“We must take responsibility for changing so that the world changes too”

Elvira Dyangani Ose

Retrat d'Elvira Dyangani Ose. © Álex Losada

Photographers claim that some people make the camera fall in love. If that’s true, Elvira Dyangani Ose is one of those people. Those in high-ranking positions do not usually smile in professional photographs, but the director of MACBA does, and she smiles with her whole face, not just her mouth. It’s a smile that very much comes from within, the smile of a fulfilled and confident woman, with a clear vision and the capacity to bring it to fruition, the smile of a woman who has fought hard enough to mindfully enjoy the position she has gained and not have to owe a word of thanks or an apology to anyone. She was appointed director of a downcast MACBA, unsettled by disputes and controversies, and increasingly removed from the city’s people. On top of that, from the get-go, she had to bring Covid-19 into an already complex equation.

Elvira Dyangani Ose (Córdoba, 1974) is the first woman at the helm of the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA). Selected via a public tender, to take on the position she left The Showroom gallery in London, which she had directed since 2018. She pursued her studies in Barcelona, where she graduated in Art History at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. She went on to carve out her career over a flawless journey that led her from the Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria to the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo in Seville and, finally, onto the Tate Modern in London, where she was international art curator from 2011 to 2014. In 2019, she served on the Turner Prize jury and will present her PhD thesis this year. She is the mother of a four-year-old boy. Following her first year at MACBA, Elvira Dyangani tells us about who she is and what she aspires to achieve.

You were born in Córdoba, but your family is originally from Equatorial Guinea. Why did they decide to move to Spain? What presence and importance did the Guinean culture and language hold in your childhood and upbringing, and how important is it now in raising your child?

My parents came to Spain in the 1970s to study, and my siblings and I were born here. Communication was much harder back then, and the memory of Guinea was really important to my parents, as were those occasional phone calls. Guinea is home to several cultures. We belong to the Ndowe people, a coastal community, based between the south of Cameroon and the north of Gabon. The Ndowe culture has always been a staple in my life. Even though our parents felt they hadn’t shared everything with us, there was a sort of nostalgia for the country’s aromas, the food, the stories – one of my aunts was a storyteller –, traditional gesture, the practice of domestic rituals such as the Mekuyo and traditional dances such as the ibanga. We travelled to Guinea a lot and we were very familiar with our roots. We experienced a contrasting situation that makes you grow in another way; you realise that not everything is finite. We moved around a good bit during my childhood – the Chiclana countryside, Seville, Córdoba… – and, besides leaving friends or familiar places behind, this meant we had a chance to constantly reinvent ourselves. Now that I have a child myself, my siblings and my mother are instrumental; being raised by a strong and single mother made me confident I could do so too. My son, by the way, speaks the Ndowe language with his grandmother.

As far as Barcelona is concerned, you said: “Thirty years ago I picked this city and now it has picked me”. Why did you choose it in your youth and what has it meant to come back at the height of adulthood?

Back then, in my opinion, Barcelona was akin to New York, a sexy, libidinous, stimulating and accessible city, appealing almost on a physiological level. That Barcelona, that Catalonia, was really special to me. I had lots of conversations about language with my father. I hadn’t lived in a colonised Guinea like my parents had. Language is a very powerful source of enrichment: it can constitute a trauma or the capacity to adapt to the environment. For me, the Catalan language symbolised the assertion of freedom of expression, but a certain imposition at the same time, giving rise to a contradictory situation with the environment, the city and the language. Working at Catalunya Ràdio marked my immersion in Catalonia’s reality from a socio-political point of view. I met pivotal intellectuals, writers and thinkers. All this brought me to take part in a Coco Fusco project that led to the video Els Segadors [The Reapers], now part of the MACBA collection [one of the people born outside of Catalonia, singing the national anthem, is Dyangani herself, but funnily enough, the information on the museum’s website does not mention this detail]. It is a work that alludes to this complexity of the meaning of language in relation to hierarchical and power issues. It embodies the desired Catalonia that has materialised, cosmopolitan and open, on the one hand, but also closed on the other. However, being black and a postcolonial subject, one learns that there are many truths to debunk, and this conception of the other that you should be grants you a certain freedom. What’s more, I have never been backward in coming forward; in fact, my name in Ndowe means “to grab onto something tightly”.

Would you say that you have changed with the city?

I’ve been told that my return seems like poetic justice – perhaps not so much –, but there is a very strong personal symbolism, because I experienced lots of the things that shape you as a person here. Barcelona is the city in the world where I have lived the longest, and over this time the city has grown, for better or for worse. It has improved in some respects, while in others it has been trapped by its own image. It has evolved enormously and still holds a great deal of potential; it is a Barcelona that is still a source of inspiration, which is hyperconnected and endowed with the capacity to change everything. It is still a city in constant transformation, a place that longs to grow, that does not cower or hide, but the mindset, strength and energy of its people are unfortunately often not echoed in its institutions.

