On ethics and good practice: an open discussion to be had in Africa

published: 21/05/2018

On Thursday 17 May 2018, South African writer and former Artthrob editor Matthew Blackman published an article announcing that an inquiry was being launched into the professional conduct of Mark Coetzee, the former executive director and chief curator of Zeitz MOCAA – Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town. The article speaks of “unconfirmed rumours” of “abuses of power” of an unknown nature and that “although several people at the museum and Waterfront have been asked for comment none has been forthcoming.” It also mentions that the museum had received very little criticism, despite “questionable institutional and curatorial practices”.

As far as I know, Blackman is probably the only South African observer to have clearly and publicly voiced his concerns about the museum’s governance. He did so in An Open Letter to Jochen Zeitz and Mark Coetzee in 2015, more than two years before the museum opened its doors. The letter is also mentioned by South African art critic Sean O’Toole in a recent article on Coetzee’s resignation, published in Contemporary And (C&), in which he observes that no one ever responded to the points raised by Blackman.

When the open letter was published in 2015, the comment section included remarks by a user named “Karl Max” who suggested Blackman interviewed Raphael Chikukwa now deputy director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe and myself, since we were both collaborators of Coetzee between 2009 and 2010. I was never approached by Blackman but had I been at the time, I would probably have refused to comment on the matter. Just like I declined several opportunities from the press to share my views on the museum as it opened to great international acclaim last year. I always felt that the criticism should come from South African art critics and curators, not from me.

Comment in Matthew Blackman’s open letter published on Artthrob.

I grew up around South African exiled artists and it is from my exposure to this culture of exile, its criticality, sociopolitical awareness and activism that I owe my interest in art. One of my greatest disappointment in the Zeitz MOCCA situation was to realise how uncritical the South African art scene has become. I still remember visiting South Africa for the first time during the 2nd Johannesburg Biennial in 1997 and being excited about the passionate views on the “unknown” Nigerian in charge of the biennial (Okwui Enwezor), or the discussions on the appropriation of black women’s body by white women artists. Better still, between the art critics themselves were even debates about each other’s criticism. But in the case of Zeitz MOCCA, apart from Blackman’s article, nothing.

Seeing how artists, galleries and African curators seemed to have been dazzled by the museum, its power as a financially-backed project, the influence of the people behind it, the visibility to be gained in being associated with it and advocating for it without even questioning the professional history and character of the person at its helm, has been quite interesting to observe. I never understood how a whole art scene could be oblivious to what was so obvious from the beginning. This led me to distance myself from the South African art scene (apart for my own long-term research project).
While in my mind Blackman’s open letter kept all of its relevance, by the time the museum had opened, it seemed to me that there was no point engaging with those issues anymore. I assumed it had been a situation accepted not only by the South African but also the global art world.
Who would have believed me nine years ago if I had talked about my experience working with the now suspended museum director? At the time, I felt that if I spoke, the African art scene would cast me away as someone bitter for having been robbed of a project I helped develop. Furthermore, in raising a certain number of issues, I did not want to be accused of “playing the race card”. Then, in 2015-17, it might have been seen as an act of attention seeking from a killjoy ruining the greatest African artistic celebration of all times. So, I kept silent until now.

The reason I am writing today is because reading Sean O’Toole’s article A Change in Leadership got me thinking. It got me thinking about invisibility. More particularly, women’s invisibility and whitewashing, which is very frequent in the art world. We see it in the power dynamics at play in the decision-making processes, we see it in various cases of under-representation in the arts, in the writing of art history and even in the way polemics are reported. The latter being what is prompting me to respond. Not that there’s anything wrong with Sean’s piece. Here, I am more interested in how the context and mechanism that led to our erasure predicted all the signs of a situation which magnitude is now amplified because of the high visibility from which Zeitz MOCCA benefits.
It also has to be said that another reason for me to have remained silent was that I did not want my name to be associated with any project bearing his. This collaboration, which I can honestly say was my worst experience in the arts ever, is not part of my résumé. I have tried to forget about it and I am lucky enough to have worked on more fulfilling projects before and after.

I am writing because I believe the discourses we make as curators should not be limited to curatorial statements or exhibitions spaces. Every once in a while, one needs to just paint a picture of our art scene as it is and say things as they are. I happen to work on an academic and curatorial research project called Making Histories Visible whereby we seek to address issues of under-representation including the silencing of certain voices within art institutions. We do so as black female art professionals who are aware of how gender, race, and class, to name but those three, impact on the functioning and vision of art institutions.
If not for myself, I owe it to the younger generation of African curators, and perhaps the art world at large, to make this story visible. So that maybe, we can begin having an honest conversation about how we want to support and empower African artists and art professionals beyond personal gain and ego.

