1000 Words

Curator Conversations

#10 Mariama Attah

Mariama Attah is a photography curator and editor with a particular interest in the power of photography to re-present visual culture. She is Curator of Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool and was previously Assistant Editor of Foam Magazine. Prior to this, Attah was Curator of Photoworks, where she was responsible for developing and curating programmes and events including Brighton Photo Biennial and commissioning and editing Photoworks Annual. She completed her BA Photography at Wolverhampton University and gained an MA in Museum Studies from University of Leicester. Attah has worked with a number of national and international artists and previous other roles include Exhibitions and Events Manager at Iniva and Assistant Officer, Visual Arts at Arts Council England.

What is it that attracts you to the exhibition form?

Storytelling is the element that drew me back to the exhibition form. I love shaping a narrative and space that people can physically experience. Alongside that, I’m interested in working with artists to help them outline a context beyond the frame of the artwork. I see the curatorial process as one where all the references, links, research and ideas that I gather and am inspired by are projected from inside my head to the outside world – they can come alive and be further shaped and enlivened by audiences.

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

The early role of the curator was that of a guardian of collections and to act as a barrier to access. This slowly adapted into curators acting as channels to serve audiences but still maintained an aspect of authoritarianism on value and taste. Today, the curator is more of a point of introduction and reference. They can guide people towards themes, ideas, practitioners, etc. but they aren’t a single voice or route in determining what is relevant or what should be ignored. That isn’t possible or desirable.

I’m also curious about the idea of an excess of imagery and information. Are we in excess, and is that a new occurrence? How many images are too many? I don’t necessarily believe there is too much information or imagery, instead I think there is an excess of feeling obligated to engage with everything around us. Our worlds have always been filled with imagery and information. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to choose what we look at and how we engage with it.

What is the most invaluable skill required for a curator?

I think more than anything, curiosity, and a drive to share your thoughts and ideas are the most invaluable skills a curator can have. Being curious about your surroundings; about history, visual representation and communication, and wanting other people to engage with that will take you far.

What was your route into curating?

I didn’t know what a curator was until the last few weeks of my photography degree when we were organising our end of year degree show. I decided then that I was more interested in working with photographers than being a photographer. I also realised that I didn’t have the personality or desire to make a living from taking photographs. From there, I was very lucky to get a job curating at a museum while I did a MA in Museum Studies, though it took a few more years before my first role working purely with photography. This isn’t the role that I originally saw for myself but this is absolutely where I want to be.

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

John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea, which premiered at the 56th Venice Biennale, as part of Okwui Enwezor’s All the World’s Futures exhibition in 2015, is the most vivid and meaningful exhibition I have encountered. The body of work combines found archival footage from the BBC’s Natural History Unit with contemporary images shown on a three channel video installation, referencing Moby Dick and Whale Nation. Vertigo Sea uses the ocean as a metaphor for understanding migration, colonialism, ecological ruin, the movement of people, goods, and people as goods, and the long history of humans endeavouring to prevail over nature. The ocean is presented as a site of transport, industry, beauty, control and disinterested rule. It is indifferent to whether you’re fleeing or sightseeing or being moved against your will, and Akomfrah captures this force in an utterly compelling way.

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

My curatorial responsibility is to use my position to advocate for and work with artists, communities and groups of people in helping to spread a shared message. Collaboration and representation are key to me.

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

Curators are not gatekeepers or all seeing eyes. We can’t make or break a career and we haven’t seen every exhibition, installation or publication. I’m just as eager to learn or be shown something new as anyone else.

What advice would you give to aspiring curators?

I would tell any aspiring curators to visit as many exhibitions as possible to gain an idea of what does and doesn’t interest you about the physical exhibition space. Pay attention to the details that guide people through the space, the design decisions and details that are used in presenting and displaying artworks, the pauses that are built in to prompt visitors to start forming their own opinions and how and where additional information and materials are presented to support this.

Curating isn’t only about the artists you work with, it’s also about the communities and audiences. I would advise aspiring curators to think about who they want to curate for and how they can include the voices of these groups in exhibition making.

I also think that there is an easy affinity between photography and writing and having worked as an editor makes me a more confident curator. Take any opportunity to read and write on subjects you’re moved by and don’t shy away from feedback. Being able to form your ideas on paper will help other people to better understand your vision.

Alongside this, I also think that curators should have a basic understanding of both the private and public art worlds, no matter which sphere you work in, in order to be able to support the careers of the artists you are working with.

Start curating, reading, writing, visiting, learning, and then repeat until the end.♦

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.


1-Mariama Attah

2-Installation view of Jerwood/Photoworks Awards 2015: Matthew Finn, Joanna Piotrowska, Tereza Zelenkova, Jerwood Space London, 2015.

