Rita Ouédraogo, Azu Nwagbogu en Niels Staats (Buro Stedelijk Project Manager). Photo: LNDWstudio

‘The first thing we decided was to organize a listening session’ – in conversation with Rita Ouédraogo and Azu Nwagbogu (Buro Stedelijk)

Issue no5
Oct - Nov 2023

Rita Ouédraogo and Azu Nwagbogu have been appointed as curators of Buro Stedelijk: a new place for emerging artists and designers located in the building of the Stedelijk Museum itself. Leana Boven asks them about their plans and ambitions. ‘It’s about embracing a certain discomfort in your curatorial practice, about embracing the chaos and building from nothing.’

—Leana Boven I’m curious to hear first where the two of you met and what inspired your decision to apply and work as a duo?

—Rita Ouédraogo ‘I used to work at the Research Center for Material Culture. We worked on a program for which we invited several people, of which Azu was one, and we connected right away. From then on, we would meet up in Amsterdam quite often when Azu was visiting and together saw several shows and exhibitions. I saw this vacancy and thought that it looked very interesting, but also not as something I would like to do alone. I believe things become better when you don’t do them alone, and I know Azu and I work well together. What I sometimes find difficult with curating as a format is that it is often too based on one ego. We really like the fact that we are from different generations and different parts of the world, therefore we thought it was better to do this together.’

—Azu Nwagbogu ‘We share a lot, we talk a lot, and we discuss a lot when it comes to contemporary art, and particularly future museology, which is a particular interest of mine. I’m interested to see how you can manifest things in the present time, and I believe that we don’t see enough of that activation, the effort towards utopian ideals. I believe that we should be able to experiment with new formats and allow old faded concepts decay to regenerate new ideas. That is really what this apparent asymmetric collaboration is about.’

—Leana Boven Could you share more about the upcoming year and the public program that is being developed?

—Azu Nwagbogu ‘The first thing that we decided in the spirit of activating what we believe in, rather than only talking about it, was to organize a listening session where we invite everyone - artists, writers, designers - to think with us on how we shape and formulate the next years for the Buro. We obviously come with a certain weight, positionality, history, context, and network, but we don’t want to be trapped oblivious to our blind spots. If you find yourself always in your own circle you get to miss a lot. We want to expand the Venn diagram to embrace more epistemes. One thing we were very determined about in the open call was to make sure that we are as open as possible, meaning that you can send for example a voice-note, text message or a video. We want to be as accessible and inviting as possible, so we take certain barriers away. The input from this first listening session will articulate and inform the upcoming program. We ourselves have certain ideas that perhaps need testing and fine-tuning, which could happen during those sessions. Most of all we want to keep that intention to learn from the listening session.’

‘We should be able to experiment with new formats and allow old faded concepts decay to regenerate new ideas’

—Leana Boven You are talking about listening and breaking open certain knowledge systems to allow other stories and perspectives in. Could you share more about your curatorial approach that centers decolonization and solidarity? And would you say this approach is a continuation of what you have also already been doing in your own individual curatorial work?

—Rita Ouédraogo ‘You could say so. However, this question of decolonization is always a difficult one to me. I think we should always ask the question if we can ever decolonize? I think it is about embracing a certain discomfort in your curatorial practice, to embrace the chaos. It is about building from nothing. There are so many things that come up that bring many opportunities and therefore new roads we can take and routes we see and envision. Perhaps decolonizing is about trying to do stuff differently and this will bring up chaos and discomfort, but enables the process of finding a space within a space. We are now holding this space, this temporary office. Perhaps it is about questioning certain structures in general, and thereby revisiting certain sets of structures, but maybe the term within museology and the work that we do is already too wrecked. Solidarity and collaboration have been the core of my curatorial work and instrumental in keeping the work joyous. Working with four amazing curators: Iris Ferrer, Aude Christel Mgba, Jo-lene Ong, Sharmyn Cruz Rivera for the Hartwig Art Foundation. Many collaborations with Metro54, collaborating with activists, institutions, makers, thinkers, and artists, collaborating at the Research Center for Material Culture as well as in my independent work. Solidarity and collaboration are at the center.’

—Azu Nwagbogu ‘In a sense my work for Buro Stedelijk is a continuation of my practice, a continuation of what we have been doing already. It is another space to ventilate other ideas I have been already thinking through.’

