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The History of some is not the History of all. A conversation with Eva Barois de Caevel


23 May 2016
This month's topic: Globality and geography
a) Eva Barois De CAEVEL by María del Carmen Carrión for ICI

The History of some is not the History of all. A conversation with Eva Barois de Caevel

Eva, your interest in post-colonial issues related to with contemporary art practices led you to travel around different African countries to study the structures for exhibiting art there focusing on their correspondence with Western institutions and the way they deal with the idea of otherness. How do these relations actually work? And how can counter-hegemonic perspectives be articulated in contemporary art practices?

When I was finishing my Master and the years just after living in Tangier, I worked initially for a cultural organization, and later in a project with the Institut Français. I observed how different cultural institutions (public and independent) functioned. Then I went to Madagascar with an artist who was doing a project with the support of Western institutions, and after that I spent some time in Dakar on a curatorial residency at RAW and I became familiar with the “Dakar art scene”. I started this journey because I wanted to write a PhD about how cultural structures and institutions in Africa were, in some way, forced to be legitimized by Western structures, which implies mechanisms of mimicry and the incorporation of imperialistic attitudes. My idea was not to judge or criticise, but simply to observe these features, how they were expressed in a sum of details (for instance the language used to communicate). To acknowledge their existence before wondering whether it was necessary, or whether it could be changed -and if so, why and how.

What I really wanted and still want is that these institutions -and the people involved in them-, acknowledge that even if they are located in Africa, run by African people and working with African artists, they can still act as imperialist tools. This was the sense of the project about sexuality I presented in Dakar at the end of my residency. It is possible to curate at RAW in Dakar, a place run by Cameroonian born Koyo Kouoh, a show with artists like South African Zanele Muholi and still be totally absorbed by global imperialist thinking, without questioning it, when you present a Western centered exhibition against “homophobia in Africa”. This is a huge issue in my opinion. A counter-hegemonic perspective often, very simply, acknowledges how imperialism works for you in your own time: this is the real sense of “post-colonialism”. It took four centuries for people to admit that slavery was something that nothing could justify. How can you be so sure you are not operating imperialistically – even if you are a great institution full of good will – while the world is still run according to colonial processes in so many ways? Articulating counter-perspectives in contemporary art practices today means drastically increasing the level of criticality in the global art world on this subject of post-colonialism.

In 2014 you went to Senegal and started the collaboration with RAW Material Company in Dakar, where you are currently Assistant Curator. After some years developing its program, RAW took a break and closed last September but will open again next June. Was it time to reflect about the past and reframe RAW’s activities and ideas for the future? Following the previous question, how does RAW material position itself in relation to Western structures and balance this with the urgencies of local needs? What will the future of RAW be?

I love RAW because it is a very independent structure in many ways. I love how it works organically. I love the fact that RAW is two actual spaces in Dakar, but also a network. In the new RAW, just reopened, you can still find our office, where we develop international projects, a library open to the public, exhibition and residency spaces, but also a school. The school, RAW Academy, will start in October 2016 and I think the impetus behind its creation is a good answer to your question. It is experimental and we will see what will happen but the school will certainly be an answer to the question of how to deal with the superpowers of traditional legitimization structures. RAW is acknowledged internationally, and of course this has been possible because it has close links with international and Western structures – this was indeed something very interesting to observe. But RAW Academy will also be really rooted in the local inheritance: it will allow us to engage with educational institutions in the neighborhood. These include University Cheikh Anta Diop, School of Library Science, College of Architecture, Higher Institute of Management, British Council, and last but not least, the legendary high schools Lycée Blaise Diagne and Lycée John F. Kennedy. The hope is that it will create new forms of circulation for artists, curators and art critics that won’t necessarily need to submit to the traditional legitimization instances, which is maybe a good way of “re-balancing”.

Thinking about local-international relations, maybe we need to re-edit questions, look for other words and stop thinking with a dualistic logic – at the end of the day, each place is local and international at the same time-. But then of course, it is impossible to think about transnational collaborations and mobility without considering the colonial legacy and the new geopolitical forces that arise from it. How important are mobility and collaborations among different contexts for their development and evolution? And at the same time, how can we articulate movements that allow the emergence of different narratives and ways of thinking?

