Can she revive the largest museum on the African continent?

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Can she revive the largest museum on the African continent?
Koyo Kouoh, the executive director of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, at the museum in Cape Town, South Africa, Aug. 2, 2023. “There was a feeling that we cannot let this fail,” Kouoh said of taking the top job at Zeitz MOCAA. (Tsele Nthane/The New York Times)

by Roslyn Sulcas

CAPE TOWN.- Koyo Kouoh wasn’t thinking about becoming an art world player when she finished her degree in business administration in Zurich in her early 20s. She had a day job as a social worker attending to migrant women, and she was writing articles about cultural events and hanging out with a group of avant-garde thinkers, artists, musicians and actors.

But 30 years on, Kouoh, 55, the visionary curator and executive director of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (known as Zeitz MOCAA) in Cape Town, is an internationally recognized, torch-bearing advocate for African art that is grounded on the continent, but very much part of a global conversation.

“I want to show the expanse of culture, the vast history of how the continent and its diaspora inhabits the world,” Kouoh, who is Cameroonian-born, said in the first of several Zoom calls during her travels between Basel, the United States and Cape Town over the last months. “Humanity has always described itself through objects and pictures; I am interested in what kinds of stories and paradigms we are offering about ourselves.”

Zeitz MOCAA, which houses the contemporary African art collection of Jochen Zeitz, the German philanthropist and CEO of Harley-Davidson, is the largest museum on the African continent. A spectacular transformation of an old grain silo in Cape Town’s port area by the British designer Thomas Heatherwick, the museum forms part of the high-end development quarter known as the V & A Waterfront, which paid for the building. At its opening in 2017, the museum was greeted with fanfare for its design and celebration of African art, but also criticism for its perceived elitism and disengagement from local communities.

By the time Kouoh arrived in May 2019 from Dakar, where she had run Raw Material, the cultural center and residency she created there, Zeitz MOCAA was floundering. In 2018, its founding director, Mark Coetzee, was suspended and later resigned, following allegations of staff harassment and questions about the museum’s governance. (Coetzee died last year.) Nigerian curator Azu Nwagbogu took over as interim director, but morale was low and exhibitions lackluster.

“Koyo came into a young institution that was pretty broken, with a lack of systems, lack of staff, lack of funding,” said Storm Janse van Rensburg, whom Kouoh appointed as senior curator and head of curatorial affairs after she arrived. “The urgency was to bring it back to life.”

Kouoh has done more than that. Despite pandemic restrictions and successive lockdowns, she has built an explicitly Pan-African, world-class program, overseeing several large-scale exhibitions that have traveled to Europe and the U.S., most notably the Tracey Rose solo show currently at the Queens Museum, in New York, and the expansive “When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting” (currently running through Sept. 3), which will travel to the Kunstmuseum in Basel next year. She has expanded and developed a young curatorial team, added fellowships in curatorial training to the museum’s agenda, hosted artist residencies and encouraged a robust publishing agenda.

Perhaps most important was her confident first step to woo a diverse range of South Africans into the museum and especially residents of Cape Town, where a colonial legacy has had a profound and socially stratifying effect. In October 2020, after a six-month pandemic closure, “there were incredible ideas we could have done,” said Tandazani Dhlakama, a curator at the museum. “But Koyo said, why don’t we do an open call where everyone in Cape Town can bring one artwork from home? We drove all over the city, to the outskirts to collect things, and people came for free.” Many South Africans, she added, “have a psychological barrier about coming into this kind of artspace, but this brought them in, to see their own works in a museum.”

Her success is all the more notable since she initially rejected approaches to consider the job. “Koyo is pulled in two directions all the time —she comes from the margin, but she is very attracted to the centers of power,” said Rasha Salti, a Berlin-based writer and co-curator, with Kristine Khouri, of the exhibition “Past Disquiet,” currently on show at Zeitz MOCAA. “There were certainly questions as to how much she could impact and make the museum relevant, not just for the continent, but for the rest of the world. I was afraid she would be miserable, but when I went to visit, she was like a fish in water.”

The pivotal moment in Kouoh’s career came in her mid-20s, when she decided not to find a job based on her business degree — “I am fundamentally uninterested in profit,” she told me — and to move back to Africa. She grew up in Douala in Cameroon before moving to Zurich at 13 to join her family, and had lived there for 15 years before “it became clear to me I couldn’t stay in Europe, in this highly saturated space. I had become a mother, and I couldn’t imagine raising a Black boy in Europe.” (A single parent at that point, she would subsequently adopt three children.)

