Zoe Whitley's Art World

Juliette Harris

From the Shadows Took Shape exhibition: Mehreen Murtaza Triptych, 2009/2013 Courtesy the artist and Grey Noise, Dubai via the Studio Museum in HarlemZoe Whitley is an American curator in London whose profile rose considerably in her homeland when she co-organized with Naima J. Keith, The Shadows Took Shape, the 2013-14 exhibition on Afrofuturism at the Studio Museum in Harlem that attracted large broad media attention.  

She currently is assisting with the Tate Modern's development of its contemporary African art collection. 

Though her work with African, European and African American artists and her extensive network of friends and colleagues both here and abroad, Whitley is poised to become an international curator in the continuing style of Simon Njami and Okwui Enwezor or for special collaborations such as the one of Richard Powell (USA) and Peter A. Bailey (UK) for Rhapsodies in Black, described below.  

Zoe Whitley’s work on The Shadows Took Shape stemmed from conversations about Afrofuturism with graphic artist and SUNY Buffalo professor John Jennings.  "Much of our lengthy exchange found its way into a paper I delivered in Mexico City at SITAC X, the 10th annual symposium of contemporary art theory in 2012,” she says.

Zoe Whitley, curator, contemporary British art: Tate Britain Photo: (c) Olivia Hemmingway, Tate PhotographyDuring this period, Whitley also was in touch with Studio Museum in Harlem assistant curator Naima Keith who was considering a display from the Studio Museum's permanent collection on Afrofuturism.  “We began discussing our complementary points of view and respective curatorial vantage points via email,” recalls Whitley.  “Thelma encouraged us to develop these concepts into one larger exhibition. That's how those 'Shadows' started taking shape.”

The exhibition title was drawn from an obscure poem and a posthumously released series of recordings by Sun Ra, the late, mystic progenitor of the Afrofuturist concept. The 29 artists in the show portrayed science fiction, fantasy, magical realism and pan-African themes.  

The story of how Zoe Whitley developed a transAtlantic career begins in Washington, DC.  Whitley (b. 1979) grew up there before moving to California.  She says that her mother stoked her appreciation of art and museums in DC as they visited the Smithsonian Institution museums and hands-on exhibits at the Children’s Museum.

As a teenager in Los Angeles, Whitley visited the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Norton Simon Museum. “At that time,” she recalls, “I was making my own artwork and it was mind-blowing to see up close works by Otto Dix, Ed Ruscha, Helen Frankenthaler and Rhapsodies in Black, the book accompanying the exhibition that impressed young ZoeAgnes Martin in their collections.”  These artists are all expressionists, some figurative, some non-objective. “I particularly recall seeing the Exiles + Emigres and Rhapsodies in Black exhibitions at LACMA."  

Opening in 1997, Rhapsodies is Black is a seminal example of a US-UK collaboration showing the art of African Americans in a global context. Curated by Richard Powell of Duke University and Peter A. Bailey of the University of East London, the exhibition originated at the Hayward Gallery in London, showed how the Harlem Renaissance had links to Africa, Europe and Carribean, and was on view at institutions in the UK and USA.

Whitley began to wonder who selected these artists and their works of art?  Who wrote the labels?

She took art history and studio art classes in high school and by the time she entered Swathmore College, she had focused her interest on art history. In her sophomore year, she was a paid intern in the LACMA costume & textiles department through a Getty Multicultural Undergraduate program. Curators Kaye Spilker, Sharon Takeda, Dale Gluckman and Sandy Rosenblum guided her and encouraged her interest in curatorial work. Whitley credits Spilker and former Victoria & Albert Museum curator Madeleine Ginsburg for suggesting that she earn her MA at the Royal College of Art in London.

After earning a BA with high honors in art history and French from Swathmore, Whitley followed her LACMA mentors’ advice and moved to the UK to study. As a history of design student at the Royal College of Art, Whitely got a weekend job working in the National Art Library.  

With her textile and costume background, Whitley decided to focus her MA thesis on black representation in fashion magazines.  In her examination she noted the “absence of actual black fashion models, from the sublime (lighting, mood, and postures) to the ridiculous (wigs and body paint).” Her prescient thesis was submitted around the same time that Vogue Italia published its hot 2008 “Black Issue."  

Graphic World of Paul Peter Piech, edited by Zoe WhitleyWhitley says she intended to return to the United States after her two years at the Royal College of Art. "I was still interested in pursuing fashion curation following my summer internship at LACMA.”  However, in 2003 she had been hired as an assistant curator in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s prints section.  She fell in love with British man; they married in 2004, and she has lived London ever since.

