/ 14 November 2022

Curator celebrates black joy and aesthetics

Strong convictions: Koyo Kouoh is the curator of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, which houses the largest private collection of contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora in the world. (Mikhailia Petersen)

Koyo Kouoh’s forward-thinking nature is artistically critical, yet embedded in the world of imagination. This might just be what is required of Kouoh, who is executive director and chief curator of Cape Town’s Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa. 

She has done more than many in the art world to create space for Africa’s artists to prosper. Kouoh is an advocate for African art practices but a bold critic of how art is used and perceived. From Douala to Dakar and Basel to Cape Town, Kouoh’s legacy celebrates the joy and other forces of black culture. 

“With art and the artists in general, I want to be at their service in the best possible way. I believe in the artistic language, the imaginary, the space of the spiritual and to serve that space,” says Kouoh. 

A career of reflection, rejoicing, respect

Born in the Cameroonian city of  Douala, Kouoh founded the RAW Material Company arts centre and residency programme in Dakar, Senegal, in 2008, before moving to South Africa in 2019, where she is serving a tenure at Zeitz MOCAA. Owned by German businessman Jochen Zeitz, the institution holds the world’s largest private collection of contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora. 

Between these major career milestones, Kouoh’s career has transcended borders — and the African continent. In London, she briefly was curator of the education programme at the 1–54 Contemporary African Art Fair. She has made two stops in Bamako, Mali, where she co-curated Rencontres Africaines de la Photographie (African Photography Encounters) in 2001 and again in 2003. In 2016, she was curator of EVA International, Ireland’s contemporary art biennial.

Kouoh’s career is inspired by Ghanian writer Margaret Busby’s anthology Daughters of Africa, a collection of writings by women of African descent, from ancient Egypt to the present day. This collection of voices and stories from the diaspora is a representation of Kouoh’s work, which does just this. Her curatorial career brings African voices, stories, and experiences into society. 

“I have a very strong investment  in, and commitment to, bringing the questions, topics and ethos that different artists have in their work into society. I think art and artistic practice, imagination and artistic criticality, is something new in the evolution of human evolution. It has its own knowledge. You don’t have to think about it; it’s a feeling,” Kouoh says. 

Despite being at the service of artists and their practices, Kouoh does not follow the common notion that art exists purely to convey a specific message of the artists and their work. Kouoh is not a contrarian but speaks from the perspective of respecting art for the imaginary places it can take us. 

“The idea of using art to express something else or convey a message is something I’ve always been against because art deserves more respect from people,” says Kouoh. “I think what art offers us is a moment of reflection, rejoicing, respect.” 

Kouoh is inspired by the resurgence of figuration in contemporary art, figuration being an allegory for the black experience. She says the last few years have been phenomenal for this art practice. 

“Looking at figuration in the analogue of art history, one of the oldest techniques in the world is figuration. It’s intuitive, it’s not persistent, but a recurrent canon of expression,” she explains. 

“I believe that figuration, representation, is a key collective social strand of our humanity.” 

The 21st-century museum 

Kouoh credits Africa as being a matrix for all things black. If Africa is the matrix, then Zeitz MOCAA is a beacon where these stories from Africa mingle in a cerebral crescendo. The experiences and stories of many of black bodies across the globe are traced back to the African continent, says Kouoh.

She points to overlaps in aesthetics — “a black Cuban artist, an afro-Brazilian artist, Congolese artist or black South African artist of the same generation are more or less dealing with the same thing and topics of society like race, gender, politics, identity,” she says. 

While she has been questioned for speaking about the black experience in a way that generalises this, she says there are a few fundamental, communal traits in black lives. 

“I strongly believe the blackness of different places and histories binds us. For critics and social scientists, this might be not enough. 

“But our black skin is something that is very defining of who we are, where we are and the way the West has controlled an arsenal of oppression over us for years and across geographies; it was everywhere,” Kouoh says. 

Her strong conviction about  holding the microphone for African voices to be heard is evident at Zeitz MOCAA which, under her curatorial eye, is a place that represents, discusses and preserves contemporary art from the continent and diaspora.

Zeitz MOCAA “is not using art, we are an art institution. We are transmitting art the same way a university is transmitting knowledge,” says Kouoh. “I see the museum as a sacred space because I see the museum as a university like any other. Zeitz is a master museum, a church, a school,” she adds.

The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town. (Hufton and Crow)

The politics of joy

Black joy is political. “After everything we have endured, we are still here. There are other forces in black culture that are way beyond any form of oppression that we can be exposed to. 

“The black joy aesthetic is political. Racism runs deep, even in people who don’t think they are racist. As much as racism can drive the black experience around the world, there is a lot of current black celebration that has been endured during this,” Kouoh says.

This celebration of black joy is at the centre of Kouoh and her team’s latest exhibition When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting. The title was inspired by the Netflix miniseries When They See Us, which tells the story of the Central Park Five. But Zeitz flips “they” to “we”, speaking to the black experience globally. 

The exhibition will be a refreshing take on the black experience that celebrates black joy through the lenses of black opulence, black wealth, black style and black aesthetics as forms of resistance. With a strong yet sincere emphasis on “we” — being black bodies — Kouoh says the art on this exhibition is a device for storytelling and to build a lexicon that says a lot about the world of our imagination. 

“This is where we define ourselves, where we project ourselves and where we take control of how we are perceived. We need to understand our roles in the concept of world-making. 

“Africa, as a continent, has always been a part of world-making; it has never been excluded but amputated for a long period of time. Our representation has been distorted,” explains Kouoh. 

When We See Us, although not focused on self-portraiture, functions as a self-portrait of artists celebrating their experiences in black bodies. These artworks are an act of resistance centring on themes that are not usually present in the African diaspora: joy in the everyday, opulence, leisure, sensuality and spirituality. 

“There are no broken black bodies, there is no pain, there is no poverty. The exhibition is a cultural understanding that speaks from the black perspective of how we are perceived,” Kouoh says. 

“We are bringing questions of race, gender and identity. We can speak very much from the perspective of how non-black communities and non-black people perceive us through the white lens and historic lens of communities.”

Kouoh’s interest in parallel aesthetics is also clear in this exhibition, which will host over 150 artists. 

Each artist, in their own practice, creates and explores their own universe, yet many artists across the diaspora, working at more or less the same time, are invested in the same kind of political and racial tensions. 

“The position of the artists and conversation between art is from different generations, but has the same [tone] via a black aesthetic,” says Kouoh. 

“The youngest artist was born in 1999 and the oldest was born in 1888. This is the span of conversation. This anti-tropic approach reverses the centuries of colonial narratives imposed on — and often internalised by — black bodies, from oppressive and impoverished to opulent and celebratory in the eye of the collective trauma experienced across the diaspora. 

“We took the very deliberate position to work in an anti-tropic way. 

“We wanted to celebrate ourselves. We want to celebrate blackness and celebrate the African diaspora, celebrate the myriad ways blackness is portrayed across geographies,” she says. 

“To come from that trauma and to oppose trauma, we not only survive with joy, but reclaim and reappropriate. We underestimate the power of that ‘enterprise’ on black people across the world.” 

In her practices, Kouoh has embraced a truly mono-political, black African perspective. She says she is driven simply by a deep love for artists and the artistic language. These are important voices that she is inviting into the space of a 21st-century museum. In order to be one of the leading figures in the world of art criticism, one has to be boldly critical, yet sincere. 

Despite this, she is “consciously addicted to shoes, textiles and food”.