In the presentation of your first programme, you focussed primarily on the relationship with the city and not only with the neighbourhood on which your predecessors placed greater emphasis. How will this relationship evolve and why is it so important?

I always talk about the context, that is, Barcelona, the Raval neighbourhood and MACBA. We must reflect on ourselves. I think we have a way of communicating at MACBA through small groups, which is already being applied in public and educational programmes, and I would like this sense of the local, this social engagement, to be reflected in the exhibition programme too. The audience must be considered to be a user. The word spectator removes them from the place, putting them in the position of an observer. However, the audience must participate in and inhabit the museum. This sort of relationship is already palpable in the museum, but is perhaps only adopted by a handful of people and we might not be passing it on as we should. It just needs to climb other rungs of the museum, to be echoed throughout the institution and to be based on real dialogue with the community. The time of the almost religious visit may have passed, amidst whispers. Putting forward a new dramaturgy for the museum is constructive. As a good subject of study, but of reinvention too, this dramaturgy has to change according to the audience’s desires.

How will you handle the relationship with the Catalan art community, which has often felt neglected by MACBA and calls for more attention and support?

MACBA must serve as a platform for artists to make a name for themselves on the national and international scene. This is done by making exhibitions meaningful to the rest of the world and making them indispensable here. But exhibitions alone do not suffice; it is a long-term undertaking, which is manifested in different actions. We must have a holistic vision of the museum, as a platform that endeavours to be mindful of its history with a view to surpassing it.

What importance has your experience in various countries and especially London held in your life and career?

London is the place where my son was born and where I embarked on a professional career that allowed me to grow, to present projects, to travel to Africa and to formalise a series of networks that until then had been more personal than professional. London’s Tate Modern afforded me the opportunity to get better acquainted with Africa and to discover certain connections with the continent, beyond my roots and a general idea of Africanness. It allowed me to get in touch with cultural agents, intellectuals, activists, and so on, incredible people who taught me a lot. I think a great deal from the city perspective, and the experience at the African Centre for Cities in Cape Town, South Africa, was decisive. Meanwhile, I had a relationship with a mature Africa, which demanded that the Western world understand it under its own aesthetic, social, economic and socio-political terms.

What does it mean to be a black woman in the world of contemporary art? Many claim that it is even an advantage at this very moment in time...

Retrat d'Elvira Dyangani Ose. © Álex Losada Portrait of Elvira Dyangani Ose. © Álex Losada

It probably wasn’t a black woman who made that statement. I discussed this matter in the presentation I gave at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. I also talked about Carrie Mae Weems, an artist we will exhibit at MACBA from October 2022 to January 2023. The world has changed; the cultural, economic and political spheres have much more black representation, and yet some people are still afraid of what has already come about. More black people, men and women too, are indeed leading institutions than a few years back, but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t put in the work – in my case, over more than twenty years – to deserve the position we hold, regardless of colour or gender. Many other women before me carved out a path for me to be here, women who have spearheaded womanism [a theory that seeks to eradicate inequalities from a perspective of social change based on the problems and experiences of black women and other women of minorities], because there are certain feminisms with which we black women do not identify, but that is not the only thing that has led us here. For instance, my parents never grumbled about how hard it had been to get to Europe, nor did they tell me about those who perished in the Atlantic, and yet that endeavour is also linked to my being here today.

What related reading have you done? Specifically, how important was the author Édouard Glissant who you have mentioned on several occasions, a French novelist, poet and essayist who developed the concepts of miscegenation and creolisation?

Glissant talks about the notion of opacity, which I believe is really important, and about the story as a participatory experience, about the relations between the elements of the story like in an open work. Tying together with Umberto Eco, he pushes us towards a poetic rather than a philosophical approach. For Glissant, reflection is carried out from the perspective of a chaos-world, weaving a tapestry of constellations, something that we will do in the PEI, MACBA’s Independent Studies Programme. The fundamental purpose of this learning tool is to encourage critical thinking and to galvanise the political imagination. Glissant also raises the idea of the oasis as a site of resistance, the notion of the archipelago as a site of multiple aesthetics, self-sufficient but interconnected, multilingual in its essence, which accepts chaos as a possible organising principle. It is the notion of circular time that organises my thinking and that is revealed in an exhibition on my curatorial and critical work, recently organised by Bard College in Massachusetts, which takes its title, The Open Work, from the book of the same name by Umberto Eco (Opera aperta in Italian).

You put forward a heterodox vision of the museum, defining it as the place of affection and care, “a place where one can hide”. What is the role of the 21st-century museum and more specifically of MACBA?

