‘It is not up to us to deconstruct Euro-American prejudices about Africa’ – curator Koyo Kouoh

By Nicolas Michel
Posted on Wednesday, 27 July 2022 10:15

Koyo Kouoh, director of Zeitz Mocaa, in 2015. © Antoine Tempé.

Curator of the Hamburg Photography Triennial, Cameroon’s Koyo Kouoh has been running the Zeitz Mocaa, the largest museum dedicated to contemporary African art, in South Africa's Cape Town since 2019. She talks to us about decolonising museums, returning artworks and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Born in Douala in 1967, Koyo Kouoh does not limit herself to one area. Polyglot, nomad, adept at encounters and exchanges, she works as an exhibition curator and artistic director, both on the continent (Dakar Biennial, Rencontres de Bamako) and elsewhere in the world (1-54 Fair in London, the Ireland-EVA International Biennial).

In Dakar, she created the Raw Material Company cultural centre and, since 2019, has been the head of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (Zeitz Mocaa) in Cape Town. We met in Hamburg, on the occasion of the Triennial of Photography.

Why did you choose this rather economic theme, “Currency“, for the Hamburg Triennial of Photography?

Koyo Kouoh: Currency can be translated as “current currency”: what circulates, is frequent, standardised and eventually becomes a form of reference. In the last 30 years, humanity has produced more images than in all the previous centuries. As the French film critic Nicole Brenez writes: “Before, images were in the world. Now the world is in the images.” The roles have been reversed, regarding the place of the image in society and in our relationships.

What response does photography offer to this evolution?

I reflected on these elements with the curators I invited to work with me. We came up with the idea that photography is a tool of transaction and negotiation, deeply linked to capitalism and the system of domination – this is particularly apparent in the huge global body of ethnographic photographs. This has an impact on the way we see the world and, above all, on the way we project ourselves into the world.

What does that mean?

Images are now central to our lives. Be it Congo or Papua, most people have a smartphone that can take pictures. Millennials sometimes take up to 200 pictures of themselves a day. There is something atavistic between seeing oneself and projecting oneself. I’m trying to understand how photographers and professionals of images experience this change. What response does photography offer to this evolution?

You mention a system of domination…

Even though the Triennial’s central idea revolves around this tsunami of images and this change in the role of photography in the world, I still felt that it was important that we go against the canon, against the current grain, and return to a type of photography that takes a stand.

For example, going against the representation of territories, which are often incorrectly depicted in mainstream images. I also wanted to look at the relationship between photographers and what they photograph. This comes from within. We are not strangers to what we wish to represent, but rather integral parts of a subject, a space, an environment: it is a matter of “creating a community”.

Was it difficult to plan this Triennial during the pandemic?

My curatorial practice is linked to encounters, knowledge, the history of ideas and, in general, geography. Due to the confinement, we couldn’t travel, but it took the pressure off of having to present the latest big names and works – at these big events, a lot of people want to see what’s the most popular.

We found ourselves facing our own obsessions, with the artists who had always inspired us, who we had worked with, or wanted to work with. We were able to take the liberty of a transgenerational approach: Claudia Andujar is 91 years old while the youngest artist is only 20.

The so-called “decolonial” issue is reflected in several of the Triennal’s exhibitions.

German institutions have been sensitive to the subject for a long time, in a discreet but continuous way. I have been travelling and working regularly in Germany for almost 20 years, where I see the commitment, the curiosity, the interest in expanding the universe.

This country has been chastising itself for more than 70 years, for reasons that are well known, and has developed a sensitivity that leads to caution. I’m not surprised that the Hamburg Museum of Labour and the Museum of World Cultures have adopted strong decolonial positions, since these are institutions that have been questioning themselves for a long time. It’s not just for the Triennial’s sake; it’s not circumstantial.

Wasn’t it you, Koyo Kouoh, who had to kick the bucket?

