Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi On Curating The African Canon
Long before he was curator of African art at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum, Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, better known as “Smooth,” was traveling the world as a nomadic artist and curator. And before that, he was studying sculpture under El Anatsui in his native Nigeria. Today, on the heels of co-curating the prestigious Dak’Art, the biennial of contemporary African art, we spoke with Nzewi about his thoughts on curating, the growing interest in contemporary art produced by artists of African background, and the 10 artists he’s most looking forward to seeing at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair.
Artsy: Can you give us a brief timeline of your career in the art world, from your training in sculpture at University of Nigeria to your current position as Curator of African Art at the Hood Museum? What is a key lesson or experience that has influenced the way you approach your role as curator?
Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi: I graduated from the Studio Art program of the University of Nigeria Nsukka in 2001, majoring in sculpture under the supervision of legendary artist El Anatsui. Between 2001 and 2007, I was basically an itinerant artist and independent curator, living the bohemian lifestyle, organizing art exhibitions and events, and traveling internationally to participate in art exhibitions, artists’ residencies, and workshops from my base in Nigeria. However, in 2006, I moved to Cape Town, South Africa for a year to participate in a postgraduate diploma program in Museum and Heritage Studies offered by the University of Western Cape in partnership with the Robben Island Museum and University of Cape Town. Simultaneously, I was an artist-in-residence at the Greatmore Studio in Woodstock, a depressed suburb of Cape Town. It was an interesting time for me, immersing myself in academic work and having the opportunity to also make art and exhibit. In the fall of 2007, I relocated to Atlanta to commence a PhD in art history at Emory University, Atlanta, and completed it in May 2013. I am currently the Curator of African Art at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art.
My initial experience of itinerancy exposed me to a diverse community of artists—some of whom are under the radar, despite their impressive talents. The many processes of art-making in varied contexts made me very sympathetic to the artist. The ways in which I have been socialized also plays a large part in how I think conceptually about curating.
Artsy: What is your mission as a curator?
USN: I think that a grounding in art history is very key to curating. As an artist myself, I am interested in the creative process; how the artist arrives at certain choices leading to the making of the work, and the internal dilemma and intellectual agonies faced by the artist as he or she considers the reception of the work and market pressures. More often than not these issues are masked in the completed work, but are also what gives the work its soul. I am deeply interested in the space from which the art is produced or the artist produces—which could be personal, creative, sociological, intellectual, or biographical—and what one can learn from that space.
I seek the artist’s creative argument and what the artwork can reveal about the collective social imagination...I am interested in the ways in which we can understand our humanity through creative expressions. I see my role as that of a mediator of aesthetic and cultural experiences that are very much invested in the artwork. I pay particular attention to nuances that attend the complex ways in which people in general process their realities and experiences.
Artsy: Earlier this year, you were one of a committee of three curators for the second edition of the Dak’Art Biennale. What themes did you focus on in the exhibitions?
USN: Our general theme, “Producing the Common,” was an attempt to contemplate a new way of addressing globalization by borrowing from African-inspired ideas of communalism. Dak’Art provides a platform of visibility for contemporary African and African diaspora art and artists. Considering that art biennials are by their very nature political in that they pursue specific agendas, we were interested in the relationship between politics and aesthetics, and therefore drew from Jacque Ranciere’s theorization of the “common,” which basically seeks the intersection of the two notions—and Michael Hardt’s reexamination of that theory against the backdrop of art biennials being vehicles of cultural globalization and the neoliberalism of the contemporary art world.
Another theme we pursued was “Anonymous,” which served as an ancillary platform of the International Selection, Dak’Art’s main exhibition. We considered the history of the transformation of African art from objects of curiosity into objets d’art, the old paradigm of anonymous artists in African history, and how that history can be reevaluated in light of the current discourse of global contemporary.
Artsy: You’ve curated (and participated in) exhibitions throughout Africa, the United States, and Europe. What are the most important topics you find are emerging within contemporary African art?
USN: There is a growing interest in contemporary art produced by artists of African background. It is really interesting to see how these artists reflect a certain understanding of their being in the world, and how that is communicated in their work. They are increasingly more successful in translating and communicating their realities and cultural experiences, without being ghettoized by the mainstream art world.
Artsy: Which artists will you be looking out for at 1:54?
USN: There is Emeka Ogboh, the sound artist who has begun to meld sound and photography in a very interesting way; Billie Zangewa, who creates impressive compositions working with silk and cotton; Boris Nzebo with his interesting graphic forms; Marcia Kure’s phantasmal forms and lithe watercolors; Nidhal Chamekh’s evocative and poignant sculptures and drawings; Omar Victor Diop’s rich photographic portraits; Paul Sika’s and Baudouin Mouanda’s compelling surreal photographic narratives against the backdrop of social and political conditions in Cote d’Ivoire and Democratic Republic of Congo, respectively; Cheikh Ndiaye’s modernist vision of the African city; and Eric van Hove’s magisterial and ornamental car engine parts.
Portrait courtesy Naveena Kottoor.