Month: May 2020

Diaspora Pavilion 2: Artists in Conversation

Diaspora Pavilion 2: Artists in Conversation

Daniela Yohannes, A Gathering in God’s Land (2018), digital collage.

The curators of the exhibition I am a heart beating in the world: Diaspora Pavilion 2, Sydney speak with exhibiting artists – Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, Kashif Nadim Chaudry, Leyla Stevens, Zadie Xa and Daniela Yohannes – about their practices, their engagement with the concept of diaspora, and their planned works for the exhibition in Sydney, which presents the navigations, imaginings and lived experiences of six artists based in Australia, the UK and the Caribbean.

I am a heart being in the world: Diaspora Pavilion 2, Sydney is presented by International Curators Forum and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in partnership with Campbelltown Arts Centre

Artists: Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, Kashif Nadim Chaudry, Lindy Lee, Leyla Stevens, Zadie Xa and Daniela Yohannes
Curated by: Adelaide Bannerman, Mikala Tai and Jessica Taylor

Exhibition dates: 22 May – 25 July 2021
Venue: Campbelltown Arts Centre, New South Wales
1 Art Gallery Rd, Campbelltown NSW 2560

The exhibition is the first of a series of unfolding peripatetic events that will interrogate and complicate the term diaspora across various curatorial formats in Sydney, London, Venice and online culminating in ICF’s Diaspora Pavilion 2 project presented in partnership with 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. 

Zadie Xa and Jessica Taylor in Conversation

Zadie Xa (b. Vancouver on unceded Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh territory 1983, lives and works in London, UK) produces work informed by her experiences within the Korean diaspora, as well as the environmental and cultural context of the Pacific Northwest. Forces of distance and relation—familial, cultural, spiritual—shape her constantly evolving notions of self. Her work often features garments, including cloaks and masks, used for performance, protection or ceremony. Xa’s practice is highly collaborative, and she has developed ongoing exchanges with dancers, musicians and actors. Since 2006, Xa has worked closely with artist Benito Mayor Vallejo. Recent solo projects include, Moon Poetics 4 Courageous Earth Critters and Dangerous Day Dreamers, Remai Modern, Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of Métis, Saskatoon Canada (2020-21), Child of Magohalmi and the Echoes of Creation, De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, UK (2020), Art Night London 2019 and Meetings on Art, performance program for the 58th Venice Biennale 2019. Xa was one of the recipients of the Sobey Art Award in 2020, which for the first time was awarded to all 25 nominees.

Jessica Taylor is the Head of Programmes at International Curators Forum. 

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Daniela Yohannes and Adelaide Bannerman in Conversation

Daniela Yohannes (b. 1982, lives and works in Guadeloupe in the French Caribbean) uses her own Ethiopian-Eritrean heritage as a lens in her work to reflect upon the racialised movement and conditional belonging of African diaspora. Through abstract portraiture and storytelling across multiple media, Yohannes explores the overlap of individual and collective subconscious and desire, and the destruction caused by displacement. Her work dwells on alternative Black realities, considering the bonds between herself, her family and other communities through magical symbolism. By embracing forms of hybridity and considering the artefacts of diaspora as a means of travel in themselves, she has built a dedicated interdimensional machine from emotionally charged objects.

Adelaide Bannerman is Co-Producer at the International Curators Forum.

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Abdul-Rahman Abdullah and Mikala Tai in Conversation

Abdul-Rahman Abdullah (b. Port Kembla, Australia 1977 lives and works in Perth, Australia) is a sculpture whose practice explores the different ways that memory can inhabit and emerge from familial spaces. Drawing on the narrative capacity of animal archetypes, crafted objects and the human presence, Abdullah aims to articulate physical dialogues between the natural world, politics and the agency of culture. Recent exhibitions include The National, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia (2019), Dark Horizons, Pataka Art + Museum, Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand (2017) and Magic Object; Adelaide Biennale of Australian Art, Adelaide, Australia (2016).

Mikala Tai is the former director of 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney. 

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Leyla Stevens and Jessica Taylor in Conversation

Leyla Stevens (b. Cooroy, Australia 1982, lives and works between Bali, Indonesia and Sydney, Australia) is an Australian-Balinese artist and researcher who works predominantly within moving image and photography. Her practice is informed by ongoing concerns around gesture, ritual, spatial encounters, transculturation and counter histories. Working within modes of representation that shift between the documentary and speculative fictions, her work deals with a notion of counter archives and alternative genealogies. In 2021, Leyla Stevens was awarded the 66th Blake Prize for her work Kidung/Lament. Recent exhibitions include her solo presentations Dua Dunia, curated by Rachel Ciesla, at PS Art Space, Perth Festiva (2021), A Line in the Sea, West Space, Melbourne, PHOTO 21 Festival (2021), Their Sea is Always Hungry, UTS Gallery, Sydney, Australia (2019) and Of Love and Decomposition, Firstdraft, Sydney, Australia (2016) and group exhibitions The National 2021, Art Gallery of News South Wales, Breathing Room (collaboration with Woven Kolektif), Cement Fondue, Sydney, Australia (2019), BEAUT 19, Brisbane & Elsewhere Art UnTriennial, Brisbane, Australia (2018) and the John Fries Award, UNSW Galleries, Sydney, Australia (2018).

