Portrait of a Curator in London
I’ve known them since I was nineteen. I was a fresh faced baby with a freshly shaved head. We had come into the world together — all fifteen of us, hand in hand that Summer 2014 — that was the point when I felt my life had actually started. Before that, I had just been practicing or wearing training wheels.
Don’t get me wrong, I had a relationship with art. I was at art school, I wanted to be a painter, a filmmaker, an artist. But I was mostly unenthused and embarrassed by my own work. Actually making art was an act that killed whatever energy I had been building. I was more excited by speaking to people, anyone and everyone, especially if they were cleverer than me (which they always were). I didn’t want to be weighed down making objects or images or anything as conspicuous and almighty as WORK. I wanted to absorb everything and be so full of ideas that I felt sick.
So that’s what I did in Summer 2014. I absorbed everything. I sat in the upstairs room of the gallery, that we had made our little clubhouse home, and I listened to everyone very intently. Nearly ten years on, we were back in the upstairs room of the gallery. The gallery was different, the room was different and we were different too.
‘I think Summer 2014, it began as a young people’s project set up to respond to another piece of work, but it became an amorphous collective of people who were thinking about race and art. I’d been in these kinds of spaces all my life, but Summer 2014 was still a shock to the system. Maybe because it was the first time I could step into it in my own way. But it was an intense time politically —‘
They map out the political conditions we were in the middle of: Black Lives Matter had just emerged the Summer before in 2013, the London Riots in 2011 (after the police murdered Mark Duggan), 2010’s coalition government was about to turn into 2015’s Conservative majority government, and honestly, we were all still reeling from the banks collapsing in 2008. It was a weird time to be alive, something in the world had shifted and we were all still recalibrating.
‘But we were in a room, full of different people with different backgrounds and different perspectives. We got to chat and learn about politics and each other. It formed my political basis, that then in turn formed my artistic basis.’
I nod because, of course, it formed mine too.
‘As someone interested in the arts in a political way, Summer 2014 — when you look at where we all are now and what we’re doing, it’s just so interesting. But everyone meeting each other and doing what we did —‘
We spent that Summer doing things that literally altered my brain chemistry. Life changing, watershed moment stuff. We read James Baldwin, Stuart Hall, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Langston Hughes. We went to the George Padmore Institute, the Black Cultural Archives, LADA. We met performance artists, archivists, art critics — I’m absolutely sure we also met Akala. I was nineteen and, in way, still a kind of child. It was the first time I encountered these people, their ideas and their language. It was a language I wanted to pick up and believe in. What they handed down taught me how to be a person.
‘We got all that space to decide what we wanted to do as artists or as programmers—‘
I think the world doesn’t often trust young people, even less young people that looked like us. With money, space, resources, even just to make their own decisions.
The Summer 2014 activity ended with an exhibition and on the press release, we were billed as ‘fifteen emerging thinkers’. We were given space for failure because it wasn’t about polished exhibition outcomes — that wasn’t the vibe. It was about being in the room and hanging out with people, what art school would call a peer to peer sharing space, a discursive education. Praxis, pedagogy, collective knowledge, who cares! They’re just words. We were trusted, listened to, engaged with, guided with care and love. We were given information, included in institutional conversations and decision making that didn’t even relate to us. We were taken seriously.
‘And then seeing how many people showed up to that opening, the interest was crazy. It felt important and exciting. That platform to be able to think and explore what we wanted, with a little bit of guidance but not too much — that was really influential for me, it was definitely the beginning.’
Their Mum was the artist leading the project. If I was a baby that was born that Summer 2014, their Mum was the one pulling me out of the cosmic womb, headfirst and screaming.
‘I’ve grown up in art spaces, going to openings, galleries and helping out with her projects – just doing bits and bobs from when I could speak and walk. And I was always a creative kid, I had a binder with all my best kid art in and we called it my portfolio. But art seemed like Mum’s thing for a long time. Then when I was 13 she took me to see Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency and it was the first time I was truly inspired for myself. I was just like, ‘OH, COOL. This is COOL.’ You know that feeling? It made me want to be a photographer. I wanted to document lives in that kind of way.’
That formative moment of first contact. We all have long, complex relationships with art. I think the romance is in the meet cute, where we felt a sugar rush dopamine hit of ‘This Is It. I Love This And I Probably Always Will.’
‘I always though it was quite cool, like it’s a cool job and her projects were interesting. I’d get begrudgingly dragged to things and I was exposed to a lot of, particularly Black and brown art through these places I spent time in as a kid. By osmosis it all seeps in and you learn that way. One of the stories my Mum loves to tell is from when I was five, I was in the Stuart Hall Library with [XXX]’s daughter. We were running round the library throwing books off shelves and being menaces. Our Mums were like ‘oh no don’t do that’, then apparently Stuart Hall came in and said, ‘no, they can do whatever they want, it’s their library’. That was my childhood, being around these iconic people and not necessarily knowing who they were. But those iconic people having an approach of like, you deserve to be here, you have a place, be a kid, and also be here, drink the orange juice next to the bad wine and like, great. You know?’
