June 14, 2014). Photo by Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi.

Participating artists at Dak’Art biennials are usually of African descent, but they are from many different nations, with some having multiple nationalities. These artists have a cosmopolitan consciousness and a global outlook. As such, describing Dak’Art as an African biennial reduces it to the ethnographic quandary I mentioned previously and does not do justice to the artists who think beyond such limiting perspectives and to the idea of a biennale that is committed to global dialogue. It was important for us to think about the way in which the Dakar biennial engages the rest of the world; thinking about the universal scope of the biennial even as it is rooted in the African context. Dak’Art 2014 charted a new direction for the biennial and that direction was consolidated in subsequent iterations under the artistic direction of Simon Njami. It is this attempt to locate the biennial within the universal, rather than the merely regional, frame that was important to us. That was one of the things we were able to do in 2014; to rethink the direction of the biennial in relation to its focus on Africa and the African diaspora by thinking more broadly about the meaning of the biennial within the context of the universal.

CGC: One of the main aims of the Dak’Art Biennial is to de-center the histories of art activism and socially engaged art. It is very problematic to see that many publications on these topics keep explaining them as very much the result of Europeans and Americans “inventing things,” ignoring how important anticolonialism was in inventing new forms of creativity. What would it take to challenge this reductive and productive assumption of universalism?

USN: I think about documenta 14, which sought to engage with decoloniality or what I want to call the “second wave” decolonization. It was interested in addressing the imperialist roots of epistemologies that we hold sacrosanct and thus called for the unlearning of received forms of knowledge built on Eurocentric foundations. Yet, the whole conversation about unlearning seemed to me a little demoralizing and disingenuous. What it suggested to me is the way in which the art world latches on to a latest trendy idea without seeking substantial investments in what are at stake beyond rhetoric.  For instance, I found documenta 14’s decolonization rhetoric slightly arrogant because in my view, it failed to acknowledge the intellectual and activist histories of decolonization in Africa and other previously colonized spaces, for example. What it suggested to me is that when ideas are pioneered in the non-western context, they are not credible enough to gain mainstream acceptance quickly gain mainstream acceptance quickly or do so when it is mediated by a Western interlocutor. In other words, when intellectual ideas (radical or otherwise) are authored by non-western knowledge brokers, such ideas must pass through Western advanced mettles to be acknowledged as worthy or legitimate. The ownership of such intellectual ideas, radical or game changing as they might be, shifts from the periphery where they were produced or are addressing, to the centre. Those ideas become assimilated into Western intellectual experience in the spirit of universalism. I do not have any answers other than to say that no matter how we think we are committed to de-colonial ideas and rightly so, such conversations are held mainly within academia. They are part and parcel of academic idealism. We have had them occasionally seep out of the ivory towers when protests such as the one we are witnessing now, occasioned by the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement officers, become global events.

CGC: Let’s move to the work you developed as Curator of African Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where you did a lot of work in introducing issues of African art in that context. What are your thoughts about that project?

USN: I did not do as much as I would have wished because my time in Cleveland was short, roughly two years. What I had in store for Cleveland was, first, to help the institution and its audience move beyond the focus on historical or so-called canonical African art. And I am happy because people were open to that. You cannot think about historical African art divorced from contemporary practices that abound on the continent today. The truth is that contemporary African artists return to the historical canon as a wellspring, an archive of formal strategies and aesthetic traditions. This is akin to imagining contemporary Western art today without acknowledging its indebtedness to a lineage and traditions of art making such as the Renaissance, etc. No matter what we do today, no matter how we claim that it is a break from tradition; when you pay close attention, you’ll discover that artistic production is shaped by an immanent cultural consciousness that holds through time. So, if you want to understand the practice of contemporary African artists, you must place it alongside the long durée of artistic practices of Africa. You cannot divorce or detach one from the other, nor can you describe what has been produced as derivative of what the West is doing, because it’s not! The idea of bricolage, for example, discussed in the context of twentieth-century European avant-garde artists such as Picasso, is equally apparent in the works of African artists historically, who put together found objects as a way of distilling reality. With contemporary African artists working in a similar mode, they are basically mining the archives of that tradition but addressing their reality, and our present condition. This is one of the things I began to address in my curatorial work in Cleveland.

