WHEN WE SEE US; A Conversation with Curator Tandazani Dhlakama on the anthology of a Century of Black Figuration in Painting at Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa
“…I think for many Black artists and art practitioners practicing today, we are what Taiye Selasi and Achille Mbembe called Afripolitan. We all have a multiplicity of some sort. I am a Zimbabwean curator working in South Africa and it doesn’t make me more or less Zimbabwean. When I briefly lived in the UK, I wasn’t less African than those on the continent, nor did it make my Black experience more or less.”
When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting is a survey exhibition holding nearly 200 artworks by 154 intergenerational artists spanning over a period of the past 100 years. The first of its kind and scale on the continent, the exhibition that opened in November of 2022, highlights and celebrates global Black subjectivities and the multiplicity of the Black experience both on the continent and in the diaspora while riding along the often untold yet familiar themes of, The Everyday, Joy, Revelry, Repose Sensuality, Spirituality and Triumph and Emancipation.
In this interview with START Journal, Coutinho Gloria catches up with Tandazani as she unravels the story of When We See Us from ideation to realization and the associated socio-political and economic dynamics surrounding the ongoing exhibition at Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCCA) Cape Town, South Africa.
START: What is your role in the current exhibition, “When We See Us,” at Zeitz MOCAA? Could you please expound on the activities involved with this role?
TANDAZANI: Sure. So, I am a co-curator for the When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting exhibition. My director Koyo Kouoh and I worked together as co-curators of the exhibition. When it comes to the activities involved, I guess co curating it meant that we led the project and led a team of people in researching and coming up with the exhibition, the publication and the public programming.
START: What was the thinking leading to this exhibition and why now?
TANDAZANI: We wanted to see, what happened when you put artists working in a similar way, who are seldom shown together in one room? What conversations can occur? What similarities, tensions or juxtapositions can emerge? As a result, we created an intergenerational, pan diasporic conversation between Romare Bearden and George Pemba, Lubaina Himid next to Joy Labinjo, we put Beauford Delaney next to Lynette Yiadom-Boake, Valente Malangatana next to Mose Toliver, and Amy Sherald next to Wilfredo Lam.
We were interested in what Achille Mbembe called ‘Modes of Self Writing’.
We had been looking at the diverse forms of figurative painting from the continent and seeing what ended up on the art market. We realized that some of the discourse around the work coming through the market especially work by young artists made Black figuration seem like a new trend or reduced to something that only young artists are doing now, and we found that quite concerning. This is because Black artists have been making figurative painting for a very long time. It was therefore important for us to create an exhibition that offered historical context, to remind people that the conversation about the body, about Blackness, politics and around geography has been happening for a very long time. Figurative painting is not a new fad. So regarding the artworks, exhibitions and discourse that we see today, we are simply building on the foundations of those that have come before us. So for that reason, we decided to look at 100 years of Black figuration, so that people can see the numerous parallel aesthetics or similarities between artists working from different locations, time and space. We wanted to bring together artists that probably never met and trace important artistic lineages. We wanted to explore how different types of figuration have come from different parts of the world at different times. What we see today and the discourse around it is part of an important historical continuum.
In the past when some people have written about the continent, they have presented it in a very dissected or disjointed manner, as though art movements happened in isolation. It’s always important to lay the ground work and to show rich intergenerational and pan-diasporic connections. We wanted to show a multiplicity of Black experiences through figurative painting. We decided to focus on Black subjectivities and Black geographies because it is important to celebrate Blackness.
Why celebration, why Black joy? Well, there have been a lot of important exhibitions centered on Blackness or Africanity that have taken place overtime, many of which we actually looked at very closely in our research leading to up to this exhibition, that have come before us. For example, exhibitions such as Africa Remix, A Short Century, Afro- Atlantic Histories, and 30 Americans, were all seminal contributions to the Black art historical canon. However, for us at Zeitz MOCAA, we wanted to show how artists had been making work, devoid of trauma, work that refused to center colonialism and whiteness. So, we created an exhibition that focused on Black joy and its myriad manifestations in Black figurative painting as a way of celebrating how we see ourselves as Black people. We didn’t want to make colonialism or whiteness the center of our stories. We wanted to show how narratives can shift when we tell them on our own terms.