The starting point needs to be active listening, mutual understanding and learning to retrieve the institution’s history and then go beyond the intentions. We want people to feel at ease when they visit MACBA and this is achieved through closeness, making the space physically more welcoming, showing our human side and taking care of the user, but also of the workers. It is a team that has been through a great deal and creating a sense of community is vital. My priority has been to interact with a team 90% of which is made up of women. Together we have envisaged the possible museum and what we need to reconceive MACBA. We understand that there is an obsolete institutionality that the museum largely encapsulated and we want to create other ways of doing things, starting by bringing to light the invisible tasks and eschewing a productivity that had been compounded and imposed. I have never been a lover of grand gestures and I think we have to do it bit by bit. Everyone asks me when they will see the new MACBA. And I reply that they will soon, but they will be slow and gradual changes that visitors will have to discover for themselves.

What is your possible MACBA?

A space for transformation open to its very change, which is not afraid of idiosyncrasy, which gradually evolves and will change much more. It is not just about breaking with the past, but with a fixed and immovable idea of a museum. We want a MACBA with a collection that does not stop at the object and also heeds the process, seeking new international platforms and new agents who currently do not feel challenged. We want to reconceive the collection poetically and politically, bringing forgotten figures to light such as Josep Grau-Garriga, who will have a special place in the museum’s tower. The collection will follow a thematic rather than a chronological order; we will reveal the new acquisitions that have not yet been displayed and we will showcase practices that have not received the proper attention. This year we are kicking off the programme with two exhibitions, those of Teresa Lanceta and the Brazilian Cinthia Marcelle, joined by María Teresa Hincapié from Colombia. They are three artists who, based on the domestic and the everyday, reflect on universal issues, such as class struggle, power, hierarchies, the profane and the sacred. We will show their ways of doing things and through their work, especially that of Lanceta, we will foster closer ties with the neighbourhood’s residents.

How do you deal with the relationship with the consortium that governs MACBA (made up of the Generalitat, the City Council, the Ministry of Culture and the MACBA Foundation) and its possible interference, which the Catalan art sector has often identified as the root of all the museum’s woes?

My arrival was marked by a number of dismissals that were approved the same day as my appointment. On my first public outing I asked to be allowed to work. I asked everyone. Before accepting the appointment, I met with all the Consortium members and, from the word go, we got down to changing things, adapting the organisation chart to the new demands, and rethinking the museum from a more holistic, cross-cutting and open perspective. I think and wish to believe that there is a real dialogue with institutions, which are letting me work and understand that this MACBA needs a much more direct connection with the city’s residents.

Many changes have been made to the advisory committee, not only in terms of its members (Jessica Morgan, Naomi Beckwith, Pablo Lafuente, Shumon Basar and Martí Manen, as well as Chris Dercon, the only remaining member of the former committee), but also in terms of their duties...

The advisory committee should not serve just to validate purchases. I propose a different panorama to that of my predecessors in which dialogue, debate and constructive criticism are crucial. All the new members are people I know very well and with whom I know we can undertake projects. We are the voice of a new generation. Only Chris Dercon remains out of the previous committee members, because he is someone who is able to reinvent himself and stands for continuity. MACBA has to be on the same level as the Raval neighbourhood, but also as the international scene, and these people can help make that happen. There will be collaborations, but I am also interested in the camaraderie and friendship that exists with all of them.

Retrat d'Elvira Dyangani Ose. © Álex Losada

Is the museum expansion project well suited to your vision of MACBA?

We will be involved as much as possible in the expansion so that it is in line with the MACBA we aspire to achieve. In fact, changes are already being made to the initial plan, which can be viewed on the website. We are putting together a use plan through a participatory process to help the architects get a grasp of the challenges the museum will be up against. I think you have to work with what you have, in any space, be it a museum or an exhibition hall. First of all, the nature of its architecture must be understood and then we can get involved and readapt. The building will ultimately adjust to our vision of the museum. All the spaces must be considered as a single facility that accommodates the needs of all MACBA’s departments.

You have worked in various countries and institutions. What do you consider to be the strength and weakness of Spanish and Catalan art?

On the institution side, we have to deliberate over what we can do to advocate certain practices and support the artists; devising a possible museum and having the capacity to generate projects that combine artistic and technological innovation with citizen participation are primordial. The archive as representative of the collection, the structure of public programmes, everything must be taken into account. I want to be positive, not dwell on the failures of the past, but consider the opportunities of the present. My nature is to deal with changes from the opportunity they present to you. We have undergone a very tough crisis not just on account of Covid-19, and artists have suffered as a result. The Artist’s Statute will be a fundamental tool. The museum is a microcosm where initiatives and scenarios can be explored that we can later demand from the authorities. We must experience the museum as if the world we aspire to already existed and take responsibility for changing so that the world changes too.

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