In Studio with Chris Spring

Sharon: I'm here in studio with you on this lovely Saturday afternoon. 

Chris: The studio is in the perfume factory which is the old Elizabeth Arden factory at North Acton. There are maybe 30 artists in the West London Art Factory here, and other small businesses as well so it's a nice place to work for the time being. I dare say it - like many studios it's going to be demolished when Crossrail comes through or whatever. But anyway for the time being it's great.

Sharon: We first met a few years ago when I was writing an article about the British Museum exhibition of Zak Ove’s work. You sent me this paper that you wrote which is titled ‘A way of life: considering and curating the Sainsbury African galleries’, and this was very helpful in understanding your journey.

Chris: Yes it’s been really helpful for me to work out what I've been up to as well, because sometimes working as a curator and an artist, trying to write books and do exhibitions and so on, you sometimes don't have time to stop and think about what's been going on. It’s one thing after another. So it was good to have a moment over a year or so, to reflect on what I've been doing, the artists I'd been meeting, what's going on in the wider world too. And how all those things kind of impact on me, and what impact I and the artists have also had, and the gallery is having on a global situation.

Zak Ové’s Moko Jumbie displayed in the British Museum’s Great Court (photo courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum

Zak Ové’s Moko Jumbie displayed in the British Museum’s Great Court (photo courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum

Sharon: Let's look at the timeline because you've been curating for years, for decades..

Chris: Yea, I’m a lifer.

Sharon: (laughs) How about a general chronological timeline from when you started to now?

Chris: We're talking about early - mid 70s (laughs), when I got a job at the library in the Museum of Mankind. With a critical as well as adoring eye, I became more interested in the arts of Africa. Not until 1995 did we start working with contemporary artists, and there was a big festival Africa 95 going on in London. I was working in the Africa section and my responsibilities were North Africa, so I was sent off to Egypt in the early 90s. In Africa 95, suddenly there were all these artists you know there was really no connection between archaeologists, ethnographers, anthropologists and art historians, so far as Africa was concerned, or they didn't seem to me. Now the connection is established - thank goodness - but we were working in our different bubbles. 

So suddenly in Africa 95, as an artist myself, I could see the opportunity to to work with artists of African heritage, there were quite a lot of artists from North Africa showing people like Rachid Koraichi, Khaled Ben Slimane, Nja Mahdaoui from Tunisia and Algeria. In particular Chant Avedissian from Egypt. So having done fieldwork in Egypt, we acquired work by Chant Avedissian. In Tunisia, we acquired work by Nja Mahdaoui, Khaled Ben Slimane, and later in Algeria from Rachid Koraichi. That actually that gave me a basis for when the Africa galleries of the British Museum opened in 2001. Apart from the artists from North Africa, there were two artists of African heritage but based in the UK, so that was Magdalene Odundo and Sokari Douglas Camp. We'd actually worked with both of them at the Museum of Mankind (MOM) back in 1995. So those four artists Nja Mahdaoui, Khaled Ben Slimane, Magdalene Odundo, and Sokari Douglas Camp, they were ground breakers. Now there are maybe 20 artists in the African Galleries. 

Mary Sibande’s A Reversed Retrogress: Scene 1 (The Purple Shall Govern) (2013). Photograph: Mary Sibande/Courtesy Gallery MOMO

Mary Sibande’s A Reversed Retrogress: Scene 1 (The Purple Shall Govern) (2013). Photograph: Mary Sibande/Courtesy Gallery MOMO

When I recently with John Giblin curated the South Africa show, we pursued a similar kind of line with artists from South Africa, but here in a chronological historical story from the deep past to the present day. The Africa galleries, it's a bit different because there's no kind of beginning or end to those galleries, which I quite like in the sense that there isn't a kind of linear progression. Instead the artists in the Africa galleries, the contemporary artists, are standard bearers for the artists whose names we may never know, and they tend to be artists who were working one way or another in long established traditions. As a curator, I have to look at that kind of work rather than collecting across the board which Tate Modern could do for example. But as time has gone on - so for example one of the first pieces we showed when the galleries opened was Sokari Douglas Camp’s Big Masquerade with boat and household on his head, and a ceramic work by Magdalene Odundo. 