The part I want to address in Sean’s article is the statement that “Coetzee’s first big project was the much-hyped social networking website Creative African Network” and its ultimate “failure”. As a bit of background, in the catalogue of the exhibition 30 Americans (Rubell Family Collection, 2008) is mentioned that it is Marie-Claude Beaud, then director of Mudam Luxembourg – Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean, who introduced Jochen Zeitz to Don and Mera Rubell, founders of the The Rubell Family Collection. Marie-Claude was also working with Zeitz, then CEO of a sports brand, on the company’s corporate social responsibility which projects included a visual arts component, through which she had initiated a number of collaborations with major institutions including Central Saint Martins and the Design Museum in London.

Exactly ten years ago, in May 2008, I was approached by Macha Roesink, then director of the defunct Museum de Paviljoens, Almere (whom I had previously met at the Dak’Art Biennale), to meet up with Marie-Claude Beaud at what turned out to be the sports brand’s headquarters. Unbeknownst to me at the time, in Dakar I was being ‘headhunted’ by Roesink, after a roundtable on African art criticism, to join the creative component of the brand’s CSR project as it prepared to embark on a phase of collaborations with the African art scene.
I did not immediately jump at the offer. Rather I considered it carefully because the effects of mixing corporate and art worlds are common knowledge. Eventually I accepted to join the project because of the culturally diverse team assembled by Marie-Claude comprising Raphael Chikukwa, Björn Dahlström, Macha Roesink and myself. I was also very keen to collaborate with curators practicing beyond the field of contemporary African art. Furthermore, as a black person, I am well aware of how sports brands benefit from black culture globally. It is fair to say that, among other aspects, black cultures have been, and continue to be, at the forefront of urban or street culture, with styles and dress codes blending streetwear and sportswear. I was interested in seeing how one could develop projects that combined urban image and visual arts.

Marie-Claude fostered a collegial bond between our team where we all contributed ideas and our expertise as co-curators of the project. She has always valued our opinions, knowledge, skills and abilities. She is an avid sharer of art information and art news and allowed us space for research including attending international art events when possible.
With regard to Africa, the overall idea was to engage with, and support, active African art professionals, grass-root projects, including some of the independent art spaces that had emerged back in 2008 without drawing attention to ourselves. The other aspect was to partner with major events such as the Bamako or Dak’Art Biennial where the brand’s partnership would be more visible. Raphael would be the person who would do the travelling and I would focus on our dedicated website.
Unfortunately, Marie-Claude left the project at the end of 2008. She discussed her decision in an article published in Magazine, n. 5, 2011. But before leaving, she ensured that my recommendation to partner with the 2009 Bamako Biennial was validated.

As much as we were disappointed that Marie-Claude left, we were equally very happy to welcome Mark Coetzee in February 2009. By then Macha Roesink and I had moved forward with the development of the website, working with our web designers and webhost. I had free rein in the design and content of the website for which I drew inspiration from Artthrob, the most important contemporary African art website at the time; a website I had followed since its creation by Sue Williamson.
But the project’s dynamic was soon to change. In one of our first email exchanges when Coetzee announced that our only collaboration in 2009 would be the 2nd Joburg Art Fair, naturally I spontaneously replied that we had already initiated discussions with the Bamako Biennial and that this project was inscribed in our calendar. I was met with a “Christine, I don’t like your tone” and “if you’re not happy, you know what to do”. In other words, I was threatened to lose my job from the very moment he joined our team. From then on, I knew it was not going to be an easy ride but I was determined to see this partnership through.

CAN page announcing the Bamako Biennial 2009 prize winners with Malick Sidibe, Zanele Muholi, Manthia Diawara and John Fleetwood. Photo: Christine Eyene.

Ensued countless acts of undermining against which I was ill-equipped because I had never encountered anything like that before, not even from more respected curators with whom I had worked in France, Morocco or England. At our first meeting, we were told that things would change and that we were not curators anymore, we would be ‘advisors’. I then saw that he named himself ‘chief curator’. Chief curator of which curatorial team if no one’s a curator?
Progressively, the decision-making process shifted form a collegial one to a one-man voice. Transparency became opacity, while the artistic orientations we had developed for months dissolved into a marketing spectacle that instrumentalised our African art scene. Others can say more about it…
We were never consulted before a new member joined our team. One by one I saw my colleagues being let go. I decided I would ensure I’d remained until the Bamako Biennial. After that, I knew my contract would be terminated and I had no intention of continuing working in such a cold environment anyway.

