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View of Yinka Shonibare MBE's work 1-54 New York 2018. Courtesy Katrina Sorrentino for 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair.

7 African Curators You Should Know

These African curators have already made in impact in the art world—get to know them.

The Brooklyn Museum recently made headlines when it hired two white people as curators for their African art department. In October 2016, an article by The New York Times titled "Discovering Contemporary African Art, With a Curator as a Guide" profiled three curators and only one was African.

Coverage like this has led to the assumption that there aren't many curators of African descent. The reality is that African curators have held shows at biennales in Europe, curated ground breaking exhibitions and changed the way African art is perceived.

Here is our list of the seven African curators you should know.


Rujeko Hockley

As a child, Rujeko Hockley, who was born in Zimbabwe and raised in Washington, D.C., was an active museum goer of the Smithsonian. She began her career as a curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, then went onto the Brooklyn Museum as an assistant curator of contemporary art. While at the Brooklyn Museum, she was responsible for co-curating the We Wanted A Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-1985 exhibition. In 2017, she was appointed assistant curator at the Whitney Museum where the museum's chief curator hailed her as "the brightest and most passionate curatorial voices of [her] generation." She will be organizer of the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Hockley believes that curators work in the service of the arts. In terms of being a woman of color in the arts, she stated in an interview with MM Lafleur that in the show We Wanted A Revolution, "we wanted to show that black women are not outsiders to the art world or to the feminist movement—we are right in the middle of it, being hosts and not guests."

Okwui Enwezor

Unlike his fellow curators on the list, Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor took a different route to becoming a curator. While studying political science in New Jersey, he spent his downtime hanging out with creatives in the Bronx. Realizing there was almost no African art on display at New York, he created the Nka Journal of Contemporary Art in 1994. In 1996, he curated an exhibition called In Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present at the Guggeinheim Museum. A year later, he curated the Johannesburg Biennale. In 2012, he curated the Paris Biennale and in 2015, made history as the first African to direct the Venice Biennale. Enwezor's work has addressed various social themes relevant to the African continent such as apartheid, labor disputes and genocide using the mediums of paintings, photography, installation and video. In 2017, Enwezor was awarded the International Folkwang Prize for his work "expanding art beyond the European American canon." He is currently the director of the Haus der Kunst Museum in Munich, Germany.

Missla Libsekal

Missla Libsekal is an independent curator, writer and cultural producer who was born in Ethiopia and was raised in Swaziland and in Canada, which she calls home. She founded Another Africa, a site dedicated to contemporary art and culture practices. In 2017, Libsekal was the curator of the second edition of the Art x Lagos, Nigeria's first international art fair. In an interview with Nataal magazine, she described her approach to the curated projects stating, "I was thinking about the rupture of histories within the African context and how we address them—that felt critical to use as a foundation. I also wanted to think about materiality and expand on how contemporary art is understood and defined."

Raphael Chikukwa

Raphael Chikukwa began his career as an independent curator before becoming the chief curator of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in 2010. In 2011, he was the curator of the Zimbabwe Pavilion for the 54th International Art Exhibition, Venice Biennial (Venice, Italy) which was the first time the country was appearing at the prestigious event. He reprised that role at the same event in 2013 and 2015. He holds an MA in curating contemporary design from Kingston University, London and has presented talks on African museums at the Tate Modern, Art Basel Miami, Johannesburg Art Fair and more. He is currently the curator-at-large for painting and sculpture at the newly opened Zeitz Museum Of Contemporary African Art in Cape Town, South Africa.

Bisi Silva

Bisi Silva is an independent curator based in Lagos, Nigeria who obtained her MA in visual arts administration with concentrations in curating and commissioning of contemporary art from the Royal College of Art, London. In 2007, she founded the Center for Contemporary Art Lagos (CCA Lagos) to develop an "expanded notion of curatorial practice," as she stated in an interview with Freize. She sees her role as a curator as a way of linking the artist, the work and the public. Two prominent artists she has curated shows around are El Antsui (El Anatsui: Playing with Chance in 2014 and Meyina in 2017) and J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere (J.D. Okhai Ojeikere: Sartorial Moments and the Nearness of Yesterday in 2010 and J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere: Moments of Beauty 2011).

Silva has curated various biennales including the Art Dubai (2013), Thessaloniki Biennale (2009), Bamako Encounters (2007), Dakar Biennale (2006) and the Bamako Art Encounters Biennale in 2015. In 2016, she served as the artistic sirector of the Art x Lagos art fair. In addition to the CCA Lagos, Silva also runs the Asiko Art School—a workshop and residency program open to artists from across the African continent.

Simon Njami

Simon Njami is an independent curator, artistic director and writer of Cameroonian heritage. In 1991, he created Revue Noire, which is described as the first international investigative quarterly magazine on contemporary artists from Africa and its diaspora. He served as the artistic director of several biennials including the Bamako Encounters (2001-2007), Picha Encounters (2010) as well as involvement in the Lubumbashi biennials and the Luanda and Doula biennials. He co-curated the first African pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007 and curated the FNB Joburg Art Fair in South Africa (2008). One of his most notable exhibitions is the Africa Remix, which featured works by eighty contemporary African artists shown at five venues worldwide from 2004 to 2007. In 2016, he was named artistic director of the Dak'art 12th edition.

Koyo Kouoh

Koyo Kouoh is an independent curator and cultural producer. She was born in Cameroon, then studied business administration in Europe before moving to Dakar, Senegal in 1996 to work in the creative sector. She set up the RAW Material Company in 2008, which is a contemporary arts center. In 2001 and 2003, she co-curated the Bamako Encounters and was curatorial advisor for documenta 12 (2007) and 13 (2012). Specializing in photography, video and performance art, some of her notable exhibitions include Body Talk: Feminism, Sexuality and the Body in the Work of Six African Women Artists (2015) and Precarious Imaging: Visibility and Media Surrounding African Queerness (2014). Kouoh curated the 'Forum' talks at the 1:54 Art Fair in London (2013, 2015, 2017) and New York (2015). In 2016, she was tapped to curate EVA International: Ireland's Biennial of Contemporary Art. In January 2018, Kouoh spent two weeks as a visiting scholar at the University of Pittsburg where she presented a talk on 'Institution Building as Curatorial Practice.'

Mazuba Kapambwe is a freelance writer, social media consultant and a lifestyle and travel blogger who founded the Zed Blog and Social Media Awards. She is also the co-host of docu-reality webseries, 'The Fest Gurus.' Follow up with her on Twitter @afrosocialite and @TheFestGurus.

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Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njere, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njere. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko formed a creative and activist hub, called PAWA 254, with Mwangi, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko


OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njere represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njere's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njere, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has three cinematographers, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njere and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.


Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko


That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating. They're putting us on the same level as porn.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'


"SOFTIE" Movie Poster



Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko www.youtube.com

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