Of course today we are living in this local/global situation you describe and it is what it is. But I really think what matters in this transnationality is the sincerity and deepness of our relation to the postcolonial status. You can’t just say: “oh look, this is different, how nice”, or still worse: “look how wonderful we are, we are exhibiting difference” without accepting the existence of a profound, absolute difference, even in a global world, on some points. This means to accept incomprehension and different inheritances you cannot summarize in “the global”. In other words, becoming “global” all together, with the difficulties that this process generates, means to accept that the history of some is not the history of all. It may seem obvious put like that, but look at the way people react when I say that Zanele Muholi’s photographs may be imperialist and you will understand what I mean. We live in the era of the postmodern, postcolonial, global exhibition, but most of the time, this exhibition is a failure.

You are collaborating with RAW founder and director Koyo Kouoh in different projects, like the recently opened EVA International 2016 Biennial in Ireland. Taking the 100th anniversary of the liberation from British colonial rule, and titled Still (the) Barbarians, the Biennial delves deep into the post-colonial condition of Ireland. What is the importance of developing a project addressing these topics in a place like Ireland, and how are you working with the biennial model?

The question raised by the Biennial, “who are the Barbarians?” has become a very concrete one for me, because, for instance, a huge part of our work, in this time of globalized exhibitions, consists in trying to obtain visas for artists living in post-colonies so that they can come and install their work in Western countries. Some of the Biennial artists never managed to reach Limerick (even when they had visas, in some cases, because the flight company Royal Air Maroc couldn’t believe their visas were authentic and didn’t want to let them fly). This made me clearly feel that still we are in a time when a vast majority of the world population is deemed too alien to be able to take part in “our” globalized cultural celebrations. In Greek, “barbarous” referred to the people whose language was unintelligible: all you could hear when they spoke was “bar bar bar…”. The use of the term “Barbarian” always questions the rationality, and hence the humanity, of those we cannot understand. We really had a lot of difficulty to get visas for many artists, especially when they came from non-English speaking former colonies. So, ironically, a lot of the artists whose work was shown during the Biennial were actually treated as Barbarians regardless of the form, concept or content of their work. Of course it would have been the same if the theme of the Biennial had been completely different, but the fact that we experienced these difficulties was an example of the relevance of its title. I am not sure we wanted to challenge the Biennial model, a Biennial is an exhibition and Koyo and I value the simple and difficult task of putting on a great show, but for sure, discussing the postcolonial status of Ireland while trying to see what are still imperialistic attitudes today was interesting and rewarding. Of course I am partial but I really love this Biennial, it doesn’t look like something pitchforked there by people who have no idea, or don’t care, about the place where they landed.

You are also co-founder of Cartel de Kunst, an international collective of ten curators based in Paris. How can our curatorial practices develop professional structures for creating new ways of working together? Do you think that establishing international collaborations among independent projects and institutions may be a way of generating other kind of movements and directions?

Cartel de Kunst is a very simple thing: young people from all over the globe who met one day in Paris, studied together, became friends and feared being thrown into this art world jungle! That is why I love to say it is, first of all, a solidarity network. Of course we made exhibitions and publications together, we had discussions and fights together about all the ways of “working with art and artists nowadays”, each of us chose a different path. Cartel de Kunst is not too conceptual; we do not create new ways whatsoever. It is really essential. I think we should all be more honest about all this and that is why I love to speak of the collective as what it is. So I have nothing to say about international collaborations as a token, it is often ridiculous. I remember spending one week in Dakar with international curators roasting in a minivan and being driven from one place to another while being eaten by mosquitos. It was the most absurd experience of my life and a great “international collaboration” on paper. What I can say to answer your question is that: one day I wrote to Koyo Kouoh. She didn’t know who I was and I had discovered her through her texts about Issa Samb I had read at the Documenta. I wrote to her saying my PhD research was difficult to do in France, because of a lack of interest in the topic, and she answered inviting me to come to Dakar. This is collaboration between individuals and this is also how RAW works with other structures. People – and structures – should be more like that. More daring, more curious, more confident in other people, more benevolent. I don’t think we need to establish anything, we need to change ourselves. And more generally, I don’t really believe in the institutionalization of everything and of “normal things” we simply seem unable to do things normally anymore.

Juan Canela is Artistic Director of ZsONAMACO at CDMX, co-founder of BAR project in Barcelona, independent curator and critic. He understands the curatorial as a practice in which ideas, concepts and contents come into play, but also work structures, rhythms, models and ways of life. And here writing is a fundamental element.

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