Jessica Taylor is the Head of Programmes at International Curators Forum.

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Kashif Nadim Chaudry & Mikala Tai in Conversation 

Kashif Nadim Chaudry (b. Nottingham, United Kingdom 1976 lives and works in Nottingham, United Kingdom) is informed by his family heritage in tailoring which has influenced and focused his practice around the importance of materiality and craftsmanship. His work is characterised by the working, shaping and moulding of physical objects through the use of elaborate textile-based techniques to create monumental installations from fabric and found objects. Negotiating his identity as a British born gay man of Pakistani Muslim heritage much of Chaudry’s work questions how people choose to position themselves in the world. In relation, it is increasingly the sculptural and three-dimensional possibilities within his work that address the idea of positioning power, the sacred and the ceremonial. Recent exhibitions include Swags & Tails as part of the Asia Triennial, Manchester, UK (2014), The Three Graces, Turner Contemporary, Margate, UK (2016) and What is Home at National Trust Croome Court, Worcester (2019).

Mikala Tai is the former director of 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney.

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Venice to Wolverhampton and Beyond: Contextualising the Diaspora Pavilion

Abbas Zahedi, MANNA: Machine Aided Neural Networking of Affect (2017), Wolverhampton Art Gallery

Venice to Wolverhampton and Beyond: Contextualising the Diaspora Pavilion

An interview with David A. Bailey & Jessica Taylor

The following conversation with the curators of the Diaspora Pavilion, David A. Bailey and Jessica Taylor, was conducted in person and over email between 2018 and 2019 by Kate Keohane and Catherine Spencer

The Diaspora Pavilion first appeared in 2017 during Christine Macel’s Venice Biennale Viva Arte Viva, but it was Okwui Enwezor’s curatorial programming two years earlier for the 56th Venice Biennale that provided a key impetus for the project, the idea for which began a decade earlier in 2007. In curating All the World’s Futures in 2015, Enwezor critically examined the Biennale’s entanglement with politics and power since its first iteration in 1895 (Enwezor 2015a: 19 and 2015b: 92–3). Attentiveness to myriad diasporic histories and their differential relations was a consistent hallmark of Enwezor’s curatorial approach, epitomised by his ground-breaking iteration of Documenta 11 in 2002. In his catalogue essays for All the World’s Futures, Enwezor elaborated a curatorial position for the Venice Biennale ‘predicated on the logic of multiplicity’ and ‘the view that new global arrangements cannot be imposed, nor can the view and prospects of art be defined through one singular system and unitary vision of creativity’ (Enwezor, 2015b: 93). This correlates strongly with the Martinique-born theorist Édouard Glissant’s understanding of diaspora as ‘the passage from unity to multiplicity’ (Glissant, 2010: 59). For Glissant, diaspora is an ‘exploding forth everywhere; it is not concentrated in a single area’ (Glissant, 2010: 60). Deriving from the Greek word meaning to ‘sow’ or ‘disperse’, diaspora refers to the (often forcible) separation of a population from its place of origin. Although initially applied to the Jewish diaspora (Gilroy 1993: 205), it has provided a particularly powerful framework for thinking through the displacement of communities from across Africa through the transatlantic slave trade, together with the interconnected relocations imposed by European empires, but also the impact of resistance movements and decolonial uprisings (Gilroy, 1993; see also Mirzoeff, 2000: 1–18). For the theorist Ranajit Guha, the experience of diasporic parting and scattering might be temporal as much as spatial (Guha 1998: 156), and this variegated temporality – together with the multiform relocations and movements connected to the concept of diaspora – informs the rich multiplicity that Glissant and Enwezor prioritised in their thinking.

The art historian Kobena Mercer has traced the theorisation of diaspora in the work of Stuart Hall (1990), Paul Gilroy (1993) and James Clifford (1997). He notes the relatively slow percolation of diaspora and related key terms – exile, migration, globalisation, hybridity, mobility, multiculturalism, transnationalism, and the figure of the nomad – into art historical writing, while stressing their fundamental imbrication in visual production, and the related constructions of modernity and modernism (Mercer, 2011: 19; see also Mercer, 2008 and 2016; and Wainwright, 2017, particularly 23–5). Building on these interventions by Glissant, Hall, and Gilroy, since the 1990s a number of important exhibitions have sought to explore the multiplicity of diaspora through a curatorial framework. Several of these, like the Diaspora Pavilion, have concentrated in particular on diaspora in relation to Britain, and by extension, the role of these histories in current debates on globalisation. Many of them resonate strongly with Marsha Meskimmon and Dorothy Rowe’s contention that: ‘the UK’s centrality (its “centricity”) within the processes and structures that commonly define globalization is both an awkward legacy of the disintegration of the British Empire and a fascinating location from which to interrogate the parameters of the concept itself’ [italics in original] (Meskimmon and Rowe, 2013: 5–6; see also Mercer, 1993). The Diaspora Pavilion’s decision to focus on artists exploring the concept of diaspora from the context of the UK vividly manifests Meskimmon and Rowe’s observation, while building on a number of key interventions during the previous two decades. These include, among others, Transforming the Crown: African, Asian and Caribbean Artists in Britain, 1966–1996 at the Studio Museum Harlem, Bronx Museum of the Arts and the Caribbean Cultural Centre in New York (Beauchamp-Byrd and Sirmans eds., 1997); Afro Modern: Journeys Through the Black Atlantic at Tate Liverpool (Barson and Gorschlüter eds., 2010); and Migrations: Journeys into British Art at Tate Britain (Carey-Thomas ed., 2012); together with The Place is Here at Nottingham Contemporary (and touring) in 2017, as well as Speech Acts: Reflection–Imagination–Repetition at Manchester Art Gallery during 2019.

