The Capacity of Art to Change How We Think About Ourselves in the World: In Conversation with Larry Ossei-Mensah

Photography by Miranda Barnes

Larry Ossei-Mensah is the Susanne Field Hilberry Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, and co-founder of ARTNOIR. We discuss the role of museums in neighborhoods, the local/global dynamic of contemporary art, and the social and political responsibilities of artistic and curatorial practice. 

Do you believe that artmaking, as well as curatorial practice and arts criticism, is an inherently political act? If so, are there inherent social and political responsibilities for artists, curators, and critics? Is it possible for art to ever exist outside of the social and political realms– “art for art’s sake”?

I think it’s a question of how you define political. In a traditional sense I think people think about politics in relationship to an act of social justice, but I think for me it’s also an act of heightening awareness and a point of view. And that could be for issues related to identity, gender, or inequality for example. I think to have a point of view requires some sense of social and political awareness.

At the end of the day it will be up to the curator or artist to determine what is really important to them. I think painting could be political if you think about just the notion of figuration, or like I just launched a project in collaboration with the painter Stanley Whitney, who is known to be an abstract painter, it’s a billboard project in Kansas City in partnership with H&R Block Artspace. When he was coming up as a young artist in the late 60’s during the civil rights era Stanley was chastised for not being political enough. So it makes me wonder does political always really require the need to incorporate the figure. The piece that we just launched last H&R Block Artspace piggybacks a piece he did for Documenta. Known for abstract painting, Stanley also has a robust text-based practice that a lot of people aren’t aware of. So we were interested in highlighting that part of his practice with this very definitive statement, “No to prison life”. I find the gesture interesting when you factor that he’s not known to make overt political gestures in his work. My hope is that the piece will necessitate heightened awareness, make viewers of the work more empathetic, and help them hopefully be a better neighbor for the community and society. So if we’re saying societal progress is political, then I would say yes, art has the capacity to change how we think about ourselves in the world. That’s kind of how I think about my practice, how do you use it as a platform to create those shifts, because I’ve personally had those shifts. If you’re talking about expanding one’s notion of possibility of what they can do in life, if that’s political then yes.

So would you say for you it’s kind of slippery? Contingent on context?

Yeah, yeah, I don’t look at it as a fixed thing, because then you get into a kind of tricky territory. Like I look at the picture of the woman in Sudan, who made this declarative gesture, did you see the photograph?

c/o Lana Haroun via twitter @lanahago

No, I’m unfamiliar.

She was on top of the car. It’s just a beautiful photograph, but then it’s a very political gesture. A friend was explaining to me down to the garb that she chose was very considered. There had been a series of protests in Sudan recently and this image has reverberated around the world to spotlight the challenged there right now. (SHOWS IMAGE) This is a great example of the power of an image to potentially redefine a society. If you look at what she was wearing, my friend said this was like a traditional working-class outfit. And also for it to be done by a woman is a very important gesture, as opposed to a man in this Islamic space. So, long-winded answer, yes, I think there should be a heightened level of awareness and empathy, that’s a responsibility.

I guess specifically within that notion of responsibility, I’m interested in the idea of artmaking as a model for the current debate between free speech and political correctness. It seems like modernism had an idea that the artist is free to use any signifier and appropriate it in any way. But then postmodernism seemed to come and say, ‘no there are responsibilities to that,’ and that you have to be aware of what signifiers you’re using, and what kind of meanings they may carry outside of how you’re using them. How do you fall into that?

I agree. Like that a picture or a gesture or a word might read as one thing in one kind of cultural context, but then in another cultural context might be offensive. Context is always something I always encourage artists to keep in mind. Particularly if they’re treading tricky territory. Yesterday I was visiting with an artist who was doing a project on a place in the Caribbean. She has familial ties to it through her grandmother, but there’s a personal distance. So for me it’s like, even though you’ve got somewhat of a familial tie, you really need to look at this holistically. Why? Because you don’t want to use a certain signifier in a way that could be misconstrued, 1. People will shut off, because then the focus is going to be on this miscommunication, misidentification, or pure lack of research. There are rare instances where you can gutturally do something. But again, its delicate in that you don’t want to censor artists, but I think you want artists to really consider the totality of the decisions that they’re making within their work. I think it is part of being an artist today,. How do you tread that line where what you’re offering through your practice proposes new questions.

