Can Koyo Kouoh Revive Zeitz MOCAA?

by Pelican Press
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Kouoh said that she decided to take the job after many conversations with Black colleagues. “There was a feeling that we cannot let this fail,” she said. “The scale and ambition of Zeitz MOCAA is unique on the continent and someone had to take responsibility and make this museum live up to its rightful ambitions.”

When she arrived in May 2019, her first priority was to reorganize the galleries, which were scattered over more than 100 small spaces. She took advantage of an already planned William Kentridge exhibition to break down walls, and create more breathing space, then set about defining “a curatorial articulation in terms of what we want to stand for.” Her goal, she said, was to create a sense of the museum “as a format of public engagement, civic engagement.”

During the strict pandemic lockdowns after March 2020, the museum closed for seven months, and Kouoh used the time to restructure its governance and expand the board of trustees, adding influential African collectors and philanthropists, and creating a global council of advisers, which includes the artists Carsten Holler, Wangechi Mutu and Yinka Shonibare. Kouoh has changed “how the local community see Zeitz,” said the Cape Town-based artist Igshaan Adams, who recently spent eight months in residence there. “My artist friends and I hadn’t felt any interest from the museum, but Koyo made me feel they cared about us, and about new audiences.” Although he was initially resistant to the proposition, the residency, he said, “was a brilliant idea,” allowing visitors to the museum to seriously engage with an artist’s process. “Sometimes over 1,000 people a day would be there,” he said, adding that it was the first time he had experienced that engagement “with people who look like me and speak like me.”

Since her arrival, Kouoh has emphasized solo retrospectives — Tracey Rose, Johannes Phokela, Mary Evans — which she describes as a pillar of her curatorial vision. “My generation of curators were informed and motivated by a strong desire to unearth as many stories as we could, and make them visible, and we all did those group shows,” she said. “But I believe there is a great lack of studying individual voices and how they speak to each other within and across generations. What influences come from an artist like Issa Samb or Gerard Sekoto to younger artists today? I think we African curators haven’t done this enough.”

This doesn’t mean the museum won’t put on group shows, Kouoh added, citing “When We See Us,” as an exhibition which “places figuration in a temporality that is longer and more far-reaching than the last 10 years of market frenzy. It premises Black joy as a serious, contentious, political, joyful subject matter, and at the Black experience across geographies, the continent, the diaspora.”

Asked whether she saw herself as a bearer of the flame of the influential Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor, Kouoh looked disapproving. “I don’t like the idea of there being one person doing this or that,” she said. “There is a lot of mutual support, of generosity and care across the continent. I am part of that generation of African art professionals who have pride and knowledge about the beauty of African culture, which has often been defined by others in so many wrong ways. I don’t believe we need to spend time correcting those narratives. We need to inscribe other perspectives.”

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