The journey of the Diaspora Pavilion to Wolverhampton Art Gallery after the Venice Biennale in 2018 was especially significant in this respect, providing not only a very different context for the works, but one which moreover resituated them within an influential lineage of artistic practice in Britain that has engaged in depth with black diasporic experience. The historic first National Black Art Convention was held at Wolverhampton Polytechnic in 1982, forming a vital moment in the emergence of the Black Arts Movement in Britain (See Bailey, Baucom and Boyce, 2005; Chambers, 2014; and Kerman, 2018). The BLK Art Group, which included the practitioners Eddie Chambers, Marlene Smith, Claudette Johnson, Keith Piper and Donald Rodney, formed in the Midlands in 1979, and the Wolverhampton Art Gallery was the site of one of the first exhibitions with members of the group, Black Art an’ done in 1981; it also hosted Rasheed Araeen’s major 1989 show The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain on its tour after its initial appearance at the Hayward Gallery in London (Araeen, 1989). The relocation of the Diaspora Pavilion from the context of the Venice Biennale to a local authority museum – signalled by the adapted title Diaspora Pavilion – placed the initiative within the longer legacies of artistic and curatorial exploration of diaspora in the UK and beyond, and in relation to thinking around the relationship between the local and the global.

In his important essay ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora,’ Stuart Hall asserted that cultural identity ‘is a matter of “becoming” as well as “being”’ (Hall, 1990: 225). This emphasis on potentiality and process, rather than endpoint or origin, brings us back to Enwezor’s embrace of multiplicity and Glissant’s theorisation of difference in relation as strategies for countering the homogeneity of globalisation. Comparably, the curatorial approach to the Diaspora Pavilion embraced a range of diaspora histories and eschewed any attempt at monolithic definition of its central term, while maintaining the importance of continuing to think through diaspora in relation to global movements and transnationalism.

Catherine Spencer: Although the Diaspora Pavilion exhibition happened in a relatively short timeframe, the ideas and thinking behind it had long gestation. How did the project come into being, and why choose the Venice Biennale as its initial site?

David A. Bailey: The International Curators Forum (ICF) was launched in Venice in 2007 as the result of an initiative I began with some colleagues to take as many people of colour working in the arts as we could on the grand tour of exhibitions happening that year: the Venice Biennale, Documenta and Skulptur Projekte Münster. The more people we spoke to about our desire to do this, the clearer it became that not only had this form of gathering not been done in these spaces before, but that to hold this space consistently, we needed a strategic approach to this type of collective action. This in turn would require an infrastructure that could ensure it would be continued, so it was decided an organisation had to be formed. In 2007, Robert Storr was the Artistic Director of the Venice Biennale, and he made our programme a collateral event, during which ICF was launched. That event made it clear that there had to be a more formal, physical pavilion that functioned not just as a gathering and discursive space, but also as an exhibition space, so as part of our ten-year plan it was decided that ICF would hold a pavilion in Venice by 2017.

Jessica Taylor: Since 2007, ICF has been developing projects that speak to this foundational aim of bringing practitioners from around the world together to explore the creative potential of cross-cultural exchange and collaboration. This has included staging a Caribbean Pavilion at the 2010 Liverpool Biennial, and a multi-site symposium entitled Curating the International Diaspora across South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, the Caribbean and Britain. The development of the Diaspora Pavilion built upon this previous work, but it also responded to a specific trip that we planned in 2015 for a group of emerging, UK-based artists and curators of colour to participate in the historic moment of the opening of Okwui Enwezor’s 2015 Biennale.

