The Meret Oppenheim prize took her by surprise, and not just because Koyo Kouoh does not care about prizes. The Swiss-Cameroonian curator says she never found much of an echo for her artistic interests in Switzerland – postcolonialism, African diaspora, identity politics, for which she has collected kudos in many other countries. The New York Times even pointed her in 2015 as ‘one of Africa’s pre-eminent art curators’. The Swiss are maybe just a bit slower, as she told swissinfo.ch – but very precise.
This content was published on November 9, 2020 – 21:59 November 9, 2020 – 21:59 Eduardo SimantobBorn in São Paulo, Brazil, editor at the Portuguese Dept. and responsible for swissinfo.ch Culture beat. Degrees in Film and Business & Economics, worked at Folha de S. Paulo, one of Brazil’s leading dailies, before moving to Switzerland in 2000 as international correspondent for various Brazilian media. Based in Zurich, Simantob worked with print and digital media, international co-productions of documentary films, visual arts (3.a Bienal da Bahia; Johann Jacobs Museum/Zurique), and was guest lecturer on Transmedia Storytelling at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts (HSLU – Camera Arts, 2013-17).
More about the author | Portuguese DepartmentCarlo PisaniThe filmmaker from Italy, who was raised in Africa, calls Switzerland home now. Carlo studied film directing at the Italian National Film School, worked as a documentary editor and director/producer in Berlin and Vienna. He crafts multimedia into engaging narratives.
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Koyo Kouoh is a hard catch, always on the move even amidst a pandemic. She currently lives in Cape Town, South Africa, where she runs the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, which holds the largest collection of African contemporary art in the world, and swissinfo.ch managed to meet her during a brief escapade to Switzerland – her husband lives in Basel but her heart is in Zurich, she says, though she was quick to rush to Paris before flying back to South Africa.Born in the coastal city of Douala, in Cameroon, she came to Zurich in her early teens to reunite with her mother and pursued her studies in banking and business before shifting her attention to the arts. She left Switzerland in 1996 to set up the Raw Material Company, an art center in Dakar (Senegal), and since then she has developed a career more focused in building up institutions, having established several initiatives in Africa and Europe that challenge the eurocentric praxis in the global art circuit, rather than promoting individual artists.Home is where the art is, Koyo’s more recent exhibition in the Zeitz Museum, sums up her stance as a world citizen, but also is very telling of her practice as curator. The show displays more than 1,600 artworks assembled through a submission process open to all citizens of Cape Town. Working closer with the immediate community around an institution is a vital practice for the curators and managers seeking a new purpose for the museum as a lively institution instead of a cabinet of ancient and exotic objects.Prix Meret Oppenheim
The Swiss Grand Award for Art / Prix Meret Oppenheim was founded in 2001 by the Federal Office of Culture in collaboration with the Federal Art Commission. It honors figures from the worlds of art and architecture as well as criticism, curation, and research whose work is of particular relevance and importance for contemporary art and architecture in Switzerland and beyond. The laureates were selected in late 2019 by the Federal Art Commission.The 2020 Prix Meret Oppenheim exhibition will not take place in the usual form in this year due to the current pandemic. From August to October, the Swiss Art Awards will be presented to the public online and in a decentralized format. In recognition of their selection to the second round of the competition, the prize money will be distributed among all finalists. A publication encapsulating all the activities will appear as a supplement to the December edition of the Kunstbulletin .End of insertionswissinfo.ch: How was the move from Cameroon to Switzerland?Koyo Kouoh: I was born in the coastal town of Douala, where the vibrancy, the activity, the noise of urban life was very strong. So, coming to Zurich I found it extremely quiet, small, clean; everything that is characteristic of Switzerland. For me it was an emotional journey, extremely enriching in terms of being able to live with my mother again, and to learn a new language, Swiss-German, that I always wanted to learn. Cameroon was a German colony until the First World War, and many German words are still present in our local dialect.And your interest for the arts, was it something brewing in you for some time or did it happened by chance?K.K.: People have a lot of fabrics, and you have a fabric for creativity, for the arts, or you don’t. I’m very much opposed to the idea that only in certain contexts or in a certain upbringing or background you get access or exposure to creative or artistic ideas. I came from a very modest background; my grandmother was a seamstress. You can’t grow up in Africa without having access to creativity. Dance, music, clothing is like a given. You don’t need specific schooling, it’s just part of the lifestyle.
Koyo Kouoh speaks about Switzerland and her upbringing in the Zurich of the 1980s and 1990sIn 2014, you made a proposal for the Manifesta biennial that took place in Zurich (2016). The proposal was rejected, but it made quite a few waves within the local art scene. What were the main issues you wanted to tackle with it?K.K.: I never applied to any of these biennial stuff but then I was asked. It was also at the time when I was thinking more about the circuit of art biennials in itself and the spectacle that it produces and the city marketing that it engenders.Having the opportunity to think about Zurich in that context, and taking into account my particular knowledge of the city was really a blessing for me. Even though my proposal was not successful, I still loved that proposal, for I think it has a timelessness that puts the spotlight in a time capsule that very few people know about Zurich.It is such a tiny place that is so loaded with culture, loaded with wealth. I really wanted to look at the cracks instead of the polish. It would have been something that infiltrates the city as opposed to exposing the city to beautiful sights and so on.Thinking about this proposal, I felt that Zurich is not a place that needs another contemporary biennial, it needs another conversation, and at that time Switzerland was totally enmeshed in the whole talk of racism, the controversies of the SVP, of limitation of migration. This is something that’s been going on and on and on.It would be really good to link Zurich and Switzerland to the larger narratives of the 20th century: postcolonialism, postmodernity, migration, racism, coloniality in its multiple forms.
