Clayton Campbell: What was the original impetus for you to curate this show? When the Trapholt Museum established a broad theme of the Artist in Society, why did you arrive at When Things Fall Apart? Did you have autonomy to choose your own theme?
N’Gone Fall: The exhibition is part of a yearlong art festival in Denmark produced by the Danish Center for Culture and Development (CKU) on behalf of the ministry of foreign affairs. The general theme of the festival is Artist in Society. CKU build a network of national art institutions asking them to invite non-Danish curators to produce projects for the festival. Trapholt museum decided to do 3 solo shows and invited me to curate a group show. The museum decided to produce one publication gathering the 4 exhibitions and gave it the name of the festival. As my exhibition is part of the festival I wanted to echo the theme and started think of how to unfold and develop it. I had a blank check to choose my concept and artists, as it is the tradition when institutions invite a guest curator for an exhibition. The idea of my exhibition, based on the general theme, came after a conversation with the artist Pascale Marthine Tayou, very well known internationally and an old friend of mine. We were talking about the state of the world, how bad things were. Tayou was quite pessimistic and told me that he produced a huge installation based on the famous novel Things fall apart by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. The novel was in the back of my mind as a road to explore and it became obvious after that conversation with Tayou. It also was obvious to have his installation introduce my concept and the exhibition.
CC: It is probably not a generalization to say that wealth is migrating internationally into the hands of a few, and that it is not just a technological problem, but a major political problem. Do the artists in your exhibition make political art that addresses income inequity that is at the root of dysfunction, broken communities, and basic survival?
NF: Artists in the show do not make political art and most of them do not see themselves as activists. But I fell that they all stand for something and have a strong voice. In this exhibition none of them is directly addressing economic issues. But Milumbe Haimbe (Zambia) did produce a graphic novel describing a world in which as the wealth is in the hand of a mega worldwide conglomerate called One conscious corporation.
CC: It can be a shock to society to find out that the “Other” is “Us” and that the old paradigms of the Oppressor and the Other are changing. For example, racism is not just a binary paradigm; perhaps a better metaphor is that it is an eight-lane superhighway with everyone on it going in all directions at once, no one is excluded in bigotry. When these old racial power constructs break down, and artists need to find new strategies for positive dialogue to build community and consensus, what did you look for in When Things Fall Apart?
NF: Concerning race issues, Milumbe Haimbe from Zambia is the one highlighting it in a subtle way. Her graphic novel series is about race, gender, sexuality and social commitment. The bottom line message is: you can be young, female, black, lesbian and yet be a super hero.Regarding Other and Us, Empathy is the entry of the third section of the exhibition with artists addressing otherness, solidarity and hope. Dinh Q. Lê (Vietnam), Tiffany Chung (Vietnam) and Nidaa Badwan (Palestine) explore these issues in different ways. And beyond them, all the 12 artists are saying “this could be you, this could happen to you.” And that is the dialogue I wanted to have with the audience, the opportunity for them to realize that each of them is the Other and that issues about gender, race, sexuality, democracy, politics, human development, otherness, solidarity and hope are central in their lives and are the foundations of how society evolved over centuries. I wanted the audience to have another look at their own society while leaving the exhibition, with some things to think about critically.
CC: It has been said that just making art anymore is a political act, but maybe this is not enough when human social survival is at stake. People are hungry for artists to pick up their game and present us with answers, solutions, advocacy and inspiration and not theory and rhetorical flourishes. What was your criteria in selecting the artists for your show, and what qualities in their work that was essential for their inclusion?
NF: My first criterion was: artists as human beings, what do they stand for? What are their obsessions and dreams? This is why the sub title of the show is Critical voices on the radars. Some are very radical, such as the performance artist Regina José Galindo (Guatemala) or the gay activist Babirye Leilah (Uganda) for instance. Some use humor to describe a tough context: Zen Marie (South Africa), Arahmaiani (Indonesia), Nidaa Badwan (Palestine). Some take a poetic road to talk about inequality: Rehema Chachage (Tanzania). Some ask the audience to get involved in an interactive way: Wambui Kamiru (Kenya) with her 1960s communist illegal bar and Dinh Q. Lê (Vietnam) with his work in progress archival website. And others are quite strait forward in their message even if the work is very aesthetical: Tiffani Chung (Vietnam) about humanitarian crises throughout history, Thai Tuan Nguyen (Vietnam) about civil wars, Milumbe Haimbe (Zambia) about globalization and minority groups and Pascale Marthine Tayou (Cameroun) who believes that the world is collapsing due to the fall of political systems, ideologies and dogmas. I wanted a combination of humor, role-play, interaction, radicalism and poetry. I also wanted a combination of different mediums: drawings, oil painting, photography, sculpture, video, performance and installation. All these differences highlight who artists are today: all different, all using different strategies, but all pleading for a better society.