Enwezor’s dedication to transnational, communal and cross-generational dialogue in the pursuit of a global art history has informed our ways of working collaboratively and internationally at ICF. However, for my generation, who were not present for his 2002 Documenta or 1997 Johannesburg Biennial, Venice was the first moment of live engagement with one of the mega-exhibitions that formed part of his larger project of de-centring and re-configuring curatorial and artistic practice through an on-going and complex engagement with what he has termed the postcolonial constellation. Described by Enwezor as a ‘set of arrangements of deeply entangled relations and forces that are founded by discourses of power’ that are ‘inimical to any transcultural understanding of the present context of cultural production’ (Enwezor, 2008: 208), this notion situates exhibition-making as a process that must grapple with the forces, movements and moments of contact and exchange at play in any formulation of subjectivity and moment of creative production. To see these ideas explored through artworks at Venice in 2015, and then again at Haus der Kunst in Enwezor’s final major exhibition Post War: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic (2017), I was finally able to see how diaspora could be conceived as one of many entry-points through which to embrace the complexity and multiplicity of relations between people and places.

During the 2015 trip to Venice – which for many of the artists and curators who attended marked their first visit to a biennial – the conversations that we had as a group and with colleagues from other countries, emphasised for us the importance of clearing a physical space in Venice, which could function as a hub where practitioners could create their own dialogues within and against the megastructure that is the Biennale. It felt essential that this conversation be inter-generational. We had always envisioned that the Pavilion could showcase artists from many different countries, thus breaking from the tradition of national representation. However, when Arts Council England invited us to apply for their international showcasing grant, the project took on a British focus and became an opportunity to speak to the complexity of the nation through the lens of diaspora.

Kate Keohane: At what point did you decide on the space for the Diaspora Pavilion, and what was it about the Palazzo Pisani a Santa Maria – as a palazzo that still has several domestic spaces, such as the bathroom and kitchen, intact – that you thought was particularly appropriate for the exploration of diaspora?

Bailey: I travelled to Venice in September 2016, to look at Palazzo Pisani through an invitation from Venice Art Factory, and felt that the size of Palazzo Pisani gave us more flexibility to show different types and scales of work (this was post securing funding, and pre artist selection). After the selection, Jessica made a preparatory visit to Venice with the emerging artists, after which they spent about a month developing proposals with her for the works that would be shown.

Taylor: On that first site visit, ideas were flying, and many of the new works that were created specifically for the Diaspora Pavilion responded to both the building and to the city, and in some ways to a relationship with Italy as a site of diaspora. There was a real desire among the artists to occupy the whole space and to embrace its domestic nature. While being careful to preserve the building’s features, we moved into the palazzo and took it over in a very intentional, deliberate way. Several of the artists were drawn to the pink and green bathroom; Barby Asante wanted to make work that engaged with several pieces of furniture, including a bed, as a way of inhabiting this lavish domestic site; and Barbara Walker drew directly onto the walls of the stairway. Paul Maheke made curtains for the windows, which referenced reportage of a refugee drowning in Venice’s Grand Canal in 2017. Asante and Libita Clayton made sound pieces, which permeated the space. One of Clayton’s three sound works was situated on the balcony and it sounded at noon, so that from the bridge nearby all of a sudden you would hear opera. She also had a breathing piece when you came up the stairs, which got louder and louder until it was surrounding you. That was a work that also changed over time, because for part of it she worked with mud and soil. We knew that it would not survive for the full seven months, so after a while I had to de-install it and just leave the sound. Every small space was used, but of course working in a domestic space has its challenges. We collaborated with Yinka Shonibare’s studio to design a room to exhibit his work The British Library (2014), but we had to bring in a surveyor to confirm the weight-bearing capacity of palazzo’s floor. While the logistics of the installation were complex, it was important to collaborate with the artists to blur the boundaries between the works and the existing features of the building.

Keohane: The very conscious curatorial and artistic habitation of the domestic space of a Venetian palazzo relates suggestively to writings on diaspora and homemaking (Ahmed, Castada, Fortier, and Sheller, 2003; and Cherry, 2017). How did this inform your curatorial approach?

Taylor: Barby Asante and Kimathi Donkor in particular really wanted to erase clear lines between their artworks and the space’s decorative adornment, and we designed the space so that the works would interact. Because of this, we intentionally did not have labels on the walls. Information about each of the artists and their artworks could be found in the exhibition booklets that were available in print and digital form, and within this booklet there was a detailed map that identified the different artworks. But apart from the map, people did not have pointers to identify the works, so they had to figure it out for themselves. There were thirty-six works, sometimes with five by different artists in the same room, and individual artists occupied multiple spaces. There would have been more labels than anything else, so I really wanted to resist this to create a more immersive viewing experience.

On the opening night we programmed two performances. Asante declared the independence of the Pavilion with a group of womxn of colour that she had been working with. This was something I was really thrilled about – I loved this idea of declaring the independence of a diasporic exhibition. Abbas Zahedi, who produced a drink for the show as part of his work, gave a performance handing out the drinks, which some people recognised as a work, and some did not. We also did a closing programme, and several of the artists gave performances. This provided an important moment of reflection for us as a group on the exhibition coming to an end in Venice and moving to Wolverhampton, and on the past year of working together and all that had happened for the artists since. The production and installation periods were intense, so it was important that we created a moment in which the artists could return to their works and respond to them anew. But most importantly, that closing weekend provided a moment of remembrance for Khadija Saye. We had not all been together in the space since we lost her and her mother Mary in the Grenfell tragedy, and it was emotional for us all.

