Interview: Eva Barois De Caevel Talks About How to Be Successful as a Young Curator

We spoke to the woman who won ICI’s 2014 Independent Vision Curatorial Award about what it takes to be a star curator.

Not Available Lead
Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

Not Available Lead

Paris-based curator Eva Barois De Caevel is still very young, but she's already made international headlines with her accomplishments in the art world. Barois De Caevel​ is both the assistant curator of Raw Material Company in Dakar and the co-founder of Cartel de Kunst, an organization that planned FIAC's performance exhibition space this year, which was called "Avant-Garden." Recently, Barois De Caevel​ won Independent Curators International's 2014 Independent Vision Curatorial Award, a honor doled out every two years to an emerging curator. 

Nancy Spector, Deputy Director of the Guggenheim Museum, chose Barois De Caevel for the award. In a press release, she said of her decision, “Eva Barois De Caevel’s unflinching curatorial practice tackles some of today’s most urgent issues, including sexuality and human rights, in a postcolonial world. Working collaboratively to encourage dialogue and participation among her audiences, with issues both local and global, she is courageously expanding the curatorial field.” With her prize winnings, Barois De Caevel plans to work with a publication to research historical African sexual practices. Her vision is to present the archived material in an exhibition she would collaborate on with artists.

We got in touch with Barois De Caevel to discuss her recent projects, how she's developed her curatorial practice, and what advice she has for other young curators trying to make it in the game.

I can work at my best if what I am dealing with in contemporary art has to do with issues that interest me absolutely and intimately.

In the past, your projects have focused on issues concerning gender, sexuality, and human rights. Do you approach curatorial projects through this kind of lens?

While my curatorial projects do not consist of tacking theoretical or political discourses onto the works, I do see them as a confrontation of my personal theoretical interest and political awareness with some works that propose theoretical and political readings of the world. My research comes from my interest in socially engaged practices, in the current developments of video art, but also in all the other media that engage with methodologies of history, anthropology, or sociology, media that is aware of being living artifacts in a postcolonial world.

If the social lens is almost always already present in the works that interest me, it is not what directly organizes my practice. What organizes it, rather, is the idea that we live in a globally postcolonial world, and I think that our reading of any specific field or issue (gender, feminism, human rights, or sexuality, for instance) has to be considered through this lens. Many artists take part in this reflection today. My curatorial work consists in trying to find a way to display these discourses next to the works that mediatize them or are permeated by them.

What did you learn from curating a performance and exhibition space at FIAC?

“Avant-Garden” was curated with my collective Cartel de Kunst and was part of the FIAC “Parcours VIP.”  Like the “Outdoor projects,” the “Parcours VIP” is one of the programs created by FIAC in order to expand the presence of the fair in the city and to offer a more complete view of the Parisian artistic scene within a very short time frame.

Each year, FIAC selects different places in and outside of Paris that it considers to be worth discovering for the collectors. La Générale en Manufacture, where we curated the exhibition, was one of these places. It is an independent art space, located in Sèvres, in the Parisian suburb. The place is amazing. It is a huge building, the former school of the famous ceramic factory of Sèvres. It is the continuation of La Générale, one of the historic artistic squats of Paris, and maybe one of the most independent art spaces within the city in general. La Générale en Manufacture is a space run by artists. They live and work there, and they give other artists access to studios or offer them rooms and studios to complete residencies. They also curate shows or invite curators to make proposals for the exhibition space.

The fact that the event was connected to FIAC did not present any specific constraint for us since we were not in a booth at the fair. The only challenge was to make an exhibition that could fit into the place and promote its originality for the visitors who probably did not expect to discover such a strange environment. We decided to curate a performance program because we thought it corresponded most to the dense and short temporality of FIAC and also to the atmosphere of La Générale because the artists who work there are not only visual artists but also musicians and dancers, and they often collaborate.

While I had organized a performance for a previous exhibition, this one presented a new challenge because it was five performances and also concerts. Some of the performances, like Mako Ishizuka’s, were durational process performances. It reminded me of working on film sets, which was something that I loved. You have to be very focused, totally committed, and creative as you are confronted with the issues. You really have to work as a group.

What are some of the greatest challenges of being a curator?

