Top 10

Photobooks of 2020

Selected by Alex Merola and Tim Clark

An annual tribute to some of the exceptional photobook releases from the tumultuous year that was 2020 – selected by Editor in Chief, Tim Clark, with words from Assistant Editor, Alex Merola.

1. Andy Sewell, Known and Strange Things Pass
Skinnerboox

Readers of 1000 Words will recall last year’s feature on Known and Strange Things Pass. Now published in book form by Skinnerboox, Andy Sewell’s meditation on the complex entanglement between technology and contemporary life seems more apposite than ever given the socially-distanced times in which we exist – not to mention the illusory propinquity of screen-based connection. Within a kinetic, non-linear sequence of images that aptly push and pull, ebb and flow, cables – carries of immeasurable quantities of data – weave across the Atlantic Ocean’s bed, and resurface on either side in alien concrete facilities; so rarely seen, these are the material infrastructures that both literally and metaphorically underpin our hyper-connected world. Ambitious, understated and fleeting, Known and Strange Things Pass explores the ways in which the ocean and the Internet speak to each other and speak to us, whilst probing photography’s ability to render visible such unknowable entities, infinitely vaster than we are.

2. Poulomi Basu, Centralia
Dewi Lewis

It has been quite the year for Poulomi Basu, whose docu-fictional book Centralia has earnt the artist the Rencontres d’Arles Louis Roederer Discovery Award Jury Prize, and a place on the shortlist for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2021. Beneath its blood-red, sandpaper-rough cover, Basu takes us through the dense jungles of central India, where a brutal war between the Indian state and Maoist insurgents over land and resources has waged for fifty years, in turn casting light on the woefully-underreported horrors of environmental degradation, indigenous and female rights violations and the state’s suppression of voices of resistance. Embracing a disorientating amalgam of staged photography, crime scenes, police records and first-person testimonies – all punctuated by horizontally-cut pages and loose documents – Centralia traces the contours of a conflict in which half-truths reign over facts. Though not for the faint-hearted, this open-ended account of an ongoing war affords us space to reflect on what we have seen, and to choose what we believe.

3. Buck Ellison, Living Trust
Loose Joints

A worthy winner in the First PhotoBook category for the 2020 Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Awards, Buck Ellison’s Living Trust, published by Loose Joints, requires us to study the visual iconography of privilege as embodied by white, upper-middle class lives – or W.A.S.P. – in the United States. In these carefully constructed and performative photographs, insignia such as wooden cheeseboards, organic vegetables, acupuncture bruises, car stickers, lacrosse gear and even family Christmas card portraits examine how whiteness is exhibited and ultimately sustained through everyday structures, internalised logic and economic prowess. Deftly drawing on the language of advertising and commercial photography, Ellison conjures an uneasy world where the “whiteness project” manifests itself over and over again all the while perpetuating deadly inequality both in material and ideological terms.

4. Antoine d’Agata, VIRUS
Studio Vortex

As the title suggests, this book squares up to our present moment amidst the global health crisis with an unflinching intensity characteristic of the famed Magnum photographer. As soon as Paris entered a lock-down in March, Antoine d’Agata took to the emptied streets with his thermal camera. Here, civilians, medical workers and hospital patients are rendered as spectral, flame-tinged figures that flash across the pages. With temperature the only marker differentiating each pulsating body from the next, d’Agata proffers a haunting yet visceral mood piece laden with an existential dread that is befitting of our times. Beyond the limits of reportage, VIRUS is ultimately borne out of an impulse to get to the heart of things, to make sense of the incomprehensible and to visualise what the naked eye cannot: an invisible enemy, at once everywhere and nowhere. A dystopian masterpiece, these images refuse to be shaken off quickly.

5. Lina Iris Viktor, Some Are Born To Endless Night – Dark Matter
Autograph


Although there is no equivalent experience to witnessing the allure and intricacy of Lina Iris Viktor’s paintings up close, her debut monograph more than makes up for it through its fittingly-regal design. Published to accompany her solo show at Autograph in London earlier in 2020, it takes us into the British-Liberian artist’s singular world, embellished with luminescent golds, ultramarine blues and the deepest of blacks. Drawing from a plethora of representational tropes that range from classical mythology to European portraiture and beyond, Viktor’s practice playfully and provocatively employs her solitary body as a vehicle through which the politics of refusal are staged, and the multivalent notions of blackness – blackness as colour, as material, as socio-political awareness – come to the fore. Some Are Born To Endless Night – Dark Matter is a spelling-binding survey of an artist who is paving the way for new and unruly re-imaginings of black beauty and brilliance.