After this rejection, how much of a surprise was the Meret Oppenheim Prize?K.K.: A total surprise. I never worked in Switzerland as a curator or a cultural producer, or as an exhibition maker. I moved out of Switzerland to Senegal exactly 24 years ago; my entire professional journey and my professional coming-of-age didn’t happen here.My youth happened here, and I treasure that time a lot. I was not aware that the Cultural Department in Bern (BAK) was looking at me in any sort of way, for the simple reason that the subject matters that interest me, the ideas that I pursue in my work – African diaspora, process-based conceptual art, postcolonialism, identity politics – are not exactly popular here. I didn’t get opportunities to work in this country in those fields, but that’s fine for me.I don’t consider Switzerland as a potential site for work, it’s an emotional thing, I love the country, I have a Swiss passport, my family is here, and further down it’s only three years ago that for the first time I got an invitation from Pro Helvetia to curate the Salon Suisse [for the Venice Biennial – official collateral event of the Art Biennale is conceived each year in parallel to the exhibition of the Swiss Pavilion ]. But above all, I never really think of awards, period. I do what I need to do and fine.
There are many artists that I cherish a lot, but there are also architects, film-makers etc, because I really think that the curatorial practice goes way beyond just making an exhibition. Making a publication for me is curating, for instance, and I am more and more interested in the culinary as an artistic practice. I think that the primal artist is a chef.
(In the image: The Primary Fondue Party, by Claudia Comte, “relational performance” at the Salon Suisse, curated by Koyo Kouoh for the Venice Bienalle, 2017). Gunnar Meier. Courtesy Claudia Comte
But you do think about the figure of Meret Oppenheim, the artist?K.K.: Sure! When I started to get interested in art the surrealistic movement was an obvious reference, the legacy of Dada was very present, so of course Meret Oppenheim was a figure, but also because she was a woman at a time when having a voice or a position, especially among the macho surrealistic entourage, among all those super machos like André Breton & co., it was quite an achievement for a woman coming from such a small country. Besides, feminism for me is first nature. I am very involved in women’s voices, but I don’t really make a big noise around it, I don’t need to flag it, it just comes naturally.
Switzerland has a strange relationship to Modernism. Although Dada kicked off in Zurich, the movement is still very timidly taught in schools.K.K.: Look, in the 1980s, the spirit of the Cabaret Voltaire was revived in a certain way. But we have to consider that there is such a high level of specialization in Swiss culture, specialization in everything. Look at the architecture of education in Switzerland. People are very early trapped into different fields, and they don’t access the knowledge of other fields. Differently from places like Cameroon or Brazil, or other postcolonial areas, where we tend to have a pan-knowledge, a generalist knowledge, where you know and learn different things, here you know a lot of one thing, mainly.Switzerland also has a big inferiority complex, in terms of size, of autonomy. There is no real uniformity in the country, we speak German, French, Italian, there is no Swiss as such, and I have observed over the years that it’s a country that likes to stay in the sidewalk whereas they are the ones providing the asphalt to pave the road – and making money out of it. You also have it when you look at colonial studies and colonial history, Switzerland always claiming ‘oh we were neutral, we were not imperialists, we never participated in any of this’… of course you did! All the way until today. Remember that the biggest markets for raw materials is in Zug, for instance.
A new generation of Swiss historians has been working in the last years to open the can of Switzerland’s colonial past and its present. But it hasn’t yet reached the schools, either…K.K.: It will still take some time to reach the schools. The good and the bad thing about this country is that everything goes very slow. It’s bad when you’re in a hurry… but it will happen. Slowness has its advantages, but in the times that we are living now things should be faster, all this conversation has to trickle down into the households. Because there is a lot of Swiss people still living these mythologies about the country that have no foot in history, and all these mythologies need to be unpacked and this is not to shame the country in any way, no!, it is really to give a full picture of the country.
Brief notes on the Swiss art world, by Kouoh
Harald Szemann (1933 – 2005): for any curator of my generation he is a paramount figure and it takes a lot of pride for being Swiss, like I am, but I am not at all nationalistic. I really don’t care much where people come from. Keystone / Yoshiko Kusano
Not Vital has become a great friend over the years, and I think he is a totally underrated artist. Although he is quite established and known in Switzerland, I think he deserves much more study and understanding of his work.
(In the picture: Not Vital poses in his installation “700 Snowballs”, at the Bündner Kunstmuseum during the exhibition NOT VITAL. univers privat (Chur, Switzerland, September 2017). © Keystone / Ennio Leanza
I developed a professional relationship with Zurich artist Ursula Biemann not just because her praxis is amazing, but also because her professional biography is very close to mine.
(“Sahara Chronicle” (2007-2009) by Ursula Biemann, on the illicit migration in the Saharan basin. The chapter shot in Senegal was commissioned by Koyo Kouoh.) Ursula Biemann
End of insertionHas the Covid-19 pandemic affected the way you perceive, and act on, the world?I don’t necessarily trust the idea that the pandemics could have lasting effects because money is too powerful, capitalism is too powerful and the system will very quickly want to get back to the usual.But on a human, psychological, community level, we have a whole generation coming of age now politically and socially, and experiencing the power of having a voice, the power of activism. These people will not go back, they will not be silenced any more. But I don’t think the shift will be as radical as the pandemic. There will be a change, but it will be slow. Of course people are impatient, they want things to change immediately, but time is everyone’s best ally.Now, look at me, I’m an African woman of the 21st century, I could be here screaming about racism, sexism, the non-consideration of creativity in the arts, in our societies, on the continent, but I learned with time to consider… time.
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