I offered creative consultation services to the Creative Change Laboratory (CCoLAB) in which I helped the project members curate and install a majour end-of-project exhibition. The job of a curator is to make relationships occur which could otherwise remain invisible, and through that create a connection with the visiting audience. My job as consulting curator, however, entailed steering the project team to make its own best decisions around making those relationships.
I was approached by the CCoLAB project leaders, Gabriel Hoosain Khan and John Marnell, who have experience in facilitating creative forms of resistance through arts-based workshops. The project was funded by Facebook, and was in partnership between the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Office for Inclusivity and Change (OIC), and the University of the Witwatersrand’s (WITS) the Africa Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS). CCoLAB draws on a range of activist project work done by Khan and Marnell from when they were colleagues at the Gala, and it also draws on the work of various researchers working with arts-based methods (Elsa Oliveia, Jo Veary, Greta Schuller, Susann Huschke, Becky Walker, Nereida Ripero-Muniz & Salym Fayad, Quinten Williams) at Method:Visual:Explore (MoVE), a collection of projects focussed on issues of migration and society, housed at the ACMS, where Marnell is currently based. I was approached by Khan and Marnell because they were familiar with my curatorial work with various MoVE Projects, and they felt that I could add value in the exhibition phase of their project.
CCoLAB was an experimental collective learning space in which project collaborators explored the social issues that affect them and their communities. The CCoLAB entailed collaboration with a group of young people who live in Cape Town in exploring their lived realities, but also in developing responses to survive in these realities, and to create change within these realities. As Marnell emphasised during a seminar connected to the exhibition, activist and movement building approaches to socially embedded work are a main drive in this project. The project programming was structured into three phases each with its own workshops and facilitated learning processes. These phases were called, co-think, co-create, and co-curate. The co-think phase was focussed on reading theory around the key themes in the project related to gender, marginalisation, discrimination, inequality, violence, creative resistance, and social justice. During the co-create phase project collaborators made arts-based responses to some of the social issues that they experience within their life worlds. To learn more about the project, read this articile that appeared on the Daily Maverick by Karin Schimke, titled Love and Justice.
I came in as a curatorial consultant at the end of the co-curate phase when the project team realised they needed someone to help them sift through the thick web of concepts and artefacts that emerged through the project group’s year-long learning-making process. My services provided the project group with conceptual, visual, and spatial input during key moments in the planning, curation, and installation dimensions of this project.
The title of the exhibition was Indumba Yolwazi: A Place for Sacred Knowledge. The exhibition was held at the Tshisimani Centre for Activist education, and it opened at 10:00 on Saturday 26 October 2019. The exhibition had two main content types, namely finished artworks, and workshop process artefacts. The fact that many of the artworks were still being produced towards the end of the project created a challenge because it meant that there was much uncertainty about what the project collaborators would bring as their final output. Compounding this challenge was the fact that project collaborators veered away from the conceptual framework of the project—although the project leaders used the language of design thinking towards the end of the project period, most of the project was based on arts-methods, and project collaborators’ responses to social issues remained along the lines of artworks. That is, the project collaborator final outputs were called prototypes within the language of the project, but the outputs clearly continued the questioning nature of arts processes rather than the solutionist drive of design processes.
My services helped the project leaders create a clear message that could bound the diverse conceptual ideas and material outputs of the project in a coherent exhibition presentation. In my reading of the exhibition elements I responded to the broader project frameworks as much as actual output. This consulting approach to curation, furthermore, built upon and expanded the ethos of the project i.e. collaboration, discussion, co-creation, and co-operation.
