Index curator, Denzo Nyathi
Index curator, Denzo Nyathi
Image: Supplied

In attempts to map out the landscape of contemporary art on the African continent, one might find that the curator occupies a nebulous position.

Existing in no-man’s-land, between institution, artist and audience, it can be particularly difficult to understand what demands to make of the curator. To whom are they (or should they be) most loyal, amid these various entities they stand between? The answer might not be on the horizon soon, as their work often dabbles in the realm of the immaterial.

A far cry from the would-be-fun understanding of the curator as the person who spends all day saying “a little to the left, and now a little to the right”, the curator’s actual work is far too often administrative, at the best of times conceptual, and more necessary than some would like to admit: commercially concerned.

The curator can be called to the expectation of one task: simply, to think (as simply as such a thing can be, that is). To think of all the various partners they must engage; and to think of the artists they work with; and to think of the work they are entrusted with; to think of how best to care for this work; and the audience that might see it, and how they might think of it. This immaterial realm of thought is dauntingly and delightfully abundant. 

From the perspective of the business of arts, the group exhibition acts as a kind of litmus test in ascertaining the career position of an artist. While the solo exhibition is often used as a marker of further advancement in an artist’s career — through their ability to pull a crowd all on their own — the group exhibition is useful in understanding an artist’s career in relativity. Established artists are exhibited alongside established artists; emerging stars shine beside one another. In the most exciting and daring of cases, established and emerging artists are exhibited together in a dialogue, subverting market expectations.

In its second year as a platform, RMB Latitudes’ Index continues to push towards subversion. Defying the common rules that require artists to be presented by a gallery at a fair, Index strives towards the breaking of those barriers to entry that exclude independent artists from art fair participation.

Sahlah Davids, Embraced, 2022
Sahlah Davids, Embraced, 2022
Image: Supplied

Highlighting difference

This platform is a group exhibition, and in an ironic twist of requirements, necessitates that the featured artists be independent. In its 2024 articulation — under my own curatorial direction — the show takes on a constructivist interest. It takes an interest in the weight of these words, which bear the power to build fairs around us as we know them.

What does it mean to be independent, when independent artists often practice in collectivity, and form quasi-institutions of their own? What does it mean to be a part of a group exhibition, among a seemingly unrelated cohort of people, and thus highlighting difference? What does it mean for independent artists — who might occupy the margins of the commercial art sector — to occupy space in the beating heart of the commercial art sector, that is a fair? 

The exhibition The Orchid and The Wasp: Thin Lines of Becoming nestles between “us” and “them”, noting how those imagined entities might, and often do, touch. At its root, Index 2024 questions the idea of belonging. 

This issue of what it means to belong is taken beyond contemplating how it is we might fit into the skew-built-boxes of art speak. The artists in this exhibition come from all walks of life (and across the continent), but are united at the point of contemplation around the complexity of where we belong.

For some, the contemplation is the complexity of belonging within racial identity (as with Chuma Adam and Nathaniel Sheppard). Some artists find themselves between the history and culture of the past, and how it fits with their contemporary experiences (see Thero Makepe and Ayanfe Olarinde).

Similarly, others (Sahlah Davids and Lorraine Kalassa) consider this even more intimately, with family as reference.

In other artists’ work, things as material as the glass of a cellphone (Chloe Shain) or hard edges of metal fencing (Ntsako Nkuna) are physical manifestation of the paradoxes of belonging/division we are so entrenched in. And materialising the very self-referential basis of this exhibition, Kutti Collective produces work that thinks through the fact of being in collectivity. 

Nathaniel Sheppard, Chapeto, 2023
Nathaniel Sheppard, Chapeto, 2023
Image: Supplied

Honoured artists

While The Kutti Collective’s ability to transverse distance and the reality of difference is in some way inspiring, this exhibition does not neglect the full range of joys and problems that come with this way of working. Makepe — of The Botswana Pavillion — admits to the rewarding but challenging nature of collective practice, noting that collective’s agenda was also to push unheard of narratives of Botswana. 

Makepe was also selected as a 2024/2025 Foam Talent, with a feature in Foam Museum’s exhibition, among 18 other honoured artists from around the world. 

“Everyone just came with a spirit of celebrating each other’s work,” Makepe said.At points, Makepe noted very evident conceptual links between himself and other artists of the cohort; and at other points, the interest was in the stark difference in subject matter and approach.

From his account, the Foam exhibition seemed to do what a group exhibition at its best can do: collage. It brought together mismatched pieces of different textures and tones, and made something new altogether.

Like memory (which too is like collage), there will be moments in which two things feel so similar though completely removed from each other, in that way that déjà vu is so strange and exciting. Conversely, like déjà vu’s lesser-known but equally creepy counterpart, jamais vu, the group exhibition should present the familiar in a context that makes it feel anew.

Such is the entice. The question of “what are we all even doing here”, is what likely continues to bring us together, as art audiences, curators, artists and organisers alike.

At the very least, it would be far less fun to rave about or complain about art if we read in isolation a piece from its contemporary moment, our artists from their peers, and these practices from their industry. Such is the devilish, delicious entice of it all.

This article was edited and adapted from the original opinion piece from Latitudes Online. 

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