Industry Insight: Curating the Contemporary Climate - Adeola Ayoola Interviewed by Georgia Mann

Updated: Jan 26

How does one curate the issues that are prevalent in our contemporary society? How does a curator approach being active in their community while physically being made passive? How can we ensure that we are recognising these issues and safely executing them in a physical space?

In this Industry Insight, I wanted to question the ways in which curation develops different perspectives. I had the opportunity to speak with Adeola Arthur Ayoola, founder of Kanbi Projects: an independent London based curatorial and art advisory practice, with a focus on contemporary African Art.

Adeola has recently curated ‘There, Here, Nowhere: Dwelling At The Edge Of The World’, an exhibition exploring the conjunction of African Art and Western society. At a time of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, this exhibition feels necessary in enabling an artistic space to celebrate and elevate the works of African artists, particularly during Black History Month and Nigerian Independence Day. I wanted to ask Adeola how we can shift and change culture and to question how he is doing this through enabling discourses in inclusive spaces, particularly during COVID-19 and the challenges that this may have on his curatorial practice.

GM: Can you just tell me a little about yourself and Kanbi Projects?

AA: I am originally from Nigeria and I have been living in the UK for almost 20 years. My interest in art stems from collecting. I started collecting contemporary African art about 9-10 years ago, and it’s through that relationship that I’ve met artists. I began collecting because as an African here in the West, there weren't that many galleries that were showing you African Artists, and so every time I have the option to go to Nigeria, I will always buy art and bring it back with me. I started to put up one day shows in my house and only invited friends, then a few of my friends asked me to come and do the same thing at their houses. I did that for about 12-18 months. The Koppel Project gave me the opportunity to curate a show which was my first big proper exhibition; since then, I have been collaborating with them, and this is my third project so far with them. Kanbi really is a curatorial practice that serves as a platform for the artist - to showcase them, but also, most importantly, to have a conversation with a different kind of audience. These are audiences who generally wouldn’t walk into a gallery. I’m also interested in that new audience who are mostly Africans in Diaspora, but also white Europeans who have a curiosity about contemporary African art and about artists who are working in that space.

Adeola Arthur Ayoola

GM: In terms of creating this dialogue and fusion of African art with the Western Society narrative, are there any particular experiences that have driven you to explore this?

AA: Yes! It’s interesting that you ask that question. So 3 years ago, I started to think a bit more about the issue of Identity, and so, as I said, I’m originally from Nigeria, but I’m British now.

GM: It’s interesting that you say that.

AA: Yes, for me it is about I Nigerian? Am I British? What does that look like? People throw terms around, but what does that mean? I started to question that a lot. Two years ago, I had a conversation with my wife and son, who is eight years old. He's been to Nigeria once, but that was when he was much younger. We said that we were going to take him to Nigeria again, and he responded “No, I’m not going to Nigeria. You guys are Nigerian and I am British.” I thought, wow okay, so here I am, as old as I am, questioning my own identity, but he feels so sure about who he is. I wanted to occupy that space and interrogate it a bit more - what does it mean to be British but also be African?

GM: I do think that identity can appear so rigid with labelling and tick boxes, whereas, as you have said, it can actually be quite difficult and much more fluid. I have been watching your interviews with the artists in ‘There, Here, Nowhere: Dwelling At The Edge Of The World’, and found it quite interesting how you were speaking about the role of art and the artist. What would you say the role of the curator is in relation to the art world and in a wider context, communities within society?

AA: Speaking within my own context, I have a career that is totally outside of the arts industry. I work in finance at a bank, so my journey to curating isn’t linear. I don’t have an academic background in curating. I feel that as a curator your role is to facilitate a discourse. The main actors in that are the artist and the audience, and my role as a curator is to bring that audience together in a physical space to have that engagement. I’m a big believer in art having aesthetic pleasure, and that the artwork is beautiful, and you might like it for your space at home. I do not think that most professional artists, when they put up their canvas and take their brush, are thinking about your space; instead, I think they’re addressing their issue: a question, a message, climate change, or race, etc. I believe strongly in the social value of art and the power it has for change, but change in a subtle way. When you encounter that work, it should stop you in your tracks and make you observe - be more introspective and reflect, gaining awareness of that issue or that question.

