1000 Words

Curator Conversations

#4 Azu Nwagbogu

Azu Nwagbogu is the Founder and Director of African Artists’ Foundation (AAF), a non-profit organisation based in Lagos, Nigeria. Nwagbogu was elected as the Interim Director / Head Curator of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art in South Africa from June 2018 to August 2019. He also serves as Founder and Director of LagosPhoto Festival, an annual international arts festival of photography held in Lagos, and is the creator of Art Base Africa, a virtual space to discover and learn about contemporary African Art. He has served as a juror for the Dutch Doc, POPCAP Photography Awards, the World Press Photo, Prisma Photography Award (2015), Greenpeace Photo Award (2016), New York Times Portfolio Review (2017-18), W. Eugene Smith Award (2018), PHotoESPAÑA (2018), Foam Paul Huf Award (2019), Wellcome Photography Prize (2019) and is a regular juror for organisations such as Lensculture and Magnum.

For the past 20 years, he has curated private collections for various prominent individuals and corporate organisations in Africa. Nwagbogu obtained his MPhil in Public Health from The University of Cambridge. He lives and works in Lagos, Nigeria.

What is it that attracts you to the exhibition form?

The directness and freedom it engenders. The notion of presenting ideas in a visual and experiential format that allows for multiple interpretations but that still involves sensibilities, and a certain order and logic is always exciting. I like to build shows from research in other words, moving between inquiry and imagination as a recursive process. Curating is about hosting these ideas for a wider audience within the format of an exhibition. It offers, in an ambitious sense, a chance to create something that could perhaps fossilise for the future. That is to say, if researchers sometime in the very distant present were to inquire as to how we lived through our time, what would we leave behind for them to analyse? The exhibition, and its audiences, become our emissaries.

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

In our digital age, we produce and consume more images than at any time since the dawn of humanity. We apparently also live longer. Our epoch is the information age where digital content – produced, transmitted and consumed – is our most important commodity. The curator’s responsibility within this milieu is daunting. It is the responsibility of the curator to help to make sense of what we are feeling, seeing and experiencing. I would add that in an age when opposing ideas rarely engage due to all sorts of algorithms, curatorial practice has to become all the more dialogical.

What is the most invaluable skill required for a curator?

There are two broad notions beyond skill: the intellectual and the ethical. The intellectual involves curiosity, diligence, and self-criticality. And the ethical broaches humility and respect for artistic endeavour.

What was your route into curating?

It’s a long and elaborate journey that started with studies of epidemiology but diffused into art through a family interest in curating.

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

My first Les Rencontres d’Arles in 2014 though I really can’t mention all the fantastic shows that year. Georges Didi-Hubermans’ Uprising was unforgettable. Okwei Enwezor’s 56th Venice Biennale 2015 and documenta11, 2002 were significant. And even though I was involved in it, I have to mention William Kentridge’s largest ever presentation in South Africa: Why Should I Hesitate: Putting Drawings to Work at Zeitz MOCAA. Then there is The Repatriation of the White Cube directed by Renzo Martens, an exhibition that featured works both by Kader Attia, Marlene Dumas, Carsten Höller, and Luc Tuymans, as well as Congolese artists such as Sammy Baloji and Jean Katambayi, and members of the CATPC in Lusanga.

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

The ability to build on knowledge gained. I ignore shows that are weak on research. Shows that purport to be “the first ever so and so”. Stance and humour are vital. With curating there is a process, and respecting this process from conception to execution is often taken for granted.

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

That it is glamorous and that we know it all.

What advice would you give to aspiring curators?

If all fails, make sure you learn to write.♦

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-Azu Nwagbogu. © Kadara Enyeasi

2-View of the exhibition Maïmouna Guerresi: Beyond the Border, Lagos Photo 2019 at African Artists’ Foundation.

3-View of exhibition installation at African Artists’ Foundation.