Interviews

A Conversation with One of the Curators Bringing African Art to the 2016 Armory Show

Yvette Mutumba (on left) and Julia Grosse of Contemporary And. Photo by Benjamin Renter, courtesy of the Armory Show.
Yvette Mutumba (left) and Julia Grosse of Contemporary And (photo by Benjamin Renter, courtesy of the Armory Show)

The Armory Show recently announced that for its March art fair it would organize a series of presentations and events under the banner of Focus: African Perspectives — Spotlighting Artistic Practices of Global Contemporaries. The Focus section, presented by the Armory each year, is a set-apart, invitation-only portion that highlights the artistic scene of a distinct region, involving representations of the particular geographic and cultural outlooks of the region through presentations, special projects, a dedicated symposium, and the Armory Artist Commission.

To curate the 2016 Focus, the Armory invited Julia Grosse and Yvette Mutumba, the founders of Contemporary And (C&), a primarily online magazine that focuses on contemporary art being made in Africa or originating with artists from that continent and its diaspora. Hyperallergic recently arranged a Skype video chat with Yvette in Frankfurt, Germany to discuss her plans for the fair and how this opportunity came about. (Full disclosure: she and I attended the same university in London at the same time, so we have been acquainted for several years.)

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Seph Rodney: Yvette, please tell me who makes up Contemporary And (C&), and when and how you got started.

Yvette Mutumba: We started in early 2013. Julia Grosse and I are cofounders, and Julia operates as the editor-in-chief. I do some of the editing but am also working as a curator. We have Aicha Diallo as our coordinator and associate editor, and Olivia Buschey as an assistant editor. I have been interested for a long time in art being produced in Africa and its diaspora; I wrote my Ph.D. thesis on art from African perspectives in a German cultural context and realized that there was little visibility of African artists in Europe. Julia and I got together to create a platform to make artists, curators, art spaces, and events on the continent more visible. So we do many show reviews, we talk about art spaces, and we do lots of interviews with artists who are not represented by a gallery. The initial idea was to have a very accessible platform, so we mostly publish it online instead of in print, and we make the language not so academic.

We thought we would bring artists outside of Europe into a European context, but the network has grown so large that not only Europeans use C& to find out what is happening in Africa; cultural producers based in Africa also use it to find out what else is happening on the continent.

SR: How is C& funded and maintained?

YM: We are almost completely funded by the German government, including the German foreign office and the Institute for Foreign Relations. The British Council pays for translation.

SR: C& is published in three languages Why is that?

YM: Because though we are based in Germany, the language that unites most of the artists we feature is English. However, there is still the francophone part of Africa that we did not want to leave out.

SR: What are the other goals for C&?

YM: We want to primarily support artists. So we list calls for artist submission and residencies, especially those outside the cities typically thought of as the art centers: London, Berlin, New York. Because we constantly promote artists, we are starting to find that galleries use C& to find and pick up artists, so we are very glad about that. We also want to help develop critical writing on the arts by writers on the continent. We held a critical writing workshop in Lagos in March and found that there were many critics attending. So we are planning to create a mentorship program to continue the relationships started there, with experienced writers helping younger ones to also get a platform and perhaps submit articles to C&. This is a win-win situation for us.

SR: Does all your content come from other writers?

YM: Mostly, thereby bringing forward other writers. The only thing we often do ourselves is interviews. We have a big pool of writers and a pool of editors whom we work with on a freelance basis. Because of this structure, we are more fluid and dynamic than a typical magazine. We don’t change the content from month to month, but rather put up new stories as they occur to us, or as we feel readers are still interested.

Actually, that is another way that C& is important: it has become a kind of ad-hoc archive by which readers can track the development of art spaces or artists. So C& is a platform, a gateway, and an archive.

One of the works to be shown in the Armory's Focus: Untitled II-The African Queens (2012) by Namsa Leuba.
One of the works to be shown in the Armory’s Focus: Namsa Leuba, “Untitled II-The African Queens” (2012) (photo courtesy of Audrey Smith)

SR: How did the opportunity with the Armory Show come about?

YM: Noah Horowitz [former director of the fair, now Director Americas for Art Basel] approached us. He is very intelligent, reflective, and was very encouraging of our vision. It really speaks to the Armory that they approached us and understood that for us it is about content. They let us do our own thing within the constraints of an art fair.

SR: What is your own thing?

YM: Well, we don’t believe that there is such a thing as “contemporary African art.” This work is really part of a global contemporary, which is why the title includes “spotlighting artistic practices of global contemporaries.” But we also emphasize looking back on recent history to resist the idea that this movement is new. To further give a sense of history, one booth, for example, is given over to an older Sudanese artist, Ibrahim El Salahi, who has been working since the 1950s.

For us also, it starts with the artists. We invited artists first and asked their galleries to make a solo presentation of the artist’s work. We invited 14 galleries, taking quality over quantity. For galleries it’s risky, giving all that space to one artist, but most were up for it.

We preferred people who are not well known to those just getting started. Most of the artists we chose are young — born between the late ’70s and the ’90s — and artists who are really embedded in global networks that influence their practices. The Focus will have one commissioned artist who provides images representing the entire fair. This artist, Kapwani Kiwanga, is very representative of the concerns of C&. She was born in Canada with parents from Tanzania, is based in Paris, and is represented by galleries in Paris and Berlin. She is a trained anthropologist who makes work around false histories and afro-futurism.

SR: It sounds like it will be an important event.

YM: We see the Focus section as a great opportunity for us to continue and broaden our mission.

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