I believe strongly in the social value of art and the power it has for change, but change in a subtle way. When you encounter that work, it should stop you in your tracks and make you observe - be more introspective and reflect, gaining awareness of that issue or that question.

GM: The space creates a new cultural lexicon which enables an audience to come together and share an understanding of one another, while simultaneously allowing for educational challenges and new perspectives. Why is it important to facilitate this dialogue through art?

AA: I think if we met outside of this space you would know very little about my experiences of where I have been. Particularly against the backdrop of race, racial inequality and inclusion. We hear a lot today about educating yourself and knowing more about the black struggle. Why are people asking about this and why are black people going out to protest? On the other side, a white person might look at this and say “but I’m not racist, I know a bit about colonialism and slavery.” Context is very powerful, and if you do not know what I’ve been through, you cannot have a full appreciation of what I am trying to say. So, for me, the space communicates “this is my context, this is my story.”

For example, look at this piece here (‘Bright New World’, 2019) by artist Tobi Alexandra Falade. Tobi lives in Liverpool and came to the UK with her family when she was seven. She produces works based on family photographs, and in this work she has created three different realities. The image depicts her father as a young schoolboy, a party and the background as her primary school wall from Nigeria. That’s her story there. Art can serve an informational and educational purpose to understand the context in which the art is produced. You might encounter a piece of art and even though you hear about its context you can walk away and take nothing from it - that’s fine.

Bright New World - Tobi Alexandra Falade 2019. Oil Bar and Oil Paint and Acrylic Paint on Canvas. 180 x 100 cm

GM: So would you say that this visualisation could help someone that has grown up in the West their whole life, gain perspective on a different cultural identity? And does that space, or any gallery space creating similar discourses, facilitate an awareness that is enough to understand?

AA: Awareness is the key thing. You might go through life and never be aware. When we talk in the context of white privilege, human beings all go through problems and challenges, black or white, it’s just part of the human experience; so, it’s the absence of what you haven’t experienced. We’re in the heart of London in Piccadilly, and if this is your locale, you have no context of where these artists are from. However, if you walk into this exhibition and engage with it, then at least it gives you an understanding of a different perspective. You can either accept or ignore it, but at least you are aware, and for me that is what’s important here.

GM: With regards to the backdrop of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, global protesting, allyship and activism, this exhibition in particular feels extremely necessary. Was this the driving force in this exhibition? Will it create a shift within your curatorial practice?

AA: I would say yes. In my curatorial projects, I try to explore questions which I seek to address. Identity will always be a big part of my curatorial projects, and globalization is a big part of my practice too. Both will always run through what I do. Art should be relevant to the times, and whilst the idea of this show was conceived beforehand, it still addresses the in-between space of what it means to be African and American or African and British. As someone of African origin living in Britain today, I also experience some form of racism, but my experience is not as brutal as George Floyd’s killing.

Another thing I wanted to do with this exhibition is to contribute to that discourse purely from an African Diasporic perspective. We often have this conversation on macro level, and it’s black. That’s a very broad thing, and my experience of an African in Britain is different from others within a variety of predominantly white societies. The artists might decide to address something entirely different with time, but for me going forward, that will always be what I explore. It is important that we have conversations about globalisation. Africa, up until the late 90s, was totally removed from all of the advancements that had happened, but now, from globalisation and the anvil of technology, Africa is suddenly in the mix of that. Talking about globalisation and Nigeria’s 60th Independence Day yesterday, just over 60 years ago the majority of Africa was under some sort of European colonisation, but today there is a different kind of colonisation happening in Africa and this is impacting culture and identity, shaping those different cultural forces of a continent - and it’s the same here in the West. Now everybody is a part of pop culture and I am interested in those exchanges.

When we talk about art history, we talk about the isms and Renaissance that were happening in Europe. But these were also happening in Asia and in Africa - why isn’t that part of art history?

GM: As you have said, collection is what springboarded all of this for you. Would you say that you set out to find a specific work that displays these exchanges and merging of culture?

