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The Curator as Politically and Morally Sentient

Updated: Jul 30, 2020


FEB 10-15, 2020 at Hochschule der Kunst Bern


Organised by Prof. Dr. Michaela Schäuble

Tirdad Zolghadr ©Zainabu Jallo

Preceding to the Curatorial Studies Winter School with Tirdad Zolghadr, I read Curatopia: Museums and the Future of Curatorship. An edited volume that addresses historical entanglements and imbalanced relations of ethnographic museums and proffers that curatorship can become a give-and-take, balanced form of cross-cultural relationships in the present. As a researcher who has been invited to co-curate an exhibition on transatlantic transfers of material culture, I am often preoccupied by the ways in which anthropologists engage within ethnographic museums with the given problematic foundations of collecting. Here, one is often dealing with inconsonant ideas of the past with contemporary curatorial work riding on phrases such as decolonisation.

Contemporary Art and ethnographic collections are not particularly two peas in a pod and however unfair it appears to want to find parallels, this was what I was pursuing by attending the Curatorial Studies Winter School.

Who exactly is a curator? What does the job of a curator entail? A bricoleur of things? A worthy judge of things that work together to make an overriding theme cohesive?

A New York Times Article Everyone’s a Curator Now suggests that the term is just transforming into another buzzword, “As zeitgeisty as other oddly specific and much-hashtagged words like “wanderlust” or “journey” or “empower,” “curate” is spreading. The word’s overuse has left it almost devoid of meaning, and curators themselves — the traditional, museum-dwelling kind — are up in arms.”[1]

Who better to expound on, and deconstruct the job of a curator than Tirdad Zolghadr, artistic director of the Summer Academy Paul Klee in Bern and associate curator at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin. Is he “up in arms” about the so-called bastardization of the term?

Etymologically, the term comes from 14th century medieval Latin curatus in the context of a spiritual guide accountable for the care of souls. In 17th century Latin, Cura/ Curator came to mean a trustee of something or someone. The 19th century saw its application within the museum context to refer to someone in charge of a gallery, a museum exhibition.

Shall we approach "curator" as a term that is losing its meaning or expanding to accommodate Disc Jockeys, fashion stylists and food experts?

The notion of a curator as an innovative mediator and a salient player within social and political themes appears to fortify many museums exhibitions, be it within the framework of contemporary art, Archaeology or Anthropology. Where does Zolghadr posit himself in the metamorphosing of what and who a curator ought to be?

In the context of contemporary art, he suggests that “there are no clear distinctions anymore as one often finds that the duties of a curator are mixed with those of the historian, director, outreach personnel etc.” [2]

The vagaries within the roles of curators make steering towards the political imperative to their duties. Responsibilities such as securing working conditions for all those involved, speaking to and for political stakes internationally and gatekeeping are some of the points that matter to Zolghadr. If we looked towards the progenitor of modern curatorship, Harald Szeemann, who was “a force of nature that could not be stopped”[3], could we then assume that a bit of eccentricism is required for a curator to be prosperous? With Szeeman, there was the focal shift towards the curator as the head of an exhibition and not the artist. In 1972, he was the youngest artistic director, sole curator of documenta 5 in Kassel. He radicalized the art of curatorship and “evangelized for disruption”.[4]

So many strands to curatorship!

The 5-day workshop on Curatorial Studies within contemporary art happened to have an all-anthropology participant. It began with a clarification of terms and underlining working terminologies. Outside of contextual connotations, some terms have become somewhat elusive. We commenced with consensual and contextual understandings as terminologies evolve and frequently mutate within the humanities!

Zolghadr with some of the participants © Zainabu Jallo

Zolghadr`s model of curating resonates with a description in the introduction of Ways of Curating, by Hans-Ulrich Obrist who opines that, “the task of curating is to make junctions, to allow different element touch. You might describe it as an attempted pollination of culture, or a form of map making that opens new routes through a city, a people or a world.”

The junction of interests also matters, our workshop looked critically at the ethical obligations of a curator from dealing with questions such as “What happens when art becomes power?” “When art dovetails with neoliberalism, what kind of aesthetic does neoliberalism propose?”

“What can you do through art that you cannot do through other things? Zolghadr`s practice lies within the themes of gentrification and ecological conservation.


The REALTY project, curated by Zolghadr at the Kunst Werke in Berlin, is a critique of how contemporary art organises itself and fosters blueprints to quell Contemporary Art’s complicity with gentrification. It asks how the art field can organise its privileges to “serve the interests of those who are the primary casualties of the inequalities reinforced by creative-led gentrification: typically, an under-capitalised demographic with historically low income and low social mobility.”[5] When artists and curators generate such an idea, is it thoroughly rid of traces of “artwashing?”

The term “artwashing gentrifiers” refers to big corporations establishing relationships with artists in order to improve their status. On the part of the developers, the existence of the artists makes the district more attractive, consequently whipping up more interest in properties in the area.

A group that rejects this sort of gentrification is the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement. Located in the Los Angeles neighbourhood of Boyle Heights, BHAAAD is a coalition of artists who have been organizing protests outside of galleries and other businesses.

Art/artist-led development projects have also been percieved as woolly by other similar constellations as BHAAD, and this begs the question: “how plausible is this idea of serving the interests of communities affected by gentrification projects without the interference of the developer big wigs?”