6. Antoinette de Jong and Robert Knoth, Tree and Soil
Hartmann Books

The intrinsic splendour of the natural world takes centre stage in Antoinette de Jong and Robert Knoth’s first book since their highly-acclaimed Poppy: Trails of Afghan Heroin (2012). Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, the Dutch duo set out on a five-year-long project to examine the devastation wrought on the region’s biosphere. Expertly edited by curator Iris Sikking, Tree and Soil combines photographs depicting nature’s reclaiming of the deserted spaces with repurposed material from the archive of German explorer, Philipp Franz von Siebold, which includes a collection of botanical illustrations, animal specimens and woodblock prints amassed during his trips to Dejima, a Dutch trading post, in the early 19th century. The result is an enigmatic yet radical dialogue between two distinct histories – the post-colonial and the post-nuclear, respectively – which speaks of the hubris of humankind and the value of nature, in the process ruminating on the disturbed relationship between the two.

7. Amani Willett, A Parallel Road
Overlapse

Another book of first-rate investment in narrative forms of photography comes from artist Amani Willett. Chronicling the oft-overlooked history of black Americans road-tripping, A Parallel Road deconstructs the time-worn myth of the ‘American road’ as a site in which freedom, self-discovery and, ultimately, whiteness manifests. The book’s direct point of reference is Victor Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book (1936), a guide which provided newly-roving black road-trippers tips on safe spots to eat, sleep and re-fuel at a time when Jim Crow laws subjected them to heightened oppression, hostility and fear of death. Whilst maintaining the original’s scrapbook details – from hand-held dimensions to sewn binding – Willett has adroitly juxtaposed archival material with photography, media reproductions and Internet screenshots from the present day to lay bare the ongoing realities of systemic racism in the United States. A harrowing yet urgent title in a year in which the dangers posed to black people when out-and-about have been undeniable.

8. Diana Markosian, Santa Barbara
Aperture

In yet another dazzling year for Aperture’s publishing arm, with Justine Kurland’s Girl Pictures and Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph amongst notable releases, perhaps the standout is Diana Markosian’s Santa Barbara. Here, the Armenian-American photographer reimagines her mother’s leap of faith as she abandoned her husband in post-Soviet Russia to start a new life in the United States with her children. Family snapshots, film stills and re-enactments by actors play out alongside a script written by the original screenwriter of the 1980s soap opera Santa Barbara, which, for a generation of regime-weary Russians tuning in through their television sets, embodied the promises of the American dream. For all its experimental edge – rigorously merging fact and fiction – this book retains its deeply intimate take on the themes of migration, memory and personal sacrifice. With the project slated to show at the SFMOMA in early 2021, Markosian’s work continues to enthral audiences.

9. Yukari Chikura, Zaido
Steidl

Also excavating personal histories is Yukari Chikura in this strong contribution to the year’s offerings. Shortly after his sudden passing, Chikura’s father appeared to her from the afterlife, imparting the words: “Go to the village hidden deep in the snow where I lived a long time ago.” Committed to honouring this wish, Chikura embarked on a voyage to the remote, winter-white terrains of north-eastern Japan. The resulting publication documents what she found: Zaido, a good fortune festival dating back to the 8th century. Printed across an exquisite array of papers under the direction of Gerhard Steidl, images imbued with magical realism reveal costumed villagers gathering before shrines and performing sacred dances. Whilst the accompanying ancient map and folkloric parables lend this book an ethnographic feel, there is something more incisive at work too. Intertwining the villagers’ spiritual quests with Chikura’s own journey through the darkness that pervades mourning, Zaido is a tale of collective soul-searching that seamlessly traverses cultures as well as centuries.

10. Raymond Meeks, ciprian honey cathedral
MACK

No annual ‘best of’ book list seems complete without a monograph from skilled book-maker, Raymond Meeks. Characteristically poetic and perceptive, his new release with MACK invites readers into the domestic world shared between he and his wife, Adrianna, during a period in which they were packing up their home. Opening with a flurry of photographs which depict Adrianna asleep, bathing in the soft, early morning light, both the tone of imagery and its rhythms sets forth an experience that is akin to a waking dream. What follows is an intercourse of image and verse that pairs the quiet, quotidian rituals that populate each passing day with topographical observations of a house laid bare: mounted stacks of dishes, cracked walls and overgrown tendrils. Herein lies the melancholic undercurrent which vibrates throughout ciprian honey cathedral, a bittersweet evocation of the things memories cling to, and the things we leave in our wake. ♦

Alex Merola is Assistant Editor at 1000 Words. His writings have appeared in Elephant, Artsy and Photomonitor, and he has worked at Phaidon Press across editorial, marketing and digital departments. 

