N’Goné Fall curates from the ground up

The Senegalese curator reflects on her extensive journey as a pioneer Black woman in contemporary African art and curating as well as the exhibitions closest to her heart.

Born in Dakar, Senegal, in 1967, N’Goné Fall has been a pioneering African curator since the 1990s, when there were very few Black women voices in the field.

She first studied graphic design at the Ecole supérieure d’arts graphiques (ESAG) in Paris, graduating in 1986, and then architecture at the École Spéciale d’Architecture, where she presented her dissertation in 1993 on an imagined new centre for Black art and culture in Senegal. 

While working as an architect, she became aware of Revue Noire and subscribed to the pioneering magazine that, from 1991 to 2001, promoted contemporary African art from the continent and the diaspora. She was working with the Revue Noire team by 1994 and eventually took over as editor (much to the disappointment of her architecture professor and her family). 

Fall’s legacy project, before departing the specialist publishing house, was the heavyweight publication An Anthology of African Art – The Twentieth Century (2001), which was co-edited with Jean Loup Pivin and Pascal Martin Saint Leon and gave an overview of African art during this time.  

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Fall then became a cultural policies consultant, taught at Senghor University in Alexandria in Egypt, at Abdou Moumouni University in Niger and briefly at the University of Cape Town; she also worked with the Nubuke Foundation in Ghana. 

She is currently the general commissioner of the Africa2020 Season, an initiative of French President Emmanuel Macron. A 10-month-long project focusing on innovation in the arts, sciences and entrepreneurship all over France, it is dedicated to the entire African continent. 

“I had set as a prerequisite, when I agreed to be the pilot of this project, to work with Africans from the continent. So that we do not end up with a situation that I describe as absurd, where we have French operators who do their supermarket [shopping] online, or who ask that we pay their expenses for a trip so that they go find out what is happening on the [African] continent. We know what’s going on on the continent, so let’s save time and get to the point,” she told French public radio channel France Culture, encapsulating her idea of selecting Africans to lead African projects. 

One exhibition in particular, When Things Fall Apart: Critical Voices on the Radars, which she curated at the Trapholt Museum in Denmark in 2016, was notable in that it used an African novel as inspiration for an exhibition on contemporary art from the Global South.

28 April 2017: Curator N’Goné Fall delivers a keynote address at a conference on artists’ resale rights at the World Intellectual Property Organisation headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. (Photograph by Emmanuel Berrod/ Wipo) 

Riason Naidoo: How did you get into curating?  

N’Goné Fall: I was working with Revue Noire. We were publishing, but we were also ourselves learning and sharing those discoveries. For us, it was an obvious step after publishing. And having all these artists in the magazine, we said we can do more.  

We were a partner of the Dakar biennale in 1996 and decided to do an exhibition at the same time, which was the magazine issue on African artists and Aids [published in 1995]. We did a multimedia exhibition which we presented in the OFF [the unofficial programme] of the Dakar biennale. That is how I started. 

We were also at the Bamako photo biennale that started the year before, in 1994, with an exhibition of African photographers. So we learnt curating from the ground up. What was really interesting about curating was that you were reaching out to an audience that might not read a magazine. I didn’t find the exhibitions that were happening in Paris in the 1990s interesting. 

I started paying attention to the Anglophone countries, looking at what was happening in London and the United States. At this time, curators were starting to be stars – people like Hans Ulrich Obrist were rising. These discourses were so different from what museum curators were doing and saying in France. Voilà! I got the connection with what these curators were doing. 

Any time I was travelling outside of France, I was visiting exhibitions. My training at the architecture school assisted me because the emphasis was on creativity and concept. So with curating I learnt on the job and like anything, the more you do, the better you get at it. 

When I was a teenager in Dakar, I was living in the same neighbourhood of [the art collective] Laboratoire Agit’Art in downtown Dakar. I was in that same cultural environment without being conscious of the impact of the artists, filmmakers, poets, etc. around me. I thought that this was completely normal to be surrounded by creative people. It was only when I was older that I realised that I was very, very lucky. 