As Arthur Jaffa likes to say sometimes, I’m paraphrasing, “the function of an artist is to act as an usher and point to the issue”. So if you think about Love is the Message that was pointing, you know, sometimes it could just be as simple as ‘this is what it is’, and other times its ‘this is what it is you need to be aware of it’. So I think in terms of artists that I work and engage with, I encourage them to really think about things in totality, to just kind of half-assedly do something and claim to be an artist doesn’t fly in our current context anymore. Moreover, there are enough tools and resources to do the research needed to make sure that you’ve considered all the permutations so that, if you do make a certain decision and someone asks you ‘why’, you can give a specific answer.

Do you feel the artist has an obligation to answer questions?

I mean its case by case. I think when you’re doing something that’s related to a sensitive topic, you should be willing to have a dialogue around it. It doesn’t have to be a public chat, maybe it’s something more closed door. You should be able to dialogue around your work because you’re putting it out there for a reason. But also you have a history of artists who don’t want to talk about their work and feel the work speaks for itself. I don’t want to get into the position of saying you have to, but I think if you’re talking about something that’s going to be triggering, you need to be prepared to have a conversation around it, and if you don’t then it really makes me question the intentions with which you made it.

You mentioned in an interview with Hyperallergic regarding your new position at MOCAD that you were excited about joining “a museum with a continued focus on diversity”. Can you expand on what you see as the importance of diversity in art institutions?

Yeah, I think about diversity in a multitude of ways, not just through the lens of race, but through the lens of socioeconomics, class, gender and how people identify. Moreover, I also aim to think about diversity psychographically, and explore a more expansive way of thinking about the world around us. I consider the question of, “how can we create an ecosystem where everyone feels considered and seen, It is something I find important to reflect on because Detroit is diverse in a multitude of ways. It might not particularly be in terms of race, but what people find important in terms of their concerns, issues around identity, social justice, and equity, all relate to me to this notion of diversity. Because I think that’s when you really begin to have a much more rich dialogue, as opposed to a myopic, homogeneous conversation, where you’re pretty much preaching to the choir. Where is the opportunity to learn? Where is there an opportunity to grow and expand? And for me personally that’s what I’m always striving for and I think that’s the beauty of art. I think diversity is a chance for us to learn from each other, grow together, and get a better understanding of folks who might be deemed other.

Postcolonial studies have provided necessary critiques of curatorial practice in the last few decades by drawing attention both to cultural objects’ placement within geopolitical frameworks shaped by imperialism, as well as to the role of cultural differences in the curation of objects. Is the role of cultural differences a primary concern of your own curatorial practice? What do you think are helpful ways curators can be attentive to the role of cultural differences in exhibiting work?

Yeah, I think for me that’s where the opportunity to learn occurs. I just did a six week residency in Greece recently. I was in Athens spending time with artists who, most of whom were of Greek descent, some were first generation Afrogreeks, I found the experience a perfect opportunity to learn about classical Greece, juxtaposed with contemporary Greece in an in depth way.,  Furthermore, to encounter thoughts and perspectives of immigrants and refugees was also truly enlightening. I think you have to acknowledge the cultural nuance and be cognizant of it, and then figure out what can you learn from it. For me its critical to appreciate cultural difference, and I think that goes back to my point of diversity. By acknowledging that someone else’s culture or point of view is important, created an opportunity for a dialogue and conversation where we can learn from each other. This is a perfect example, I brought Loukoumi, which is like a candy from Greece, its super basic, but it allows you through food to have an insight into the flavors that get people excited. This is something that if you went to someone’s house or met up, like when I did studio visits I actually got turned onto this idea of—I did a studio visit with an artist and he gave me like a basket of it and I was like ‘what is this’ and he was like ‘greek candy’ and so this becomes, like we were talking about bridges, it becomes a bridge into understanding that culture a bit. It’s not like full on, but it’s these gestures that basically say “you’re welcome” or “I want to share my experience, I want to share my culture with you, because these are things that are important to me, and hopefully you’ll learn from them and it will resonate with you”.

Okwui Enwezor wrote that “to bring contemporary art into the context of the geopolitical framework that defines global relations– between the so-called local and global, center and margin, individual and nation-state, transnational and diasporic communities, audiences and institutions– would offer a perspicacious view of the post-colonial constellation.” You seem to be a curator who is very interested in working in these liminal spaces, and I’ve read that you would like to use your position at MOCAD to develop programs that act as “a bridge between the city (Detroit) and the world” What about these connections between the local and global interest you? Could you expand on what this bridge would look like in practice?

