Main image: Installation view of ‘International Congress of African Culture’, 1962, a pan-African exhibition at the Rhodes National Gallery, Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), which set a precedent for ‘Magiciens de la terre’, the Pompidou Centre, Paris, 1989, an exhibition frequently featured in my research. Courtesy: National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Harare

In the past few years, I’ve been dedicating much of my time studying strategies in exhibition-making, and how art and its display inevitably influences society. It’s really opened my eyes to the intricacies of curating and what it means to put something on display. An essay to which I’ve found myself frequently returning has been Simon Sheikh’s ‘Constitutive Effects: The Techniques of the Curator’. It has grounded my thoughts surrounding the practice of curating as (in part) the practice of constructing knowledge and the provision of platforms from which to voice/display perspectives.

Sheik’s essay beautifully summarises why it is that I love the study of what we choose to value, how we value it and how we display it. Art, exhibitions, museums – they function in a sense as microcosms of society, where we canonise, historicise and reformulate the physical and metaphysical creations of mankind. It may sound to most, for lack of a better word, like complete ‘waffle’ – (I happen to think its a perfectly reasonable and relevant trajectory of inquiry, though perhaps I am a little too romantic about philosophy and the arts…) yet once we start to investigate with clarity the reasons why and how we (actively) choose to talk about/display/conserve certain objects, individuals or historical movements, it becomes less about the discussion of art, and more about the discussion of how we constitute our reality and the ‘truths’ we choose to ascribe to.

With regards to exhibition-making, Sheikh’s thoughts on the ‘construction’ of reality is captivating. Particularly interesting are his extrapolations from Michael Warner’s notions of the making of a ‘public’. An excerpt;

“Exhibitions were meant to please as well as to teach, and as such needed to involve the spectator in an economy of desire as well as in relations of power and knowledge. […] exhibition making was directly connected to the construction of a national body, and as such it was involved in identitarian as well as territorial politics of representation.”

[…]  “Access to knowledge then also involved an acceptance of certain histories and ways of understanding them. The exhibitionary complex not only curated histories and power-knowledge relations, but also indicated ways of seeing and behaving.”

“The modes of address in exhibition making can thus be viewed as attempts to at once represent and constitute a specific (class-based) collective subject. […] What is significant here is the notion of a public as being constituted through participation and presence on the one hand, and articulation and imagination on the other. In other words, a public is an imaginary endeavour with real effects: an audience, a community, a group, an adversary or a constituency is imagining, and imagined through a specific mode of address that is supposed to produce, actualize or even activate this imagined entity ‘the public‘”.

So what happens when we leave out individuals, movements, whole civilisations from our museums and exhibitions? We relegate them to obscurity. Art history, and history in general may I add, suffers immensely from the (at times intentional) exclusion of stories, objects and people. Historical amnesia is prevalent, if not ubiquitousWe need to address this. In light of statements made by officials as preposterous as the now infamous ‘alternative facts’ quip, it is imperative that we put to question the current state of knowledge construction, what we value in society and what we have left out. Study history, remember and keep an open mind to the perspectives of others – without it we are lost to ignorance.  (PS. take a look at TED’s educational videos ‘putting history on trial’ – although not exhaustive investigatory pieces, the vids certainly remind you of how ridiculously lacklustre your history lessons probably were… ).

So what can we do in the future?

“An exhibition must imagine a public in order to produce it, and to produce a world around it – a horizon. So, if we are satisfied with the world we have now, we should continue to make exhibitions as always, and repeat the formats and circulations. If, on the other hand, we are not happy with the world we are in, both in terms of the art world and in a broader geopolitical sense, we will have to produce other exhibitions: other subjectivities and other imaginaries. The great division of our times is not between various fundamentalisms, since they all ascribe to the same script (albeit with a different idea of who shall win in the end…) but between those who accept and thus actively maintain the dominant imaginary of society, subjectivity and possibility and those who reject and instead partake in other imaginaries. […]”

Echoing the words of Sheikh and philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis, society and its institutions are as much fictional as functional. “It is an imaginary ensemble of institutions, practices, beliefs and truths, that we all subscribe to and thus constantly (re)produce. Institutions are part of symbolic networks, and as such they are not fixed or stable, but constantly articulated through projection and praxis.”

It is time then, that we reconsider the value of spending time thinking about these things, and how the modes of address (not ONLY in exhibition-making, but in every facet of society all the way down to the way you address each other) constitutes a certain reality. Ask yourselves if it is the reality you wish to maintain.


All quotes taken from:

Simon Sheikh’s essay ‘Constitutive Effects: The Techniques of the Curator’ in O’Neill, P. (2007). Curating subjects. Open Editions and de Appel. p. 174 – 185.