The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, South Africa—an institution opened to show the holdings of a private collector in a former grain silo in the city’s gentrifying harbor district—lacks a suitable space for discussion and debate. During a symposium for artist William Kentridge in October, the first such discursive event at the museum since it debuted with much fanfare in 2017, the omission proved a problem. “Today was a test of your appetite for critical, theoretical, and analytical thinking,” Koyo Kouoh, the institution’s newly installed executive director and chief curator, told an eager audience packed into an inadequate room with bug-eye windows on the museum’s sixth floor. “It would give me good reason to advocate for a real auditorium.”
Parlaying deficiency into opportunity has been a hallmark of Kouoh’s career. In 2008, frustrated by the brittle critical culture in post-independence West Africa, the Cameroon-born curator and all-around advocate for African art founded RAW Material Company as a remedy. Over time, this independent space in Dakar, Senegal—managed and staffed entirely by women—matured into a potent symbol of can-do enterprise and bold critical thought on the continent. And through it all, RAW’s success has owed much to its founder’s patient methods and resolute belief in an entrepreneurial civil society in which women play a leading role.
Far from a rote affair, the Kentridge symposium—which featured speakers such as curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and South African poet Antjie Krog and concluded with a humor-tinged response from the artist—was an important test of Kouoh’s long-standing belief in artistic practice as its “own system of thought.” During her welcoming speech as the museum’s new leader, Kouoh spoke to the importance of context in critical and interpretive discussions of art. Referencing Kentridge in terms that could apply to many more artists besides, she said, “William’s practice presents fascinating riddles that probe and question the impact of individual action on history and vice versa—where the personal becomes public, the personal becomes political, and the political is personal.”
Though it was organized long before her appointment, the Kentridge exhibition—“Why Should I Hesitate: Putting Drawings to Work,” which opened this past summer and remains on view into March 2020—is nonetheless a major milestone in Kouoh’s early tenure at the museum colloquially referred to as “Zeitz” but semi-officially spoken of as “MOCAA.” The exhibition is a bountiful elaboration of Kentridge’s ability to extrapolate his drawing practice across media and, for Kouoh, marks the start of a “new era” for a troubled institution whose problems far exceed the lack of an auditorium.
In May 2018, the museum’s first director, Mark Coetzee, was suspended following a complaint by members of his staff alleging instances of his issuing racial slurs and sexual innuendo. Coetzee immediately resigned, but he was ordered to return to work by a local court and was promptly fired in July.
The fledgling museum’s goodwill since its high-profile opening was greatly stymied by Coetzee, who also proved to be an eccentric adviser to German collector Jochen Zeitz, MOCAA’s namesake, during a hectic buying spree in the early 2010s. On long-term loan from Zeitz, the museum’s core collection is a hodgepodge of fashionable pop-political statements. And with the notable exception of “Five Bhobh: Painting at the End of an Era,” an informative 2018 survey of Zimbabwean painting, the exhibition program has failed to garner much critical favor in Cape Town or beyond. Still more, MOCAA has produced only three books and hosted just a handful of artist talks.
“The challenges are high—I’m not naive,” Kouoh told me a few days before the Kentridge symposium. “I am very cognizant of the hurdles and difficulties, but I strongly believe that MOCAA is one of the most important art initiatives on the continent today—and can be turned into an important tool of conversation, negotiation, and preservation.”
Kouoh’s optimism has so far proven infectious among staff, who have been energized by her arrival. At the symposium, Tammy Langtry, an assistant curator who organized the Kentridge exhibition with Azu Nwagbogu, described Kouoh as not only “amazing” but also “incredible.”
Kouoh, in a fashionable ruffled jacket by Nigerian-born, London-based designer Duro Olowu, acknowledged the plaudit but only partly agreed. “Even though I’m born on Christmas Day,” she said, “I’m not a messiah.”
One early and recurrent complaint about MOCAA after it opened was inexperience on the part of staff. The young staffers, many of them recent graduates, were not quite equipped to deal with the expectations built up by a start-up institution that had thrust itself into the global spotlight by claiming an entire continent and its diaspora as its subject matter and terrain. Since her arrival, Kouoh has put the earlier institutional hubris in check while maintaining the museum’s mandate.
Unlike her predecessor, she has also been willing to delegate important work. She appointed Storm Janse van Rensburg, formerly head curator of exhibitions at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, as senior curator. And MOCAA’s exhibition program has been retooled to include such near-term projects as a mid-career survey for South African artist Tracey Rose and the first African museum show for Otobong Nkanga, a Nigerian expatriate living in Antwerp. The two artists offer contrasting approaches to their shared craft: Embodiment is central to Rose’s unruly, carnivalesque performance practice, whereas Nkanga’s enigmatic installations and performances reveal an almost alchemical interest in raw materials.
Kouoh first met Rose and Nkanga in 2000, when they were selected by David Elliot to appear in his curated exhibition for Dak’Art, the long-established biennial in Dakar. Both artists became fixtures of Kouoh’s roaming curatorial practice over the years, notably appearing in “Still (the) Barbarians,” her large-scale exhibition for the Irish biennial EVA International in 2016. Rose also appeared in Kouoh’s acclaimed traveling exhibition “Body Talk: Feminism, Sexuality and the Body in the Work of Six African Women Artists,” for which the artist produced one of her most provocative works to date: Die Wit Man (The White Man, 2015).