Their story disarms me for a second. Mostly because it must have been so strange, being a child in these spaces. But also, later, I realise that I struggle to think of icons like Stuart Hall in a way that makes them feel like people out in the world. Thinkers and writers and artists have whole lives, they get the bus they buy loaves of bread they laugh at funny things kids do in libraries. They wrote and thought in ways that shaped the trajectory of culture, history, society. But they don’t just exist on pages or in wider movements. Culture, history and society is made in discrete, human ways.
‘It helped expand my mind in terms of what’s possible. Especially when you’re a Black or brown person in the UK, you don’t have access to these spaces that already show you it’s possible to be an artist, to think differently, to not just have to do the things that you’re prescribed to do, either by cultural expectations or the expectations of… well, racist Britain. I just felt emboldened. I didn’t have questions about inclusion or whether or not I’m meant to be here. I think that plagues a lot of Black and brown artists. That question of: am I meant to be here, do I deserve to be here, is what I have to say relevant or is it going to be heard? I already knew there were places for me to be, where I could be heard. So when it came to having my own practice or career, I just didn’t — that question of whether I deserve to be here or whether I’m going to be included, I didn’t think about it. It’s not important.’
The psychological gap between art workers that are plagued by those questions, and those that aren’t feels palpable. It’s not like they’re terrible questions. Maybe sometimes they’re actually necessary or useful, to get to the existential centre of what you’re trying to do. I just think that they can be a kind of burden if you already feel like there isn’t much space for you. We close our eyes a make a wish: that everyone could feel so seamless, that those kinds of questions could disappear.
‘After that it was just a lot of admin odd jobs at galleries and arts organisations. I did social media, I was an admin assistant, I worked front of house, I supported one of those art summer schools for kids. You know those year long, entry level jobs that, for a period of time in your life, you can get as a way into the art world? I also did a bunch of random retail jobs to support those but — those jobs were an education in how organisations work. How do I want them to work and where are the issues? That’s all stuff you don’t learn at art school; what’s an NPO and what does that mean, how to use certain kinds of databases. I think that gets lost, people don’t realise curation isn’t that glamorous. But I learned it by doing an arts organisation’s grunt work.’
It’s important for me to ask this, even though it feels like a stupid question. What actually is a curator?
‘The general understanding is a curator is a person who chooses art to put in a room. Kind of. That’s the basic definition, isn’t it? My understanding always changes but in terms of my own curatorial practice, I enjoy that sense of trying to translate my personal taste and the things I like into something that I can show people.’
The curatorial impulse is an odd but essentially very human thing. To show rather than to make, or to make through showing, through arrangement.
‘I’m interested in culture in various forms and I want to show it to people, I want to pull cool things out of culture, things I like and go ‘look at this! This is great!’ I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a person who thinks up new ideas that much. It’s more that I get inspired by what is around me and I want to bring that together.’
They work as part of a curatorial collective called XX, so I ask how that collective endeavour works and fits their curatorial impulses.
‘The way we approach it as XX is, we find artists we think are interesting, or saying something interesting, and just allow them the space to say that thing. We’re the interlocutor between the artist and their vision, what they want, and an audience.’
Curator as interlocutor! The translator, interpreting the space between two people, allowing them to really talk to each other. Participant in dialogue, almost defined by their participation, like it is the entire main reason they exist.
‘An artist’s singular vision is important but if you’re thinking about public presentation, maybe you’re not but if you are, then thinking about the audience and what they’re getting from it is also important. It’s about connecting the two. Sometimes artists don’t necessarily know how to translate all of the thoughts that are going on in their heads to anyone else. Some artists don’t need that, some artists do, some artists want it. I don’t think it’s entirely necessary.’
Theatre has a word for this, kind of. A dramaturg. An expert on the dramatic text and dramatic conventions, someone who can give the cast and director heightened insight into the work. But also someone who can stand between the performers and the audience and mediate the terms of their interaction, so the interaction is as smooth as possible. So there are no lost words, nothing lost in translation or floating off into the void.
‘We have a sense of the kind of artists we want to work with. Essentially we’re interested in Black artists who maybe work in a sort of political way. It doesn’t have to be directly political, it can also be roundabout or abstract, but there’s a sense of a liberatory approach. It’s about an approach to ideas because they tend to vary in terms of medium, or they operate in mediums that aren’t necessarily so tangible or saleable. Particularly for Black artists, if you’re not making figurative work or work that’s easily digestible by a presumed white audience, it just doesn’t get much attention in institutional spaces. The audience that follows us gets to see a range of different approaches to a similar thing, which is also interesting.’
They are there to mediate, make sure things are not lost in translation (or if they are, that they are lost on purpose).
‘With XX we tend to work with artists at the beginning of their careers, maybe when they haven’t had as many opportunities. Or maybe artists that are more established but haven’t had their work shown in a certain way. We like to work with artists iteratively, multiple times. We might do a smaller project, hear a bit more about their work, then a group show and slowly, as we get to know more about their practice and who they are, what they think about, then maybe we’d do something bigger.’