AA: When it comes to my personal collecting, I don’t ever have a particular idea of the work or style of the work that I want to collect, I generally encounter the work first and then see what it does for me. I’m an introvert - I’m quite introspective and joke with my friends that I live 80% of my life in my head - the art that I collect gives answers to those questions in my head, or at least it’s given me a different perspective on them, and this is how I go about my collecting.

GM: I find it quite interesting that the works in this show all use oil paint. I was thinking about the tradition of oil painting and how typically the white man would look to himself within a frame depicting ownership, materiality, status and wealth, and how quite a lot of this came from exploitation which was not portrayed within these works. Do you think in some way you are a part of reshaping that narrative and was the use of oil paint intentional in this exhibition?

AA: That is a very interesting question and a good observation at that. It wasn’t my intention in terms of the medium of the works here. I’m trying to explore aesthetically what ‘African art’ or ‘Black art’ is. I’ve always had a thing for art history in general, and how it is so Eurocentric, which often has the sense of superiority. When we talk about art history, we talk about the isms and Renaissance that were happening in Europe. But these were also happening in Asia and in Africa - why isn’t that part of art history?

GM: It’s unfortunate that it is not representative. Historically speaking, there is not a fair representation at all within art; it’s like a world outside of Europe didn’t exist. We would need to decolonise these institutions and the histories of stolen artifacts, works, life. There are a lot of gaps in history, but in a contemporary society, we can attempt to change this through creating inclusive and transcultural representations through the depiction of personal experiences - an experience which I have not lived and will never live. Your platform is specific to ‘African art’ - would you say that the artists that you work with then deem themselves as African artists or as working within an African art genre? How do they feel about the labelling as a subcategory within the arts?

AA: There is often that debate. Some African artists would say “don’t call me an African artist, I’m an artist.” The artists have African heritage, but now that they live in the West, are they African? This, again, is the question, and its answer is personal. Some of them would not want to be in that category, and the debate is recognising heritage, but also expressing that it has nothing to do with the categorisation of art. It’s all preferences, and I guess for some artists the reason that they do not want to take on this title goes back to this sense of questioning “is my art inferior to someone else in the West?” You wouldn’t look at a white artist and say White Art - it’s just art and the artist. When you think about it within an African context back home, we do not see African art, we see art. So, who is labelling? I always say to the artists that it doesn’t take away from their artworks or practice in any way, but it is a conversation to have. Particularly in the context of the West, I totally get where they are coming from and I understand it.

Installation view of ‘There, Here, Nowhere: Dwelling At The Edge Of The World’. Photographed by Rocio Chacon

GM: What was it like curating this show during COVID-19 in comparison to other shows that you have put together? How did this change your communication, organisation, and logistics with The Koppel Project and the artists?

AA: I owe my success to The Koppel Project team. When we started to talk about the show, I originally wanted to have it later in the year. I questioned if people weren’t able to come to the show and see it in person, then why do it? It was a challenge different from anything else that I have done before with the government regulations and changes. Interestingly enough ,there has been very good engagement and turn out, obviously within the restrictions that are in place around social distancing and people coming into spaces wearing masks. Three of the artists in this exhibition are based outside of the UK, so my first challenge was getting the work here, but somehow we managed to. The unfortunate side of it was that the artists wanted to be present but could not travel, which is a shame.

Back in April and May the exhibition was full of doubt. Their galleries were not even open and everyone was working from home. Due to government regulations, our artists' event tomorrow, which would have been with a live audience, is now limited to a stream online. I still feel that art is a very social experience. You have to physically be in the space with the art and view it, engage with it, and have conversations that come with that. Now you are restricted and not everyone can do that, so it takes away from the whole experience - but maybe that is the future.

GM: What can we expect from you in the future? How might things be changing?

AA: I’ve got two other projects in the pipeline. One of them, I am hoping, will be another collaboration with The Koppel Project, which will be an all female artists show. I lost my dad when I was eight years old, so I was raised by a single woman, and I wanted to explore what ideal femininity looks like in contemporary society. Fingers crossed that this show can occur next year. I am also looking to lean into publications, as there is generally not a lot of documentation of young African artists’ practice. I’m hoping to have a publication next year, as I am very interested in furthering the relationships I have with the artists I work with.