In Berlin is Ex Rota Print, founded by Artists Daniela Brahm and Les Schliesser, who have repurposed an old printing house into a heterogeneous hub for artists and the local community. Also in Berlin is the Haus der Statistik project, one in which Zolghadr himself is involved. In September 2015, an art event was organised in order to prevent the sale of the House of Statistics to investors. A group of committed artists protested and laid claims to the building as a place where Berlin creates spaces for culture, education and social issues. These demonstrations brought the discussion about the future of the building to the public. The Haus der Statistik project was fashioned as an alliance of various Berlin actors within social and cultural institutions and associations, artist collectives, architects, foundations and associations. In support of this initiative, Zolghadr sees, “Berlin, as a playground for artists and creatives” and the process of Venizification of Berlin result in people are being priced out”.

Through the lens of a curator like Zolghadr, art can be instrumental to avowals in challenging policies within social and political realms; he insists that “we need other conditions, other ways of doing things. Critique might not be enough, but it is better than nothing”.


Artists (and curators) often contend with how repressive legacies shape contemporary representations. Exclusion and extractivism are colonial hangovers that are still operative. When a particular group regulates and controls the fabrication of value and meaning in the art world, it is bound to provoke some form of protest.

Curators have therefore, become aware of the need for Decolonisation. Decolonisation is another term I am particularly sceptical about, in terms of how it is thrown about offhandedly.

Decolonisation goes beyond merely critiquing, interrogating and opposing the reproduction of classifications. It involves identifying and resisting unfair hierarchies and asymmetries. As Summaya Kassim puts it:

“Decolonising is deeper than just being represented. When projects and institutions proclaim a commitment to ‘diversity’, ‘inclusion’ or ‘decoloniality’ we need to attend to these claims with a critical eye. Decoloniality is a complex set of ideas – it requires complex processes, space, money, and time; otherwise, it runs the risk of becoming another buzzword, like ‘diversity’.” [6]

Museums and the art world are sites where the shedding of this sort of disproportion is beginning to take place but then how much of it does not border on tokenism?

A statement by the artistes of Documenta 14 Athens emphasises that:

“Western Europe is no longer the center of contemporary exhibition making. It is being challenged to take its place as one among equals, as Asia, Latin America, Africa, Middle East, Southern and Eastern Europe come forward to claim their presence. The current documenta continues the arc of the previous four documentas, by highlighting the edges of Europe, the voices of Global South realities, and the presences that press against heteronormativity. Receiving the world, as equals, contrary to anxieties, also contributes to radiance”.[7]

Curator, Adam Szymczyk served as Artistic Director of documenta 14 with a goal to radically decentralize the exhibitions.

WHEN ART BECOMES POLITICAL: What is contemporary art that travels?

On the third day of the workshop, we screened and analysed Picasso in Palestine, Khaled Harouni`s 30-minute filmic documentation of all the procedures involved in the shipping and display of Picasso`s 1943 Buste de Femme painting to the International Art Academy in Ramallah, Palestine. This collaboration between the International Art Academy and the Van Abbe museum, Eindhoven markedly a complex, multi-layered project, throws flood lights on the matters at stake. Mainly the entanglements between art, politics and geopolitics.

Picasso’s "Buste de Femme" (1943) in Ramallah, 2011. Photo: Khaled Jarrar.

The accounts of a travelling artwork transcend the painting itself. It brings to the fore, the realities of overwhelming protocols, contracts, ports and borders. Picasso`s painting experienced the everyday frustrations of Palestinians to who mobility is not a given. The documentary validates how art can perform within a nationalist imaginary of an occupied people. According to Harouni:

“Picasso in Palestine is an art project that aims to probe mechanisms, procedures, obstacles and requirements in getting a painting of this kind to Palestine. By doing so, it sheds light on the contemporary reality of Palestine and gives the art project the power of the impossible. Picasso in Palestine is about institutions in different locations, the value and funding of art and on human relations and the media. The adventure starts when the artwork leaves for Palestine but does not necessarily end when it safely arrives back home.”[8]

Picasso in Palestine was screened at Documenta 13, in Kassel where curator, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev was artistic director.

The Zolgadr model of curatorship surpasses authorial, networking and knowledge proficiencies. His model presents a reconsideration of our idea of a city, a world, as part of a more extensive system within the biosphere, where all living species play a vital role. He is octopudian in his approach towards the assemblage of creative production laced with moral and ethical obligation (which is somewhat an oddity in the art world) and a robust sense of personal responsibility. Drawing from speculative and propagandistic art practices, the idea of a curator is one who has solutions to the Why? Questions, one who is fully aware of the contingencies of the world in which we inhabit.


Fofana, Aboubakar, et al. “A Statement by the Artists of Documenta 14.” e-Flux, 15 Sept. 2017,

Jarrar, Khaled. Photo: Picasso in Palestine. 2011.

Kassim, Sumaya. “The Museum Will Not Be Decolonised.” Media Diversified, 26 Feb. 2018,

Obrist, Hans Ulrich, and Raz̤ā Asad. Ways of Curating. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.

Schjeldahl, Peter. “Harald Szeemann's Revolutionary Curating.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 16 July 2019,

Schorch, Philipp, and Conal McCarthy. Curatopia: Museums and the Future of Curatorship. Manchester University Press, 2019.

Stoppard, Lou. “Everyone's a Curator Now.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 3 Mar. 2020,

Van Abbe Museum. “Picasso in Palestine: A Modern Icon to Be Exhibited in Ramallah.” Picasso in Palestine, Van Abbe Museum, 24 June 2011,

Zolghadr, Tirdad. “REALTY.” KW Institute for Contemporary Art, 2017,

[1] [2] Tirdad Zolghadr, Curatorial Studies Winter School. Hochschule der Kunst, Bern February 10, 2020. [3] Ibid. [4] [5] Tirdad Zolghadr. REALTY Kunst Werke Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin. 2017 [6] See, Sumaya Kassim. “The Museum will not be Decolonised” in Media Diversified: [7] [8]

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