The black writing on the floor reads “unsettled”. As one steps over it, the names of four participating artists are seen written on the wall to the right: Bronwyn Katz, Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja, Nolan Oswald Dennis and Zayaan Khan. A few paces further the writing states “Curated by Greer Valley”.
The exhibition, which forms part of the 14th Dak’Art Biennale, centres core considerations of Greer’s curatorial practice: exploring land as sustenance, as a register of embedded colonial violence and as a sonic archive. Held at the Ifan Museum in Senegal’s capital, the biennale teems with art lovers moving between the two floors to see the work of the guest curators, who include Valley, Syham Weigant from Morocco and Nana Oforiatta Ayim from Ghana.
Arriving at the museum on its open day, I had just missed Mushaandja’s Zilin: for the first and future sonic stars, a ritual performance highlighting the notion of a borderless Africa. Inside the museum, the rest of unsettled unfurls quietly on the top floor. Holding the room together is an installation by Khan called commensality through deep time. It features a low, long table laid with salts, sand, ash, seeds and clay pots, some made from clay collected in District Six, a Cape Town site of forced removals during apartheid.
Another piece is a sound installation by Dennis called [a_black_sun_burn], which invites the audience to sit on cushions to listen to sound composed of text fragments drawn from the Black liberation archive. Dennis digitally reassembled these fragments to produce a new score. The installation is an extension of an earlier work, a.sun.black, a digital essay game that was also available to visitors to interact with through QR codes placed strategically on the wall next to the sound installation.
Like Dennis, Katz is also showing two works as part of her continuing practice that engages land as a repository of memory. Her 2017 video installation, Wees Gegroet, is accompanied by a new work: a copper-coated wire, rust and twine sculpture called kx’orakx’ora (Renew), which gives the feeling of delicate rain cascading down the museum wall. Completing the show is a public programme around its themes, organised by assistant curator Sibonele Gumede alongside the Black Planetary Futures Institute, with guests including artist Sethembile Msezane.
At first sight, unsettled feels sparse. The previous few nights of gallery-hopping and visiting the main exhibition at the Palace of Justice presented walls dripping with paintings and floor-to-ceiling installations. This show feels quieter and therefore more demanding. It asks viewers to sit and contemplate ideas of land; to watch Katz’s Wees Gegroet as she mesmerisingly chants on red soil; to consider Khan’s table, which invites the communal act of coming together; and experience the boldness of Dennis’ work, requiring viewers to play a game moving between texts from Octavia Butler, Édouard Glissant and Keorapetse Kgositsile, among others.
Ideas then and now
When Valley, a PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art and an art history lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, was first asked to be part of the biennale ahead of the postponed 2020 edition, she had a totally different show – and artists – in mind. “We were thinking about the theme ‘out of the fire’ in terms of transformation and what it means for a country like South Africa to literally be put through the fire.
“The more I thought about it, the more I looked at people like Bronwyn’s work and looked at the issue of land. I was drawn to that much more and obviously Nolan works with this concept, so does Zayaan and Mushaandja – they all address this issue with different mediums,” she says, adding that since next year will be 110 years since the Native Land Act of 1913, she was keen to have that discussion with a different audience, like the one in Dakar.
Getting the exhibition to Senegal, however, was not an easy feat. As a guest curator she had to raise funds herself, sourcing support from different places and receiving partial funding from the National Arts Council. It was hard, she says. For instance, there was not enough money to bring the artists along for the opening weekend.
“One needs to embrace the space; Dak’Art requires one to be flexible. I think there is something about Dak’Art – its position on the continent, its position in the continent’s art history and exhibition history and its pan-Africanist approach. For me, that is one of the main reasons I wanted to go, to be part of that legacy but also to connect with the rest of the art community.”
It was Oforiatta Ayim, Valley’s fellow guest curator, who summed up the experience best in an Instagram post: “The African art world [equals] not having any money or infrastructure, getting into debt, working to get out of it, work arriving at 2am in Dakar on the day of the opening, finishing setup at 6am and going straight into the working day, nothing working or arriving, never-ending problem-solving [and] improvisation, constant exhaustion; and yet, the indescribable joy when it all works out in the end. Being surrounded by so much raw beauty and support and love.”
Valley grew up in Cape Town. She first studied and worked as an architect before finding her way towards an art career. “As an architecture intern, I worked in the Netherlands and in the United Kingdom. Living in London and the dynamic cultural scene there made me realise I didn’t actually want to be an architect, but I had to go back and finish architecture school because my parents were paying,” she says.
Valley went back to Cape Town, practising as an architect between 2007 and 2013 before returning to university in Stellenbosch to study fine art. Arriving there just two years before the Rhodes Must Fall protests, she was shocked by how untransformed it was. For example, a plaque of Hendrick Verwoerd still held pride of place in the accounting building. “I was shocked at how that apartheid Afrikaner nationalist history was just everywhere,” she says.
One of her student projects, a photographic series critical of the campus’ visual landscape, addressed this. In some images from this series Valley is seen facing plaques and statues still on campus at the time. She says she also wanted to draw attention to the contentious history of the university land itself, “the fact that the university is located on land where people were forcibly removed and the university was built”.
That area was called Die Vlakte. “I wanted to show my presence as a Black South African in this space that has been completely whitewashed and contest that history. In the end the project became an exhibition that used the collection of the university museum.”
The resulting show, The Chair, was partly inspired by American artist Fred Wilson’s work called Mining the Museum. Valley, who was working as a curator at Stellenbosch University at the time, went into the university’s archival storeroom to look for objects that would form part of her exhibition. What was particularly striking to her was the epistemic violence of the room in the way the objects had been archived.
While objects that spoke to the history of white people were bubble-wrapped and cared for, “then you go to the other side where you have necklaces, masks … but they are all unattributed. It was all just like ‘pots’. There was no care. Our exhibition became about the violence of the curatorial practice and the commissions of certain histories. How the violence doesn’t just find itself in the displays of the museum but also in the practices, methods, processes,” she explains.
Clarity of approach
As the London-based curator, writer and art historian Renee Mussai writes, “curatorial responsibility is intimately linked to the notion of curatorial care – curating as a praxis of care. Etymologically, curate derives from the Latin cura/curare, meaning ‘care/to care’.”
Valley’s experience creating The Chair honed her approach on curation as care, and her interest in doing public-facing work. During the height of the Rhodes Must Fall protests, she received funding to create Open Forum, which was a way to curate an archive of student protest at Stellenbosch University. In this work she collaborated with students around campus, including those with no formal art training.
Following her time in Stellenbosch, Valley moved to KwaZulu-Natal, teaching at the Durban University of Technology and working closely with the KZNSA Gallery, where she curated a show called Ubudlelwane in March. The show was a collaboration between Valley and fellow curator Sibonelo Gumede and artists Zawadi Yamungu, Vulane Mthembu and Dennis. It was the first time Valley collaborated with Gumede and Dennis, with whom she also worked in unsettled.
With improvisation and acts of deep listening at its heart, Ubudlelwane was a chance to think through land and the memories it holds. Visitors walked into what looked like an empty gallery at first. Through white panels installed on the walls, they could listen to sounds including those from what Yamungu refers to as uMakhweyane, a string bow played by women to express feelings and desires that they would otherwise keep private.
Pointing out that collaboration, like care, seems to form a big part of her practice, Valley replies: “I think I am interested in collaborative practice. That is a big part of how I see myself practising as a curator. With the processes and methods that go into that, it is not always easy, but I am interested in what it generates. Even the conversations, even the process itself is generative.”