In Conversation with Natasha Becker

UNDERLINE: Nurturing Curators in South Africa

A new project in South Africa looks deeply and closely at art curation on the continent. Initiated by Natasha Becker, UNDERLINE is organizing twelve exhibitions as part of an umbrella event in which curators also discuss how they made their way into the profession, their joys and frustrations, their processes and strategies, and where they find agency and inspiration. Our author Mearg Negusse spoke to Becker about the current situation for independent curators and artists in the South African art scene.

View of iwalewabooks. Putting a spotlight on the re edition of the book “Art in Development” by the influential Nigerian writer Uche Okeke

By Mearg Negusse
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Contemporary And: Since UNDERLINE is a new project, could you briefly describe the idea of it and how you teamed up with Londi Modiko and Lara Koseff?

Natasha Becker: I had a vision of creating a space for curators in Africa to present their work, reflect critically on the activity of curating, and participate in the art market. Since I live in New York, I teamed up with Londi and Lara because they had the necessary experience and were on the ground in Johannesburg for a lot of the heavy lifting.

View of the Curated section, The Underline Show

C&: How did you proceed in the selection of the curators and artists for the inaugural show this September? 

NB: We created an open call for curators to propose exhibitions, installations, performances, conversations, and so on. Myself, Londi, and Lara reviewed all the proposals and made the final selections. Everyone also had the opportunity to put forward artists and collaborators for different sections of the show (“Site,” “Performances,” “Featured,” “Conversations,” and so forth).

C&: UNDERLINE has a focus on establishing a platform for independent curators. How did you orchestrate the curated booths at the exhibition venue, the now defunct Museum of African Design (MOAD)? Was there a common thread which linked them, content-wise? 

NB: From the open call, we selected twelve curated exhibitions for the main exhibition space at MOAD. Each show worked on its own but many dealt with intersecting subject matter. Some curators examined uncertainty during social and political crises, power and access in cities, or challenging the patriarchy, conservative sexual politics, and stereotypes. We had to build a couple of walls to create a basic structure, and because MOAD had been a functioning museum at one point, we could use existing movable walls, various plinths, and lighting to create “booths” for each show. Curators were quite imaginative in their use of space, and some invited artists to create unique interventions. Nthabiseng Mokoena, for instance, invited Keneilwe Mokoena to create a beautiful sculptural installation in an empty box-like space parallel to her “booth.”

This year’s performance program was presented in partnership with the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios. For these we dedicated rooms, such as former offices, and common spaces within the larger structure. Similarly, artists from our “Site” and “Featured” sections were installed in various spaces sprinkled throughout the museum’s three floors.

View of Keneilwe Mokoena’s sculptural intervention curated by Nthabiseng Mokoena

C&: Was there a possibility for visitors to engage with the current situation for curators and artists within the South African art scene beside the booths, such as through an accompanying program?

NB: Yes, the area of inquiry explored in our “Conversations” is “the curatorial,” as differentiated from “curating.” One of the main reasons to distinguish between the two is to open up space of critical and theoretical reflection missing within the ever-increasing activity of curating and its professionalization. We talked about how curators make their way into the profession of curating, their joys and frustrations, their processes and strategies, and where they find agency and inspiration. We explored these questions with dynamic young curators and artists – Fulufhelo Mobadi, Tinashe Mushakavanhu, Enoch Cheng, and Aline Xavier – and more established art professionals – Same Mdluli, heeten bhagat, and Mary Corrigall.

C&: How did the UNDERLINE team decide on MOAD as a location? And have you set any criteria for future locations to realize your ideas for UNDERLINE, while staying at the core of Johannesburg’s strong art scene?

NB: Although we had around 400 people at the opening, the show coincided with protests and violence in nearby Jeppestown, downtown Johannesburg. Everything was calm for the duration of the show, but it was challenging because people were afraid to come into the area.

SITE artist Unathi Mkonto’s “Avoid,” a site specific installation at The Underline Show

We had looked at a couple spaces, but then James Sey (from Aspire Art Auctions) suggested we consider the University of Johannesburg as a partner. We talked to Frederico Freschi, the dean of the arts there, and he offered us the use of MOAD because the university had a long lease on the space. It was perfect for our purposes. Because the museum had been empty for so long [since 2017], it took a huge amount of work to tidy it up! One of the most important ideas underpinning the UNDERLINE show is that it is a mobile platform able to adapt to any location, whether Johannesburg, Cape Town, Lagos, or Addis.

C&: Would you like to improve anything for the next edition? 

NB: Absolutely. I learned so much about the current state of the arts and the curatorial profession from our participating curators and artists. There is a great need for mentorship, networking, and professional development in South Africa and the continent. The UNDERLINE show is an opportunity to develop artists and curators on the continent in ways that art and curatorial schools are not. I would love to fill the gaps with a more intensive program of workshops, seminars, special guest lectures, mentoring, and exchange programs. It would be a fantastic way to support the participation of curators from all over Africa.

 

The inaugural edition took place from 12-15 September 2019 at the Museum of African Design (MOAD) in Johannesburg. More on UNDERLINE.

 

Natasha Becker is an independent researcher, writer, and curator of contemporary African and African American art. She is the co-founder of Assembly Room, a platform for independent women curators in New York City. She was Senior Curator at the Goodman Gallery (South Africa) and prior to that she was the Assistant Director in the Research and Academic Program at the Clark Art Institute (USA). Having studied history in South Africa and art history in the United States, she has lived and worked in Africa and America for the past sixteen years. 

 

Mearg Negusse is based in Frankfurt am Main where she currently studies art history.

 

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