Spencer: Jessica, you mentioned your desire to unpack the ‘complexity of the nation through the lens of diaspora’: can you talk more about this?

Taylor: The initial concept of the Diaspora Pavilion set out to question the traditional model of the national pavilions in the Biennale by posing the alternative perspective of diaspora as a more relevant point of departure for speaking about contemporary art today. We also wanted to get away from the idea that there is a way to speak for a nation through one single artistic expression. When it was decided that the 2017 Diaspora Pavilion would showcase the work of UK-based artists, it became an opportunity to explore the creative and political potential of diaspora from a national perspective, which fundamentally sought to question that very proposition of nationhood as something singular.

There is an intentional contradiction in bringing the words ‘diaspora’ and ‘pavilion’ (as the latter is used in the Venice Biennale context) together. Diaspora is a fluid, moving state that is constantly changing, whereas a pavilion is a building or a static home for something – even if it is temporary. We wanted to play with that contradiction, and to bring together nineteen different artistic narratives that worked against the idea that there is one identity, or one voice, that encapsulates an entire country or nation. To do that also required the consideration of multiple diasporas that would speak both independently and together, which could be interpreted in many ways, by many different people. This was undeniably a curatorial challenge, but it enabled us to bring together a dynamic group of artists and to work with them to develop the show through a process of collaboration and experimentation.

Bailey: Since 2007, I have wanted to create a space for young practitioners to showcase their work outside of the national pavilions. The response to the Diaspora Pavilion demonstrates that there is a desire for innovative models that are not being delivered through the old modes of representation. In addition to the experience of engaging with new work by emerging practitioners – who did not feel like they had access to the Biennale before the Diaspora Pavilion – our project demonstrates a dedication to innovation in regard to exhibition making, professional development, collegiality and, eventually, canon-building.

Taylor: The model of the group show was itself an embrace of the multiplicity of the diasporic experience. Our curatorial approach really intended to shake up what was happening in the terrain of the big international exhibitions, while recognising that there have been many projects and initiatives that have explored the concept of diaspora, and challenged perceived links between art and nationalism by working against it. We were not necessarily different in wanting to do that. But because of the amount of funding we were able to secure, and the vision that the artists who participated brought to the project, the Diaspora Pavilion was able to hold the space that David had set out to create a decade ago. However, I think a deeper analysis of this approach now needs to happen in the wake of the Pavilion and many other exhibitions that raise similar questions and concerns, such as The Place is Here and Get Up Stand Up Now: Generations of Black Creative Pioneers at Somerset House, London (2019), as well as Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at Tate Modern (2017), Rock my Soul, curated by Isaac Julien at Victoria Miro, London (2019) and Talisman in the Age of Difference curated by Shonibare at Stephen Friedman Gallery, London (2018). I think we are seeing the emergence of, or at least a greater attention to a certain model of group exhibition that requires further unpacking.

Keohane: After you had secured the space, although you applied to be a collateral event, in the end you were not selected for the programme. What were the implications of this for your understanding of the project?

Bailey: We approached our planning for the Diaspora Pavilion with several pre-suppositions around what occupying space within the Biennale would look like. One of those was that it would be important to be a collateral event, which meant that we would pay a fee to the Biennale and would be listed as an affiliated event. While from a marketing standpoint it was suggested to us that this would be beneficial to creating the visibility that we wanted for the artists, it also came with restrictions – such as, we would not be able to use the word ‘pavilion’ in our title. This suggestion that we re-consider our title provoked some interesting and necessary conversations around how we wanted to position ourselves and what our priorities were. Ultimately the Diaspora Pavilion’s message was not in line with that of the main Biennale in 2017, and perhaps they saw that when they decided that they would not grant us collateral status. This push to define the project in our own terms removed from the larger Biennale machine was extremely helpful, and hopefully demonstrates that it is not necessary to be a collateral event in order to create a visible platform for art to connect with audiences.

Keohane: Mentorship was crucial to the Diaspora Pavilion, and artists were selected through an open call. How did these strategies work, and how did they shape the project?

Taylor: The open call presented the opportunity for emerging artists based in the UK whose practices actively engage with diaspora as a concept to apply to participate in a two-year professional development programme, with the understanding that their work would ultimately be shown in the Diaspora Pavilion during the Venice Biennale. The appointed panel made their selections based on the ways in which the artists were exploring and complicating the notion of diaspora in their overall practices, rather than an interest in specific works, which is why the exhibition features a huge range of media and multiple different ways of addressing diaspora. Alongside the twelve emerging artists who were selected, we invited ten mentor artists to participate in the project.

