From the archive: Gabi Ngcobo talks to Tom Eccles

ArtReview looks back on an interview with the South African curator, curating this year’s Berlin Biennale – from the September 2013 issue

By Tom Eccles

Gabi Ngcobo. Photo: Masimba Sasa. Courtesy 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art


Editor’s note: Gabi Ngcobo is the curator of the 10th Berlin Biennale: We don’t need another hero, open through 9 September 2018 across various venues in Berlin. She is also a founding member of the Johannesburg-based collaborative platforms NGO – Nothing Gets Organised, and has curated multiple exhibitions and major art events both in South Africa and internationally, including the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo (cocurated, 2016), and A Labour of Love (2015) at Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt am Main.

At the time of the interview (published in the September 2013 issue of ArtReview), Ngcobo had just opened an exhibition resulting from her research as the first POOL curatorial fellow, set up by LUMA Foundation, and was running the Center for Historical Reenactment (CHR), a Johannesburg-based independent platform which she cofounded (2010–2014), and whose main mission – to look at history in order to investigate how certain values have been created, promoted and subsequently assimilated into a broader universal discourse – still informs her curatorial approach today, notably this year's Berlin Biennale.  

Tom Eccles has been executive director at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College since 2005.


ArtReview When did you first consider curating?

Gabi Ngcobo For me curating was not so much a consideration, it was fated, perhaps by the political circumstances of the time (post- 1994), which fuelled us with organising impulses geared at righting the wrongs or at showing other sides of a story. I considered myself a curator, albeit sceptically, when I began to name and to find a home for those impulses.

AR So, what was the first project you ‘curated’? What was the situation at the time? What were the impulses, what wrongs were being righted?

GN I would have to say the Masked/Unmasked project, ‘curated’ in 2000 as part of the 3rd Eye Vision collective, which operated from a house we occupied in Durban between 1999 and 2003. It featured artists from Durban who felt unrepresented by local institutions – black artists. Our goal was to activate [Frantz] Fanon’s statement from the ‘The Fact of Blackness’ (1952): ‘Since the other hesitated to recognise me, there remained only one solution: to make myself known.’

AR Fanon also said: ‘Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it.’ Now, after more than a decade of curating and organising, how has your ‘mission’ evolved, if at all? In some ways you seem to have maintained a very focused approach, with a real belief in the potential for art as a political and social force. After studying in the United States, you returned to South Africa and founded the Center for Historical Reenactments in Johannesburg. It explores ‘how artistic production helps us to deconstruct particular readings of history and how historical context informs artistic creation… How art can help us reinterpret history and its contextual implications and how it can add and suggest different historical readings and help in the formation of new subjectivities.’ It sounds very ‘Fanonesque’. How do the projects manifest themselves and how do you judge their effectiveness?

GN I think I belong to a generation that is never satisfied with ‘how things are’. Sometimes there is a need to fulfil and then betray the mission. These tensions are necessary. Coconceptualising and then cofounding CHR during and after my studies at Bard College was the only way I could imagine a reentry into the South African cultural space, and I was fortunate to find myself working with two artists I have great respect for – Donna Kukama and Kemang Wa Lehulere. For two years the CHR space functioned as a collective experiment or a rehearsal of the kind of creative gestures we were interested in seeing happen around us. We are not so much into filling voids – that would be dangerously presumptuous. Our mission is rather to find alternative strategies that point towards those voids and then search for a grammar of inhabiting the emptied and ‘ghosted’ spaces. In December 2012 we staged an institutional ‘suicide’ with an event titled We are absolutely ending this, which in a way can be viewed as a betrayal of the mission. For us it is also an opportunity to rewrite the mission statement as a desire for an existence that haunts obsolete systems that continue to condition present life. With our projects we strive for an approach that allows for a judgement biased towards the affective before the effective. There are no shortages of ‘audiences’ in Joburg.

CHR is not so much into filling voids – that would be dangerously presumptuous. Our mission is rather to find alternative strategies that point towards those voids and then search for a grammar of inhabiting the emptied and ‘ghosted’ spaces

There were audience-orientated questions that were critical during the early years, shortly after the transition from apartheid in 1994, especially those that were activated by the two versions that were to be the first and last Johannesburg biennales, in 1995 and 1997 respectively. For example, the question directed by the critics and media at the second biennale – who was it for? – remains relevant. Indeed, the question begs for a re-posing, a rearticulation and a reversal. Experiences and relationships we wish to have with this question are those that are skewed; that is, they need not look at the obvious but rather at what the obvious obscures. Our projects are meant for us, collectively and in our individual practices as well as the people and institutions we have collaborated with thus far. The South African (artistic) landscape remains uneven and characterised by hierarchies. The national project of commemoration for example is fraught with hierarchies that are also linked to other political imbalances, especially – but not limited to – the economies of gender, race and sexual freedoms. What is experienced when one walks into our projects is an attitude to art that is focused on a kind of knowledge activation not far removed from tensions, contradictions, misunderstandings and spaces of mutual recognition experienced every day.

