The Biennial Questionnaire: Koyo Kouoh

The curator of EVA International, 16 April – 17 July 2016, answers our questionnaire

By Oliver Basciano

(Foreground) Hera Buyuktasciyan, Destroy your home, Build up a boat, Save life, 2014-15, (background) Mary Evans, Thousands are sailing, 2016. Photo Miriam O’Connor. Courtesy EVA Godfried Donkor, Rebel Madonna Lace Collection (2016), installation shot from EVA International 2016. Photo Miriam O’Connor. Courtesy the artist and EVA Abdoulaye Konate, The Butterflies Series (2016), Installation shot from EVA International 2016. Photo Miriam O’Connor. Courtesy the artist and EVA

Koyo Kouoh is the founding artistic director of RAW Material Company (Dakar) and the curator of EVA International 2016, Ireland’s biennial, which takes place in Limerick City from 16 April through 17 July. This year’s EVA International, titled Still (the) Barbarians, coincides with the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising struggle for Irish independence and takes the post-colonial condition of Ireland as a point of departure – from which participating artists will draw their own interpretations.

ArtReview: How will the centenary of the Easter Rising manifest in the projects and works on show?

Koyo Kouoh: I consider Ireland the first and foremost laboratory of the British colonial enterprise, and many of the artists involved are exploring concerns of postcolonialism from a more global vantage point, rather than engaging with the Easter Rising specifically.

Limerick-based artists Deirdre Power and Softday (the art-science collaboration of artist Sean Taylor and computer scientist Mikael Fernström) have developed a socially engaged project which explicitly contributes to the existing debate related to the legacy and contestations of the 1916 Easter Rising. Through an open competition, members of the public were invited to create a citizens’ anthem that is representative of contemporary Ireland, reflecting on themes such as equal opportunities, liberalism, freedom, welfare, security, and democracy. The winning anthem will be played by two ‘Shannon Ices’ ice-cream vans on 24 April 2016 - marking the exact centenary of the Easter Rising.

Furthermore, Irish artist Jonathan Cummins will present an inter-connected film installation which traces the impact of militant ideological conviction, both on the self and on the family, through a series of conversations with a group of IRA anti–Good Friday Agreement activists and their families. These significant and sensitive films have evolved from Cummins’ work with political prisoners in Portlaoise Prison, the maximum-security prison in County Laois. The conversation begins in prison with When I Leave These Landings (2004–09), continues after the men’s release with Go Home (2010–13), and extends to include the men’s families in Out the Road (2012–15).

Galway-based artists Tom Flanagan and Megs Morley’s non-narrative essay film, A History of Stone, Origin and Myth (2016) also takes the Easter Rising as a key departure point, drawing unlikely connections between the creation of monuments, the material of stone, and the creation of memory and power. The film explores the space between individual memory and national history through the lens of political monuments in Ireland, which relate to the Irish rebellion, the 1916 Easter Rising, and the foundation of the state.

Finally, Belfast-born artist John Waid’s 909125 Minutes Later (2016) is a performance documentation which proposes to delay the sounding of the Angelus Bell by exactly 25 minutes and 21 seconds for the centenary. The Angelus Bell currently sounds at 6.00 p.m. each evening on RTÉ, the national television network of Ireland. The delayed time is to reflect on the fact that Ireland used to have its own time zone, which was changed on 1 October 1916 by English parliamentary decree – by 25 minutes and 21 seconds.

AR: The biennial seeks to find a path beyond the colonial (and indeed the post-colonial subject) it would seem? How affective can art be in reaching for political effectiveness? Are there limits?

KK: I have found that postcolonialism is not a discourse that is particularly present in Ireland; of all the territories that have been dominated by the British colonial enterprise, Ireland has been the one longest occupied and yet, at the same time, doesn’t want to really consider itself a postcolonial territory. This certainly has something to do with the fact that Ireland is geographically located in Europe, and Europeans have been educated to believe that colonies were elsewhere but in Europe. In addition Irish men and women have participated in the British colonial enterprise. I believe that it is not art’s role nor does it in fact have the power for political effectiveness in a broad and sustainable sense. However, just by asking artists to explore these concerns within this setting, we have already exposed and reignited an important political reflection. EVA’s challenging and discursive artistic programme compels individuals to join in this important discourse surrounding post-colonial effects, and how they continue to shape their present condition.

As a curator I have always believed that my work could be integral to implementing change and pushing political boundaries, I am not overly concerned with limitations. I have sometimes been told in the past that my projects are too political, but I have always taken this as a compliment - it means that my work is provoking something.

AR: Where does the title come from? Who are the barbarians? Are the barbarians positive?

KK: The title refers to the Greek poem, Waiting for Barbarians by CP Cavafy, which depicts the inhabitants of an un-named city-state awaiting the arrival of ‘the barbarians’. Both the title and theme invite artists to enlarge their imagination, to take an idea and to run with it; it could be positive or negative.

AR: Decolonialisation – does this draw from Walter Mignolo?

None of the works included in the Biennial directly draw from Mignolo, but he is an important voice in the discourse surrounding concepts of modernity, coloniality, de-coloniality and de-linking.

AR: What role does Liam Gillick's project play in the biennial?

KK: Gillick’s work for the biennial appropriates the structure of the film festival and is embedded in the very Irish tradition of poetry and orality. Located in a pub, the venue conforms to certain conditions: a place of conviviality and storytelling, of meeting, of drinking, a place where it would not be surprising if someone were to stand up and speak. The programme comprises a series of films chosen by the artist, curator, and participants in the work. The films are announced and listed in a manner typical of established film festivals – using posters and a small brochure – but no indication is given of the order in which they will appear. The films are simply announced as a raw list to be ‘shown’ for the duration of the ‘festival’. At the stated times, the venue becomes a space of cinematic potential. Participants take turns at a microphone and relate the premise – either from memory or from written notes – of their chosen film.

For more on EVA International 2016 see here.

Online exclusive published on 15 April 2016.