CC: The press release is hopeful, and without hope life has little meaning. But is the exhibit, as a series of wake up calls, too little too late? Or is there still time to ask people to examine that by living in fear they surely bring it upon themselves? And, that they can change their behavior. Is the intent of the exhibit to advocate, educate, agitate, or all of that?
NF: It is never too late to make a wake up call. I am sure that Regina José Galindo (Guatemala) and Tiffany Chung (Vietnam) will spend their entire lives denouncing crimes against humanity. And by asking people to be involved by interacting with some of the works, the aim is to invite them to think about themselves and their own society. For sure, as Pascale Marthine Tayou (Cameroon) introduces the exhibition with a huge up side down installation hanging from the ceiling that is sending a pessimistic message, I wanted to end with hope in humanity and the future. This is the point of the third section addressing empathy. If you look at the self-portraits of Nidaa Badwan (Palestine), she stages herself in different characters in a playful and deliberately very colorful way. She lives in Gaza, a very conservative city under siege, and yet she refuses to be a victim and only deal with pain. There is a lesson to learn from this young artist. We as individuals have to change to be able to change things collectively. So yes the intent of the exhibition is to advocate, educate and agitate.
CC: When art work that is intense and a call for human decency and action for change is shown in a contemporary museum to a relatively liberal and well-educated audience, isn’t this preaching to the converted? What other strategies do the artists use to get their message out beyond the safe white walls of the exhibition space, and how do you as an activist curator see the value of this effort beyond the current showing?
NF: Well, the fun thing is that Trapholt museum is in a tiny provincial town called Kolding, in the south of Denmark, far away from Copenhagen the cosmopolitan capital city. The audience is anything but not art educated, privileged, liberal and multi cultural. And that was the challenge: telling to that specific audience that they do not need a PhD in arts to understand and enjoy contemporary art. This audience also traditionally has a very passive behavior: they come to the museum to admire beauty, as they believe that art is about beauty and esthetics. So the challenge was to break that status quo, as I had to preach to the non converted actually and telling them that contemporary art is about issues and that the artworks are vehicle to start a dialogue and think about the current geopolitical context. I felt like a hacker infiltrating a temple and turning it into a platform to share knowledge, experience and strategies. Regarding the artists: they all come from and live in developing countries. So their audience is not far from the audience in Kolding in a way. Most of them do not always exhibit in safe white walls and live in quite complex social contexts. Their artistic production in itself is the strategy to engage with people and raise issues. So maybe it is not a coincidence that I was the one who accepted to do an exhibition in a remote area, as all my exhibitions are about trying to plant a seed and inviting the audience to have a critical look at a specific context. To me, curating is a strategy, the exhibition is a platform and all my projects are part of an ongoing bigger plan involving advocacy, education and mental revolution.
CC:What are your plans after in the future after When Things Fall Apart? Did the making of this project change your own trajectory, and given the dire nature of the issues it is addressing, has it changed your personal commitment to what you will work on in the future?
NF: Well, the exhibition opened in February and will run until late September with a specific audience program involving reading the novel as it has been translated into Danish last year. Now I am moving to other projects, including the final stage of a long process of designing a program promoting female artists for the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian in DC. This exhibition – When things fall apart: Critical voices on the radars – did not change my trajectory. It reflects who I am, why I curate and what kind of projects I do. It is just one step on a long journey that started more than 2 decades ago and that is not going to end anytime soon. All the issues are not dire, there is hope at the end and that is exactly the point: if we still have hope, we can have faith in the future of societies and humankind. But that implies being personally committed and using the tools I can to try to have an impact on mentalities.