In working with 20thcentury propaganda posters and contemporary works on paper at the V&A, Whitley was introduced to the graphic art Paul Peter Piech (1920-1996). Brooklyn, NY-born Piech became a strong advocate for social justice, and spent most of his professional life in London as a Pages from Paul Piech book edited by Zoe Whitleygraphic political activist. She wrote a monograph on the artist’s life and work which was published in 2013 by Four Corners Books.  

She worked with Gill Saunders, senior curator of prints at the V&A, and they co-authored In Black and White: Prints from Africa and the Diaspora which also was published in 2013. The book surveys politically-motivated graphics such as black power and anti-Apartheid media and includes In Black and White: Prints from African and the Diaspora book edited by Saunders and Whitleyprints by Uzo Egonu, Carrie Mae Weems and Chris Ofili.  A culminating event of that busy year was the Shadows Took Shape exhibition opening in November at the Studio Museum in Harlem. 

Also in 2013, Whitley stepped down from her position with the V&A print department in order to begin her Ph.D. work with Lubaina Himid, a Tanzanian-born artist and professor of contemporary art at the University of Central Lancashire. She also learned of a part-time vacancy for curator with the Contemporary British Art at the Tate Britain. She was familiar with exhibitions that were being developed there, particularly in the two series, “Art Now” and “Lightbox" on the vanguard of contemporary art and moving image in Britain. It was an opportunity she could not resist. She applied, was hired in the position and began work at the Tate at the end of 2013.

As a curator of contemporary art, Whitley is consulted about artists who interest her but does not find an easy response: “This is a difficult question to answer succinctly and I struggle no matter how many times I am asked it. Singling out names feels tantamount to parents publicly declaring Lynette Yiadom-Boakye Any Number of Preoccupations, 2010 oil on canvas 63 x 78 3/4they have a favorrite child. So, in alphabetical order (!) an indicative cross-section includes John Akomfrah, Lynette Boakye Yiadom, Frank Bowling, Eldzier Cortor, Mame Diarra Niang, Ellen Gallagher, Hew Locke, Wangechi Mutu, Paul Peter Piech and Cauleen Smith."

She explains that this listing spans artists she has admired since first studying art history (Cortor); artists with whom she has worked with in an exhibition context (Akomfrah, Gallagher, Locke, Mutu, Smith); and those that she has written about in museum catalogues (Boakye-Yiadom, Bowling and Piech).“All are figures with whom I hope to work in future. They each demonstrate an uncompromising commitment to materials, their technique and respective unique visions, she says”

Wangechi Mutu and Zoe Whitley were in conversation in a program at the Starr Auditorium at Tate Modern on October 16, 2014. The talk was held in connection with Mutu’s Nguva na Nyoka (Sirens and Serpents) exhibition at the Victoria Miro Gallery in London, October 14 - December 19, 2014.

Divided into four major divisions (Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives), the Tate is one of the most respected collecting and exhibiting institutions in the art world. In recent years, it has become a leading force in promoting multiethnic, multicultural programs throughout all of its branches.  Committed to  broadening its collecting beyond Europe and North America, the Tate has undertaken a number of  initiatives in Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

From the Tate's Across the Board series: Otobong Nkanga, Social Consequences III: Engaged/Body Builder' (2010). Courtesy the artist and Lumen Travo GalleryWhitley says she's "excited to play even a small role" in Tate’s commitment to building an international collection and described some of the museum's efforts to this end:  “Tate Britain's exhibitions and high-profile events such as the Turner Prize showcase the diversity of Britain (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) by looking to artists who are British by birth but also reflecting the dynamic practices of artists who live and work here, irrespective of their country of origin. The Art Now program has displayed work by Hurvin Anderson, Jimmy Robert, and Rosalind Nashashibi among many others and the Turner Prize shortlist has included the likes of Isaac Julien, Iranian Shirazeh Houshiary, The Otolith Group, Uganda-born Zarina Bhimji, Bangladeshi-born Runa Islam, Polish-born Goshka Macuga, Lynette Boakye-Yiadom to name a few. Of course, notable Turner Prize winners Chris Ofili and Steve McQueen also stand out in this regard.”

Meschac Gaba Museum of Contemporary African Art 1997 - 2002 (Marriage Room) Tate © Meschac GabaDuring the past year Whitley, has been managing dual curatorial roles between the Tate Britain and the Tate Modern. In her capacity as curator of international art at the Tate Modern, she is working with curator Elvira Dyangani Ose on the strategy for Tate Modern’s acquisition of art from Africa and its Diaspora. “This is a temporary role covering colleague Kerryn Greenberg's period of maternity leave,” she says.  Kerryn Greenberg organized the Tate’s 2013 Meschac Gaba: Museum of Contemporary African Art exhibition.  “Kerryn and Elvira have worked very hard since the Africa Acquisitions Committee was established in 2011 to think comprehensively about the multiple modernisms that shaped modern and contemporary art across the African continent," she explains.  "We are being equally expansive in our treatment of contemporary practice and the ways we consider the depth and breadth of the Diaspora."