Curator is a word that can refer to very different realities.  Personally, I would say that the greatest challenges are: being confident in your own ways of curating, even if it is considered “different,” sometimes in a pejorative way, or with skepticism; and being able to collaborate with people (other curators, institution managers, and artists) who understand and support what you are trying to do.

Where do you find new or emerging artists? How do you establish relationships with these artists, and what do you look for in emerging artists that shows their potential?

My work consists in visiting exhibitions, galleries, and studios, meeting curators and artists. It is not how I find “new or emerging artists” but artists I did not know before and would be happy to work with. It often happens that I discover an artist that I love thanks to my friends and colleagues, thanks to an exhibition, or thanks to discussions with people who are interested in my work. Discoveries such as these are an exciting aspect of my work. Then you establish relationships with artists through the projects you are working on with them and by following them and their works, of course. 

Concerning what I am looking for, it is difficult to say. It is always difficult to describe exactly why, at first sight, you do not like a work, you do not want to know more about it, or your are curious or totally enthusiastic. For me, maybe it is the encounter of critical depth and powerful form.

Curator is a word that can refer to very different realities.

What's the greatest advice anyone's ever given you as a curator or in the arts in general?

There are actually two! “Try to judge very precisely what you are worth at this specific moment of your career and act consequently." And, “Work with what moves you deeply and very personally, and do not consider that it is a problem or that you have to be ashamed of it or to hide it."

The first one is extremely important and not so easy to apply. It means that you know when you have to say no, to say stop, to refuse to be treated in a certain way, that you know when you should not be considered anymore as an intern or an assistant, that you know when you can sign an exhibition or a text, when you can dare to do something new, to contact an artist or a place with a proposal. It is hard because it is about confidence and pride, about money and power, about ego and freedom, about qualities and flaws. But this self-assessment is decisive.

The second one seems true to me because I have the deep feeling that I can work at my best if I am dealing with contemporary art that has to do with issues that interest me absolutely and intimately. In my case, my interest is a postcolonial reading of the world, through art, that probably originates in my personal history as a European of African descent who grew up totally unaware of what Africa is. It gave me a specific sensitivity to the simple fact of how you are considered while traveling when you physically embody intersecting worlds. Beyond my own experience, it gave me an awareness and an understanding of the colonial legacy that is decisive in my practice and makes it interesting to people.

The only thing we need is more good curators and more good artists and more freedom for them to experiment.

What is the greatest misconception people have about the curating profession?

A misguided and widespread idea is the need for people to define in a very narrow way the role of the curator with the fear that the curator would become the artist or that there would be more curators than artists. To me this is an outdated dispute. The only thing we need is more good curators and more good artists and more freedom for them to experiment. Because of this misconception you are often accused of thinking you are an artist, or a researcher, and some people would prefer if you defined your practice in a very narrow way rather than trying to understand how you try to question the very function of the curator, to adapt it to the research fields you judge crucial and to the practice of the artists with whom you work.

However, just as forms and research fields are evolving in the artists’ practices, I believe that the curator’s role, while consisting in valuing, transmitting and contextualizing the works, can adopt extremely various forms. There is no reason to limit it in the name of categories or authorship disputes.

How has your curatorial practice grown or transformed with each project you've completed?

Being very young, I am very sensitive to that question. I am still at a stage in which each exhibition is truly a big step in matter of understanding what I really want to do. And I hope it will last because it is really something that I like, this feeling of being transformed, even in my personal life, by each exhibition. It is difficult and intimate to say which ways I feel transformed, but it is obvious after each project. Maybe because each project is a human experience, a collective experience, a travel experience, and an intellectual experience.

What advice would you give young people interested in being curators?

To take the time to identify “something that moves them deeply and concerns them very personally” in art. To have godmothers and godfathers and to respect them. To accept to work collectively without fearing that it might interfere with their own success. To expand the fields of their practice, but at the same time, to be honest about their best skills and focus on them. To be aware that curating also means theory and criticism. It is not only about events, it is about thought. To fight to be respected as what they are and what they are worth, even if they are a young black woman. To fight for their money. Being respected professionally is hard; being respected economically, even harder.

Latest in Style