Tim Clark is Editor in Chief at 1000 Words, and a writer, curator and lecturer at The Institute of Photography, Falmouth UniversityHe lives and works in London.

1000 Words

Curator Conversations

#15 Renée Mussai

Renée Mussai is Senior Curator and Head of Curatorial & Collections at Autograph, London. Mussai has organised numerous exhibitions in Europe, Africa and America, and over the past few years curated a series immersive gallery installations with contemporary artists, including Zanele Muholi’s Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness (2017–present), Lina Iris Viktor’s Some Are Born To Endless Night — Dark Matter (2019–21) and Phoebe Boswell’s The Space Between Things (2018/19). Other previous monographic exhibitions include Aida Silvestri’s Unsterile Clinic (2016), Miss Black & Beautiful (2016), and James Barnor: Ever Young (2010). With Mark Sealy, she has co-curated group and solo exhibitions such as Omar Victor Diop: Liberty/Diaspora (2018), Making Jamaica: Photography from the 1890s (2017), Congo Dialogues – When Harmony Went to Hell (2015), Rotimi Fani-Kayode (2011), and W.E.B. Du Bois: The 1900 Paris Albums (2010). With Bindi Vora, she recently curated Lola Flash: surpassing (2019) and Maxine Walker: untitled (2019).

Research-led curatorial initiatives include multiple iterations of The Missing Chapter – Black Chronicles programmes, including most recently Black Chronicles IV (2018), The African Choir 1891 Re-Imagined (2016-18) and Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits (2017) at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Independent curatorial and editorial projects include the collaborative Women’s Mobile Museum (2018, with Zanele Muholi and the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center) and Glyphs: Acts of Inscription (2013, with Ruti Talmor).

Mussai is a regular guest curator and former fellow at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University; Research Associate at the Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre, University of Johannesburg; Associate Lecturer at University of the Arts London; and part-time PhD candidate in History of Art at University College London where she is completing her doctoral thesis on nineteenth century ‘raced’ portrait photography and contemporary curatorial care. She serves on various awards and steering committees, including Fast Forward: Women in Photography, and publishes and lectures internationally on photography, visual culture and curatorial activism. Her writing has appeared in artist monographs and publications such as Aperture or Nka, and her edited volumes include Lina Iris Viktor: Some Are Born To Endless Night — Dark Matter (2019/20), James Barnor: Ever Young (2015) and Aida Silvestri: Unsterile Clinic/Even This Will Pass (2017).

She is currently working on several forthcoming publications in development, and co-managing a new series of artist commissions entitled Care, Contagion, Community at Autograph.

What is it that attracts you to the exhibition form?

Exhibitions – whether staged inside institutions or as interventions in public realms; monographic, retrospective, thematic etc – appeal to me as locations of enquiry, as situational spaces of discourse, as sites of visual pleasure. I enjoy the collaborative nature of exhibitions, and myriad possibilities they offer… as sensory places for engagement, as experimental laboratories, as zones of reflection and contemplation. They enable us to show/do so many things simultaneously: to create openings where different exchanges can take place, encounters occur, imaginaries manifest, ideas evolve, dialogues emerge, positions take shape.

I think of the exhibition as both proposition, and provocation – as an invitation to enter a conversation – between the artworks on display, the architectures of the space, between artist and curator, between the past and the present, and importantly with and for those who visit, navigate, participate, and affect its modalities. On a practical level, I am attracted to the multiple dramaturgic dimensions the exhibition offers – discursive, textual, spatial and otherwise: the idea of an empty stage to play with, infused with colours, objects, texts – I like the idea of exhibitions as ‘visual essays’ where constellations of words and images, thoughts and objects, co-exist inside these temporary curatorial ecologies.

Exhibition-making for me is a creative, generative ‘doing’ activity – dialogic, and activist at its core… the desire is to create a visceral experience – yet one that is at once emotional, intellectual, political, personal, sensual – that is felt in the body and the mind, and hopefully, proves restorative and transformative for/to some… encourages different ways of seeing, thinking, and being – even if only temporary – and invites us to reflect and think critically about our core values, the changing worlds we live in, the historical conditions that have shaped us… and to imagine possible futures and different modes of futurity.

