Newspaper article International New York Times

Pushing African Art to the Global Stage ; with Hands-On Approach, Curator Brings Wealth of Experience to Continent

Newspaper article International New York Times

Pushing African Art to the Global Stage ; with Hands-On Approach, Curator Brings Wealth of Experience to Continent

Article excerpt

Over the last two decades Koyo Kouoh has become one of Africa's pre-eminent curators and art managers

Watching Koyo Kouoh make a last quality check on an exhibition she has curated is a lesson in focus, attention to detail and zen.

Though the press opening for "Body Talk," a show of six female African artists at the Lund Konsthall in Sweden, was just a few hours away, Ms. Kouoh, 47, was the essence of calm as she walked around with the gallery's director, Asa Nacking, inspecting every installation and work of art.

Circling the Kenyan artist Miriam Syowia Kyambi's installation "Fracture" (2011-2015), Ms. Kouoh, who had flown in from her home base in Dakar, Senegal, the day before, nodded in satisfaction. "It's always different," she said, referring to a wood and rope cylinder structure with rags of fabric hanging off. "That is why I always insist the artist comes to install it."

When she arrived at "The Rebirth of Black Venus" (2010), a silk tapestry by Billie Zangewa, a Malawi-born artist based in South Africa, Ms. Kouoh conferred with Ms. Nacking about moving the piece, feeling that more natural light from the gallery's front windows would give it more impact. As staff members scurried to move the work before the press arrived, Ms. Kouoh declared the show "magnifique."

Over the last two decades Ms. Kouoh has become one of Africa's pre-eminent curators and art managers through a combination of a relaxed demeanor, a sharp eye, a gift for languages (she is fluent in French, German, English and Italian, and knows some Russian) and a keen interest in all aspects of the arts.

In Dakar in 2008 she founded Raw Material, a white cube space for art, education and research, which has organized well-respected shows on topics including the environment and migration.

She was on the search committee that chose the Polish curator Adam Szymczyk as artistic director for Documenta 14, scheduled for 2017; the event is an exhibition of modern and contemporary art held every five years in Kassel, Germany. Ms. Kouoh was also involved in Documenta 12 in 2007 and Documenta 13 in 2012.

She has served on the boards of the German Academic Exchange Service, the Vera List Center Prize for Art and Politics at the New School in New York, and the Celeste Prize, an international contemporary arts prize.

This year, in addition to curating "Body Talk," which closed at the end of September in Lund and will open at the FRAC Lorraine in Metz, France, on October 30, Ms. Kouoh appeared in June at the opening of the Rem Koolhaas-designed Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow. With her co-curator, Rasha Salti, a Beirut-based artist and curator, she presented a progress report on their three- year research project, "Saving Bruce Lee: African and Arab Cinema in the Era of Soviet Cultural Diplomacy," which will open as an exhibition at the Garage Museum in early 2017.

In October, Ms. Kouoh will be in London for the third edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, where she curates the educational and artistic program. She has also been working on "Streamlines," which will open Dec. 4 at the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg, Germany. The show features a dozen artists examining how the port of Hamburg serves as a geographical and political metaphor for the oceans in terms of transportation, immigration and economics.

Next year looks just as busy. Ms. Kouoh is curating the EVA International -- Ireland's Biennial of Contemporary Art in April 2016 and will reopen Raw Material in the autumn, after a yearlong sabbatical to assess research and programming for the next five years.

"She has always been somebody who was interested in much more than just contemporary art, and these are the strong people of today," said Chris Dercon, the director at the Tate Modern in London and a friend of Ms. Kouoh's for more than a dozen years. "She is very interested in possible links, not only in other disciplines, especially literature, but also to have a much wider view of what visual art means, especially in Africa. …

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