Curator Zoé Whitley

 

THE BRITISH PAVILION at the 58th Venice Biennale features a new body of work by Irish artist Cathy Wilkes. Conceptual and figurative sculptures, a spare selection of household objects, and abstracted landscape paintings are installed in a series of six pristine galleries flooded with natural light. She’s created narrative moments and tableaux with a veil of solemnity. The work is intellectual, introspective, and questioning. Hard to pin down and a challenge to unpack, it’s fascinating to view.

Zoé Whitley curated the exhibition. She describes the work as subtle and layered. “Cathy is an artist with an incredibly clear sense of vision,” she says, “and I have observed her resolve as this vision has taken shape in the British Pavilion.”

Far from subtle, Whitley’s previous project brought together a generation of artists who used bold gestures to express themselves—through symbolism, color, and material. She co-organized “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.” The landmark exhibition brought new attention to African American artists active in the 1960s-80s, an era of racial and political tension and social and cultural transformation in the United States. Whitley was curator of international art at Tate Modern in London at the time. She has since joined Hayward Gallery as senior curator.

Born in Washington, D.C., Whitley was raised in Los Angeles. She attended Swarthmore College and received a master’s degree in the history of design from the Royal College of Art in London. She’s lived and worked in London for nearly two decades now and recently earned her Ph.D., from the University of Central Lancashire under the supervision of artist/scholar Lubaina Himid, the 2017 Turner Prize winner. Whitley, responded to questions from Culture Type via email about the Venice Biennale, “Soul of a Nation,” and curating in a British context:

 

CULTURE TYPE: I was thinking the other day about the four African American artists who have represented the United States with solo exhibitions in the U.S. Pavilion (Robert Colescott, Fred Wilson, Mark Bradford, Martin Puryear), the latest Bradford (2017) and Puryear (2019) two biennales in a row. The thought made me wonder, when will an African American curator have the opportunity to organize the U.S. Pavilion? And now you, an African American woman, are curating the British pavilion.

ZOÉ WHITLEY: Yes, the magnitude of this is not lost on me for a second. I am honored to have been selected by the British Council and am the first external curator to be appointed by open call. Holding such a position as the first African American attached to a national pavilion is more major than I can fully take in. But I will say that firsts are only ever built on other firsts, and I credit Kinshasha Holman Conwill (former director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, now deputy director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture) and Grace Stanislaus (former director of the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco), who, in 1990, curated five artists from Africa at the Venice Biennale, under the auspices of the Studio Museum in Harlem. Also, this year I am joined by Nana Oforiatta Ayim curating the inaugural Ghana Pavilion and Nomusa Makhubu and Nkule Mabaso who are co-curating South Africa’s pavilion. There’s a lot to celebrate and much more work to be done.

“I am honored to have been selected by the British Council and am the first external curator to be appointed by open call. Holding such a position as the first African American attached to a national pavilion is more major than I can fully take in.” — Zoé Whitley


Installation view of Cathy Wilkes @ British Pavilion, Biennale Arte, Venice, 2019. | Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council. Courtesy the Artist, The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels

 

Given the above, I am curious about your experience as an American curator working in a British context. Of course, curators work internationally beyond their home countries all the time, but I am interested in your personal experience, in general, and in particular related to the “Soul of a Nation” exhibition organized in London, but focused on a specific period and aspect of American art history, and now working on a high-profile international stage curating the British Pavilion with artist Cathy Wilkes.

I got my start in British museums. A week after earning my MA at the Royal College of Art, I started a part-time, maternity cover position as an assistant curator in prints and drawings at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). I became one of the V&A’s curators of Contemporary Programmes and stayed there 10 years, curating exhibitions and project managing site-specific art and design commissions. It was at the V&A that Gill Saunders and I co-authored “In Black and White: Prints from Africa and the Diaspora.” I co-curated the Afrofuturism exhibition “The Shadows Took Shape” at the Studio Museum in Harlem as a guest curator; then moved on to be curator, contemporary British art at Tate Britain where I was able to develop the artist film program in order to show moving image works by Helen Cammock, Theo Eshetu, and Zina Saro-Wiwa, culminating with a season dedicated to Sankofa Film and Video Collective. Placing black British contributions to artist films within a wider context was something I was committed to doing during that time.