Professional development has been a long-running commitment at the heart of ICF’s work, linking back to early recognition on David’s part that behind any initiative that sets out to motivate change there needs to be skills and knowledge sharing, as well as networking and infrastructural development, alongside the public facing elements such as exhibitions and public programmes. Ultimately this a huge task, and I always say that I wish we had had a two-year run up to Venice, to allow the mentors and mentees to work together over a longer period of time. Some of the mentor relationships have worked really well, while others did not develop as fully as hoped. The process had its challenges and developing that methodology was definitely one of the trickier facets of the project. And while mentorship did form an important part of the programme, I found that making the distinction between ‘emerging’ and ‘mentor’ artists in the exhibition texts was unproductive and prevented us from creating an equal platform from which all nineteen artistic narratives would be considered. The curatorial decision to remove that language from the exhibition display and interpretation was ultimately an important one, which will inform how we present future iterations of the project.

During the Diaspora Pavilion project, the ICF also ran a parallel project entitled Beyond the Frame for ten emerging curators that involved mentoring, master classes with curators including Enwezor and Storr, who spoke about their experiences curating the Biennale, and international travel to other major shows like the Berlin and Sharjah Biennials, Documenta and Prospect New Orleans. We also facilitated practical opportunities for members of the group to undertake residencies or produce programmes, one of which involved contributing to the closing programme in Venice as a means of opening up a dialogue between the Pavilion artists and a new group of artists, which in this instance happened to be from the Polish diaspora. We saw this as a moment of contact and exchange that would prompt a wider consideration of diaspora in response to some of the reductive readings of the show we had seen in the press (for more productive critical responses, see Jeffrey, 2017, and Roos, 2017).

Keohane: Was the mentorship programme intended to complicate the idea that visibility at major exhibitions like the Venice Biennale is ‘enough’ for emerging artists?

Taylor: Yes, we never thought visibility was enough. We thought visibility was necessary, and we have seen the impact of that on several artists in the group, in the way that they have been reached out to after Venice. We have been really excited by the opportunities that are growing out of it. But that is what the mentorship aspect of the Diaspora Pavilion was intended to do: to provide the framework to help emerging artists know what to do with opportunities when they come, how to navigate things like contracts, sales, and fundraising for new work.

Spencer: In the literature on biennials, triennials and large-scale exhibitions, there is a sustained concern that the individual art works get overlooked within these huge exhibitionary machines. Did the Diaspora Pavilion pose any particular challenges in this respect?

Taylor: This is something that proved difficult to manage or even to respond to during the 2017 Diaspora Pavilion, and an element that we are very conscious of as we move towards the next iteration of the project. The public discussion around the pavilion, particularly in the press and media, sometimes proved problematic on two levels: firstly, there was a tendency to define in simplified or broad terms what the grouping of artists represented in regards to identity (whether that be in terms of nationality, race or ethnicity), which worked counter to the complexity that the exhibition set out to embrace; and secondly, as a result of this distillation of the show’s narratives into a singular identity or politics, there was much less discussion of the nuances and specificities of the individual works themselves. We learnt a great deal from this process, and have been working to develop strategies for how to resist these reductive readings of the work through the information that we provide and the language that we use, as well as the other critical and constructive voices that we will engage with to ensure a more productive discourse around the project going forward.

Bailey: One of the things that enabled us to connect with such a large, energised audience during the Venice Biennale was the marketing support that we had, which ensured that there was public knowledge about the existence of the Pavilion and the artists that were exhibiting in it. As the first iteration of the Pavilion, it was essential that we were able to promote the project amidst all of the other things happening in Venice during the Biennale. And now as we move forward, there is a clear need to be more strategic and move away from the bells and whistles, to present something more narratively complex – because fundamentally it was the messages captured by the specific artworks that resonated with visitors to the exhibition, and not the buzz words that made it into some of the press headlines.

Spencer: While many projects at Venice travel beyond the Biennale in some form, why was it important for you that the Diaspora Pavilion return to the UK, and what were the curatorial challenges involved in this transposition and re-contextualisation?

Taylor: Wolverhampton, we hoped, would allow some of the artists to think about what it was that they had been doing in Venice, and to tease it out in a new context. We had always wanted the Diaspora Pavilion to come to the UK, and the opening that Wolverhampton had in their programme for early 2018 enabled us to organise the tour of the exhibition relatively quickly once we knew which of the artists were available to participate. We did not want to parachute in with a pre-existing show, especially given how site-specific some of the works were, so we spent some time reflecting on what bringing this work back the UK would mean in this respect. We were also very aware of the historical context of Wolverhampton in relation to the Black Arts Movement and wanted to be conscious of that while planning the show. In response, some of the artists introduced new elements to their works, and Michael Forbes made entirely original work for Wolverhampton. Abbas Zahedi started doing a lot of research in relation to the region, and particularly the history of the Black Arts Movement. He decided to cover the windows of the Morris Gallery, the room where his work is displayed, with yellow photocopies of the schedule from the First National Black Art Convention, which took place in Wolverhampton in 1982. Zahedi wanted to relate to that history without speaking for it, and to recognise its importance in a wider history that he is now part of.