Related to this was the acquisition of a work by the Cameroonian artist Hervé Youmbi, Totem: [01/01/18] It is an assemblage of five classical art forms, all put together to create a totem. It questions the conditions of African arts in Western institutions. One of the things I find fascinating about the work of Youmbi is the way in which he plays the trickster. He is borrowing from this historical form, but he does that to make a critical judgement on the status of historical African art in the museum. One of the reasons for the acquisition of that work was the way in which it references the familiar, but also gives fresh impetus to it. In the museum, historical African art objects are static, because they have been removed from their original context. Remember that many of these objects were danced in the public space or used in a performative context, and as such they were expected to move and not be static. In a museum context they are stripped of the accoutrements (assemblage of wide-ranging materials) that make them a complete theatre and provide the “vital force” that produces them as cultural objects. For me, the introduction of something that is both familiar, and perhaps, strange, is a way of getting people to think about the connections between contemporary African art and its historical forebears. It is also about the “de-colonial” argument that such works by contemporary artists make about the “museum career” of historical African art. The work of Kendell Geers, a white South African artist, called Twilight of the Idols, from Nietzsche and his idea of iconoclasm, followed Youmbi’s Totem. Geers was primarily interested in the displacement of value and what location does to the implied meaning in an object when it takes on another occupation outside it original source of value and meaning. This is the story of historical African art as a global commodity and a museum object. Geers’ work also problematizes the notion of ownership of cultural heritage and the racialization of Africa in set ways.

The Art of Weapons, Hood Museum ofArt, Dartmouth College. Photo courtesy of Ugochukwu Smooth C. Nzewi.

When we think about Africa we think about blackness in a very racialized way. So, the acquisition of the work of Geers who is a white South African artist based in Brussels, disrupts a narrow understanding of Africa, and the way it is produced and received in the Western imaginary. As an African-born curator working in the United States, I believe that part of my work is to educate and to demonstrate the complexity of Africa, its peoples, and the way in which the continent produces and manifests itself at different historical moments. Although my primary audience is Western or American, is very important to me that when someone from Africa walks into my exhibition, he or she is able to find the fullness of their being and histories represented; not tropes, stock images, etc.

These were some of the things I tried to set in motion in Cleveland. I had begun that process during my time at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art. I have been somewhat fortunate in my career so far that my ideas have been well-received at the few institutions that I have worked in. Hopefully, that continues.

CGC: What kind of response did your curatorial work receive in Dartmouth and Cleveland?

USN: These are two different audiences. The Hood Museum is a teaching museum. it is based in a campus and so its primary audience is specialized, an academic audience, in that sense. And Dartmouth College is a small community relative to Cleveland. The Cleveland Museum of Art is a more public-facing entity, a city museum, and so the audience is much bigger, and one’s message and approach must be tailored appropriately.

CGC: Just to conclude, how do you see the opportunity of your new position at the Museum of Modern Art in relation to the work you have developed in the past?

NSM: MoMA is obviously a bigger platform because of its location and its reputation. This means that it comes with a different set of challenges, and pressures perhaps. Also, my responsibility is advanced differently. I am still learning how the institution works. Every institution has a different way of working, and I think my challenge in the main is moving from an encyclopaedic institution to one that is focused on the narrative of modern and contemporary art. It is a new world for me, and I am learning how the institution works. I appreciate and embrace the new challenge. But it is still a learning curve.

Carlos Garrido Castellano is Lecturer of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, coordinator of the BA in Portuguese Studies and co-convenor of the Languages and Cultures MA at University College Cork. He is the author ofBeyond Representation in Contemporary Caribbean Art: Space, Politics and the Public Sphere (2019), Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future (forthcoming 2021) and Literary Fictions of the Contemporary Art System (forthcoming 2022).