‘Perhaps decolonizing is about trying to do stuff differently and this will bring up chaos and discomfort, but enables the process of finding a space within a space’

Rita Ouédraogo and Azu Nwagbogu, photo: LNDWstudio

—Leana Boven You stated that with Buro Stedelijk you want to offer new models for social discourse that reach beyond institutional critique and that go into urgent and contemporary sociopolitical challenges. Could you share more about your ideas around collaborative processes with those working outside institutional frameworks?

—Rita Ouédraogo ‘At the moment, we don’t have our own physical space inside the Stedelijk Museum yet, but we want to see this as something fruitful. We will have a physical space within the Stedelijk Museum eventually, but we also want to work outside of this institution in a more hybrid way and work together with for example de Appel, De Ateliers, or with kanaal40. There are many ways of seeing fixed space as something else. We are reflecting on the question if we can broaden the idea of what a project space can be and how to break open this notion of institutional space.’

—Azu Nwagbogu ‘If you look at the work of many leading artists it is often about challenging and subverting the status quo or engaging with social justice issues. I would say that especially over the last decade the word “institution” became sort of a dirty word. Everyone got tired of hierarchies that exist within institutions. When we say moving beyond institutional critique, it is not just about hosting these ideas that challenge these institutions. It is also, as Rita was saying, about practically forcing them to think differently and outside the box that really remediate the context and conditions that we are trying to solve and engage with. To perhaps indigenize the conditions so that they are more permeable to those previously excluded. For example, if we are in partnership with an ethnographic museum and they try to deal with a contentious collection, it is not enough to highlight the fallacies within the collection and so forth. It is more important to bring in new relational aesthetics into that conversation, rather than just pointing out everything that is wrong. It is tiring to only point fingers. How do we contextualize, remediate and find a new relational aesthetic between the objects, the artists and our society? I think that is the most important part of the job.’

—Rita Ouédraogo ‘Limiting ourselves to conversations that mostly focus on institutional critique can be like a trap, with the result that we only stay within the critique, but not move towards something fruitful. Critique is very important, but how can we go beyond?’

—Leana Boven Could you share a bit more about your approach and perhaps any specific angles or direction that will be followed that are different from or additions to platforms and organizations such as De Rijksakademie and De Ateliers?

—Azu Nwagbogu ‘These are super important artist residencies engaged in meaningful and transformative work. They have excelled, they have been generous, and have hosted the world. They are stellar examples of best practices at what they do. Where we come in is that we engage with these artists, help them get to the next level and enhance their relevance immediately within the context of Amsterdam. I think of us as inhabiting this space between artist residencies, galleries, and museums of which there is a whole constellation all over the city. We are kind of hoping to be floating in and around all of these spaces, creating relationships and energizing the artists and the city, by stimulating this interdependence between the museums, artists, institutions, residencies, and the galleries. It is a bit like making it possible for everyone to exist in the same space without competition. We want to make these spaces relevant, and we want to uplift and augment the voice of the artist to make sure they are seen, read and understood.’

‘The listening sessions will unfold over two days. The conversations will be open to the public and free of charge. We will also livestream the listening session, as we aim to be as accessible as possible’

—Leana Boven Is there anything else you would like to share?

—Azu Nwagbogu ‘We want to highlight the team. We have a great diverse team working with us. We are very grateful to Niels Staats and for the curatorial fellows Anne Lakeman en Jelmer Wijnstroom.’

—Rita Ouédraogo ‘We work with two curatorial fellows, but also a spatial designer, Setareh Noorani, who will work on the space that will open in May. Frederique Albert-Bordenaven will work on the spatial design for the listening sessions. Furthermore, we have designer Lydienne Albertoe working on the visual identity. We want to invest in these relationships for the long run.’

—Azu Nwagbogu ‘The first idea for the listening session is to invite ideas of what we consider to be moving beyond institutional critique, centering content relevant for the future and present time. The spatial design that the team works on centers how we can best create tentacles that absorb these ideas. We don’t claim to have all the knowledge. The aim is to sharpen our own thinking.’

—Rita Ouédraogo ‘The spatial design is an important factor of the listening sessions. Furthermore, there will be a moderator and different contributions. The listening sessions will unfold over two days. We will record the conversations, and we do read and listen to everything that will be submitted through the open call. It will be open to the public and accessible free of charge. We will also livestream the listening session, as we aim to be as accessible as possible.’

The upcoming listening session [April 14-15 2023] will bring together those that have applied through the open call and those interested in listening and learning more

Leana Boven
is a curator, cultural programmer and researcher with a background in gender and (post)colonial studies. She curated the exhibition On Collective Care & Togetherness at MAMA in Rotterdam, and currently works as a curator at Casco Art Institute: Working for the Commons

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2023