And crucially, as sites of evidence, exhibitions enable us to showcase the work of visionary – and often underrepresented – artists and foreground artistic voices still too often marginalised within the art “world”… to advocate for those forged into/from various registers of difference,  working at the intersection of race, class, gender and sexuality – in my case especially female, and non-binary/queer artists of colour from the African diaspora who use their practice to raise awareness to socio-cultural thematics, including conceptual artists-activists such as Zanele Muholi, Lola Flash, Aida Silvestri, Phoebe Boswell or Lina Iris Viktor.

So, the exhibition can be a space of refuge, offering both critique and hope: I see the making of exhibitions, and curating as a praxis, as a form of resistance – and insistence – an opportunity to ‘practice refusal’: to stage a disruption of the traditional white cube space – and deluminate its metaphorical and literal whiteness. I am interested in the communion between art and activism – its disrupting power, if you will – and in the transformation and activation of space(s): painting gallery walls black, for instance, is a favourite curatorial gesture/pleasure … especially inside mainstream institutions!

What does it mean to be a curator in an age of image and information excess? 

This depends entirely on what we understand by/as excess, and what kinds of images and information we feel exist in surplus? I would say, in response, that this is ultimately a question of perspective. What constitutes too much, and not enough? Too little or too many images of which kind – still too many afro-pessimist images yet still not enough afro-futurist images, for instance? Do we really see enough images of non-white people in positions of power or moments of leisure? Too many images of people of colour suffering, of black and brown and queer bodies under duress circulated without care? Do we have enough images and information to make us see the urgency of climate crises unfolding? What about indigenous image archives? Where is the excess when it comes to images by people from the majority world in global picture libraries?

For me, working as a curator in the decolonial mode means to continuously question both excess and lack in relation to images and their affective registers. It means to continuously look out for blind spots, and trace proverbial ‘black holes’ in existing image repertoires – searching for ‘missing’ images within information excess marked by notions power and privilege. We know that the photographic archive/history of photography – both past and present – is full of omissions, gaps and misrepresentations. What type of information and imagery continues to be buried? Who remains invisible, in this ‘age of image and information excess’? Who produces the critical context of these images? Who controls the flow of information and image?

In other words – as I contemplate your question, I am deeply immersed in ongoing research into Victorian image repertoires and the recovery of photographs of black figures in nineteenth century Britain – part of our critical curatorial labour to activate the archive as a radical locus for knowledge production and diasporic visibility. Until very recently, both information and images on this topic were scarce – with hundreds of images ‘lost’ in the archive for decades – remediated only now by the long-term curatorial research initiated by Autograph under the the Black Chronicles – The Missing Chapter rubric, a programme that began in 2013 and continues today with forthcoming publications in progress.

Thus the location and implication of image/information excess is a critical and complex question to answer – especially when viewed through the lens of cultural politics of race + representation. It is also one intimately linked to the notion of ‘whose eyes’ – who is producing, curating and excavating our image and information archives? Who is looking? Who is affecting – and affected by – these oftentimes raced, classed and gendered optics through which both excess is constituted and lack maintained, and wherein certain images remain fugitive?

What is the most invaluable skill required for a curator?

In many ways curators, one could argue, are perpetual/involuntary professional shape-shifters, so perhaps the only skill truly invaluable might be the ability to adapt and combine different competencies… although the capacity to develop additional tentacles to better multi-task and problem-solve would be really helpful, too!

Critical thinking, writing and organising skills are important in my view – the ability to think differently – and transnationally, sensitively, curiously, inclusively, patiently, collaboratively and dialogically – to think with rather than about – and to think diagonally as well as non-hierarchically: curators tend to fulfil different roles, often simultaneously, operating in several occupational zones comprised of fragments from a range of hyphenated ‘curatorial’ identities: fundraiser–salesperson–gallerist–organiser–registrar–researcher–archivist–commissioner–writer–critic–editor–publisher–lecturer–educator–strategist–activist–educator–translator–designer, etc. A lot of the time we are administrators and project managers… at other times, some sort of curatorial agent-obstetrician – tasked with the birthing of partnerships, representation of artists and delivery of projects.

Since a majority of curatorial efforts, especially large-scale exhibitions, are joint operations with many collaborators and co-conspirators, being able to work collaboratively with people is key – the ability to connect, communicate and build caring relationships with others, especially with artists, first and foremost – but also with the many other stakeholders involved: colleagues, gallerists, designers, printers, framers, installers, technicians – as well funders, collectors, patrons, etc – and of course with audiences, for whom the work is staged.