START: The exhibition consists of works by over 150 artists from the past century. What was the criteria followed in selecting the particular paintings that are hanging in this exhibition and why?
TANDAZANI: We spent about two dedicated focused years of research working on When We See Us but of course we were thinking about artistic lineages and different pedagogies from the continent for a very long time prior to that. So as we begun to finalize the concept, we realized that we wanted to focus on four different aspects.
One was painting. We wanted to look at the medium of painting because when we first started thinking about figuration, we had many different artists, some had paintings but then they were better known for their drawing or for their print making so we eventually decided to focus on artists who are predominantly painters. We wanted to look at the medium of painting because wherever human beings have existed, since the beginning of time, there has been painting. If you look at prehistoric cave paintings, this is proof that for whatever reason, human beings have always wanted leave a mark or express themselves through paint. So we just thought it was a beautiful medium that a lot of people could find accessible and would be curious about.
Another focus was Blackness. We looked at artists who self-identify as Black. Now we know that the term Black is nuanced and connotes different things in different spaces. For instance the term Black or Coloured in South Africa doesn’t necessarily carry the same implications as it does in the Caribbean, or the USA, nor is it the same as in Sudan. So we proposed to look at a wide range of artists broadly making self-reflexive work about the Black experience.
The other aspect was the time-frame of the last 100 years. We chose to focus on artworks either made in the last 100 years or artworks by artists who were alive in the last 100 years. For example the oldest artist in the exhibition, African American artist Clementine Hunter was born in 1886, and the youngest artist, Zandile Tshabalala was born in 1999. So, the last 100 years was very important for us in order to be able to highlight the historical continuum of Black figuration.
Lastly, the focus on portraiture and figuration that centered Black consciousness and Black subjectivities. We were interested in artists who were painting the body in a self-reflexive way. There were so many artists and art movements we were looking at, and we decided early on that the show would not be representational, but rather evocative of the key contributions to the art historical canon by Black artists. Because this was a very ambitious project, we did lean on peers across the continent and the African diaspora. We had countless Zoom, and occasional in person meetings with other curators and scholars on the continent and in the diaspora and had many fruitful and informative engagements as part of our research.
This was especially helpful for regions where information was scarce. Through this process, it was great to see how certain schools or centers kept on being referenced by different people. So for instance, when we were looking at Haiti, Le Centre d’Art was a very important art school from which emerged many great Haitian artists. We looked at Makerere University in Uganda, an art school that influenced artists both within and beyond East Africa, we looked at the BAT Workshop School in Zimbabwe, KNUST in Ghana, and many more. So we basically looked at who and what type of expression is coming out of these schools. We also looked at collectives, the Triangle Network exchanges and the Mbari Clubs. There were so many research strands.
Then of course as time went on, we had certain logistical parameters that also helped us to refine our artist list. For instance, the exhibition occupies 950 square meters of space. So you are restricted to a certain amount of work. Interestingly, the older historical works tend to be smaller whereas the more contemporary works are larger.
The final step involved finding out where all of the artworks we wanted in the exhibition were located and figuring out whom they belonged to. The immediate aftermath of the COVID -19 pandemic and other global events made getting the works to Cape Town very complicated. We are so grateful that most lenders responded very positively, and the 75 who loaned us works were incredibly supportive right from the start as well.
Of course, there were some key artists we had all been thinking about right from the beginning, for example Names like Mickalene Thomas and Jacob Lawrence, from the USA, Malangatana Ngwenya from Mozambique, Helen Sebidi from South Africa, Moke from DRC, Sungi Mlengeya from Tanzania, to name a few. There were also underrepresented periods, eras and styles that we knew we had to include and built our research from this.
START: What interesting discoveries did you make while on this quest?
TANDAZANI: We wanted to show care in our process of curating When We See Us because, in as much as there have been many phenomenal exhibitions that centered Blackness, there’s also been a lot curatorial laziness that contributed to the perpetuation of harmful tropes.