I think all of these factors, where you grow up, the people around you, those that impact you, all contribute to who you are today. That was when I realised that curating is something that is impactful, powerful and that I love doing.   

Things Fall Apart by Cameroonian artist Pascale Marthine Tayou. (Image courtesy of the artist, Bildrecht Wien and Kunsthaus Bregenz)

Naidoo: Which were some of the other exhibitions that you were involved in with Revue Noire

Fall: The first one was the Bamako biennale (1994), then the Anthology of African and Indian Ocean Photography (1998) publication, which was combined with a century of African photographs – 400 photographs – that was first presented in Paris at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie. 

It became a touring exhibition that went to Berlin, London, New York, Washington DC, Bologna, São Paulo, Bamako and Cape Town. That’s how I first landed in Cape Town in December 1998, when the exhibition was presented at the South African National Gallery. 

Naidoo: What have been your curatorial highlights? 

Fall: Two projects are close to my heart for different reasons. One is called Contact Zone (2007). Samuel Sidibe, director of the Musée National du Mali, commissioned me to do an exhibition to inaugurate the new building for contemporary exhibitions. I was thinking that people like myself lack infrastructure on our continent – our work was mainly in the West – suddenly you have an opportunity in this 700m² building in Africa. 

I had to share this opportunity with my colleagues. I called my partner in crime, Bisi Silva, who had moved back to Lagos. Our meeting was obvious. I was a French-speaking West African based in Paris; she was an English-speaking West African based in London. We met in the late 1990s, and we made a promise that we would look after each other and be the best bad asses in the world and fight all the possible fights together and start mentoring young people.   

I also invited Rachida Triki from Tunisia to work with me. The three of us drove Samuel crazy. I handled the catalogue process – edited, designed and printed in Dakar – and delivered to Bamako. Bisi and I always talked about doing more projects together, but in retrospect it was the only one we managed to do. 

The other is When Things Fall Apart: Critical Voices on the Radars because of the issues that I raised in that exhibition. I started working on it in 2015. Brexit was a hot topic in Europe; there was another wave of xenophobia in South Africa; you had the presidential campaign in the US with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and I felt that everything was collapsing in the world. 

I was talking to Pascale Marthine Tayou, who at that time was working on a solo show at Serpentine Gallery, who asked me to write an essay for his catalogue. I suggested we rather have a conversation, since we had known each other since 1994 and he participated in the show I curated in Dakar in 1996. I had squatted in his place, etc. We go back a long time. I was telling him about the commission for an exhibition in Denmark and that I was thinking about the title Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. 

When I was growing up in Senegal, we read these books in school – all African writers translated into French. It was the time of [president Léopold Sédar] Senghor. Pascale started laughing and he said that he had just done a massive installation, which was called Things Fall Apart – 10m long – and offered it to me for the exhibition, if I so wished.   

Nidaa Badwan (Palestine), One hundred days of solitude, 2014. Photo. Courtesy: the artist and the French Institute in Jerusalem.

I had also wanted to visit South East Asia to collaborate with some artists in Vietnam and Indonesia and other artists in Central America, Palestine and Africa. I curated that exhibition as if I was writing a novel: the first part on human rights, and the last part that ends on a more positive note on empathy. 

There were artists that I wanted to work with for a long time, artists that inspire me. There were a variety of works in the show, some very direct and some subtler. The exhibition ran for nine months and we did reading clubs, where people read the novel in Danish and came to the museum to discuss. Actually, we invited the Danish to read an African classic novel and asked them to apply it to their own context. 

Naidoo: Your catalogue text can be interpreted as quite a pessimistic view of the world? 

Fall: A bit dramatic? That was my mindset in 2015-2016. But it ends with empathy, so more positively, to say there is a way out. I love writing and for me there is no frontier between curating and writing. I was really lucky with this project, to have the luxury of almost two years to go deep into the issues and then to come out with my own book.