In what felt like an extremely fitting intervention, we decided to hang five paintings by Kimathi Donkor in the Georgian and Victorian galleries. Two of those works – Portrait of the Artist Helping with Enquiries: 1984 (2005) and Madonna Metropolitan: The Death of Cynthia Jarrett (2005) – depict scenes of police brutality. Madonna Metropolitan depicts four police officers towering over the huddled forms of two black women recalling Jarrett’s collapse and subsequent death when police raided her house in 1985, an unnecessary loss of life that ultimately contributed to the Broadwater Farm riot. Portrait of the Artist Helping with Enquiries shows the artist standing naked in a barren room as he is being beaten by two white police officers, and quite explicitly addresses police brutality and racism. The impact of his images when placed among works in the Wolverhampton Art Gallery’s collection was completely different to the effect his paintings had in a Venetian palazzo. We saw that impact almost immediately while we were placing the works through the questions coming from visitors walking past. When we came to hang Portrait of the Artist Helping with Enquiries, we also realised that there were no other works in the gallery that featured nudity. Something we had not even considered as a factor to be negotiated in Venice became in Wolverhampton a serious point of contention, provoking important discussions between the ICF, Wolverhampton Art Gallery and audiences.

With their vivid visualisations of the severe abuse of people of colour at the hands of police, Donkor’s paintings are important historical records of miscarriages of justice. However, some of the upset that came from visitors in Wolverhampton was due to the insertion of the paintings into the rooms where the permanent Georgian and Victorian collections hung, which suggests a discomfort around not only the portrayal of the mistreatment of people of colour in this country at the hands of police, but also in response to the action of disrupting existing narratives to even attempt to adequately represent the repression of such histories. Other recent projects that have confronted similar omissions and received public and institutional resistance include the interventions into Manchester Art Gallery conducted by the artist Sonia Boyce during the production of her work Six Acts in 2018, for which she invited artist-collaborators to respond to how the politics of class, gender, race and sexuality can be reconsidered in gallery’s displays of 18th and 19th century works (see Higgins, 2018). Another example is the 2017 exhibition The Past is Now at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, which was a test laboratory led by activists who produced wall texts that re-contextualised works to highlight their relationship to European colonialism, industrial production and capitalism. Often, however, these interventions are conducted as part of temporary projects or exhibitions, rather than an on-going practice of critical reflection.

Keohane: Following Wolverhampton, what are your further plans for the Diaspora Pavilion? How does this relate to your on-going project to explore the concept of diaspora within curatorial practice?

Taylor: There was an initial push to hold another exhibition in Venice in 2019, but instead we have spent time thinking through ways of developing the exhibition model that we tested in 2017 to make it more sustainable and diasporic. To stage an exhibition of that scale with such a large number of participating artists in Venice for seven months requires a huge amount of resources – and the bells and whistles that David mentioned. We decided that stepping away from that to test a new model, which prioritises the support and development of a group of emerging artists from diverse backgrounds through a stronger emphasis on the content and nature of the work, with a more focused curatorial approach to diaspora as a concept, was the best next step for the ICF.

Rather than focusing solely on Venice, we have decided instead to stage a series of peripatetic international exhibitions and events that examine diaspora in and from multiple contexts including Sydney, London, Venice, and hopefully the Caribbean, over the next two years. These will involve more concentrated periods of activity, the first of which will happen in Sydney in partnership with 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. I am a heart beating in the world: Diaspora Pavilion 2, Sydney will present the navigations, imaginings and lived experiences of diasporic subjectivities through the works of six artists based in Australia, the UK and the Caribbean: Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, Kashif Nadim Chaudry, Lindy Lee, Leyla Stevens, Zadie Xa and Daniela Yohannes. It was set to run from April to June 2020 to coincide with the Sydney Biennale, but due to the pandemic has been postponed until it is safe for the public to visit exhibition spaces again. We see this next phase not as a static exhibition that responds to one location, but as an entity that will shift and grow with each staging, informed by those that we work with and learn from along the way.

Spencer: So will the engagement with diaspora histories in relation to the UK recede, or still continue to inform your thinking?

Taylor: Selecting the artists for the 2017 Diaspora Pavilion through a nation-wide open call highlighted for us and our collaborators the number of artists working in Britain who see their work as engaging with notions of diaspora, and who view occupying a space in Venice as valuable. For Diaspora Pavilion 2, we will continue to work with artists based in the UK; however, it was always our hope that the project would bring together artists from around the world, reflecting so much of the ICF’s other work which aims to facilitate conversations across national boundaries. It feels essential in this moment to be working towards creative and productive dialogues with colleagues doing similar work in places like Australia and the Caribbean, as well as Europe. We believe strongly in finding a more democratic, sustainable model through which to pursue the work that the original Diaspora Pavilion set out to do.

About the Interviewers

Kate Keohane is a PhD candidate in the History of Art at the University of St Andrews. Funded by an EU Horizon2020 grant, her thesis, entitled ‘Some Otherwhere: Édouard Glissant and the Caribbean Landscape in Contemporary Art’, examines the previous and possible uses of Glissant in the fields of art analysis and exhibition practice. Her research interests centre on alternative ways of figuring the relation between personal identity, place, and visual culture.