What was your route into curating?

I have been fortunate to develop my curatorial practice within the trajectory of a unique, flexible, multifaceted small arts organisation with a strong mission – advocating for photography, film and lens-based media that addresses cultural politics of rights, race, and representation – and with the support of committed colleagues with enlightened curatorial visions.

I joined Autograph (led by director Mark Sealy who is also a very accomplished curator and writer) almost two decades ago, when I was in my early twenties, and an undergraduate student studying photography at the University of the Arts London. This long-term, sustained organisational/institutional affiliation has been deeply rewarding… I initially worked across different areas – including education, print sales and artist liaison, with job titles ranging from researcher to archive project manager and eventually curator. I also spent my formative curatorial years at Autograph working inside our permanent collection of photography: collections and archives are wonderful – and often underrated – sites for any fledgling curator to acquire invaluable skills and knowledges; absolutely crucial in my view as spaces to help formulate thoughts, practice curiosity, and explore ideas for future exhibitions, or publications. My first big curatorial project, a retrospective of James Barnor, and later exhibitions such as Miss Black & Beautiful – were born out of early curatorial archive and collection work.

And, because Autograph operates internationally through an agency model based on partnerships with peer organisations, I’ve learned a lot from working in a guest curatorial capacity within different spaces and institutional structures, both ideologically and geographically. As gallery, publisher, and commissioning body, we have over the years placed great emphasis on developing a space of making, and working closely with artists has been, and continues to be, the greatest privilege. Much of my curatorial work is developed through in-depth dialogue and exchange with artists, often over long periods of time. We have just launched an exciting new series of artist commissions at Autograph entitled ‘care – contagion – communion: self & other’, in response to the wider context and implications of Covid-19.

My route into curating is also a story of migration in reverse: my educational background is both academic and practice-based, having trained as an artist for five years, after studying combined humanities at the University of Vienna – history of art, film studies, theatre science, and philosophy. Curating offered a way to bring these various areas of interest together, and engage in visual politics as creative practitioner, scholar and facilitator, while also developing my writing and teaching practice.

What is the most memorable exhibition that you’ve visited?

The most memorable exhibition? Perhaps Alfredo Jaar’s The Sound of Silence, which I first saw at Fabrica as part of the Brighton Photo Biennial in 2006, an ingenious installation which features only one single photographic image visible for a matter of seconds… the critical questions the exhibition posed – about the limits of representation, the failure of photography, the psycho-social and political implications of the documentary genre, the precarity of human rights and our responsibility as image makers, image takers and image consumers – have stayed with me palpably ever since.

I often return to the Walther Collection’s inaugural exhibition Events of the Self: Portraiture and Social Identity curated by the late Okwui Enwezor whose pioneering curatorial vision placed the work of celebrated African and German portrait photographers – such as August Sander and Seydou Keïta – in close dialogue with one another. It opened up a discursive dialogue across different geographies, modernities and temporalities, while inadvertently questioning how canons are made/maintained, and photographic traditions constituted as separate rather than parallel and intimately entwined histories.

A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965 – 2016, Adrian Piper’s retrospective at MoMA was infinitely memorable: an incredibly rich unpacking of fifty years of conceptual art practice, and a truly generous curatorial offering. A beautiful gift of a show… even reproductions of Piper’s seminal Calling Cards were freely available to visitors as printed tools to confront recurrent acts of racism and sexism many of us experience regularly: as relevant now as they were when Piper first produced them in the 1980s and 90s.

An exhibition I often wish I had seen is Like A Virgin organised by the late Bisi Silva at her Center for Contemporary Art in Lagos, Nigeria in 2007. Bisi was a wonderful curator of contemporary African art and photography – and this was a courageous and bold exhibition to curate about African women’s radical sexualities in a place that does not openly welcome such dialogues (LGTBQIA+ politics on the African continent are still deeply precarious and living is dangerous for those who advocate for freedom of expression and equality). I have spent so much time talking, thinking and imagining this show, that it somehow feels ‘memorable’ although I haven’t actually seen it. 

What constitutes curatorial responsibility in the context within which you work?

To me, curatorial responsibility is intimately linked to the notion of curatorial care – curating as a praxis of care. Etymologically, curate derives from the Latin cura/curare, meaning ‘care/to care’. In the context of my own curatorial praxis/practice – and in the wider context within which we work collectively at Autograph – curating is tied not only to ideas around the ethics of care, but also the notion of repair: a remedial doing and undoing, a continuous addressing and redressing, a suturing of broken archaeologies, an offering of an alternate (curatorial) ‘otherwise’.

