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Founder in 2008 of the Raw Material Company art center in Dakar, Cameroonian-born exhibition curator Koyo Kouoh took over the management of the Zeitz Mocaa contemporary art museum in 2019, located in the South African city of Cape Town. . In his eyes, the Covid-19 pandemic, which has weakened the entire cultural ecosystem, has paradoxically reinforced the importance of institutions on a continent that has often favored temporary events such as biennials.
Interest in African artists has not waned, as evidenced by the success of fairs such as 1-54 and AKAA, in Paris, which were able to pass between the drops in 2021. African art is above all more than ever at the heart of the news with the restitution process initiated by some European countries such as France, Belgium and Germany. A movement that is not ready to stop and on which Koyo Kouoh has only one word to say: “You have to give back. »
While South Africa seems to be recovering from the Omicron wave, how has the Zeitz Mocaa experienced these two years of pandemic?
It was horrible and it still is. When the pandemic hit, our museum had just been open for a few months and was already coming out of a mini start-up crisis before I arrived. It was a real test. My concern was above all to shelter the employees and safeguard the 53 jobs. I was shocked by the wave of dismissals in museums in the West, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, which is the most ruthless despite the large endowment funds from which they benefit.
The lockdown in South Africa has been long and hard, institutions have been closed for seven months, the project schedule has been completely revised. We had to close two weeks before the opening of an exhibition by Alfredo Jaar [architecte, photographe et réalisateur chilien] on Rwanda and a month away from a Tracy Rose retrospective [artiste et photographe sud-africaine]. We had to be very flexible, postpone everything. But we Africans are used to the unexpected.
We lost 90% of our revenue. To compensate, we benefited from public aid from the National Disaster Relief Fund [un fonds d’aide mis en place pour surmonter la pandémie], and the administrators also got their hands on the wallet. But it is still complicated, because the museum is still under construction. I don’t have the budget and the number of employees it would take to run the machine.
The Bamako Meetings and the Dakar Biennale, which were to be held for the past two years, have been postponed to 2022. Some fairs have been canceled. What repercussions do these postponements have for artists?
Cancellations of biennales are bad for cities as well as for artists, because they are moments of reunion, exchanges and effervescence. But even if I recognize in these major events an attraction, a function of gathering and structuring the sector, I plead above all for daily work. Because with or without a pandemic, between two biennales, what do we do?
Africa has bet a lot on events, but we cannot stop at that. The health crisis has shown the importance of organizations that fight on a daily basis, of people who get up every morning for art and culture. In Dakar, for example, the artistic scene organized a gathering, the Parcours, at the end of the year, when the biennale had to be postponed. When the events disappear, it is the cultural organizations that remain.
As far as the market is concerned, fairs are recent in Africa. Collectors have always, and still now, go directly to artists. The structuring of the market, with the western system of fairs and galleries, is important, but there are other systems that do work.
A new museum is due to open in the royal palaces of Abomey, Benin, while a museum of modern art has just opened in a former prison in Tangier, Morocco. What should be an African institution in the XXIe century?
We are the product of our environment, of our culture. A museum in Senegal is not the same as a museum in Kenya or Malawi. At Zeitz Mocaa, I took a lot of time to reflect not on what the museum should be, but on what it shouldn’t be. We must not reproduce the curatorial activity of the last thirty years.
The vast majority of exhibitions on Africa have been collective, meetings of fifteen, twenty or fifty artists who were mixed in the hope of producing a readable story. I myself participated in this movement. Arriving in Cape Town, it seemed important to me to go beyond this trend. At Zeitz Mocaa, I decided that we would almost only do individual exhibitions. True understanding comes through exploring individual practices.
A few French institutions have embarked on a new mode of collaboration with their African partners, which no longer involves simple circulation of exhibitions or loans of works, but co-production. Do you sense a change of era in the relationship between Western museums and African institutions?
There is very little museum cooperation between Africa and Europe, even less in the field of contemporary art. France is really at the bottom of the class in this area, compared to Germany and the Scandinavian countries. In my generation, curators from Africa have worked a lot in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands or Scandinavia. Few in France, a country which has not grasped the extent of the change underway for at least ten years in this field of cooperation.
What do you think of the “Africa2020” operation?
Between France and Africa, relations have been complicated for centuries. If a season was dedicated to Africa in 2021, it is because there had never been an event of this magnitude, unlike other European countries which took a closer look at creation in Africa. It is an admission of disinterest. But I generally find everything that highlights Africa to be positive, especially since the collaborations are enriching.
The work of the organizing committee has taken the French professionals out of a certain torpor in relation to Africa. But it’s still laborious. Some heads of institutions do not come to Africa with the respect they show when they go to Asia or the United States.
In 2021, France returned to Benin objects looted during colonization. Other countries promise return of items to Nigeria. What are your expectations ?
There is not even a discussion to be had: you have to give back. Whether Africans decide to resell, bury or show these objects is none of the West’s business. Much of our cultural heritage has been taken away from us to be sacred in contexts that do not suit it. They are decontextualized and reinterpreted in an often false way.
Peoples have been dispossessed of what constitutes their cultural genius, while denying them all humanity. It is outrageous and shameful. Humanity is constructed and defined by the transmission of speech and objects. When we no longer have access to it, there is a kind of caesura. I feel thus deprived of something that I do not know.
Africa in 2022
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African art: “There is not even a discussion to be had on the restitutions, it is necessary to return”