As an award-winning arts practitioner, curator and sociologist, Khanyisile Mbongwa’s career includes working across different arts praxes. Her recent work includes curating the inaugural Stellenbosch Triennale (2020); some of her most recent exhibitions include Athi-Patra Ruga’s iiNyanka Zonyaka (2020) at the Norval Foundation, Cape Town, and History’s Footnote: On Love & Freedom (2021), a group exhibition at Marres House for Contemporary Culture in Maastricht, Netherlands.
The recently appointed curator for the 12th edition of the Liverpool Biennial spoke to us about anchoring her work in experiences of care, curation as activism and more.
You have quite a varied background of experience within the arts. Tell us about your journey into independent curation.
My background in the arts started with poetry, which I started performing as a teenager. This was my first love and entry into a world of imagination, possibilities, wonder and dreaming. But before that one could say that my background in the arts started with my grandmother who encouraged me to reflect on my reality through writing.
One of my fondest memories included taking a train ride from Gugulethu into the city and then to Muizenberg Beach, I was sitting by the window and my grandmother encouraged me to write about what I was seeing from a place of imagination. I would say this introduction to text and the power of words was crucial to me.
Another formative moment was being one of the founding members of a creative collective of young artists called Gugulective, which was founded in 2006. We were a movement of young people who were just trying to figure out how to set the township space as the centre of our creative and critical cultural engagement. We did a lot of exhibitions in the city and in the township, and this is where my curatorial lens starts to develop.
In 2014, I started participating in Infecting the City and I was very deliberate about wanting to work with Jay Pather. This was a crucial moment in my journey where I started forming what I wanted to do in relation to working with public space. I also interned as a curator at Elana Brundyn’s gallery; this exposed me to a lot and I had my first gallery exhibition there. I realised that I liked the autonomy working at different spaces through different times and not working permanently for any institutions. Instead, I wanted to have critical dialogues and encounters and engagements with different institutions — from galleries to foundations. Also having worked as an executive director for the Handspring Trust I developed other curatorial skills through administrative processes. These were all important moments in trying to articulate what makes up my practice as a curator.
You were also the chief curator for the Stellenbosch Triennale. Thinking back to that experience, what were some of the key elements that define your curatorial practice?
The Stellenbosch Triennial gave me the time to engage with my curatorial practice which is formulated between care and cure. By care I mean how do I care for the artists and their narratives? How do I care for them as human beings? How do I care for the process of creating a space or instigating a space for cure? What kind of systems do I need to set up as a curator to facilitate this environment of care, and figure out how the institution that has invited me has created a space of care? A safe space. It really taught me to sharpen those skills and perspectives.
Now that we are in a moment of Covid I am having to figure that out again. How do I care for curators and artists that I am inviting? This includes thinking through what kind of programming allows us to foster an environment of care, and what access really looks like. Not only how people get to the space, but taking into consideration the complexities of access in relation to social, racial and gender dynamics. So, we are talking about transport and venues. We are also talking about the financial capacity to access the space, as well as the historical conditions, the content and even the symbolism of the Biennial that allows people access or denies people access. As well as being able to hold and create space for differently abled bodies.
I am also looking at the nature of the content. What are we talking about within the exhibitions? Language also becomes important; because we speak English, what does that means for certain people who can’t enter the dialogue? And so, how do my team and I create a space of entry via educational programmes and community outreach? All of this becomes important material to process because of the magnitude of the project. History becomes an important aspect of that too; like, how do we imagine from a convoluted and violent racialised history? Ultimately the process really taught me about community, that we are not islands, that we are not imagining from these isolated places. We are always in conversation and in dialogue, with our ancestors, with time, with people in our communities that we come from.
What is currently informing your research process for the Liverpool Biennial. Is there a thread that you have started thinking through for your practice?
I am currently listening. I am listening to why I have been chosen by Liverpool to curate this Biennial — why has it chosen me? What does this place want me to see? What does it want me to hear? I am in a space where I am calling in forensic attention, I’m paying forensic attention and forensic care. I want to be informed from this place of hearing. But what I can say is that, in searching for emancipatory practices of love, care and joy, I realised that I cannot be ignorant to the conditions that made my research a necessity in the first place.
I am also thinking through British-colonial cartography where I traced the mapping as a practice of forensic care and attention to the countries’ territories and geographical locations that have had some form of encounter with the British. So that’s where my research is also taking shape through mapping. So, there is a thread that I am thinking through with this forensic care, paying attention to the details of this cartography, mapping and tracing these lines through these different territories and geographical locations. Seeing what kind of practices have emerged in these places, and not as a response to the colonial, but rather as a necessity of how people have imagined themselves through their creative practices, whether through literature, visual arts, public art, public interinterventions, or performative practices with the body as the centre of their practice.
Tell us about your relationship as a curator with the artists for the Biennial?
In this process we would commission the work, and artists would also propose. My role with the artists is really to hold the narrative and to figure out with them, which space is best suited for their work, figure out the production of the work, the best way to produce the work, how to install it and how to talk about the work and position it in the context of the entire exhibition. My role is to figure out how all these worlds of the artists who we are inviting will be in dialogue with each other in some way. Like the bigger picture, and where everything fits in. I am really in conversation and in dialogue with the artists that I invite, as well as the speakers and everyone that I work with to figure out how to create all these spaces with different works and artists’ talks, and create space where artists are well positioned, held, and well represented.
Thinking through all your work as a curator, how do you see the role of the curator evolving?
I think curatorial practices are truly evolving because people are beginning to define their practices and what their practices are informed by. Curators are no longer people who are in museums taking care of collections. We become writers, people who are critically engaged beyond museum collections. We are looking at public spaces, festivals, public programming, community outreach and all these other things which are informing so much of our curatorial practices.
Curators are not just people working in commercial galleries; the fact that you can become an independent curator and work, that for me is such an amazing thing. The curatorial practice is shifting and changing in relation to the world. I feel now that curators and curatorial practices are aware that the curator is not the centre of the conversation, even though they can be the instigator. Curators are starting to recognise themselves as cultural workers and activists, and that the curatorial practice can be a form of activism. As someone interested in interested emancipatory practices I am part of dreaming and imagining and not just putting an exhibition together as this isolated thing.