Wanting to explore new frontiers, she chose Dakar, the capital of Senegal. “It’s an irresistible city, a beacon on the horizon of African cities, with the Sufi culture that pervades Senegalese society,” Kouoh said. She added, “I think I had a true Pan-African spirit from early on.”

Kouoh had a plan — “obviously, I’m a Capricorn!” — to start an artist’s residency. Like many first ideas, it didn’t pan out and she began to work as an independent curator and as a cultural officer for the American Consulate. In 2008, she started Raw Material, expanding her residency concept to include an exhibition space, a library and an academy that offers young art professionals mentorship through sessions directed by an experienced figure in the field.

Raw Material “has had an impact way beyond its size and means through a very different way of learning about curatorial and other institutional practices,” said Kate Fowle, a curatorial senior director at Hauser & Wirth, noting that large numbers of now-influential curators and practitioners have been through its program. She considers it “a connection point across the world.”

From Dakar, Kouoh built her reputation as a dynamic force, working on the curatorial teams for Documenta 12 and 13, curating the Educational and Artistic program of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, the Irish Contemporary Art Biennale in 2016, and exhibitions all over the world.

In their search for a new director, Jochen Zeitz and David Green, the co-chair on Zeitz MOCAA’s board of trustees, said that Kouoh came up early on as an ideal candidate. “She ticked all the boxes,” Zeitz said: “Experience on the ground, setting up her own institution, fundraising, an ambitious artistic vision and a reputation for building a team.”

After the turmoil of Coetzee’s departure, Kouoh was “an experienced, calm person coming from the African continent,” said Albie Sachs, the South African lawyer and anti-apartheid campaigner who has been on Zeitz MOCAA’s Advisory Council since the museum opened. “I loved Koyo’s provenance, like you say about an artwork.”

Kouoh said that she decided to take the job after many conversations with Black colleagues. “There was a feeling that we cannot let this fail,” she said. “The scale and ambition of Zeitz MOCAA is unique on the continent and someone had to take responsibility and make this museum live up to its rightful ambitions.”

When she arrived in May 2019, her first priority was to reorganize the galleries, which were scattered over more than 100 small spaces. She took advantage of an already planned William Kentridge exhibition to break down walls and create more breathing space, then she set about defining “a curatorial articulation in terms of what we want to stand for.” Her goal, she said, was to create a sense of the museum “as a format of public engagement, civic engagement.”

During the strict pandemic lockdowns after March 2020, the museum closed for seven months, and Kouoh used the time to restructure its governance and expand the board of trustees, adding influential African collectors and philanthropists, and creating a global council of advisers, which includes artists Carsten Holler, Wangechi Mutu and Yinka Shonibare. Kouoh has changed “how the local community see Zeitz,” said Cape Town-based artist Igshaan Adams, who recently spent eight months in residence there. “My artist friends and I hadn’t felt any interest from the museum, but Koyo made me feel they cared about us, and about new audiences.” Although he was initially resistant to the proposition, the residency, he said, “was a brilliant idea,” allowing visitors to the museum to seriously engage with an artist’s process. “Sometimes over 1,000 people a day would be there,” he said, adding that it was the first time he had experienced that engagement “with people who look like me and speak like me.”

Since her arrival, Kouoh has emphasized solo retrospectives — Tracey Rose, Johannes Phokela, Mary Evans — which she describes as a pillar of her curatorial vision. “My generation of curators were informed and motivated by a strong desire to unearth as many stories as we could, and make them visible, and we all did those group shows,” she said. “But I believe there is a great lack of studying individual voices and how they speak to each other within and across generations. What influences come from an artist like Issa Samb or Gerard Sekoto to younger artists today? I think we African curators haven’t done this enough.”

This doesn’t mean the museum won’t put on group shows, Kouoh added, citing “When We See Us,” as an exhibition which “places figuration in a temporality that is longer and more far-reaching than the last 10 years of market frenzy. It premises Black joy as a serious, contentious, political, joyful subject matter, and at the Black experience across geographies, the continent, the diaspora.”

Asked whether she saw herself as a bearer of the flame of influential Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor, Kouoh looked disapproving. “I don’t like the idea of there being one person doing this or that,” she said. “There is a lot of mutual support, of generosity and care across the continent. I am part of that generation of African art professionals who have pride and knowledge about the beauty of African culture, which has often been defined by others in so many wrong ways. I don’t believe we need to spend time correcting those narratives. We need to inscribe other perspectives.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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