Naidoo: In your text you mention that Okonkwo’s tragic destiny in Achebe’s novel is that he is unable to adapt to the changes taking place in society. Could this interpretation also not be the difference between assimilation and self-rule in the French and English colonies, respectively?

Fall: I think there are different ways to respond. You have different ways of resisting. It depends on what is your methodology, what is your strategy? Being an African Senegalese curator invited to do a project in a small town in Denmark, where people did not even know there were Black African curators in Africa – that was my motivation. 

When I arrived there, it was seen that they were giving me an opportunity, but actually I educated them about Africa. So that is what I mean when I say strategy. I knew Okonkwo’s fate would end badly; he was too rigid. You know, when I was with Revue Noire, people were saying that there was no contemporary art in Africa. And now the same people want to tell me who Pascale Marthine Tayou is and who Barthélémy Toguo is. 

Palestinian artist Nidaa Badwan’s One Hundred Days of Solitude. (Image courtesy of the artist and the French Institute in Jerusalem)

Naidoo: You worked exclusively with socially engaged artists from the Global South. What was the logic behind this?  

Fall: These artists stand for something. In Senegal we felt a bit disconnected from the struggles of other Africans, in Angola, in South Africa, etc. My father was preparing for an independent Senegal, so we were always talking politics. We had an awareness that is in the DNA of my family. 

I was impressed by an artist like Tiffany Chung from Vietnam, who combines the poetic with the dramatic and has a strong concept along with the visual. It’s true that I was attracted to artists dealing with social, political and economic issues, because there are so many issues that we need to deal with on the [African] continent. 

Naidoo: What made you reach out beyond contemporary African art in this exhibition?      

Fall: Because the opportunity was there. Generally speaking, when you are an African curator, people only call you to do an African art show. That’s how it worked in the early 1990s and 2000s. I’m not sure if it has changed. In Denmark I had carte blanche. 

The exhibition was part of a festival called Artists in Society, which is very broad. It was an opportunity to work with these different artists that I eventually included in the show. I expanded my African family to the Global South family. 

The other interesting fact is that the novel by Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, has been translated into more than 50 languages. So when I reached out to the Vietnamese, they told me that it was the only African novel that they had ever read because it was the only one available in Vietnam. So all the artists from the different countries around the world read the novel for this exhibition.    

Ugandan artist Babirye Leilah’s Safe Here. (Image courtesy of the artist)

Naidoo: Is When Things Fall Apart an African response to the exhibition The Divine Comedy – Heaven, Purgatory and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists curated by Simon Njami in 2014? Is there any relationship between them?  

Fall: There is absolutely no relationship at all. When I am thinking about an exhibition, I am not thinking about what other curators are doing or not doing. It’s more about what is in my mind at the time, what I am thinking about. My conversation with Tayou was confirmation that the novel was going to be the entry point. 

Naidoo: I was just wondering because I know that Njami was criticised for being too Eurocentric in his reference with The Divine Comedy exhibition.  

Fall: I grew up in Dakar, and 90% of my time I have spent in the streets of Dakar speaking Wolof. I became Western-based when I came to do my studies in Paris in the mid-1980s. Even at Revue Noire I was the one sent to countries that nobody wanted to go to. Eritrea was still at war, Angola was just coming out of the war. When you are young, you don’t think of the danger. It is only in retrospect that you realise the risks you took. I never think of myself as being part of the African diaspora. I’m a Senegalese. Sometimes I’m based in Europe, sometimes I’m based on the [African] continent, sometimes I’m based in South Korea for three months. 

It is true my references are African. It is extremely important for me to share that African experience, African knowledge with the rest of the world. My role as a curator and as a writer would be to give access to that knowledge, so that while I am curating and writing, you can learn from the African experience. So Eurocentrism is the last thing you can accuse me of. 

I was raised in a pan-African mindset in my family and I strongly believe in the power of African cultures. I can also be very Parisian, very New York, very Brussels. I adapt. Unlike Okonkwo, you adapt to your context – but you never forget who you are.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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