The African art acquisitions have been accompanied by the 2012-2014 Across the Board project, a series of events featuring emerging African artists, at the Tate Modern. The series included, Across the Board: Politics of Representation, featuring Otobong Nkanga and Nástio Mosquito performing within framework relating to the Tate collection.   

Meschac Gaba Museum of Contemporary African Art 1997 - 2002 (Art and Religion Room) Tate © Meschac GabaA highlight of the Tate Modern's African initiative was its dedication of a wing to two exhibitions, held July 3 – September 22, 2013, of the most important African artists working today, Meschac Gaba (b.1961, Benin) and Ibrahim El-Salahi (b.1930, Sudan).

Meschac Gaba, Museum of Contemporary African Art 1997-2002 (Library) Tate © Meschac GabaGaba’s Museum of Contemporary African Art 1997–2002 is an installation consisting of 12 sections, including a Games Room, Marriage Room, Music Room and Salon. Gaba first conceived the Museum of Contemporary African Art during his 1996–7 residency at the Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten in Amsterdam.  Visiting museums in Europe, he found “another reality," he says — one in which he could not imagine how the art he wanted to create could be integrated.  "I needed a space for my work," he says, "because this did not exist."

So, between 1997 and 2002, Gaba created room-shaped installations as a provocation to the Western art establishment not only to attend to contemporary African art but also to question why there should be boundaries between art and life.

Some rooms, such as the Library, Museum Restaurant and Museum Shop, are familiar elements of most contemporary Western art museums. By supplementing these sections with others, such as the Humanist Space, Marriage Room (which documents the artist’s own wedding ceremony), Game Room and Music Room, Gaba’s museum is a space not only viewing artwork, but for sociability, study and play in which the boundaries between everyday life and art, and observation and participation are blurred.

The Art and Religion Room brings together religious artifacts and everyday objects arranged side by side on a large, cross-shaped wooden structure. Referencing the long relationship between art and religion across cultures, this room also mimics contemporary Benin, where Gaba explains most people are poly-religious: “Catholics brought Christianity, but for my ancestors Catholicism and Voodoo are not different… You will see sculptures of angels, of Jesus Christ and Mami Wata all in the same house.”

Ibrahim El-Salahi, Vision of the Tomb 1965 Museum for African Art, New York?© Ibrahim El-SalahiThe Tate's exhibition of painter Ibrahim El-Salahi (b.1930, Sudan), Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist brought together approximately 100 works from across more than five decades of El-Salahi’s international career. The artist is renowned for his pioneering integration of Islamic, African, Arab and Western artistic traditions.  The exhibition revealed the place of this major figure of African and Arab Modernism in a broader art historical context.  (The IRAAA+ review of the Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist book is here.) 

Ibrahim El-Salahi  Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams 1 1961-65 © Ibrahim El-Salahi Tate, purchased using funds provided by the African Acquisitions Committee and Middle East North Africa Acquisitions Committee 2012In addition to the Gaba acquisition, the Tate is acquiring major works by El Anatsui (b. 1944, Ghana); Samuel Fosso (b. 1962, Cameroon); David Goldblatt (b. 1930, South Africa), a series of photographs from J.D. Okhai Ojeikere’s (b.1930, Nigeria) iconic Hairstyles series; vintage photographs by Samuel Fosso (b.1962, Cameroon) from his Self-Portraits; and a painting Portrait of a Man 1955 by Aina Onabolu (1882-1963, Nigeria) who is considered the first modernist, West African painter. Tate also received a  donation of a major video installation by William Kentridge (b.1955, South Africa). 

Whitley also keeps up with related developments in London.  At the time of our interview, she was looking forward to the Black Cultural Heritage Archive's inaugural film season with the British Film Institute screening works of black British and African Diaspora filmmakers. “The launch of the BCA in Brixton's Windrush Square on 24 July 2014 was an important cultural moment not only for Londoners but has national and international significance,” she says. 

In addition to the mentors mentioned above and her work with colleagues such as Kerryn Greenberg and Elvira Dyangani Ose, Whitley says she’s also been shaped by influences outside of her profession: “My curatorial preconceptions are often challenged and my views refined by conversations beyond the art world.”

In our exchange with Zoe Whitley we didn’t get to that aspect of her professional experience — how it’s challenged by outside influences. Maybe next time! — as IRAAA continues to follow her career.