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Elvira Dyangani Ose, 8th GIBCA Göteborg Biennale

September 12, 2015
Originally published on IAM

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With the theme A story within a story, the Göteborg International Biennial of Contemporary Art opens today. IAM discussed with Elvira Dyangani Ose, the curator of this 8th GIBCA, to know more about her curatorial concept and rationale. She launched the inauguration asking the audience to bear in mind one question while discovering her proposal: “If you could change something in history, what would you do?”

Clelia Coussonnet (CC) | The recuperation of hidden collective memories, the claim for a revision of history and the commitment to socially engaged projects are your trademark. I am curious to hear how you frame the artworks and artists selected for GIBCA into that.

Elvira Dyangani Ose (EDO) | When I pursue —as you so generously have put it— those ‘trademarks’ or interests, each and every time, I do so in dialogue with artists. There is never the imposition of a curatorial approach; the latter is just the point of departure of a conversation. That is the same method I have followed in the making of A story within a story… Some of the artworks, produced ex profeso for the biennial, have exceeded my curatorial expectations: creating narratives that present us with inquiries into our historical consciousness, bringing subjectivities to the production of history, and performing storytelling. Uncertainty plays a crucial role in the development of such conversation; one simply has to trust the process —and the artists, of course.

CC | With the vision of history as an ongoing open sum of multiple non-linear narratives, do you feel any tension between concepts of truth/authenticity and falsity/fiction?

EDO | Fiction is constitutive to all history. In fact, historically we have accepted as truth the compilation of historiographical evidences, shaped by ideologies and systems of power, which —as we know— do not always translate into historical truth. Bearing that in mind, I wonder why should it seem so hard to accept ‘uncertainty’ —I prefer it to falsity— as a category from which to confront history-writing? That reflection is hardly new. Postcolonial theory, for instance, has made one of its goals to deconstruct and rewrite Western certitudes regarding ideas on subjectivity, progress, freedom and the meaning of history.

Bouchra Khalili, Foreign Office, 2015. Photograph Hôtel El Safir, Ex-Aletti, Algiers City Centre. Residence of the Black Panther Party delegation during the 1969 Pan-African Festival of Algiers. Fig.1 : Entrance of the former Casino
Bouchra Khalili, Foreign Office, 2015. Photograph Hôtel El Safir, Ex-Aletti, Algiers City Centre. Residence of the Black Panther Party delegation during the 1969 Pan-African Festival of Algiers. Fig.1 : Entrance of the former Casino. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Polaris, Paris. Photo: Clelia Coussonnet

CC | Rewriting History through individual stories; re-appropriating and/or re-enacting past events through artworks eventually deals with transmission. What is your take on art as a way to recover a kind of traditional storytelling as a collective body?

EDO | On the one hand, I grew up in a culture in which storytelling was part of everyday life. ‘Tradition’ was something organic, complex and mutable, and in that sense, extremely engaging. Indeed, storytelling was a social tool; the provider of a transformative definition of institution. It wasn’t nativistict; its present-ness unveiled and questioned socio-political, economic and cultural changes of our contemporary experience. On the other hand, I was surrounded by a world that questioned who I was, my identity, my authenticity. I was born in a place of dissent. Perhaps, for that reason —and without ruling out my attraction to other forms of art— I have always been drawn to an art that poses questions, that does not take for granted a state of things given. ‘Tradition as a collective body’ is one of these things. One has to understanding it in its multiplicity and within and beyond a particular community or one will not be able of understanding it at all.

CC | Which space is there for performativity and permeability between artworks and communities concerned by those hidden stories?

EDO | That is a tricky question. Unveiling ‘hidden’ stories, or making a portrait of a community —as we have seen in more occasions than we would like to recognise — poses many questions. The only way in which I see that happening in a ‘permeable’ way is in open and honest dialogue with such community. Subjectivity will always interfere with the truth —we have already questioned that before; one just needs to make everybody aware of it in the process. Everything should be consensual.

Phoebe Boswell, The Matter of Memory, 2014
Phoebe Boswell, The Matter of Memory, 2014. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Clelia Coussonnet

CC | Is healing a seminal notion within the concept of ‘history writing’? If so, how will that be addressed?