I think of this affective cultural labour as remedial curatorial care work – a feminist, activist, decolonial kind of antidote and embrace… which also reflects the critical thinking of black feminist scholarship (from Audre Lorde to Hortense Spillers to Saidiya Hartman, and others) and, in particular, the sentiment the brilliant scholar Christina Sharpe posits as critical wake work in her beautiful mediation In the Wake, On Blackness and Being. I am currently developing these ideas further, in my ongoing writing/thinking for a series of essays and chapters in progress – hence reflecting deeply on the question of curatorial responsibility, and how to make a difference.

Within this ecology of curatorial care, our responsibility is first and foremost to the artists – and the work entrusted to us, and then, if appropriate, to the archive, as well as to our audiences: to operate ethically with integrity, sensitivity, and respect, while opening doors, and – where possible – break down barriers of access. As both praxis, and process, this remedial curatorial care work I describe entails a deep commitment to diversity, and within that our curatorial responsibility – or response-ability, to borrow Toni Morrison’s phrase – is to continuously support new and different voices – to act and activate our power(s) to create inclusive spaces for solidarity and multiple occupancies: it means a long-term promise to work towards cultural and structural change and social justice – towards a counter hegemonic ‘otherwise’, if you will.

Ultimately, curatorial responsibility for me constitutes a continual – not intermittent –commitment to tackle notions of heteropatriarchy and euro-centrism, and other deeply engrained regimes that must be undone: all those structural inequalities, empty policies and toxic ideologies that so stubbornly prevail within institutions and societies at large – from systemic racism, sexism, classism, ableism, to queer/trans/lesbo and homophobia, and countless others. How do we best – collectively and individually – challenge such sentiments and unfix oppressive, established narratives? The key I believe is to practise the doing and acting inherent within the notion of response-ability, to keep speaking up against discriminatory, exclusionary practices – both actions or non-actions – and doing our part in helping to accelerate this slow process of diversification, cultural reform and gradual change within institutions, and beyond – taxing and difficult as this affective labour is at times, and of course often disproportionally burdened onto black and brown professionals in the arts (and academia, too)… efforts imbued with a renewed sense of urgency in the wake of Covid-19, the recent killings of people of colour in the US and elsewhere, the ongoing protests and monument ‘wars’, the decolonising and dismantling campaigns, and of course, crucially, the Black Lives Matter movement.

It also entails a sense of critical self-reflexivity – including an awareness and regular assessment of our own privilege(s) and biases, as well as our agency. Are we doing the work? Are we doing enough? Who do we represent? Are we empowering others? Might we be complicit in upholding certain existing power structures? Does our care include care for the climate, care for others, care for the self – e.g Do I really need to take this flight, or speak on this panel? Might there be someone local who could speak to the topic instead, someone less privileged or less salaried perhaps? May I rest?

What is the one myth that you would like to dispel around being a curator?

There is value in myths, and on a tired day I’d be inclined to say just allow them to grow … The term ‘curator’ has become both terribly charged, and strangely desirable lately – so many other ‘titles’ we could use instead: cultural facilitator, exhibitions organiser, or creative producer… It would be nice to dispel the inherent ideas of authority, of curators as gatekeeper, and undo the ‘top down’ hierarchies often implied… Curating, in my experience, is rarely a solitary form of creativity or activity that warrants recognition through individual/single authorship – curating is relational, situational, and inherently collaborative. I think we should speak more about how curatorial pleasure – and curatorial resilience – is often forged in those moments of intimate, and sustained, dialogue – especially with artists, but also peers, colleagues, collaborators, and audiences. It’s all about working together, mutual support and learning from one another.

What advice would you give to aspiring curators?

Be brave, and courageous. Care, and dare. Make trouble… Take risks. Nurture what the brilliant speculative fiction writer Octavia E. Butler coined as ‘positive obsession’: decide what you want, aim carefully, go for it and keep going.

Research meticulously. Build your curatorial toolbox. Gain as much practical experience working on different projects as possible. Keep learning and un-learning… Think global, and decolonial. Don’t be afraid to seek counsel from others, be open to the possibility of failure, and course-correction… build bridges, and resilience. Challenge existing power structures. Be reflexive: why am I doing this? What’s at stake? What contribution am I making to the field? Does what I propose shift or enrich the conversation? Is it urgent? Is it relevant? Who needs it? Why now – is this the right time? Who is it for? Is the audience ready for this?

