The Irish Times
Read Aidan Dunne's interview with Koyo Kouoh in The Irish Times
Sometimes it takes an outsider to see things clearly. For Koyo Kouoh, the curator of next year’s EVA International in Limerick, it seems obvious that EVA is the Irish biennial of contemporary art. Yet it was long denied that status, even though it has a consistent track record since 1977 and an unrivalled international profile.
Kouoh has just left Ireland following the latest of several preparatory visits here. She will return in December and plans to base herself in Limerick from February until the opening in April. Her EVA marks the centenary of the Easter Rising and will be called Still (the) Barbarians.
Reflecting on EVA’s role, she puts it this way: “Biennial exhibitions tend to be identified with one city, one place. I feel that the concept of Ireland is a very particular one, and I would hope to place Limerick in a national context rather than identifying the exhibition exclusively with Limerick. EVA is the only biennial in Ireland.”
With this in mind, she has been drawing in as many other arts institutions as she can nationwide. “It’s important that these institutions feel a sense of ownership of EVA,” she says.
Its long-term practice of bringing in international curators, who in turn bring in artists, means, Kouoh says, “that it is established in the consciousness of professionals in the art world. When I look at the line-up of EVA curators, I feel very privileged to be part of it. It is the only exhibition I know of that invites curators without putting them in competition with each other. The consideration I have felt and experienced from EVA is really exceptional.”
Kouoh, who is self-contained and precisely articulate, is a patient listener with a ready sense of humour. She was born in Cameroon and studied banking administration and cultural management in France and Switzerland, but her passionate engagement with contemporary art, especially in relation to the nature and development of societies, has dictated the path she has followed since.
Dakar’s Raw Material Company, a space she established in 2008, seamlessly involves art, education and research. She has been hugely busy with numerous projects encompassing all three areas. Her husband and child are at home in Basel, she says, but she feels she lives mostly in her car. She has risen through the ranks of Art Review’s list of the 100 most powerful people in the art world (up to 73 this year, from 96 last year) and is considered one of the key African curators, although the term “curator” hardly seems adequate.
“I see myself as an initiator of projects and an exhibition maker,” she says. “We use the term ‘curator’, though it doesn’t mean what it once did and we are not quite sure what it means now. The writer Toni Morrison worked as a publishing editor and she once said that she began to write the books she wanted to read but could not find. I can identify with that. My love of art makes me want to see things that I have not yet seen. I want to infuse, inspire – but I should say I have no formal abilities in terms of making.”
Ireland on the periphery
Taking on EVA is not an obvious move for her. After all, Ireland is on the periphery of the international art scene and she is much in demand and busy enough as it is.
“I’ve always dreamt of Ireland,” she says. “We all have favourite places in our imagination, and Ireland has always been somewhere special in my imagination, even beyond aspects of colonial history we might share.”
She has described Ireland as “the first and foremost laboratory of the British colonial enterprise”, a western precursor to a global process.
Her involvement in projects is committed and immersive. The location of a work is essential to her. Besides the big former Golden Vale Milk Plant and the City Gallery, other venues will be pressed into service. EVA is composed of a combination of works by invited artists and works selected from open submission. Initially there were more than 2,000 submissions for 2016, and these were whittled down to about 900 for Kouoh’s consideration. “It’s a lot,” she says, smiling, “but luckily we are all workaholics.”
Kouoh is envisaging EVA in relation to the historical significance of 1916, which is partly why she is so keen to frame it as the Irish biennial of contemporary art.
“It’s not that I’m making an exhibition embedded in the past, but the past is always present somehow, and the future never really arrives,” she says.
She refers to the colonial “physicality of domination” in the shaping of architecture, civic spaces and the wider landscape, but also “psychological domination” through language, social structures and prejudice. Dispossession and humiliation leave troubling legacies.
“These are enduring considerations, and they continue to shape the world around us, even though we might not think so,” she says. To her surprise, she finds that “now that I’ve been here, I can see that postcolonialism is not a discourse that is particularly present”.
Her EVA will incorporate social practice, painting, photography, film, performance and drawing. “But human interaction is at the heart of the programme. I want people to feel energised by the content of the works. I want them to create discussion.”