Art Fair focus on Contemporary African Art

Interview with Paula Nascimiento


PN: Paula Nascimiento
ML: Mo Li

PN: Hi, I’m Paola Nascimento. I’m an architect and independent curator from Angola, based in Angola but working internationally.

ML: And you were working with ARCO this year, last year, about the curatorship of… Can you talk about it?

PN: Yeah, so I have been working with ARCO since 2019. I’ve been invited by the fair director to bring and curate content from Africa. Galleries, particularly to invite galleries based on the African continent. And, you know, so obviously to the fair to bring new content, new publics, and new interests. And besides the galleries, I also co-curate conversations sometimes, or I engage with other curators of the fair, sort of advise them on content that could be interesting and invitees, for example, from Africa, from the African diaspora, that could be in conversation with, you know, other content of the fair. So basically, I’m bringing all of these new things to ARCO. And it’s, yeah, it’s an exciting program.

Interview with Paula Nascimiento - Art Fair focus on Contemporary African Art

ML: And last year was my first time visiting ARCO; at least for the past ten years, I visited ARCO Madrid. And then I see the African focus this year as well. So will they do it like African focus as an ongoing, continuous thing, or will it be just for this period?

PN: There is interest in continuing, but the way the program is designed is different from that we have a focus with, you know, a section dedicated to Africa. Still, it’s actually to bring the content in conversation with the fair. So to naturalize the presence of these galleries and how it happens: we invite them, and they have a discount for two years of their participation in the booth. And, you know, the galleries that do well and wish to continue are integrated into the fair’s main section. So they don’t need my curatorial input anymore.

We continue in conversation, and that’s already happening, which is great. So there are galleries, if you visit the rest of the fair, with African content that is not part of the section because they have been in the past, but now, you know, they are part of the main section just naturally.

So in a way, this section is more to bring a structural shift in how the fair operates. And yeah, I mean, it’s going well. I think that there is interest in the future. So we keep adjusting the program year after year. Sometimes we bring publications and partnerships with African media outlets or magazines. So there are conversations. Yesterday we did a talk about the representation, power, and invisibility of contemporary African art. That was more like a small forum, but I integrated with the other talks’ curators. And so I recommend people for the conversations. And so it’s been like, it’s almost like an invisible program running and making some changes in the fair.

ML: Now I understand better because I usually see in the ARCO Madrid, every year there’s, for example, this year is Chile, next year is Peru. So I was like, this year Africa, next year Africa. I was like, wait, that’s because it’s different from other ARCO. So now I finally get to the mystery result. I was wondering all by myself, like, why? Was it because they wanted to do a five-year framework, or was it because, but now I like when you say to normalize, just to make it something evergreen. It doesn’t have to be just the one’s own thing. It’s more sustainable when it’s always coming back.

PN: And I used to play around with the wording because in Portuguese focus is “focar”, but you can do like the contrary of focus that in Portuguese is almost like “Desfocar”. And I say that the curatorial gesture that I have is contradictory to the title of the section because the idea is not to give focus on Africa. Still, it’s to, you know, suddenly make Africa natural and present in whichever way the galleries want. So, for example, I don’t curate the booths. I simply advise and work with each gallery according to their program. So, you know, I have galleries that come from South Africa, galleries that come from Uganda. We had in the program in the past galleries based in Europe but with special programs dedicated to contemporary African art. So it’s really, it’s vast. And they’re also galleries that, for example, have a program dedicated to contemporary African art, but they’re already creating other transatlantic links. So they also represent, for example, Brazilian artists or Afro-Brazilians, or South Americans. And we, you know, that is all part of the conversation. So, we really don’t want to focus on Africa. We want to expand the notion of Africa and the presence of Africa.

ML: Yes, that is an excellent point. And last year, I saw your text in the back of the work, and that’s how I first got to know your name and was interested in learning more about you. That was my initial entry point, looking at your text.

So can you tell a little bit about when you, let’s say, work with artists, maybe young, maybe old, maybe African, maybe more like a European international, what is the thing where you communicate, like writing for artists, writing for art, critical or objective, subjective? What is the most substantial content or discourse that you can grasp? Because I know many artists because our audience is like artists, and they say we have a lot of emotions, but they can’t put it into words. Also, they can reject expressing themselves in words because they say, “I speak with my art. Why would I like to communicate with words?” Because then it’s double the job. Like, you invent the wheel, and you’re doing double the job for the same thing. They are pretty much rejecting the idea, but I think it’s super important to write, put it into words, and give another dimension, another possibility for the public to understand. Can you talk a little bit about how you approach this?

PN: I became a curator almost by chance because I was an architect and researcher, and working with artists became a way to expand on certain things I’m interested in. I felt that architecture wasn’t enough. But the way in terms of methodology that I work is there are artists with whom I’ve been working for a long time, you know, artists with whom I have a working relationship of over ten years. So it’s evolving. We grow together, and there is a lot of conversation. Obviously, it varies from artist to artist. Still, sometimes, for example, in the case of Antonio Ole, that you’ve read the text, I haven’t worked directly with Antonio on many projects, but I’ve known him for a long time. I’ve known his work.

I collect his work. I have all of his books. And I’ve spent much time also in his studio in conversations, even conversations just about life. Because one thing that I like to do when I’m talking to an artist is just to sit down and listen to whatever they have to say, to whatever they have to put in, and then I try to connect that to their work rather than, you know, start from – because I don’t come from an art history background, so I don’t start by intellectualizing the work, but by listening as much as possible. And I think that when you work for a long time with somebody, you can establish a trusting relationship that enables you to easily access areas you mightn’t have if you had just met the artist. So I’m also quite careful with the people I work with because I like to have that connection.

Obviously, I’ve worked with artists that it’s a one-off, and then they never see each other again, but for most of them, we create an ongoing relationship. You know, we talk about anything. And I think that that really kind of also helps to understand the work, to frame the work, and then to kind of, yeah, try to place that work into a broader narrative, mainly when I’m working with artists of Angola or artists of the Portuguese-speaking African countries because we don’t have a history of art written. So there is a lot of research that always has to go into trying to capture that moment, but also trying to establish a kind of a wider narrative as to where that, you know, how that work exists, came to be. So, yeah, that’s basically my interest. It’s in the artist at the center.

ML: So I think if you like this artist, like the art, then obviously it will be a better outcome.