Before the exhibition installation period started I reviewed all the project output and curatorial decisions with the project leaders, helped spot gaps or problems within planning, and helped plan a smooth installation period from both a conceptual and technical perspective, given specific project, exhibition and artwork requirements. After reviewing the project elements and exhibition intent, we concluded that the challenge in the exhibition was to feature the individual works as the final output of the project, whilst also giving the viewer a clear understanding of the rigorous learning and making period that expanded over the seven months before these artworks were conceived and fabricated. During this period I suggested alterations to the approach to the collective process wall. This collective process wall had to give an overview of the many activities that were undertaken during the larger project. When I came on board in the project, however, the wall was being conceived of as including text heavy posters and little visual output. I anticipated that this text-based approach was not the best way to achieve the goal of communicating the project process to a visiting exhibition audience. The messaging of the process wall would be more direct if it visually emphasised the layered and diverse workshopped nature of the project, and minimised the need for an exhibition visitor to read paragraphs of text. The solution was to not only use the planned text panels, but also to employ a mix of the many original documents, artefacts and workshop residues that emerged out of the larger project. The artefacts would be hung on the walls, and the panels would sit on easels in front of these walls. This new approach proved to provide exhibition visitors a quick sense of the dynamism of the larger project, and it successfully held the individual artworks in the exhibition within the narrative and credibility of the learning objectives of the larger project. With the idea of the exhibition relationships in place, and with the knowledge of the range of works and artefacts we would have access to, we were as well prepared as we could be.
Most of the actual relationships between exhibition elements would have to be figured out during the installation period. That is because conceptual, visual and spatial relationships form between works within the exhibition space as they are being installed. The finest planning of an exhibition always requires a degree of flexibility for what will happen in the installation period. This flexibility in responding to emergence is the underlying principle which lead my engagement with the project team. It is critical to maintain flexibility because the emergent relationships between works often show conceptual and material relationships previously unconceived. To deal with the unpredictability inherent in the curation process, therefore, I worked alongside the project leaders and project collaborators during the three-day installation period. I was in the exhibition space with the project team, and I helped the project team shift curatorial decisions where needed. I also helped guide project collaborators in their installation considerations and gave a hand in the technical installation requirements.
The installation period was increadibly dynamic. During meetings before the installation period I was briefed on the likely contribution of collaborators, but because work was still being made, no one really knew what the exact nature of the final works would be. Because my services were hired late in the project I knew I had to draw the knowledge of the project team: they had a deep familiarity with the experiences that informed the work because of months’ of interaction with collaborators. This enabled the project team to see connections which I would not see. My task would be to help them communicate the connections they saw to a visiting public. Here follows a quick overview of the works: The collaborator Zintle created a documentary film that featured a range of NGO’s from Cape Town. One of the NGO’s that were featured is the Counselling Hub, a clinic in Woodstock that provides consultations with mental health professionals at very low rates. Jules interviewed a group of high school students who spoke about their lives, their genders, their fears, and hopes. Masechaba created a garden within the exhibition venue, a work about green spaces, refuge and pause in sometimes harsh urban environments. Winnie made a series of fabric mixed media collages exploring ideas around women, community, and power. Amanda created a collaborative sculptural piece: hands cast in gypsum and decorated by their subjects in a ways that speak to the subject’s identities. Shiraz created a wall of photos and mirrors with an accompanying audio piece that explored life as a young queer person. Siv created a journal with writing and photos that tracks young queer friends, their lives and their experiences. Diego drew from the notion of drag performances, but created a soundless dance in which emotions, thoughts, fears and hopes were transformed into a deeply affecting performance comprised of movements, images, and gestures.
It was good to see the rigour of thinking and depth of feeling coming though the artworks of these young people. The project collaborators managed to take critical positions within their lives, the larger project, and a socio-political context. The work has the power not only of informing the maker and the exhibition visitors, but also to create the emergence of new networks around community participation. Given the right post-project support, exploratory works like those in this exhibition could well be the start of a design process that leads to prototypes and design solutions, as initially hoped for by the project leaders.
Featuring the artworks within the activist and social justice goals of the project was of critical importance in the curatorial process. The collaborative curation approach within the curatorial and installation phase of this community arts project enabled CCoLAB project members to create an exhibition that featured both the year-long collective project process that underlies the project, and the individual artworks of project collaborators. This was a process in which everyone learned from each other, where listening was of critical importance, and where a balance was struck between individual contribution and collective effort.