In a space long dominated by a tight-knit, male-dominated circle, the art industry is gradually beginning to shake things up, with strong female voices elected to command the ship. While the curator has not always been the shining star of any museum, the role has slowly become one of the most coveted and recognized in the art world, and so have the people who assume the position.
Along with the celebrity surrounding the job, it likewise comes with great, multi-faceted responsibility. Not only does the curator seek out new artists, but they must also diplomatically forge firm relationships, attract and excite the viewer, and stand by their artistic choices as the de-facto representative of an exhibition. Not to mention, they are in a unique position to be able to catapult an undiscovered artist into stardom.
As of late, a growing number of women curators have emerged to add their unique contribution to the art world. African women, in particular, have become central figures in this emerging community. They are woven together by an innate understanding of what makes a compelling work and a desire to examine history and society through the practice of art.
Hailing from all parts of Africa and the diaspora, with various backgrounds and unique visions for their role, many are driven to propel the work of African artists forward and continue to unravel the continent’s history and culture.
Curators like the Zeitz MOCAA’s Koyo Kuuoh and Tandazani Dhlakama have brought about a refreshing change in the museum by engaging with South African history and amplifying new female voices. Likewise, curators Nana Oforiatta Ayim, Missla Libsekal, and Rujeko Hockley have helped put Black voices on a global scale by placing their artists in international contemporary art events. Curator Touria El Glauoi decided to branch out on her own to create 1-54 Art Fair, a multi-city event that highlights Africa's emerging artist.
No matter their focus, these African female curators are offering a distinct approach to their work as they reimagine the future landscape of the industry and center much-needed fresh perspectives.
The Folklore put together a list of the six African female art curators to watch from Africa and the diaspora.
One of two associates of Cape Town’s Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) on this list, Koyo Kouoh heads the museum as chief curator and executive director. Newly opened in 2017, Zeitz MOCAA experienced a somewhat turbulent first few years and brought in Kouoh in 2019 for a much-needed reset. Born in Douala, Cameroon, Kouoh formerly founded the all female-led RAW Material Company arts center out of Dakar, Senegal, and headed educational programming for the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair. At Zeitz MOCAA, Kuoh’s optimistic personality and skillful diplomacy have been well-received, and she is known for her close relationships with artists, to whom she feels a strong duty as their best advocate.
Missla Libsekal has spent her life living and working across the world. From her home country of Ethiopia to Swaziland, the United States, and Japan, and now Canada, she has sprinkled her artistic magic everywhere she went. Libsekal is the founder and editor-in-chief of Another Africa, a site dedicated to highlighting contemporary art and culture of the African continent in an effort to draw out the individuality of African artists on their own terms. She is also involved in 89plus, a research project founded by regarded curators Hans Ulrich Obrist and Simon Castests to highlight contemporary creative voices. In 2017 she curated the second iteration of ART x Lagos, the first international art fair in Nigeria.
Nana Oforiatta Ayim
Ghana-born Nana Oforiatta Ayim is the founder of the ANO Institute of Arts and Knowledge, an art gallery and non-profit institution in Accra, Ghana. In 2018, she spearheaded a mobile museum project lasting over a year that highlighted the work of artists as they grapple with their Ghanaian identities. More recently, Ayim curated the widely acclaimed debut exhibit for Ghana at the Venice Biennale in the summer of 2019 under the wing of the ANO Institute. Ayim is also a prominent writer and cultural critic, often speaking on the issue of decolonization in museums. Her first novel, The God Child, was released this year and tells the story of a young woman rediscovering her relationship with her Ghanaian heritage and navigating her own sense of personal identity.
Born in Zimbabwe, Hockley’s family moved to quite frequently due to her mother’s job in the United Nations. A fascination with understanding the history of the people she would encounter on her journey led her to the art world. She rose to mainstream prominence after becoming Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the Brooklyn Museum, where she curated the warmly received exhibition “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85.” In 2017, she became an Assistant Curator at the Whitney Museum, and just two years later, co-curated the 2019 Whitney Biennial alongside Jane Panetta. Met with positive reviews, the Biennial highlighted artists exploring a changing American culture and the increasingly extreme social inequities existing within the country.
Zimbabwe-born Tandazani Dhlakama is the assistant curator at Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town. As a curator, she hopes to allow the art industry to become more transparent and representative, in both its audience and content. In her role at the museum, Dhlakama also emphasizes the work of female artists, such as a Zeitz exhibition of South African artist Tracey Rose, who explores her complicated relationship with the body. Before coming to Zeitz MOCAA, Dhlakama worked for several years at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, with a prominent exhibition entitled “Woman at the Top,” highlighting a myriad of female experiences and showing a diverse meaning of success.
Touria El Glaoui
After pursuing a career in investment banking, Touria El Glauoi’s familial roots in the art world eventually drew her back in and led her to create the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, a leading international art fair formed around contemporary art from Africa and the diaspora. Born and raised in Morocco, El Glauoui is the daughter of famed figurative painter Hassan El Glaoui, who inspired her to create 1-54 after she organized several exhibitions around his work while still working in finance. Today, 1-54 is a well-established event in the art scene and its collective branches amass thousands of visitors a year with over 100 featured artists. In 2020, 1-54 held its inaugural virtual exhibition in conjunction with the website Artsy.
Words by Olivia Starr