Visual Artists Newsheet
Read Rory Prout's interview with EVA International curator in Visual Artists Newsheet
RORY PROUT INTERVIEWS KOYO KOUOH, CURATOR OF EVA INTERNATIONAL 2016.
Rory Prout: To give some background, and an idea of what is important to you as a cultural producer, perhaps you could tell me a little about Raw Material?
Koyo Kouoh: I started Raw Material Company in 2003 because, as an exhibition maker, curator and researcher. I realised that I didn't have access to a space in which I could discuss art as a thinking system in its own right, without feeling any need to borrow from other disciplines. Context very much defines everything that we do and Raw Material is a space that responds specifically to its Dakar context.
As a result of its colonial heritage, Senegal is a country that has a very strong organisational and even philosophical orientation towards France. Arts and culture are structured and managed more or less in the same way. If you look at it from an infrastructural point of view, Dakar has everything necessary to provide a healthy environment for the arts. There is an art school, a university and a biennial. There are galleries. There are public and private institutions. But everything is, in my opinion, geared towards art as a kind of fifth wheel, not as an integral part of the locomotive of society. There is a need to understand art as a value maker in society.
As an exhibition maker I am interested in the critical aspects of artistic practice and in how art intervenes in society, in politics specifically, providing another language for discourse. This is why Raw Material Company started. At first we were mobile; we didn't have a space. Then we realised that being mobile didn't give us a real anchor, that we didn't have a real root, so we set up a space in 2011 and focused on exhibition making, publishing and residencies. Now we're working towards a new programme that will be more focused on education.
RP: So you recognised that, despite having a system in place in Dakar that could support it, there was no space like Raw Material?
KK: Yes, absolutely. In that framework we were the only ones doing it, but it is part of a thriving up-and-coming contemporary art scene that has been emerging in Africa over the last 10 to 15 years. In 2012 we organised the first major symposium on building art institutions in Africa, during which many of Raw Material's concerns were discussed.
RP: Large-scale symposiums, exhibitions and biennials are becoming ever more concerned with globalised perspectives. This seems apparent too in EVA, a biennial that originated in a decidedly local context in Limerick. What has been your experience of resolving the global with the local? Is it a concern?
KK: I believe that the local exists within the global and that the global has an influence on the local. It's really a matter of interdependency, not either/or. It’s a question of how you see yourself regardless of your location. We are constantly connected to the world. There is no isolation as such. Even the remotest places are connected to the rest of the world. What is done in Singapore has an influence in Santiago de Chile, in New York and in the Niger Delta. I think that the world has always been like that it's just that nowadays we are even more conscious of it, due to the flurry and flood of information that we can access. I don't see the global and the local as two separate entities. For me, it's two faces of the same coin.
RP: You have described Ireland as a sort of central point of the British colonial project, a laboratory. To what extent will that specific history be examined during EVA, or do your concerns lie more in the present, in the postcolonial legacy and its effect on culture, identity and politics today?
KK: I've always thought of the Republic of Ireland as a country that has endured so much but is kind of quiet. It's the only country I can think of with fewer inhabitants today than 40 years ago.
In terms of EVA, what attracted me was that it takes place off the beaten path but with an international format. It began locally, which really makes EVA very special. It is an event that was initiated by artists for artists. Very few people know that EVA has existed for 39 years. If you look at the line-up of curators and artists that have shown there, it's quite amazing. Any other place would be boasting. Any other country would be cherishing that event and giving it all the means necessary, but Ireland doesn't. It doesn't really care much! [laughing]. That's very interesting. For me it is a kind of analogy about the whole discourse of postcolonialism, which doesn't seem to be a subject of discussion here.
RP: It might become more of a discussion this year, during the 1916 centenary, but I agree that it hasn't been a prevalent issue.
KK: Yes. And this is what makes it very attractive to me. Since I've been travelling here – working, meeting artists, doing research and so on – I've realised that the whole postcolonial discourse annoys certain people, because Ireland doesn't really see itself as a postcolonial site. To a certain extent this can be understood by the length of British occupation, which brought about so much assimilation. People forget at some point that actually, hey, something massive happened here. However, if you go back to the history books you realise of course that no occupation, no invasion, is ever just accepted. There has always been resistance.
Through EVA I want to look at how this plays out in contemporary times, by looking at language, for instance. I think that one of the most palpable consequences of colonial domination is the loss of a language. For me, as an outsider looking at Ireland. I see such ambivalence about Irish: who speaks Irish, who doesn't speak Irish, who feels like Irish should be the national language or not Is Irish a kind of decorum in the country's culture? That, to me, is such a clear postcolonial feature. You see it in South East Asia, in Africa and in South America. So this is one layer that interests me.
Another layer of postcolonialism that I am really interested in is forms of memory-visual memory, physical memory and inherited memory-how these play out day-to-day and how artists approach this idea. I strongly believe that the features of occupation and domination – especially by major colonisers such as Britain, France, Portugal and Spain – are more or less the same. There is memory, erosion of language and architecture, because architecture is a very important colonial tool used to impose power and awe. I'm trying to bring these together comparatively. This is also why the participating artists are from a very broad spectrum of backgrounds.
RP: You are navigating quite complex cultural threads, and a biennial seems to be a suitable forum in which to unpack those relationships. Speaking of language, Cavafy's poem ‘Waiting For The Barbarians' has been cited in reference to your exhibition title, and is associated today with the idea of a foreign threat that never quite arrives, yet drives political policy, militarisation, and fearmongering. Could you expand a little on the idea of the barbarian in the title?
KK: I was interested in discussing Ireland's postcolonial state as a starting point to look at postcolonialism in contemporary art, keeping in mind that the Irish don't really consider themselves postcolonial subjects. I wanted somehow to bring that debate to this edition of EVA.
In Cavafy's poem the barbarians have a kind of a double bearing or attitude. He's suggesting that the barbarians are these warrior like, fierce people, but that they were also important as a sovereign culture that exchanged with other societies back then, specifically with the Greeks and the Romans.
I was interested in what barbarians have come to signify today, in terms of horror and violence, and in how that relates to the enterprise of colonialism, which is a violent enterprise that results in alienation for those subjected to it. We realise how little we have developed, because politics is still extremely exploitative. This is why the title has a double meaning. You can read Still Barbarians, meaning that the world is still barbaric, but also Still (the) Barbarians. Then you realise, oh, wait a minute, the barbarians were a very important society like every other.
RP: There is a sense from press releases that ongoing conversation and public engagement will be a feature of ‘Still (the) Barbarians’. Is this important to you and what has been your strategy in opening a discursive platform around the biennial?
KK: We are working to have a colloquium at the end of the event in early July. It will look at the influence and the importance of artists and cultural advocates in revolutions. I'm especially interested in the role of poetry, looking at how poetry performs revolutions, or how revolution is performed through language. We are working very hard to make all the EVA publications bilingual. I was shocked that no catalogue for the project has ever been done in Irish.
We live in the age of the supremacy of the image, but we want to discuss the supremacy of the word, which I think is still relevant, because images need words to support them. We want to look at this comparatively: from an Irish perspective, an African perspective, a South East Asian perspective, a South American perspective and so on. There will be a few talks throughout, but the main discussive space will be the colloquium.
Rory Prout is an artist and writer based in Limerick city. He was the 2015 painter in residence with the Irish Embassy in Addis Ababa and runs the Arba Minch Art Project, which delivers visual art workshops and support for artists in Arba Minch Prison in southern Ethiopia.