Catherine Spencer is a Lecturer in the School of Art History at the University of St Andrews; her research and teaching focus on histories of performance art, the body, transnationalism and abstraction since the 1960s, particularly from intersectional feminist perspectives. With Jo Applin and Amy Tobin she is the co-editor of London Art Worlds: Mobile, Contingent and Ephemeral Networks, 1960–1980, published by Penn State University Press in 2018.

Further Reading 

Ahmed, Sara, Claudia Castada, Anne-Marie Fortier and Mimi Sheller (eds) (2003), Uprootings/Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migration, New York: Berg.

Araeen, Rasheed (1989). The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain, London, Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre.

Bailey, David A., Ian Baucom and Sonia Boyce, eds (2005), Shades of Black: Assembling Black Arts in 1980s Britain, Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press in collaboration with Iniva and the African and Asian Visual Artists’ Archive.

Barson, Tanya, and Peter Gorschlüter (eds) (2010), Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic, Liverpool and London: Tate Liverpool and Tate Publishing, 2010.

Beauchamp-Byrd, Mora J. and M. Franklin Sirmans (eds) (1997), Transforming the Crown: African, Asian and Caribbean Artists in Britain 1966–1996, New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem and the Franklin H. Williams Caribbean Cultural Center/African Diaspora Institute.

Carey-Thomas, Lizzie (ed) (2012), Migrations: Journeys into British Art, London: Tate Britain and Tate Publishing.

Chambers, Eddie (2014), Black Artists in British Art: A History since the 1950s, London: I. B. Tauris.

Cherry, Deborah (2017), ‘Suitcase Aesthetics: The Making of Memory in Diaspora Art in Britain in the Later 1980s’, Art History, 40:4, September 2017, pp. 784-807.

Clifford, James (1997), Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Enwezor, Okwui (2015a), ‘The State of Things’, in Okwui Enwezor (ed), Biennale di Venezia: 56th International Art Exhibition: All the World’s Futures, Venice: Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia, pp. 16-21.

Enwezor, Okwui (2015b), ‘Exploding Gardens’, in Okwui Enwezor (ed), Biennale di Venezia: 56th International Art Exhibition: All the World’s Futures, Venice: Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia, pp. 90-95.

Enwezor, Okwui (2008), ‘The Postcolonial Constellation: Contemporary Art in a State of Permanent Transition’, in Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor and Nancy Condee (eds), Antimonies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, pp. 207-234.

Enwezor, Okwui, and Immanuel Wallerstein (2002), Democracy Unrealized: Documenta 11, Platform 1, Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz.

Gilroy, Paul (1993), The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Glissant, Édouard (2010), ‘Conversation Aboard the Queen Mary II (August 2009)’, interview by Manthia Diawara, trans. Christopher Winks, in Tanya Barson and Peter Gorschlüter (eds), Afro Modern: Journeys Through the Black Atlantic, Liverpool and London: Tate Liverpool and Tate Publishing, pp. 58-63.

Guha, Ranajit (1998), ‘The Migrant’s Time’, Postcolonial Studies: Culture, Politics, Economy, 1:2, pp. 155-160.

Hall, Stuart (1990), ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’, in Jonathan Rutherford (ed), Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, London: Lawrence & Wishart, pp. 222-237.

Kerman, Monique (2018), Contemporary British Artists of African Descent and the Unburdening of a Generation, Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mercer, Kobena (2016), Travel & See: Black Diaspora Art Practices since the 1980s, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mercer, Kobena (2011), ‘Erase and Rewind: When Does Art History of the Black Diaspora Actually Begin?’, in Saloni Mathur (ed), The Migrant’s Time: Rethinking Art History, and Diaspora, Williamstown, MA, New Haven and London: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute and Yale University Press, pp. 17-31.

Mercer, Kobena (ed) (2008), Exiles, Diasporas and Strangers, Annotating Art’s Histories, Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press and Iniva.

Mercer, Kobena (1999), ‘Ethnicity and Internationality: New British Art and Diaspora-Based Blackness’, Third Text, 13:49, pp. 51-62.

Meskimmon, Marsha, and Dorothy C. Rowe (2013), ‘Ec/centric Affinities: Locations, Aesthetics, Experiences’, in Marsha Meskimmon and Dorothy C. Rowe (eds), Women, the Arts and Globalization: Eccentric Experience, Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 1-14.

Mirzoeff, Nicholas (2000), ‘The Multiple Viewpoint: Diasporic Visual Cultures’, in Nicholas Mirzoeff (ed), Diaspora and Visual Culture: Representing Africans and Jews, London and New York: Routledge, 2000, pp. 1-18.

Wainwright, Leon (2017), Phenomenal Difference: A Philosophy of Black British Art, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

All images are courtesy International Curators Forum. Diaspora Pavilion, Venice images captured by Francesco Allegretto. Diaspora Pavilion, Wolverhampton images captured by Steph Hargreaves.