I know what you mean by the term ‘discoveries’ but in the context of an exhibition around Blackness, I want to caution against that word. I guess I wouldn’t use the word discover, because for a long time that’s what white people coming to Africa would think they were doing. They would, “discover” us even though we knew ourselves and had known ourselves since the beginning of time. Perhaps for now we can talk about learnings, reflections and insights.
Our research process was very collaborative, and we created spaces for knowledge sharing. I was very excited by the knowledge sharing that took place amongst my peers and colleagues on the continent and beyond and the myriad connections they highlighted through conversation. What was really interesting for me were the anecdotal or unexpected stories that emerged. For instance, to find out that Ben Enwonwu, a Nigerian artist spent time with Gerard Sekoto who was a South African artist in exile in Paris was exciting because, one wouldn’t otherwise think that these artists ever met since one was based in Nigeria and the other had just left Apartheid South Africa. Nonetheless, Ben Enwonwu and Gerard Sekoto met in Paris and they briefly shared a studio. Now I don’t know if they shared the studio for one week or one month, but they were in touch and they were both really prolific painters. There are stories about Jacob Lawrence spending time in Nigeria and Kingsely Sambo showing next to Malangatana in colonial Zimbabwe at the International Congress of African Culture held in 1962 in Harare. A moment where Black artists were included in an exhibition at the National Gallery of Rhodesia and for the first time as though they were presented as equal alongside white artists, an occurrence that was considered very rare at the time. A couple of years later, a civil war broke out.
There were so many stories of fascinating things, some of which we didn’t have time to go into depth. We consequently decided to compile a timeline of our research in the actual exhibition space. It will be included in the second When We See Us publication which will be more like a reader. The timeline shows you for example when the Harlem Renaissance happened, when the Haitian revolution took place, the different waves of Independence and when the first Revue Noire was published. It tells you when the NSSUKA School was founded, Raw Material Company or Savvy Contemporary was opened, when the first Kampala Art Biennale happened, that sort of thing. This is because we can’t look at these paintings in isolation, we have to think about their socio-political and economic histories, we have to think about the many ways people have contributed to the art historical canon.
I always like to say that this exhibition is not a sanitization of history. We are not trying to say, oh forget everything and just focus on happiness in a reductive way. We all know the horrible histories that have happened, and we are very aware of the current injustices as well but, we wanted to emphasize other ways of looking at Black subjectivities. For example, there’s a painting by Esiri Erheriene-Essi of Steve Biko at a birthday party which is inspired by an archival photograph. We see Steve Biko at a celebration having fun, however Steve Biko being the architect of the Black Consciousness Movement, we usually associate him with images of trauma, protest and struggle. Erheriene-Essi’s painting is a reminder that even though our histories are riddled with pain, there also moments of joy, relaxation, excitement, contemplation and the like. Historically, Black people have made images of themselves going to the cinema, falling in love, holding hands, praying, sitting, reading, and thinking. We are trying to say that our Black history is not just about struggle, turmoil and fighting, there is so much more. So that’s what the show attempts to do. Arguably, joy and depictions of daily life, are in themselves subtle forms of protest, because they resist centralizing trauma.
START: “When we see us,” is notably the first exhibition of its kind and scale happening on the continent. What would you say were the main challenges the project presented to you and the team during the development stages and how did you manoeuvre them?
TANDAZANI: I’d say one challenge early on was the depth of research and the limited amount of space and time we had. How we solved that as I mentioned before was, we decided to lean on our colleagues on the continent and in the African diaspora. So for instance at some point, we found it easy to get information about living artists but there was a big gap around works from certain regions from the 40s and 50s. However with the help of so many colleagues we managed to obtain information.
I think the other challenge was a logistical one. When We See Us opened a little while after the pandemic had ended. However, though things had sort of started to settle, people tend to forget that there was a backlog in shipping around the world because of COVID and so the logistics became very complicated. By God’s grace, the artworks from overseas all arrived on time. However, we were very nervous but thankfully we managed to overcome these challenges.
START: Some artists live on the continent while others live outside the continent. In your opinion, what do you think is the geographical effect on the work they produce?