EDO | To an extent it is, but like many others, I refused the portrait of a community or the recovery of a story from the perspective of its victimisation. In her essay ‘Archiving to Oblivion,’ published in GIBCA’s book, Yaiza Hernández Velázquez points out that artists seemed to be better equipped than historians to tell not things the way they really were, but the way they really felt. As history is not just a succession of events; unveiling some hidden episodes—both from the past and the present— and its protagonists is a process charged with ambiguities, deception, nostalgia, but also with a radical sense of transformation, poetical restitution and social justice. In questioning history-writing, it is not enough to present evidences of silenced histories, it is necessary to unpack the systems of power that provoke that silence in the first place. We would be destined, otherwise, to repeat history.

CC | On the curatorial aspect of GIBCA, how are you shaping this independent, self-represented and freed narrative through the exhibition space? Will you embody the quality of ‘history as a work in motion’ in the curation’s pace and rhythm?

EDO | Bringing that sense of openness to any architectural space having its own restrictions and limitations is fairly difficult —one has to adapt, read the space, notice it, confront it, in order for it to disappear. What I have tried as much as possible is offering every artists and artwork a proper space within the venues possibilities, in search of an engaging visitor experience. There are four sub-themes or organising principles grouping the works in the various venues: Röda Sten Konstall, for instance, presents works deciphering grammars of various socio-political junctures – including the platform House of Words (HoW), probably the most comprehensive example of ‘open work’ within the biennial. In Göteborg Konsthall one finds works that challenge the role of various devices that history has used to make its subjects: the museum, the archive, the canon, etc. In Klippan various spaces host works in which storytelling is performed. Here, works and stories explore inner worlds, bringing a fictional character to the biennial, as well as to the experience of the everyday. Lastly, Hasselblad Center includes the most personal approaches, where meanings of history and story intertwine, and individual subjectivities are used as a filter to read a particular story. However, in each venue there are works, which might seem to apply to more than one theme or venue, twisting the narratives above mentioned.

Ângela Ferreira, <em>Messy Colonialism, Wild Decolonization</em>, 2015 & Ângela Ferreira, <em>Indépendance Cha Cha</em>, 2014
Ângela Ferreira, Messy Colonialism, Wild Decolonization, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Galeria Filomena Soares, Lisbon & Ângela Ferreira, Indépendance Cha Cha, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Fundação EDP, Lisbon. Photo: Clelia Coussonnet

CC | You have been working on art collectives for a while now, and said you would like to engage professionals with the public. Can you elaborate on how this collaborative aspect will take shape?

EDO | In the biennial that kind of engagement is anticipated in House of Words (HoW), a platform for social participation and storytelling. The aim was to produce a space that operated as the common house of words —in Spanish ‘casa de la palabra’— that I experienced during my childhood in Bata, Equatorial Guinea. A space of sociability, solidarity and collective knowledge. The project in Gothenburg has gone far beyond the initial conceptualization discussed with the artistic directors at GIBCA and Edi Muka —former GIBCA curator, currently working in the Public Art Agency, Sweden— when we decided that architect Santiago Cirugeda and Loulou Cherinet should be the ones, delivering the architectural project and proposing a conceptual approach to activate the space, respectively. Each of them brought their own particular experience. On the one hand, Santiago Cirugeda – Recetas Urbanas’s methodology has always been horizontal and collective. His buildings are the result of an incisive architecture with a strong social component. He emphasises the commitment to the use of local resources and recycling material, as well as the engagement of groups and individuals in the building process. On the other hand, Cherinet —who is also taking part in the building phase— has envisioned a series of conversations, inviting people from various realms of life —art producers, artists, scholars, professionals of all kind, authorities and members of several civil organisations— to share their stories. More than 70 volunteers from Gothenburg, other parts of Sweden, together with people coming from Spain, Colombia, UK and other countries, have signed up to be part of the building of HoW. It is fantastic!

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, <em>The August</em>, 2015
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, The August, 2015. Courtesy of the artist; Corvi-Mora, London and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Photo: Clelia Coussonnet

CC | Keeping in mind the theme, will it be an occasion to delve into Sweden’s colonial past?

EDO | Some of the conversations to be held in HoW will explore aspects of participatory politics and architecture, the notion of community and the post-colony. The latter reflects not only on Sweden’s past and the development of what Stefan Jonsson calls the Eurafrica, but also on Sweden’s present and the critical question of its current socio-political model. Furthermore, Loulou Cherinet’s project constitutes a research into the foundations of civil society in the country and the contemporary experience, taking as starting point the notions of “utanförskap” (outside-ship) —which surfaced in 2006 in the conservative party’s speeches, as regards individuals and groups living out or in the margins of the status quo — and innanförskap (inside-ship) in an attempt to unpack the differences associated with those terms and the individuals marked by them.

© Clelia Coussonnet

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