June to December 2009 marked my most difficult time being part of this project. I was the only member of the initial team and I was “working” with two individuals who excluded me from all the important aspects of the project.
The website was being modified without me having a say. I noticed that some biographical element was changed in my profile without my consent (which led me to plan for my own website). In the lead-up to the Venice Biennial I found out that they would go to Venice as part of the project but that I was not included in that trip. I still went to Venice invited by a museum.
The way I was treated in Bamako was nothing compared to my experience in Marrakech. The disrespect, and that one openly racial comment, topped it all. At that point, I had been side-lined from almost everything: from the discussions on our partnership with Arts in Marrakech, from my recommended partnership with Dak’Art 2010. SUD 2010 in Douala was probably never considered.

Seamus

Seamus Farrell, U.N. Circle Gwangju-Marrakech (2008-2009) and visitors at the exhibition ‘A Proposal For Articulating Works and Places’ curated by Abdellah Karroum, as part of Arts in Marrakech 2009. Palais Bahia, Marrakech, Morocco. Photo: Christine Eyene.

When I was approached by one of the curators of Manifesta 8 to collaborate on an element of the biennial which theme was ‘Dialogue with North Africa’, I was told that it was great but if I did it there wouldn’t be any budget for it anyway.
In other words, as an ‘advisor’, none of my advice was ever taken on board, none of my ideas were ever valued, neither was my in-depth knowledge of the African art scene. I turned this adverse situation into a resilience geared towards plans for an independent practice. From that was born my platform eyonart.org and in June 2010, I curated FOCUS 10 – Contemporary Art Africa in Basel, an exhibition addressing Africa’s under-representation at major Western art fairs.

Contrary to what is said in Sean’s article, Creative Africa Network was not a failure. The real CAN was us. It may have been killed from the inside but by then we had already moved on. We worked together as a team (the initial team and allies) to support Raphael Chikukwa realise the first ever Zimbabwe Pavilion at the Venice Biennal in 2011. This was a turning point not only for the Zimbabwean art scene but also in terms of representation of national African pavilions in Venice.

Raphael Chikukwa at the 1st Zimbabwe Pavilion, 54th Venice Biennial, 2011. Photo: Christine Eyene.

As for me, I continued as an independent curator developing exhibitions for Brighton Photo Fringe in 2010, Photoquai Biennial in 2011 and Dak’Art Biennale in 2012. That same year, I was fortunate to successfully secure a position as researcher in contemporary art at the University of Central Lancashire as part of Making Histories Visible, an interdisciplinary visual arts project led by the artist Lubaina Himid, Professor of Contemporary Art at UCLan and winner of the Turner Prize 2017. Plans are currently underway, led by a British-based institution, to develop a number of collaborations between selected spaces in Africa and venues in the UK in 2018-2020.

I cannot speak to the case of Zeitz MOCCA. For what it’s worth, I salute the determination of the duo to create what is described as the biggest museum of contemporary African art on the continent. An art space / museum in Africa to house Zeitz’s collection was already on the agenda. It was not a shift in focus, it was always part of the plan. The project just moved from Kenya to South Africa.
When I see the words “inquiry into professional conduct” and “abuses of power”, based on my own experience, that does not surprise me. But I disagree with Sean when he speaks of schadenfreude or, in English, taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. Before using that term, maybe just consider the professional undermining and abuse others have experienced. And how it affects people’s lives. That does not mean one necessarily rejoices in seeing someone being side-lined from a project to which they have dedicated years of their life.

There must have been signs that local observers could have picked upon. More critical voices should have publicly asked questions. It was the role of South African art professionals to have had a debate earlier on, and challenge the status quo and consensus. Like Blackman wrote in 2015, “these questions and concerns [were not] irresolvable”. They could have been approached at the time, in a less controversial manner. The fact is that today they are resurfacing, and there is no other choice but to address and resolve them.

I have kept this to myself for nine years and have only discussed my ordeal with my family and a few friends in the arts. I even thought long and hard before writing this. In sharing my experience, my intention is not to target the one, or more, individual(s) concerned. I want to look at the bigger picture. Because I do believe that as curators or “leaders” in the arts we have a responsibility not only towards each other, our community, but also towards those who will come after us. And we need to care for and respect the people we work with as much as we do the arts and artists.
What legacy do we want to leave? Which code of conduct and ethics will form part of our blueprint for good practice?
South Africa needs to have this conversation and take on the still very problematic make up of arts leadership in the country.
We need to have this discussion as African art professionals.

Christine Eyene