TANDAZANI: So, one of the things we started to see or think about very early on with the development of When We See US was the idea of multiplicity. We were interested in and wanted to show a multiplicity of Blackness, and multiple styles of painting. So we wanted to counter the homogenising of the medium and the homogenising of the Black experience. I always talk about Black histories (plural) and when I talk about the Black experience, it’s multiple experiences. For example what a Black person experiences living in Cape Town today is very different from a Black person in the London or in Rio or Lome. And then, even within the same regions, inter generationally there are nuances as well. The reason why am telling you that before I answer your question more directly is that I think for many Black artists and art practitioners practising today, we are what Taiye Selasi and Achille Mbembe called Afripolitan. We all have a multiplicity of some sort. I am a Zimbabwean curator working in South Africa and it doesn’t make me more or less Zimbabwean. When I briefly lived in the UK, I wasn’t less African than those on the continent, nor did it make my Black experience more or less.
So, I try and avoid creating a dichotomy based on geography because once you create a dichotomy between those on the continent and those off the continent, you risk bringing up questions about authenticity, essentialism thus making the conversation very reductive, which is what some of those who have written about us in the past have done. I don’t want to flatten the conversation, but rather, I am interested in interrogating its complexities, tensions and contradictions. With that said, I am aware that location or geography, can have a real impact on access to certain types of markets, knowledge production systems and the like. Hence, different artists may respond to their contexts in particular ways.
START: Do you believe that the rise in the Black Lives Matter and similar movements has perhaps influenced the narrative of Black figuration in art today?
TANDAZANI: Yes and I think we try and address this in the When We See Us timeline which is in the exhibition. So even though the themes of the exhibition are the everyday, joy and spirituality, etc, when you actually look at the paintings and think of the times in which they were created, one can’t help but think of Black lives matter and the movements that preceded it. Then you look at some of the works coming from the 60s, you can’t help but think of the Civil Rights movement or the Anti-Apartheid Movement or the Negritude Movement, or the Pan African movement, or Black Power movements.
Furthermore, there’s a specific kind of aesthetic or way of painting that came with the waves of independence from different countries. We definitely saw that with photography whereby the photography studio became a space to capture the ambition, desire, hope, aspiration of the moment through portraiture. To a certain extent, in some instances, similar things happened in painting. All the paintings in the show are evocative of all of these key moments in Black history. Our When We See Us timeline starts with the Haitian revolution of 1804. Haiti was the first Black majority country to gain independence. I believe you can’t separate the politics from the painting but what we try to do is show how multifaceted Black subjectivity is. Let’s not reduce ourselves to toil, struggle and pain.
So, I definitely don’t want to be too reductive and say the reason why there is Black figuration today is because of the Black Lives Matter movement. Ben Enwonwu’s works from the 50s, Ablade Glover’s work from the 80s, Clementine Hunter’s work from the 40s or Horace’s Pippin work from the 30s all came before Black Lives Matter. So, for me just as much as the painting is a part of a historical continuum, the conversation about Blackness today is also part of a historical continuum and we are hoping that people can see that they’re interconnected.
START: What activities are you doing with reference to this exhibition visa vie your education program?
TANDAZANI: Before the exhibition opened, we started a When We See US Webinar Series which was conceived in collaboration with HUMA – Institute for Humanities in Africa, at the University of Cape Town Through this Webinar series, we have been looking at the theoretical discourse that emerges around race, politics, power, gender, art history and the medium of painting. We wanted to have a platform where we could really unpack the many different aspects that emanate from the exhibition. The series that started in March 2022 will continue throughout the run of the exhibition with some of the proceedings contributing towards our second publication that we will launch in the near future. We’ve had some amazing thinkers contribute to the series thus far, the likes of Thelma Golden, Felwin Sarr, Yuderkys Espinosa-Miñoso and so many more while making sure it was all online to make it accessible.
Since the exhibition opened in November 2022, we’ve also started in-person public programming where we have talks in the museum, some being artist talks where some of the artists in the exhibition get to talk more about their work and what their thinking was or about their work in relation to some of the themes in the exhibition. We have had a panel discussion with key collectors who lent us work in the exhibition where they talked about why they collect Black art and why patronage is important.