I moved from Tate Britain to Tate Modern after a period of working cross-site on both sides of the Thames, primarily to undertake the institution’s Africa research travel. I’ve traveled as widely as I have because Tate made it possible, which only deepened my appreciation for artistic practice across the African Diaspora. Being able to research and co-curate “Soul of a Nation” will always mean more to me than I can express. That it’s still touring the U.S. is very exciting because more and more people have the opportunity to see the work of so many talented artists and in many cases to expand and reconsider the previous bounds of art historical greatness. That the exhibition was embraced by audiences as much or more as the phenomenal critical response has been the most rewarding.

“‘Soul of a Nation’ will always mean more to me than I can express. That it’s still touring the U.S. is very exciting because more and more people have the opportunity to see the work of so many talented artists and in many cases to expand and reconsider the previous bounds of art historical greatness.”
— Zoé Whitley


Installation view of Cathy Wilkes @ British Pavilion, Biennale Arte, Venice, 2019. Shown, Detail of Untitled, 2019 (mixed media, dimensions variable). | Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council. Courtesy the Artist, The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels

 

You are the first external curator to organize the British Pavilion. Does the curator/institution usually choose the artist or have a history with the artist? How has your experience been working with Wilkes? Have you two worked together before? How would you describe the collaboration and your vision for the show?

Yes, this year marks the first time that the British Council has opened up the opportunity for a mid-career curator to work with the artist to develop the exhibition for the British Pavilion. I applied through an open call in December 2017 and was truly delighted and honored to have been chosen. For the selection of the artist, each biannual year the British Council brings together a new panel of contemporary visual arts professionals who represent the breadth of UK curatorial talent. The intention is to make it as open and inclusive as possible, which I think is really important. They are invited to each provide a list of names which are shortlisted and discussed until an agreement is reached. This year’s panel convened shortly after I found out about my appointment as curator, and so I was allowed to be present during their discussions.

The first time I ever encountered Cathy’s work was in 2007 when I saw “We are pro-choice” as part of a group show exhibited with David Zwirner (“a point in space is a place for an argument”). The title spoke to me clearly and the object arrangements left me utterly confounded. I didn’t know the artist at all then. Working with Cathy has been an eye-opening process and I have learned so much from her. Cathy is an artist with an incredibly clear sense of vision, and I have observed her resolve as this vision has taken shape in the British Pavilion.

“Working with Cathy has been an eye-opening process and I have learned so much from her. Cathy is an artist with an incredibly clear sense of vision, and I have observed her resolve as this vision has taken shape in the British Pavilion.” — Zoé Whitley


Installation view of Cathy Wilkes @ British Pavilion, Biennale Arte, Venice, 2019. Shown, Detail of Untitled, 2019 (mixed media, dimensions variable). | Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council. Courtesy the Artist, The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels

 

How do you feel about joining a short list of black curators from across the diaspora who have recently curated pavilions, including Raphael Chikukwa (Zimbabwe), Nana Oforiatta Ayim (Ghana), David A. Bailey (Diaspora Pavilion), Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung (Finland), and Nkula Mabaso and Nomusa Makhubu (South Africa), who have a presence at Venice?

It’s exciting and I look forward to future iterations where only more names will be actively involved. And I can’t not mention Bisi Silva, the late Nigerian curator and art historian, who was a friend, a mentor and an inspiration, serving on the jury for the 55th Venice Biennale, when Angola was awarded the Golden Lion for best national pavilion. Her curatorial impact spanned not only the whole of the African continent, but Europe and the Americas, too. Her Asiko art intensive programme has laid the pan-African foundations for a dynamic new network of young artists to emerge. To be part of the next generation of curators doing the work she trail blazed is something that I care about, not just professionally, but deeply personally.

You recently completed your doctorate under the supervision of artist Lubaina Himid. Tell me about that experience. What was the subject/focus of your dissertation? Did you choose specifically to study with her? The period must have paralleled Himid finally beginning to be recognized more widely in terms of institutional exhibitions, media, and accolades, etc., including winning the Turner Prize. What did you learn from her and what about her work resonates for you?