And don’t forget to think about the ethics [of curating], be conscious of your own position/positionality. Always look after and protect your artists… and look for allies. Collaborate. Learn from others. Find your tribe. Reach out. Share. Be generous. And enjoy….♦

Further interviews in the Curator Conversations series can be read here.


Curator Conversations is part of a collaborative set of activities on photography curation and scholarship initiated by Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University), Christopher Stewart (London College of Communication, University of the Arts London) and Esther Teichmann (Royal College of Art) that has included the symposium, Encounters: Photography and Curation, in 2018 and a ten week course, Photography and Curation, hosted by The Photographers’ Gallery, London in 2018-19.

Images:

1-Renée Mussai in the exhibition Lina Iris Viktor: Some Are Born To Endless Night — Dark Matter, Autograph London, 2020.

2-Installation view of Lina Iris Viktor: Some Are Born To Endless Night — Dark Matter, Autograph London, 2020. © Ben Reeves.

3-Installation view of Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness, Autograph London, 2017. © Zoe Maxwell.

4-Installation view of Black Chronicles II, Autograph London, 2014. © Keri-Luke Campell.

Mark Sealy

Author of Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time and Director at Autograph ABP

London

For the latest instalment in our Interview series, Caroline Molloy speaks with British curator and cultural historian Mark Sealy MBE on the occasion of his new book published by Lawrence & Wishart, Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time. Since 1991 Sealy has held the position of Director at Autograph ABP, the London-based organisation championing the work of artists who use photography and film to highlight issues of identity, representation, human rights and social justice. Here he discusses the importance of challenging the matrix of colonial epistemic power that surrounds the reading of photographic images; how the history of photography can only be completely encompassing if the ‘voice of the subaltern is made critically present within it’; and the need for artists to be brave and to work in the knowledge of what has gone before but to not allow oneself to be chained to the past.

Mark Sealy would like to dedicate the text to Peter Clack “a brilliant Project Manager”, a friend and friend of Autograph ABP. Also to Bisi Silva, Alanna Lockward and Okwui Enwezor, all great decolonial curators and activists who have passed away during 2019.

Caroline Molloy: Thank you for agreeing to add your voice to this publication. To open the conversation for our readers it would be good to introduce how you hope the book adds to, and moves forward existing post-colonial literature, following on from the likes of Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture (1994) and Stuart Hall’s ‘New ethnicities’ essay in The Post-Studies Reader (2006), to name but a few.

Mark Sealy: I think it’s important for us to keep working through new and established ideas all the time. We must stay in dialogue with critical theory and make sure we work in multiple directions at once. These days I’m as much influenced by the music of John Coltrane because of the way he makes me feel and think along with work produced by some cultural theorist. The brilliance of scholars such as Professor Stuart Hall and Homi Bhabha is that they have gifted us some wonderful tools to work with. Hall’s text titled New Ethnicities, for example, is as critical now as it was when it was published 30 years ago. Part of the work I wanted Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time to do is to encourage the reader to challenge the matrix of colonial epistemic power that surrounds the reading of photographic images.

CM: A main argument in the book seems to highlight the need to understand and acknowledge that the history of photography can only be completely encompassing if the ‘voice of the subaltern is made critically present within it’, as you put it. Could you share your thoughts about how it redresses notions of cultural erasure?

MS: Within the book I suggest that decolonising the photographic image is an act of unburdening it from the assumed, normative, hegemonic, colonial conditions present, consciously or unconsciously, in the moment of its original making and in its readings and displays. This is therefore a process of locating the primary conditions of a racialised photograph’s coloniality and, as such, decolonising the camera works within a form of black cultural politics to destabilise the conditions, receptions and processes of Othering a subject within the history of photography. I guess in short what I am claiming is that there can not only be one cultural perspective on reading the work an image does in culture. I think a plurality of cultural voices amplified in the world helps us all work towards a greater understanding of the different ways of being and signs of recognition. Emancipation of the mind also means learning to unlearn and allow different knowledge systems into the realm on thinking. I like the idea of thinking with images rather than thinking for them.

CM: In your introduction you write: ‘A key function of decolonising the camera is to not allow photography’s colonial past and its cultural legacies in the present to lie unchallenged and un-agitated, or to be simply left as an unquestioned chapter within the history of the medium.’ In tandem with this, how would you describe the act and processing of decolonising the ‘image’?