AR The Johannesburg Biennale was sadly short-lived, with only two iterations (the first directed by Lorna Ferguson, the second by Okwui Enwezor). Have you and your colleagues considered resuscitating the idea in some form? Recently you headed up the ‘Incubator for a pan-African Biennale task-force’, a yearlong project arranged to facilitate the articulation of critical positions regarding the notion of a Pan-African Biennial. What conclusions did you come to?

GN The Johannesburg Biennale is a spectre that haunts CHR the most. Through our projects we have searched for various forms to help us identify some of the biennale’s achievements that were overlooked or perhaps needed more time to process. The second version of the biennale, Trade Routes: History and Geography, remains one of the most important biennials of the 1990s. It is remembered and evoked by many wherever we go. Its questions, which remain relevant, follow us like a memory of a disappeared relative – not dead but not alive. For example, our long-term Xenoglossia research project and Xenoglossia exhibition, which just opened in Johannesburg [at GoetheonMain], directly departs from Julia Kristeva’s essay (and question) featured in the JB catalogue: ‘By What Right Are You a Foreigner?’ The research project was a platform to search for the contradictions and misunderstandings occurring within languages; the mistranslations and the untranslatable. The exhibition makes space for these questions and contradictions to happen within its space in order to pose questions about the often-overlooked estranging quality of exhibitions and their grammars in the context of Johannesburg. With the Incubator for a pan-African Biennale we had the answers before we knew the questions; we knew that we do not need another kind of biennale because the artistic spaces in various African centres – from Dakar to Rabat, Maputo to Alexandria, Johannesburg to Nairobi, etc – were again at their most exciting moments. The continental scene was already taking on a form rooted in the need to provide itself with resources that would sustain its most urgent questions and build an environment where art can grow beyond nationalistic agendas. In 2012, Raw Material Company in Dakar hosted the symposium ‘Condition Report’ on building art institutions in Africa; for those of us who were involved in the Incubator, this, as its title suggests, was a platform for evaluating the founding principles of independent organisations that had emerged in the continent in recent years. The symposium confirmed what we already knew: we ‘desired’ what we already had.

AR Most recently you organised the inaugural exhibition for the POOL project at LUMA /Westbau in Zurich. The exhibition, Some a little sooner, some a little later… drew on works from the collections of Maja Hoffmann and Michael Ringier. It was a beautifully poetic and quite subtly (surprisingly) political show. How would you describe working within this context alongside the Kunsthalle Zurich and with the incredible resources available? What role do you see for private collections in the public sphere?

 I find myself drawn to artists who are able to make sense of tensions occurring within the scene of translation, especially what is ‘lost’ in translation

GN I regard the title of the exhibition as one that emphasises a performative gesture. With this title I also wanted to recognise the idea of the ‘pilot’ as one rooted in the desire for continuity. The POOL project is a visionary project, it recognises a critical gap within post-curatorial training and attempts to find the right questions to ask and the right tools to ask those questions. I see it as an initiative that seeks to prevent important ‘things’ (objects, moments, ideas and their articulations) from disappearing into oblivion. Obviously the Western context as well as the collections contain many exciting moments of Western art and art shown within Western frameworks. The most important resource given to me was the freedom and trust to work with the two collections and to find myself within them. By this I mean I was conscious of not leaving myself behind but rather of finding a narrative that would allow me to articulate things from my perspective while staying close to the artists’ intentions and showing future potentialities of the work. With the POOL initiative, privately collected art is allowed a chance to locate its unending potentialities. Hopefully the initiative can also afford a space for private collections to identify ways of diversifying their collections.

AR If you were to give advice on how to approach collecting African artists, what would you say?

GN I would politely decline to give such advice.

AR Maybe a different question is better: what advice would you give an artist in South Africa thinking about locating their work within a global (maybe Western) context?

GN Many artists and creative people working in South Africa right now are engaged in a battle scene of translations; an impossible necessity with a vast stage and limited (if not limiting) resources. The scene is fuelled by the fact that, as a nation, we have been able to manifest many ways (both noble and questionable) of keeping the ‘world’s’ eyes on us. I find myself drawn to artists who are able to make sense of tensions occurring within the scene of translation, especially what is ‘lost’ in translation. My advice to artists would be to remain true to themselves, critical of the spectacle and sensible to the larger world with whatever means are available to them. 

From the September 2013 issue of ArtReview