‘Art Missionary’ – A Skype Interview with a Curator

From January to March 2019 I was a Graduate Trainee at a socially-engaged arts organisation called Deveron Projects in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. I worked closely with the director, Claudia Zeiske, and during my placement I was tasked with helping her formulate a report for the British Council. They had funded her and two other Western European curators to make contacts with artists and arts organisations in Tanzania and Kenya.

Her inspiration for the trip was a 19th century missionary, Alexander MacKay, who had travelled to Africa from a small Aberdeenshire town, near her own. She had decided to follow his footsteps through East Africa and while doing so was deeply questioning her role as a curator. She had been playfully referring to herself as an ‘Art Missionary’ and wanted to express this questioning in her report somehow.

I was very intrigued by all this and the opportunity to present these ideas to the British Council. I’ve often felt uncomfortable about Western European attitudes to arts and culture from other parts of the world and skeptical about how the arts industries handle the inevitable imbalance in power when curating. I’d never met someone in a position of power openly questioning themselves in this way. This topic is of course well-researched, documented and criticised in academic discourse but I was so pleasantly surprised by her genuine openness in a real-life situation.

In the end we decided I should interview her as a ‘shadow curator‘ (like the British shadow cabinet, this is a concept she developed in her book ARTocracy). She felt that she needed someone to ask her questions for her to organise her thoughts and she particularly liked interviews in the form of Skype messaging. So one evening we sat in the office, in silence and on Skype.

I want to share our exchange here because I feel that her answers brought me some hope and peace on the subject. Her self-awareness and authenticity placated me. I’ve often thought – maybe if we all approached these complex topics with a sense of humility they would feel easier to understand and be more relatable. Maybe we just need to be more human about our thoughts and opinions. Wouldn’t that make everything less confrontational?


Why the fascination with a 19th century Missionary?


I would like to find out what really motivated him? Was it the mission to spread Christianity solely, or were there other aspects that drove him to leave his home country to go to one of the most far away, most inaccessible places on Earth? At the time, little was known of Africa – all he knew was that there was a lake in the middle of it – his father had a map in his rectory. I myself had a life-long wanderlust, itchy feet, or Fernweh, that’s what we call it in Germany. Fernweh (farsickness) is the opposite of Heimweh (homesickness), a longing to see other places that are far from your own culture. When I first came across Alexander McKay, who was brought up in this isolated village outside Huntly, I got kind of obsessed with trying to understand him. I read his letters and diaries that were put together by his sister after his death. As a child he already ran 10km to Gartly to see the train. His sister says, because he is such a good mechanic but I think it’s because of his farsickness. I have no doubt he is a Christian of full calibre. But I feel there is something else behind his motivation.


In the context of Tanzania and Kenya, what is the connection you see between a Missionary and a contemporary Curator?


A missionary is normally a person that is sent to promote their religion (eg. Christianity) in a foreign country. They were the fore-bearers of colonialism bringing our ideas, ethics and economic systems with them. Today many of us feel ashamed of this past. We like to distance ourselves from that. But we come with different missions. After the missionaries came the Anthropologists, their mission was to understand the different cultures. As curators, we cannot deny that we come with our own ideas and baggage of what is good and what is not so good art. And it is this gap, which I feel one needs to be aware of when coming from any profession.


You often entertain the idea of calling yourself an ‘Art Missionary’ – what other ‘missions’ or roles do you think you came with on this trip?


Everybody who travels must have a mission. Some think they support the local economy, others want to see the landscape. Young people today are often going to work in places like orphanages. I don’t think they are always motivated only by the cause, they are motivated primarily by the fact that they can travel to a far away place. Helping makes them feel good; it gives them a reason to do this journey. This is how McKay must have felt, I think.


You seem to be deeply questioning the power relations that are unavoidable as a White European Curator or even just a White European traveller. Does this questioning change your approach to curation?


I myself, am driven by trying to experience and understand other places. Art is a good conduit for this. The art world is like a big worldwide family. You always feel welcome. Maybe like football, there is always a common denominator, something to share. But in addition, there is a desire to assist on the one hand and to connect on the other. Giving people opportunities is quite a colonial attitude, we cannot deny this. But genuinely trying to connect is more democratic.


So you believe that in spite of this imbalance there is a possibility for equal exchange?


No, I don’t think so. It will never be equal, not in our lifetime at least. But even just by thinking about it, maybe we can soften the imbalance. I don’t mean the economic one, or the political one. But maybe the friendship one. Being a Musungu, always being curious, might not be the worst thing after all. Being aware of it is important though.

When it comes to art exchange, we need to make sure that we don’t just apply our own criteria of good/bad art. We need to give people who have not had the opportunity to go to a western art school a chance. Personally I find it fascinating to discover old crafts, and different techniques that are not viewed through the eyes of the western curator, but through the eyes of a curious person.


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