MS: There is no one correct way of decolonising or reading an image. That notion, or prescription, works as being counter to what has been said over many years by scholars working against the grain of colonial aggression. I agree with Walter Mignolo and the late Alanna Lockward when they encouraged us to delink thought from the academy and to encourage new ways to re-exist and resist the aggression of colonialism in all its forms.

CM: I am intrigued to read the critical complexity with which Alice Seeley Harris’ photographs, documents of the violent atrocities inflicted on the Congolese people at the end of the 19th century, are unpacked within the book. Accepting the shift in the reading of these photographs, and what it illuminates within a contemporary socio-political context, do you think there is a need to re-read photographs from the past at different historical moments (those relating to race, rights and human justice, or otherwise)?

MS: I absolutely think we have to begin a re-reading of the past, especially concerning the work historical and contemporary images do on us in the present. There is so much for us to learn and unlearn, so many knowledges systems to engage with and new ways of seeing, being and listening that I think a reading of the past concerning photography is both essential and exciting.

CM: There is a politic to how all the photographs are discussed in this book. I am particularly interested in the analysis of Wayne Miller’s Chicago’s South Side 1946-48 that were eventually published in book form in 2000, within the context of (consciously or unconsciously) white privilege. Miller, an experienced war photographer, funded by the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1946 and 1948 spent prolonged periods photographing Chicago’s African American communities. Given the long overdue publication of this work, do Miller’s photographs still have value for the viewer?

MS: Miller’s photographs are really important documents. We have to recognise that Miller was working in one time and his subjects were caught within another. They meet only for a short period of time. This moment is key, it’s a sentence in a much wider visual chapter. I like to think about photography as being part of the journey, a story or a visual puzzle that has so many missing pieces. As human subjects I am convinced that we are not in the same space-time dynamic that’s why we have to read the work of Miller both within and outside of the frames he made. He has to be positioned within the privileges he had and we also have to look at what he photographed as an opportunity to discuss the place of race in the world immediately after WWII.

CM: This book offers an important contribution to the histories of photography and representation of the Other. Within this frame of reference, could you explain the milieu that locates the following sentence? ‘The black gaze is a radical oppositional act that has its location in many different origins associated with power.’

MS: The idea of a black oppositional gaze is located in the work of many important photographic histories from the work of James Van Der Zee to Carrie Mae Weems. From Vanley Burke to Joy Gregory. From Frederick Douglass to Kobena Mercer. From Rotimi Fani Kayode to Zanele Muholi and many others in different times and locations. It’s clear however that there is an on-going battle over the dignity of black lives and the fight over images of black people and the right to be seen with dignity is very real. This battle spans centuries and there are clear lines of affiliation that can be drawn into and across the history to these radical acts of decolonial photography dialogues.

CM: Having built an argument across the book for decolonising the camera, a linear connection can be made between the decisive turn in Stuart Hall’s Reconstruction Work: Images of post war black settlement (1984), and the concluding chapter Rights and Recognition in the Late Twentieth Century, both of which shape arguments concerning the construction of black subjectivities in the face of Western visual culture. You assert that the 1980s was a ‘critical decade’ for black British photography, while the 1990s should also be read as a ‘transformative period that heralded the arrival of the Other as photographer within mainstream Western cultural institutions’. Given these conditions, how does this discourse continue in the 21st century, in terms of the politics of representation and market for black subjects or identities?

MS: We have to now consider that we are in an image sphere. Images circulate around the globe faster than ever before. This image velocity is creating cultural heat and this heat is producing a new energy flow of images especially from those who are designated as being ‘new’ to the means of production. This image flow or production of meaning is being interrupted and that turbulence is what I believe we are now witnessing. Work from outside of Europe and North America or from designated marginalised communities is now part of an unstoppable flow of image meaning that is transforming the traditional way photography has been understood this is a massive challenge to the museum and gallery world.

CM: Finally, it is fascinating how the work of conceptual photographers, such as Rotimi Fani-Kayode and Joy Gregory are discussed within a decolonised framework. Having constructed this framework, what advice would you give emerging BAME artists when thinking through and developing their own practice?

MS: I invite all artists to be brave and to work in the knowledge of what has gone before but do not allow oneself to be chained to the past or simply replicate what has been done. I think we have to think about the Jazz of it all and make work that is multidirectional, pluriversal and hybrid in nature. Most importantly, I think we have to make work that has generosity at its heart that is open and inviting to make images that help us out of the matrix of colonial violence.

Image courtesy Mark Sealy. © Elina Kansikas