Taking the time to build a relationship with artists?
‘Yeah, giving them the space to be able to think, breathe a bit, being a sounding board and allowing them to work through their ideas. Maybe doing shows that are halfway through a process, presenting thoughts and not expecting them to create perfect finished exhibitions at the end. We want to give artists the freedom and space to think differently’
It’s curatorial work that has voiced its motivation, its function and purpose. A curator’s job is dependent on the existence of an artist and their work. It’s a kind of labour that works purely at an interface with other things, about processing rather than production.
‘Often artists are used like — well, a little bit like tokens or routes to cultural capital for curators. Working with an artist that’s cool or having a moment, having that associated with your name—’
That has a real reputational value. At the raw edge, when artists are still working in a soft, tender space, taking the time to do the interpersonal work of collaboration means they can have a more horizontal relationship. Their work with XX is about facilitating, asking artists what they need and plugging the gaps so the process of making is smooth and open.
‘A lot of the artists we work with end up being close friends because of that bond we make, working together at such a close proximity. It’s nice! We’re usually talking to artists at a stage where they’re not necessarily talking to other curators about formal projects. It’s tentative and not always easy, sometimes the boundaries can be blurred or complicated. But it’s an exchange, it’s not just like we’re working for you, it’s a collaboration. And when that collaboration really works and feels friendly or warm, you end up with something that – you can feel it in the work.’
That’s not just a soft goopy feeling, or collaboration as last year’s curatorial buzzword. Labour relations or working conditions can be rendered and made palpable in the art object. Maybe art just suffers an excess of capitalist thought, but socialist writing has already dealt with the idea that the spirit of the labour lives on in the work, the object, or the exhibition.
‘It’s more about the relational exchanges between witnessing work, experiencing it, talking about or around it. We try to do a lot of public programming, and have multiple entry points, allowing the artist and audience to think with the work. I think sometimes, when the work is so bound up, that gets missed. When art is this reified object, it’s just not something that appeals to us. That thinking space, to experiment or think or dream with it is missed because it’s so definite.'
Art is not a reified object, curation isn’t glamorous. But still there’s a persistent delusion of grandeur around the art world and about art’s place in public life. The art world suffers a kind of misplaced exceptionalism that feels sticky, like it gets in the way as we talk about what we do or as we try to do what we do.
‘We try not to think about Black artists as if they’re not also Black people, and Black people as if they can’t all be Black artists. You know, first and foremost, we think of ourselves as abolitionist, anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist thinkers and we just so happen to be working in the arts.’
In order to scrape off the stickiness, they collapse the boundary between art and the real world. Art worker as Worker, no caveat or qualifier.
‘In 2020 everyone was asking us if we had a statement about the protests, or asking us for answers about how we could make the art world better for Black artists and it was just like… at this point it’s not really about Black artists in the art world. It’s about Black people, it’s about workers, it’s about everyone. If we get rid of the exceptionalism and think of ourselves as just an industry in a capitalist world of industries, we are just workers within that industry and we have to engage with that industry in a certain way to make the things we’re trying to make.’
The relationship between labour, product and payment in the art world is weird and the shape of things can often feel lopsided. Institutions act as a middleman distribution mechanism for public money that could, under a different system, just go directly to artists and art workers.
‘Institutions are generally the places that have access to capital, be that cultural or financial. The way I see my job is, I’m trying to syphon those resources from the institution and divert them. There’s this flow of money and resources going in a particular direction, generally. So how do I set up a syphon that allows for that to go in a different direction? That’s the approach.’
So how do they negotiate the terms of that relationship? How do they handle the institution away from themselves?
‘I don’t care about the status of these institutions for the sake of it. Beyond the name, what’s the usefulness of working with them? Like, the beast in itself is not interesting to me.’
Even under the weight of Racist Britain’s expectations, we can opt out of that pressure to ask ourselves: am I meant to be here? Will the institution listen to me or care about me or — fuck inclusion! It’s a rigged game, an answer to the wrong question.
‘These institutions aren’t destinations, they’re tools. They’re not here for us, not built to support us and I don’t expect them to support me. I know the world’s not built that way, I understand the absurdity of it all. So I have to ask myself what the institution can provide me with, what can I get from it —’
Almost against the institution’s will, or against its knowledge.
‘— and what they need from us. To me that’s the more interesting question.’
I remember being sat in that room, upstairs in the gallery. It was Summer 2014 and I was a fresh faced baby. Someone across from me laughed and said, ‘rob this England’. I wanted it tattooed on my soul. ROB THIS ENGLAND. ROB THIS ENGLAND. ROB THIS ENGLAND. I repeat the words to myself. When I feel like I am in danger of feeling undeserving. When I feel questions rumble up like heartburn. When I lose focus and drift away from centre. Rob this England is an answer to a much more interesting question.