No, on the contrary. I work as a team, it’s not as if there’s some kind of super-commissioner who imposes what is shown. But I welcomed these initiatives with great enthusiasm, of course. It’s different from France. After World War II, the Germans began to examine themselves and this extended to their cultural institutions – it’s not just a political self-criticism. I think they even chastise themselves a bit too much!

You mentioned France. The Sarr-Savoy report commissioned by Emmanuel Macron has had repercussions throughout Europe.

This report has indeed accelerated awareness. Very often, France finds itself in avant-garde positions, creates a sensation, stimulates a debate, then… goes to sleep and lets itself be overtaken by everyone else! The Sarr-Savoy report is the product of a debate that began in the 1970s.

There have been several attempts made over the years, notably when Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow was director general of UNESCO. But this new text has dusted off and revitalised a dormant debate, and accelerated the movement almost everywhere – Italy and Greece are also making demands inspired by this report. The shockwaves have spread beyond the geographical boundaries concerned.

France returned 26 objects to Benin, one or two to Senegal… and since then we don’t really know what’s been going on.

We are stalling. That’s why I don’t really like to speak on this subject. This very good initiative is getting bogged down in endless legal and cultural bureaucratic systems that suggest that we are acting on the gallery’s behalf.

The president could issue a decree that all objects be returned, but refuses to do so when it is not convenient.

Why do you think that is?

You have to remember that we are talking about objects that the market is very keen on. It’s not just about preserving memories and works. This whole debate is in tension with a hyper-powerful market, in which non-profit cultural institutions, such as museums, are clients of the same suppliers as commercial galleries and private collectors. The issue of restitution threatens this economy, private collectors and institutions. Imagine if we really did decide to return everything: a lot of museums would end up empty.

There is strong resistance to the idea of setting up a legal-cultural framework to ensure rapid restitution. So we remain in a constant state of delay, sure there are little publicity events here and there that saw 26 objects and a sword returned, but we haven’t gotten to the heart of the matter! It would not be difficult to commit to the principle of restitution. To say that Senegal, Benin and Nigeria must make the request is nonsense. All these museums have studied the works they have been conserving for years and years, and are fully aware of where they come from. As for asking African countries to prove that they have an adequate reception area, this is mind-bogglingly insolent and contemptuous.

The fact remains that the matter of the private sector is hardly mentioned.

The private market fuels everything and has always been the basis of everything. Even the explorers who participated in the collecting expeditions were active in the private market – we forget that! In fact, the biggest resistance is coming from the big private collectors, the galleries, because they won’t be able to do business in the same way.

You’ve been running the Zeitz Mocaa in Cape Town, one of Africa’s largest museums, since 2019. How did you experience the pandemic?

It was very hard. I had only just taken up my post in May 2019, having been appointed in March of that year, when I had to close in March 2020 and could only start reopening gradually from the end of October 2020 – four days a week instead of seven. I took over an institution that was already in crisis and a few months later another crisis came along.

The Zeitz Mocaa, in Cape Town. © HUFTON AND CROW.

What was that first crisis?

A start-up crisis. The first director didn’t stay on, the interim didn’t really work, and the museum’s institutional orientation, beyond the building, had to be completely revised so that we could build a respectable and credible programmatic identity. I was doing a triple job and the Covid-19 crisis in South Africa was very hard.

I don’t claim to correct all the stigmas about Africa that have been developed elsewhere. That is Euro-Americans’ problem. It’s really not mine and never has been.

I had to stay at home for six months and was only allowed out of the house for an hour a day to go shopping. How can we make a museum when we can’t open it? But I am one of those people who find that challenges are also opportunities.

How did you take advantage of this opportunity?

We spent a lot of time discussing and formulating our ideas. I am not only the chief curator, but also the general manager. A museum is also a structure with staff, problems with lights and pipes, but above all governance problems. I used this time to rethink and transform all inappropriate governance practices.

You transformed it?