To make that piece, Rose walked four miles from WIELS, a contemporary art center in Brussels, to the Church of Our Lady of Laeken, a neo-Gothic church where Belgium’s royal family are interred in a crypt—including Leopold II, the authoritarian regent who founded the Congo Free State in 1885 as a personal fiefdom. During her walk, Rose, who was made up as a clown, chanted the name of the murdered Congolese politician Patrice Lumumba—an independence hero whose death in 1961 came at the hand of Belgian agents—into a megaphone. Rose’s performance exceeds mere lament: it explicitly lays the blame for the Cold War scheming that led to Lumumba’s assassination on Belgium’s colonial past.
The process of realizing such a bold work—which has traveled as a 42-minute video projection and appeared in “Crossing Night (Hacer Noche),” an ambitious multi-venue exhibition of South African art in Oaxaca, Mexico—was intensely collaborative. “In no circumstance will you intimidate or force Koyo into something that she doesn’t believe in or want to do,” Rose told me. And the curator’s backing came with unstinting support: “When you work with her, she’ll fight for you in a way that a lot of other art-world people won’t.”
“I was extremely excited by the work,” Kouoh said of Die Wit Man. “It wasn’t ostentatious. It was a conversation between the artist and the ghosts of the Belgian crown and city of Brussels. It was performed as a ritual that needed no audience and required no justification or validation. It was an act of sacrifice.”
Rose described Kouoh, who is one of her son’s godmothers, as family. “There are so few people around that understand the power of art—not financial power but the resonance it has,” she said. Unlike some curators who operate almost like politicians, she added, Kouoh is a skilled craftsperson who—along with Bisi Silva, the recently deceased founder of the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) Lagos—has revolutionized artistic opportunity and practice on the continent, particularly through her activities at RAW. “I’m sure MOCAA will blossom and achieve what I saw at RAW,” said Rose.
Billie Zangewa, a textile artist born in Malawi and based in Johannesburg, shared similar praise. Best known for her appliqué compositions using silk fabric, Zangewa has appeared in two of Kouoh’s European exhibitions, and her work The Rebirth of the Black Venus (2010)—a depiction of a tall, poised woman looming over central Johannesburg—featured prominently in the marketing for “Body Talk.” (Zangewa’s 2014 work The Constant Gardener, also shown in that exhibition, is now part of the collection of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and is currently on view at the National Museum of African Art in the group show “I Am … Contemporary Women Artists of Africa.”)
“One-on-one, she can be very gentle and caring,” Zangewa said of Kouoh. “She has a maternal nurturing side too. I sense that she feels responsible for the artists that she is working with on any given project.” The artist also credited her relationship with Kouoh for generating interest from more-established galleries: Zangewa is represented by Templon in Paris and will be exhibiting at New York’s Lehmann Maupin in 2020.
Of her allegiance to Nkanga, Rose, and other women artists, Kouoh said, “Companionship is essential in my practice. It has been a long conversation and friendship that are, I suppose, totally incestuous. But this is how other art worlds made themselves famous—why shouldn’t we be allowed to do that?”
Born in 1967 in the Cameroonian port city of Douala, Kouoh moved to Switzerland in her teens, where, fulfilling her parents’ wishes, she later studied business administration and banking. In the early ’90s, the birth of her son, Djibril, and a divorce both coincided with a professional shift into the cultural sector. Inspired by Margaret Busby’s celebrated anthology of writings by women of African descent, Daughters of Africa (1992), Kouoh jointly edited a German-language equivalent, Töchter Afrikas, that was published in 1994. In many ways a foundational project, the book declared Kouoh’s steadfast faith in literature and women’s voices; equally significant, it introduced her to Senegalese novelist Mariètou Mbaye Biléoma, better known by her pen name Ken Bugul.
Kouoh visited Dakar for the first time in 1995, to write a profile of the Senegalese auteur filmmaker Ousmane Sembène. The trip, which included an unexpected encounter with Issa Samb, a creative polymath and doyen of modern Senegalese art, resulted in a life-changing decision when, fed up with life in Zurich, Kouoh packed up and moved to Dakar the next year. “I didn’t want to continue to look at a play in which I had no real part, in which I was just a fixer,” she said. Kouoh chose Dakar, she told me, because of “its care for arts and culture, its openness, its Sufi, Pacific, and Islamic traditions.”
Once there, she quietly became a participant in the city’s vibrant art scene. She struck up a professional relationship with Paris-based curator and writer Simon Njami, and in 2001 and 2003 served as his co-curator on Bamako Encounters, the convivial photography biennial held in Mali. “When I met her, she was far from what she has become,” recalled Njami. “She had a will, a driving force to change things, and all the choices she made were right—without compromising. She’s not a complainer type. When something is wrong, she tries to find the way to fix it.”
