Interviews

Hopes Run High as New Senior Curator Lands at Detroit’s MOCAD

Larry Ossei-Mensah discusses his curatorial approach and what he will bring to the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.

Larry Ossei-Mensah, the newly-appointed Susanne Feld Hilberry Senior Curator at MOCAD (image by Andy Boyle, courtesy MOCAD)

DETROIT — Detroit’’s local scene has been abuzz with excited chatter, following the recent announcement that Larry Ossei-Mensah will fill the vacated Susanne Feld Hilberry Senior Curator position at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). Mensah brings prodigious and diverse experience to the appointment. He has been an independent curator and cultural critic for a decade; he is the co-founder of ARTNOIR; he’s been a writer for his own and other publications; and, in partnerships around the globe, he has organized exhibitions, programs, and events, including recent shows at Elizabeth Dee Gallery in New York City and at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA). Amid a flurry of press surrounding his new role in Detroit, Mensah took some time out for an email interview with Hyperallergic.

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Hyperallergic: Are you going to be based in Detroit or floating in and out?

Larry Ossei-Mensah: I will be based between Detroit and the Bronx, where I was raised.

H: Have you spent a lot of time in Detroit?

LOM: Yes, I’ve been coming to Detroit since 2005. I have tons of friends and family in the city.

H: How do you feel about the city?

LOM: I love Detroit! It holds a truly special place in my heart, and I’m excited to have an opportunity to be fully entrenched in the artistic and creative community.

H: Are there things you’ve already noticed or find interesting about it, as a place?

LOM: I love the sense of community and civic pride that Detroiters have.

H: Does it remind you of any other art scenes?

LOM: I’ve traveled from Athens to Accra to learn about various artistic communities, and the Detroit scene is truly unique. It does not remind me of any other art scene that I’ve been immersed in before. Detroit has its own distinct style, character, and rhythm, which is what attracted me to the role at MOCAD. The opportunity to join a museum with a continued focus on diversity and the cultivation of the next generation of leaders — artists, emerging curators, young philanthropists, and activists — is really exciting.

H: Do you know your exhibition schedule at MOCAD yet? Any plans you feel like sharing? Anything that you already know is a priority for you, in terms of the work you plan to do here? Any feelings about what sort of possibilities Detroit might offer, different from other places you’ve done curatorial work?

LOM: I’m still wrapping my mind around everything. I will be spending a good amount of time listening, talking, and observing, in order to identify what exhibitions would be a fit. I think it would be a bit presumptuous to jump into the role expecting to pump out shows. My aim is to cultivate projects and experiences that not only amplify the magic of Detroit, but also serve as a bridge between the city and the world. I’m in this for the long haul and look forward to producing projects and experiences that will add value to the cultural community in Detroit.

Tyree Guyton, Heidelberg Project (1986–ongoing) (photo by Tim Johnson, 2018, image courtesy the artist)

H: Any artists you hope to put in conversation with Detroit, or conversely, any Detroit artists you hope to lift up?

LOM: I am really excited about having an opportunity to mentor the curatorial fellows at MOCAD: Jova Lynne and Ouliana Ermolova. Jova Lynne this fall will be curating two exhibitions featuring the work of Tyree Guyton that will be an amazing retrospective: 2+2=8: Thirty Years of Heidelberg (opened September 7), and Process (opening October 13). Ouliana Ermolova will be curating at MOCAD and offsite the exhibition STANDING STILL, LYING DOWN, AS IF (opening October 26), a group show that addresses the artist’s need to engage actively and radically within a framed space. Additionally, this exhibition was based on an exhibition that Matthew Higgs curated for White Columns. Mentorship is hugely important to me and has been part of my professional success. I’m excited to know that at MOCAD we see the fellowship program as an extension of the museum’s educational mission and goal to create a diverse pipeline of curatorial talent that will go on to make a difference in the arts.

Tyree Guyton, Side View(1999) (image courtesy the artist)

H: Can you talk about your curatorial process or approach at all? How do exhibition ideas emerge or unfold for you?

LOM: My process takes a pretty organic approach involving traveling, listening, and observing to help build a hypothesis that I seek to investigate through an exhibition and the accompanying programming, writing, etc. I’ve always been committed to working in a manner that is culturally responsive to our times and utilizes contemporary art as a tool to heighten our awareness and understanding not only about the world around us, but also ourselves.

H: I understand you are Ghanaian-American, and I have a personal fascination with several heritage art forms from Ghana, including Asafo Flags and fantasy coffins, as well as some really terrific contemporary artists, like El Anatsui and Ibrahim Mahama. I wonder if Ghanaian art, past or present, has been formative to your thinking or aesthetic? I think I am particularly attracted to the materiality of a lot of West African art, and that same quality is what attracted me to Detroit. Do you feel any kind of resonance between the two places?

LOM: Amazing. I’m a big fan of Asafo Flags as well. You must check out Hank Willis Thomas’s exhibition The Beautiful Game, in which he takes a truly contemporary approach to the flags.

Regarding Ghana’s influence on me, yes, my Ghanaian heritage, specifically my Ashanti upbringing, has been integral in informing my view of the world, aesthetic, and appreciation of culture. Detroit is a spiritually and culturally rich city filled with mystical wonders. I could see why you would make that connection with West Africa — good observation.

H: Could you highlight one or two of your past curatorial projects, maybe as a way of underlining some of your values as a curator? Exhibitions or experiences that you feel emphasize your understanding of the role of curators, the relationship you like to have with art, ideas, research, as well as artists and places? Or something else?

Image by Andy Boyle, courtesy of MOCAD.

LOM: Race and Revolution: Still Separate, Still Unequal, co-curated with Katie Fuller, which was reviewed by your colleague Seph Rodney in 2017. The exhibition started at Smack Mellon in Brooklyn in the Summer of 2017 and is currently on tour, with the next stops being the Pingry School (Fall 2018), Penn State (Winter 2019), and the August Wilson Center (Spring 2019) in Pittsburgh. Second would be Allison Jane Hamilton: PITCH, co-curated with Susan Cross currently on view at MASS MoCA.

Both exhibitions are a demonstration of my commitment to utilizing contemporary art and programming as a tool to heighten engagement and education, and to creating accessible experiences. Race and Revolution examines the history of systematic inequality in the US education system. The show at Smack Mellon featured six programs designed to engage the public, students, parents, educators, policy makers, etc. through the lens of art, and to tackle the issue in a holistic manner. Allison’s show has the same dynamic approach to blending art and programming via film (a screening of Mudbound followed by a conversation with Director Dee Rees), music (a musical recital in the exhibition gallery with Jaimeo Brown), and literature (an upcoming conversation with Akwaeke Emezi) to explore Southern landscapes, labor, and cultural production.

My view has always been to identify how you can create as many possible points of intersection with contemporary art in order to cultivate a unique and generative cultural experience. I’m truly humbled and elated to have an opportunity to employ my six guiding curatorial principles — access, belonging, value, curiosity and conversation, catalyst to diversity, and collaboration at MOCAD. I’m truly humbled and excited to be part of the MOCAD family.

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