The board of directors included the two founders: Harley Davidson’s managing director, Jochen Zeitz, and David Green, the representative of the V&A Waterfront, the real estate company that is in charge of remodelling Cape Town’s port, within whose perimeter the renovated grain silos are located to become a museum. In addition to them, Zeitz’s wife was also present, as well as a representative from the board of Growth Point, the pension fund for South African public employees.

This configuration was not working and I managed to expand it. Everyone thinks we get millions of dollars from Zeitz every year, but that’s not true. His name is associated with the museum through his collection and the contribution he continues to make, but that is not enough. We need other resources. The new board of trustees has become fee-paying to ensure a self-generated financial contribution.

It has become more diverse, with new members including Hasnaine Yavarhoussen, the Malagasy collector and philanthropist, Atose Aguele, a powerful but discreet Nigerian industrialist and collector, and Jody Allen, an American philanthropist. Gavin Jantjes, a South African artist who has a long history of working with art institutions, also sits on the board.

We have also created a Global Council, which brings together collectors, artists and professionals from different fields who want to contribute to the museum’s development. The visual artists Julie Mehretu and Wangechi Mutu are members of the Global Council, which is chaired by the Cameroonian collector Acha Leke.

What resources does the museum now have?

I rely on three pillars, two of which are self-generated. The first is the paying board of directors, which must provide one third of the resources I need. The second is, of course, the ticket office, the restaurant, the shop, private events, etc. The third is everything that can be generated within the field of culture with NGOs, foundations and sponsoring partnerships.

What will be your programming policy?

Basically, I am orienting the museum towards individual exhibitions and retrospectives in order to write other pages in our art history. We must not forget that, for the last 30 years, contemporary African art has always been contextualised through group exhibitions. This allowed us Africans as well as the rest of the world to affirm the richness of this production. There was a need to play catch up and I participated as a curator.

When I took over Zeitz Mocaa’s management, I took the time to think about what our space needed. One of the most important things is to move away from the ubiquity of group exhibitions. This doesn’t mean that Zeitz Mocaa will no longer be doing any – I am in fact preparing one on black figuration which will bring together more than 150 artists – but I intend to give priority to retrospectives dedicated to an artist or a collective in order to bring out the aesthetic genealogies, the intergenerational influences.

We must not forget that, for the last 30 years, contemporary African art has always been contextualised through group exhibitions.

The Tracey Rose retrospective that I opened in February is one example, Johannes Phokela’s solo exhibition is another. At the moment, no other institution in Africa can do this work, I’m not trying to be pretentious. We are the only museum on the continent with this much space, some 5,000 square metres. This is a reason to be ambitious and generous!

You created the Raw Material Company art centre in Dakar. Does it continue to exist without you?

Raw Material Company is still going strong, much to my delight. I’ve always said that this kind of initiative is only as good as its longevity. But longevity is always precarious because such institutions depend on local and international financial support.

Moreover, they often fail to distinguish themselves from their founder – I’m proud of the fact that it continues to exist, even though I left it some years ago. It’s been three years now since the young curator Marie Helene Pereira took over – I’m still on the board with Felwine Sarr and Sylvain Sankalé – and she continues to run a rewarding programme. But the future is never certain.

Would you rather decolonise Western imaginations or strengthen African cultural institutions?

I don’t like hierarchies or classifications. Even if it can help with reflection, contextualisation and understanding. I believe simultaneity is fundamental when it comes to creating cultural institutions. Strengthening institutions must go hand in hand with refounding the imaginary, in Africa as well as in Europe.

My comments are not necessarily addressed to the latter. I belong to a generation of African professionals who want to talk to themselves, who inhabit the world from a pan-African perspective and who, first of all, talk to Africa.

If what I say and do is heard beyond Africa, so much the better. But I don’t claim to correct all the stigmas about Africa that have been developed elsewhere. That is Euro-Americans’ problem. It’s really not mine and never has been.

We have so much to rebuild in Africa that if we try to understand or respond to all the cultural, political, intellectual aberrations that have been imposed on us, we will just be wasting time. It is not our job to deconstruct Euro-American prejudices about Africa. We have other things to worry about.

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