With more recent pieces I'm trying to push the boundaries a bit, like the Throne of Weapons made of guns. In there, is a tradition of thrones and stools, as seats of power and discussion, but that wouldn't be immediately obvious to an audience. So these artists are getting people to think outside the box you know. With El Anatsui, people can think about a cloth, but it's made of liquor bottle tops and ask what's that all about. Is it the sculpture? is it the textile? What is it? What we don't do is, and what the BM has been trying to get us to do, is to sort of flag up in big detail the contemporary artists, have a different label for them. I know what they're trying to do, because we know those people's names we have photographs of them, but in the context of the gallery it's suggesting those old divisions, between the contemporary, the ethnographic, the archaeological.

Sharon: Do you think there is a division between them?

Chris: No, I mean there are divisions in people's minds but if you read John Picton for example, reviewing the South Africa show, he says one of the things that we're doing is to blow up this idea of the traditional. There's a continuum from the deep past to the present day and it’s taken brave artists to break down some of these notions which tend to create an idea of Africa frozen often in the past. 

Sharon: It’s the quintessential touristic African painting you’ll see.

Chris: So instead, this idea of Africa as a vast diverse continent but not just a continent, a global phenomenon. What was going on in the continent long before the Europeans arrived was a dynamic phenomenon, and I just help to blow up some of these stereotypes and to get people thinking outside the box. We decided not to have a special label for the contemporary artists in the Africa galleries, because as soon as you do that, you start building up those barriers again. 

With the South Africa show because it was a historical narrative in looking at seven or eight discrete historical periods, at each period a contemporary or modern artist is commenting. People like Jackson Hlungwani recently deceased or John Muafangejo but most of the 25 - 30 artists are living artists. We were able to film 4 or 5 artists when they were installing their works. Mary Sibande, Willie Bester, Lionel Davis, Helen Sebidi... and that really builds up a wonderful picture beyond the walls of the gallery, to give people an idea of what's in that particular country. The artists began to mediate, curate and take ownership of the exhibition, just at they do in the African Galleries. Which is how it should be.

Willie Bester’s Transition (1994). Photograph: Courtesy of the artist

Willie Bester’s Transition (1994). Photograph: Courtesy of the artist

Sharon: I remember reading your paper, one thing you explained which I can completely understand is how complex the role of the curator is, in balancing how you present the history and the culture and the arts of people. I have a quote here where you said, 

‘The greatest challenge in curating the arts and cultures of Africa is to present a positive picture of the continent’s diverse, dynamic, creative, and profoundly spiritual, and humorous people while still acknowledging the darkest side of their history.’ So as a curator, how do you seek to maintain this balance? I'm sure it can be difficult because it may seem that you can't always get it right, there's always somebody that might take offense or might be unhappy with it. It’s quite a big responsibility.

Chris: Some people ask why isn't there more about the slave trade. Why isn't there more about colonial wars? Why isn’t there more about all sorts of things. It's there, and there are other museums that are presenting their stories themselves, and Africa and the Middle East often get a continuously negative press. Often, we hear nothing about Africa that is positive and so much that is negative. It's so important to have the permanent African gallery in a big national museum, the touring exhibitions are fine, but they do come and go. 

You talked about Zak Ove’s sculptures, he is the British-Trinidadian artist deeply in love with not just Trinidad, but Africa and his Moko Jumbie stilt walkers are obviously connected with the masquerade from Africa, but also with with Caribbean carnival which is about establishing a freedom from the slave trade. The right to vote, the right to have your own life, in a way that's what carnival is celebrating so that will be there, we're still in the process of trying to - did you see them in the great court? Zak Ove made them so large that we need to adapt them for the African gallery - and I’m glad to say they are now standing proudly there.

Sharon: Next year it will be ten years since you published the book Angaza Afrika: African Art Now which played its part in the increasing interest we have witnessed in contemporary art by artists of African heritage. Is there another book on the horizon?

Chris: I’m glad you mentioned that. I can’t think of a better time to write a book featuring the work of artists who have become prominent on the world stage since I wrote Angaza - as well as one or two I should have included at the time. Watch this space!

Sharon Obuobi