I completed my Ph.D., at the University of Central Lancashire in 2017. I walked across the stage to receive my doctorate last summer, while installing the Jenny Holzer display at Tate Modern. I absolutely chose UCLAN to study with Lubaina, having first worked with her at the V&A in 2007 when part of “Naming the Money” was displayed in the British Galleries. I learned a lot on that project about the difference between curating for the institution and curating for the artist, which isn’t to say the two have to be mutually exclusive! It’s the project that taught me the hard way about what kind of curator I wanted to become. My doctoral thesis looked precisely at this question: the way that artists and curators who identify as black experience the white cube of the art museum. I’ve always admired Lubaina for her talent as a painter, her facility with complex color arrangements— which I write about in her recent monograph, her generosity as a friend, and her tireless speaking up on behalf of others. I’d do anything for her.

“My doctoral thesis looked precisely at this question: the way that artists and curators who identify as black experience the white cube of the art museum.” — Zoé Whitley

You’ve been at Hayward Gallery for about two months. Interestingly, Ralph Rugoff, who is serving as artistic director of this year’s Venice Biennale, is the director of Hayward Gallery. What attracted you to the institution and what current and forthcoming projects/exhibition are you working on there?

I was drawn to the Hayward based on the strength of its past program and its unique position as an art gallery with an international, contemporary focus within a multi-arts organization that feels open and welcoming. The potential for interdisciplinary collaboration is really exciting. My first project will be the Summer 2020 exhibition so watch this space! CT

 

The British Council commissioned a new body of work by Cathy Wilkes for the British Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale. Curated by Zoé Whitley, the exhibition is on view May 11-Nov. 24, 2019

“Soul of the Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” is on view at The Broad in Los Angeles through Sept. 1. The exhibition tour concludes at the deYoung Museum in San Francisco (Nov. 9, 2019-March 8, 2020).

 

TOP IMAGE: Zoé Whitley, Curator, British Pavilion, 58th Venice Biennale. | Photo by James Gifford Mead

 

BOOKSHELF
“Cathy Wilkes” accompanies the British Pavilion exhibition at the 58th Venice Biennale and includes illustrations of the works on view, brief insights from the artist, an essay by curator Zoé Whitley, and an afterword from Emma Dexter, commissioner of the pavilion. Edited by curators Mark Godfrey and Zoé Whitley, “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” was published to accompany the exhibition organized by Tate Modern. The catalog features essays by the curators, explores major movements and moments from Spiral to FESTAC, and includes written recollections from Samella Lewis, Edmund Barry Gaither, David C. Driskell, Jae and Wadsworth Jarrell, and Linda Goode Bryant. Whitley also co-authored “In Black and White: Prints from Africa and the Diaspora.” Forthcoming in July, a pair of volumes coincide with Lubaina Himid’s first solo museum show in the United States (opening at the New Museum in New York City later this month): “Lubaina Himid: Work from Underneath” and “Lubaina Himid: Workshop Manual,” with Zoé Whitley among the contributors. Whitley also authored “Meet the Artist: Frank Bowling,” a children’s book forthcoming this fall.

 


Curator Zoe Whitley walks through the British Pavilion discussing the new body of work by Cathy Wilkes, commissioned by the British Council. “The most powerful aspect of Cathy’s approach to art making is that there are so many subtleties and so many layers. Very little is given away,” she says. | Video by British Council

 


Curators, including Melanie Keen, director of Iniva (the Institute of International Visual Arts), introduce the work of Cathy Wilkes, whose first monographic show in New York and largest exhibition of the her work to date, was presented recently at MoMA PS1 (2017-18). | Video by British Council

 


CATHY WILKES, Untitled, 2019 (polymer Gravure with Chine-collé, 51 cm x 66 cm x 4 cm, framed / 20.1 x 26 x 1.6 inches, framed. | Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council. Courtesy the Artist, The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels

 


Installation view of Cathy Wilkes @ British Pavilion, Biennale Arte, Venice, 2019. Shown, Detail of Untitled, 2019 (mixed media, dimensions variable). | Photo by Cristiano Corte © British Council. Courtesy the Artist, The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels

 

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