The exhibition is accompanied by a sonic translation, so as you move through When We See Us, you will hear different music responding to the six themes. We worked with local jazz musician Neo Muyanga, to come up with a playlist for the different themes in the exhibition. So we actually plan on having a listening session or sonic lecture with him where people can actually have a deeper engagement.
Zeitz MOCAA has special programming for members. Our members support the museum by paying an annual fee and as our way of thanking them, we have members-only activities. So for instance recently they got to hear from the local architecture firm, Wolf Architects, about how we collaborated on the scenography of the show.
We have a free daily tour for adults. When it comes to youths or school going children, we are working with local schools, art and music centres for different types of engagement. We are working with the teachers in the Western Cape Province in creating exhibition related learning aids that can be utilised in the classroom. Zeitz MOCAA has always been very involved with the Western Cape Education Department. We have holiday workshops, family learning programmes. So basically, families come on the weekends once a month they can go down to the Centre for Art Education and creatively respond to the exhibition together as a family.
As you can see Zeitz MOCAA aims to cater to different audiences, and so some programs are very academic for example for the webinars, while others are lighter forms of family entertainment. The whole aim is that people from all walks of like can see themselves represented in the institution.
START: Provision of access to an art collection by the public is one of Zeitz MOCAA’s core objectives. How are you making the exhibition and museum as a whole more accessible to less likely audiences or communities that are not the usual typical art audience?
TANDAZANI: This is indeed at the core of who we are as Zeitz MOCAA there are so many ways we are trying to achieve access for all. One of them is by creating a mobile museum whereby for those who can’t come to the museum, Zeitz MOCAA can go to them. The mobile museum is literally, Zeitz MOCAA on wheels. Unfortunately because of the fragility of the art works, we wouldn’t necessarily take the actual artworks in When We See Us outside of the museum because there are all these contracts involved and for the safety of the works (laughing). However we can take out a film about the work or a film about certain artists. We can show slides, reproductions, books, have listening and making sessions etc. Because of the history of Southern Africa, it is absolutely essential to do everything we can to break the economic, historical and psychological barriers to art and culture that still exist today.
Thankfully, we are located near the CBD of Cape Town, so we are central, and near many bus routes.
Another way we are making art more accessible is having a free day. So, Wednesday is known as our Africa Wednesday, where any African citizen can come to the museum for free, all you need is an African passport or South African ID. We do have student and pensioner memberships as well. So basically, for a discounted price you can pay for the whole year and you can visit the museum 360 days a year! Under 18’s come for free all year round too. Access for all is one of those goals that takes a lot of time to achieve but we’re really striving to do as much as we can with the communities around us.
START: In your opinion, why is it important for Black people or Black collectors on the continent to collect Black art?
TANDAZANI: That’s a great question. For one of the public programs we had in April 2023, we actually asked the collectors who loaned work for When We See Us that same question and we had a two-hour conversation about it. I think it’s an important question. We need more Black collectors on the continent. We need to collect ourselves because what has happened in the past is that when some artists have gained international acclaim, and a curator/researcher wants to access their work, we have had to look to Europe or to the US to access their work. This is slowly changing because more African collectors are collecting Black or African art. Of course, we want artists to eat and it’s amazing that their work is in collections all over the world, we celebrate this! However, I shouldn’t have to leave the continent to see works by African artists, and this is why we need to continue to foster art patronage on the continent.
Coutinho. K. Gloria is a contemporary arts and culture writer based in Kampala, Uganda. She is a first class degree graduate from the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine arts, Makerere University in Kampala. She has taken part in the Writing about African Arts workshop with The African Theatre Magazine (2021) and The Art Writing & Criticism Workshop with Goethe Institute Nigeria and Society for Book and Magazine Editors of Nigeria (2022-2023). She is interested in unravelling the everyday-narratives embedded within contemporary arts and culture in Africa with the goal of fronting stories that matter today.
Gloria Currently works as an administrative and curatorial assistant at Afriart Gallery in Kampala. She blogs at www.visionsofglo.blogspot.com