The Radical Practice of Black Curation: A Symposium

April 18, 2024

Black curatorial practice, present and future, was the topic of the symposium titled "The Radical Practice of Black Curation" co-hosted by the Princeton Collaboratorium for Radical Aesthetics led by Tina Campt and the Park Avenue Armory in New York City.  The symposium began on April 11 with a series of conversations held at the Lewis Center for the Arts that were elaborated in smaller sessions at the Armory the following day.  To end the symposium on a festive note, multidisciplinary artist Richard Kennedy performed Guttural (Conducted Contact), a musical encapsulation of the African diaspora described as opening a portal of participatory gathering for truth to emerge through song, dance, and wordless conversations.

The Lewis Center’s Wallace Theater was filled to capacity for the series of discussions, manifesting the collective craving for conversations on this theme.  “I was deeply gratified by people’s enthusiasm for participating in the conference,” said Campt. “I heard over and over how important it was for so many people—grad students, young and emerging curators, senior curators and museum directors—how long they had waited to have such a conversation and how hungry they were for it.”

Two women sit on chairs beneath large projection screen and in front of a large audience

Helga Davis and Thelma Golden address a full Wallace Theater audience (Photo/Jon Sweeney, Lewis Center for the Arts)

“I heard over and over how important it was for so many people—grad students, young and emerging curators, senior curators and museum directors—how long they had waited to have such a conversation and how hungry they were for it.” —Tina Campt

The first panel, moderated by Tavia Nyong’o (Yale University) and Cameron Rowland (artist), featured Gabi Ngcobo (Director, Kunstinstituut Melly, Rotterdam), Oluremi C. Onabanjo (Museum of Modern Art, New York), and Legacy Russell (The Kitchen, New York).  In the afternoon, Tina Campt moderated a discussion with Nana Adusei-Poku (Yale University), Ekow Eshun (Independent Curator, London), and Koyo Kouoh (Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art, Cape Town). The afternoon concluded with Thelma Golden (The Studio Museum in Harlem) and Helga Davis (actor/vocalist/performance artist) in conversation.

Two men and three women sit in attentive discussion

From left: Cameron Rowland, Gabi Ngcobo, Oluremi C. Onabanjo, Legacy Russell, and Tavia Nyong’o (Photo/Jon Sweeney)

Rather than talking about artists and exhibitions, discussion centered on the work of curators of color. Ekow Eshun likened his view of the art gallery to the sovereign black space Toni Morrison describes in Beloved, which he generates using aesthetics, environment, and a pivotal and lasting ethos.

In response to Campt’s suggestion that racial reckoning has come to define and constrict Black curation, Koyo Kouoh spoke about the need to escape “the triangular deadlock“ of slavery, colonization, and Apartheid. She urged imagining beyond that triangle without diminishing “the importance, determination, and power” that lies within it.  And that imagining, she continued, should include curatorial practice beyond exhibition making into forms like books, discourse, or institution building. Among ways to expand the arena of Black curation, Nana Adusei-Poku highlighted the need for gallery art educators to directly engage with a broad spectrum of viewers.

This symposium built on last spring's dynamic inaugural semester of Collaboratorium activities, and the momentum is clearly growing.

In addition to the urgent need for this vein of conversation, the symposium cemented another conclusion. “The major takeaway for me was that it can’t be a one-off,” Campt emphasized.  “That was the consensus of everyone who attended, particularly at the Armory sessions. So I’m looking forward to working together with the wonderful group of collaborators who have emerged from the symposium to realize the next iteration!”