Tereza Zelenkova

The Snake That Disappeared Through a Hole in the Wall

Essay by Max Houghton

Photography might have been invented to give credence to Rimbaud’s famous expression ‘Je est un autre’; his grammatical slippage expresses the I and not-I of the image as potently as it articulates the condition of self. The poet’s oeuvre, as well as that of another feted Symbolist, Joris-Karl Huysmans, haunts and animates the work of Tereza Zelenkova, whose photography has been exhibited this year in two simultaneous shows in Amsterdam: The Snake That Disappeared Through a Hole in the Wall at Foam, and The Essential Solitude at The Ravestijn Gallery. Choosing to position herself in such a constellation, the artist invites the viewer to look carefully at the connections between her black and white images; to notice the allusions.

Since her earlier work The Absence of Myth (2013), which includes a close-up rephotographing of a girlishly languid Rimbaud, Zelenkova has been enticing us into acts of contemplation about the nature of reality, or about nature and reality. Within her work, neither state is inhabited and instead we are enveloped within the realm of a fecund Symbolist imagination. It is not a slow descent from here to elsewhere, but rather a sudden tipping, reminding us of the unsteadiness of the very ground beneath our feet. Zelenkova traps us in a claustrophobic interior world, as inhabited by writers and artists in order that they make the necessary journey inward.

Zelenkova quotes from Georges Bataille’s Literature and Evil (1957) in her text for The Essential Solitude, picking up on his relentless quest for a ‘different’ truth, as well as the ways in which his work was influenced by Symbolist antecedents. Her preoccupation is the same, and in order to seek out this elusive truth, she employs both image and text, which, as another Symbolist, Georges Rodenbach knew, offers a rich form for such exploration. Rodenbach’s 1892 literary attempt to raise the dead amid the streets of Bruges is punctuated by ghostly photographic imagery, among the very first works of fiction to be so.

However, it is specifically a novel by Huysmans, A Rebours (usually translated as Against Nature), which serves as epigraph for The Essential Solitude, and in which the protagonist, Jean Des Esseintes, exiles himself within a library, in order that he can gorge on aesthetica, and closet himself away from stinking brutish reality. Zelenkova chose a very particular site as a set for this story – the Huguenot House on Folgate St, London, created by the late Dennis Severs, whose loyalty was to historical imagination (as opposed to facts), and whose stated desire in creating his non-traditional museum was ‘to bombard the senses’ (he succeeds). The subject of the images (The images … scarcely mentioned so far. What an oversight. Like in Rodenbach, (like in Sebald), these images do not hold to the tick-box standards of contemporary photography. Instead they ask to be considered as flashes of understanding, trapdoors to other senses, a way of seeking new perfumes and stranger, even darker, flowers.) … is a woman with floor-length hair. She variously sits at a desk, sits blind-folded, looks out towards the window, lies in sensual repose, but we never see her eyes. A remarkably long-haired woman has appeared previously before Zelenkova’s lens, in a 2011 image called Cometes, which translates as a comet, but also as a portent of disaster. Hair observed thus becomes its own world, with its rivers and tributaries and unexpected surfaces. It hides things. It can grow even when we are dead.

The atmosphere conjured throughout this series is that of an opium den; dark, soporific, oneiric. Sumptuous, sensual fabrics drape thickly, carrying the scent of centuries within their folds. A dressing table is laden with precious objects: pots, pearls, feathers, an open book. Closer inspection reveals a tiny ceramic hand on a stick, for scratching the unreachable itch – could any item be more essential for a life of both solitude and creativity? Two poppy heads – papaver soniferum – in negative and positive, lull us to the edge of sleep, to the uncanny landscapes of hypnagogic hallucination.

This essay is strewn with the names of dead men; the Symbolist mode of expression is not very well populated by women, other than as dead lovers, or virgins or femme fatales, so it is all the more pleasurable to Zelenkova begin to carve her own path. She does this most vividly with the image The Unseen, from her most recent work, Snake, in which three women are seated at a lace-clothed table, a fourth stands; each face covered by heavy white cotton veils. Had the artist pinned back the veils, we may have entered the territory of a Vermeer painting, or even Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Instead, we are suspended in a moment of acute expectancy, as we observe this sightless, silent quartet, who seem to have emerged from another realm of being altogether. Their presence is even more unsettling within the series of images, which otherwise depict significant sites in her native Czech Republic, photographed – always in black and white – with unforgiving flash. We see much imagery from the forest, in which the ‘natural’ is always open to question or to incursion. Zelenkova may be alluding to Grimm’s fairy tales, to the female serial killer who inspired Dracula or to the writing of Gustav Meyrink (his death mask is among her images). Meyrink wrote about the Golem of Prague, a creature that becomes visible in the city every 33 years, appearing with a doppelganger.

Perhaps this is what the snake sees, when it disappears through the hole in the wall (the hole is pictured too), or what we each see on the other side of the mirror (I is another). Zelenkova says this series is unfinished, and may remain so, leaving the reader to unpick this strange and complex weaving of a literary photography in parentheses for years to come.

All images courtesy of The Ravestijn Gallery. © Tereza Zelenkova

The Snake That Disappeared Through a Hole in the Wall was originally commissioned through the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards 2015, supported by Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Photoworks.

Max Houghton writes about photographs for the international arts press, including FOAM, Photoworks and The Telegraph. She edited the photography biannual 8 Magazine for six years and is also Senior Lecturer in Photography at London College of Communication – University of the Arts, London.