THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART (MoMA) has hired Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi. He is joining the New York City museum as the first Steven and Lisa Tananbaum Curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture.

Nzewi will be involved with all aspects of the department’s planning, programming, and scholarship, including acquisitions, developing exhibitions and catalogs, and installation of the collection galleries, which will be expanded and reinvented when the museum’s new addition debuts in October. MoMA announced his appointment March 6.

“I am pleased to welcome Smooth to the curatorial team at MoMA,” Ann Temkin, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, said in statement. “A highly accomplished scholar and curator of African art, Smooth will bring an important perspective as we expand our collection holdings and gallery presentations in new directions across the Museum.”

NZEWI IS CURRENTLY curator of African art at the Cleveland Museum of Art. He has been serving in the position since August 2017. His appointment was particularly significant. He was the first black curator ever hired by the Cleveland institution since it was founded more than a century ago in 1913. The Cleveland museum has a significant collection of more than 300 works of traditional art from sub-Saharan Africa. Nzewi was brought on to oversee and expand the collection and organize exhibitions showcasing both historic and contemporary works.

The results of his efforts are coming to bear later this year. His forthcoming exhibitions at the Cleveland Museum of Art include “Second Careers: Two Tributaries in African Art” (Oct. 20, 2019–March 8, 2020) and “Ámà: The Gathering Place” (Aug. 2–Nov. 24, 2019), an immersive site-specific commission by Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh, which is co-organized by Nzewi and Emily Liebert.

Prior to his time in Cleveland, Nzewi was the curator of African Art at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art. During his four-year tenure at Hood (2013-2017), he added several important works of contemporary art by African-born artists to the museum’s collection. Acquisitions included works by Candice Breitz, Ibrahim El-Salahi, Julie Mehretu, and Obiora Udechukwu. Previously, he was a fellow at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. (2012)

“A highly accomplished scholar and curator of African art, Smooth will bring an important perspective as we expand our collection holdings and gallery presentations in new directions across the Museum.”
— Ann Temkin, MoMA Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture

Independently, Nzewi organized “Feedback: Art, Africa and the 1980s,” which is currently on view at Iwalewahaus at Bayreuth University in Bayreuth, Germany (Oct. 14, 2018-May 5, 2019). Last year, in advance of the Ogboh installation he developed at the Cleveland Museum, Nzewi curated “Emeka Ogboh: No Condition is Permanent” at Galerie Imane Farès, the sound artist’s first solo exhibition in Paris. Nzewi also co-curated the 11th Dak’Art Biennale in Dakar, Senegal (2013-14).

Born in Nigeria, Nzewi is internationally educated. He earned a Ph.D., in art history from Emory University in Atlanta and has a postgraduate diploma from the African Program in Museum and Heritage Studies at the University of Western Cape, South Africa. He also holds an undergraduate degree in fine and applied arts from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he trained as a sculptor with renowned artist El Anatsui.

NZEWI IS JOINING MOMA at a dynamic time in the life of the museum. MoMA is closing to the public from June 15 to October 21, as the final stages of its $400 million expansion and overhaul are completed. When the museum reopens in the fall, the addition of 40,000 square feet of gallery space will enable a new interdisciplinary approach to exhibiting the institution’s holdings and provide the opportunity to see more of the permanent collection with more frequent rotations of displays planned every six to nine months.

In February, the museum announced the “reimagined” museum and described how it intends to overhaul its approach to showing modern and contemporary art. The collection presentations are expected to highlight “the creative affinities and frictions produced by displaying painting, sculpture, architecture, design, photography, media, performance, film, and works on paper together” and “offer a deeper experience of art through all mediums and by artists from more diverse geographies and backgrounds than ever before,” an approach intended to “encourage debate and discovery.”

Inaugural featured exhibitions include a show of Latin American abstraction drawn from a recent gift from collector Patricia Phelps de Cisneros; solo exhibitions featuring Pope.L and Betye Saar; and a show with Kenyan-born, London-based painter Michael Armitage, curated by Thelma Golden, which is part of a multiyear partnership recently announced between the Studio Museum in Harlem and MoMA and MoMA PS1.

Nzewi officially begins his new post July 22. “I am honored to join MoMA as it continues the necessary task of telling an expansive and more inclusive story of 20th- and 21st-century art,” Nzewi in a statement. “I look forward to collaborating with colleagues across departments in addressing historical gaps through purposeful acquisitions, advancing new programs and exhibitions that enrich our knowledge of global art, and, ultimately, in writing the next chapter in the history of this institution.” CT


IMAGE: Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi. | The Cleveland Museum of Art/Howard Agriesti


FIND MORE Nzewi is the first to serve in the MoMA curatorial post endowed by Lisa and Steven Tananbaum. The Tananbaums have also funded a modern and contemporary art position at Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University held by curator Janet Dees.


Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi has contributed to several publications including “New Spaces for Negotiating Art and Histories in Africa” (2015). In addition, he edited “Emeka Ogboh: Lagos Soundscapes.” The first major monograph of pioneering sound artist Emeka Ogboh was recently published.


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