Samb, a founding member of the pioneering collective Laboratoire Agit’Art and fierce opponent of Senegal’s chauvinist political class, also became an important friend and mentor, and his devotion to collaboration and critical analysis are now pillars of Kouoh’s own practice. She paid tribute of a sort when, in 2013, she curated Samb’s first solo exhibition in Europe: “WORD! WORD? WORD! Issa Samb and the Undecipherable Form” at the Office for Contemporary Art Norway in Oslo.
As is now characteristic of her method, Kouoh organized a discursive program around the Samb show, in part to frame the context of the artist’s rejection, in his life and work, of the Negritude movement. This anti-colonial cultural movement was birthed by Francophone African and Caribbean writers in 1930s-era Paris, among them Senegal’s charismatic future president Léopold Sédar Senghor. A poet and literary scholar, Senghor—whose presidential reign spanned 1960 to 1980—characterized Negritude as the “awareness, defense, and development of African values.” Senghor remains an unavoidable figure in contemporary Senegal, and his beliefs, especially regarding African fraternity, dovetail with aspects of Kouoh’s personal philosophy.
“Curatorial ignorance” and “myopia” persist in the promotion of African artistic practices, Kouoh told me, which is why her activism has always focused on collaboration and institution-building. “It is very important to build institutions as opposed to careers,” she said, “because those institutions will leave a legacy that promotes knowledge.” When I suggested that such aspiration, coupled with her globe-spanning collaborations, is classically Senghorian, she said, “you are correct, but as a faithful disciple of Issa Samb, I am not a fan of Senghor.” The late leader, who died in 2001, had done “absolutely important and invaluable” work for Africa, and for Senegal in particular, Kouoh said. But while she has been inspired by his “spurring a large and rich imaginary,” she also finds Senghor’s essentialist definitions of African identity disagreeable.
Kouoh has a complicated relationship with Senegalese intellectual life in a broader sense as well. “There is a fundamental aversion to theory in Senegal and West Africa generally,” she told a small gathering of art historians and curators assembled in Dakar’s new Museum of Black Civilizations for a 2018 symposium organized by RAW. The vibrant debate, which juggled themes of emergence and collapse in African art scholarship, was guided by a provocation issued by Kouoh during one of the sessions: “The goal of this symposium is not about legitimizing histories and concepts,” she said, “but disrupting and exploding them.”
A few months after the symposium, Macky Sall, Senegal’s president since 2012, officially inaugurated the new museum—a project that traces its roots back to Senghor but was only recently completed as part of a package of Chinese-built infrastructure projects dotted across Dakar. Kouoh skipped the opening, a flag-waving affair replete with political dignitaries and an exhibition of Chinese artifacts, even though the museum featured her friend, Malian textile artist Abdoulaye Konaté, whose 2015 exhibition “Useful Dreams” Kouoh curated at Blain|Southern gallery in Berlin. (Kouoh also tapped Konaté to produce a new work for MOCAA’s Instagram-friendly atrium, designed by Thomas Heatherwick, to be installed in mid-2020.)
Not agreeing with or yielding to powerful men—be it Senghor or MOCAA’s male-dominated board of trustees—is integral to Kouoh’s biography, going back to her formative years in Cameroon. Kouoh was raised by a family of independent, powerful, single mothers before moving to Switzerland. “Family systems repeat themselves: I became a single mother myself,” said Kouoh, whose current husband resides far away in Basel.
And while she resists allegiance to any codified version of feminism, Kouoh identifies as a feminist nonetheless. “For me, feminism isn’t a theoretical construct or an analysis—it is a lived experience,” she said, invoking the memory her great-grandmother, who, at 14, was forced into a polygamous marriage in a household where her co-wives and their daughters were older than she. “My great-grandmother only had her hands and her intellect to raise her four children. This is the family I come from. That is the essence of my feminism.”
Disrupting systems of patriarchy that have stolen female imagination and power, as she put it to me, is crucial to Kouoh, but no one idea consumes her work as a whole. As a curator, she favors the particular over the general and critical truth over consoling cliché. In line with that, she has identified in-depth solo exhibitions over sprawling group elaborations as the best way forward for MOCAA.
“The curatorial and exhibition practice we want to bring to MOCAA is of course one that looks at the continent—but through the practice of individual artists,” she said at the Kentridge symposium. “We are convinced that when it comes to contemporary African art, there have been so many ideas and positions lumped into group shows, and not enough work has been done on individual voices.”
One notion that has excited Kouoh of late is “the raw shape of ignorance”—a phrase used by Kentridge to describe a certain presence in South Africa, a troubled country riven by anger at the uneven outcomes of democracy. Long a close observer of South Africa from other vantages on the continent, Kouoh said she believes her status as a foreigner—a condition central to her identity ever since she left Cameroon—might be of use in introducing conversations that locals cannot.
Her main forum is the museum, but her ambitions apply to the whole of the country she now calls home. “South Africa needs a push to expand its mind,” she told me. “It needs help from other Africans. The process of liberation is not over yet. As much as we non-South-Africans supported the country during the struggle for freedom, we also have to support the transformation process.”
She continued, speaking of the country as a curator might of an artist and vice versa, “South Africa will not be able to do it alone.”