Detroit as a space within itself has a rich and robust artistic, musical, creative history. And so for me, as someone who didn’t grow up here, I’m interested in figuring out how I can mine that history, make space for it, whether its work that we do here at MOCAD, or introducing people, because I get it all the time “how is Detroit”, like they ask you as if Detroit is a person, and I just say “you have to come visit”. And so for me it excites me to be able to come to it with these fresh eyes, but concurrently how do you create opportunities for artists in the region to have their work be seen in other spaces, so that they can bring their dialogue to somewhere else. Or how can I have artists who are interested in coming to Detroit, how can I create opportunities for them to be in conversation. So for me it’s more about cultivating this ecosystem of exchange, because we all have something to share, and we all have something to learn from each other. And I think just by being driven by the pure nature of curiosity about how does one live, I think for me personally I’ve learned a lot.

Moreover, I think there’s a tendency to kind of have this fixed notion of space, and the reality is that things are way more fluid than we realize. How do you push people to get out of their comfort zone as well, and be invested in what’s happening in another space. It’s almost like being an adventurer of sorts, in terms of going to see how other people live, and then bringing that knowledge in to see how you can impart that in your local space. And maybe it helps it grown and maybe it doesn’t.

Furthermore, I’ve been thinking about the post-colonial a lot because I have a show up now at MOAD in San Francisco, Coffee Rhum Sugar Gold: a Postcolonial Paradox and thinking about the paradox we’re in. People want to think that post-colonial or the notion of empire has ended, and it’s just morphed. I was just in the Bahamas and to see what has been put in place structurally to make it difficult for Bahamians from doing certain things was shocking,. Moreover, think about the notion of redlining, which is not something they necessarily used in Nassau, but you see a form of it when you move from one part of Nassau to another and you see how the landscape changes.

For me, a lot of my practice has turned to focusing on the global south. Latin America, South America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and all these places were impacted by colonialism and imperialism. And so those seeds of empire are there, they have spawned, and turned into other things where now you might have one tribe pitted against another tribe, or one neighborhood pitted against another neighborhood. Look at Brexit, it’s a perfect example. All of a sudden now immigrants aren’t welcome, where during the Windrush generation they helped rebuild the U.K. after WWII. And so now you want to complete negate that contribution.

The ‘post-colonial’–for me I don’t get stuck on terms, but for me it’s just more about a heightened awareness that these things have just morphed and changed, and they are still very prevalent. And if you’re not aware you’re basically going to repeat things that have happened in history before.

How do you balance the hyperacadamic jargon that can sometimes feel necessary in writing about contemporary art, with the notion that “if its not accessible to the oppressed, it isn’t radical”?

I think for me, it’s funny, I’ve learned a lot from Frank Luntz, a republican strategist, and George Lakoff. They both talk about the power of words, but the simplicity of language choice is going to allow you to cut through the clutter and truly connect with people. You just make it straightforward. The jargon is designed to create barriers at times, but I think it’s also a necessity to use certain words to really get a point across. So for me I try to connect through a multitude of ways. I try to do it where the shows are accessible, so whether you are an art nerd or know nothing about art, there’s something for you. Particularly, if you think about a group show, it’s impossible for every work in a group show to resonate with the same person, so how does that resonate with a multitude of audiences. I try to do that through essays, through public programming, creating a space where people can ask questions, dialogue, and feel a part of what’s happening.

I think it comes down to the individual at the end of the day. What’s priority to you, how do you want to communicate, and then you kind of follow that lead. I think there’s no specific blueprint, it comes down to the choice of the curator or the writer. But I think also how do you balance that right? Because you want whatever you contribute to have some heft and not water it down. I think watering it down is disrespectful to your audience. So how do you challenge them to be a part of this and not just spoon feed them, because that’s not interesting as well. People know when they’re being pandered to. I think it takes a mix of good exhibitions, public programming, writing, podcasts, just using the various forms of communication that are available to us to have these dialogues, but then leave space for people to be able to ask questions and feel like they can be a part of it.

I really loved a quote from your interview with Cultured Magazine, “how do you really create an environment where people feel like this is my museum and have a stake and equity in what’s happening here.” Could you speak a little bit more about this idea, and ways art institutions can put it into practice?

I’m a library nut. It’s a place where knowledge can be exchanged. It’s a place where people can commune. It’s an agora of sorts. How does a museum function as a town square where your intellectual needs can be met, your social needs can be met, and so for me that’s what I think about because I didn’t grow up going to museums. And it wasn’t necessarily because I didn’t feel like it was for me, it just wasn’t in my consciousness. So how do programs we do with the teen council, for example, where we work with an incredible group of youth, encourage people to understand this is for them, and how do those youth become evangelists and say “hey this is cool come check this out”, you know we’ve got the café, we’ve got wifi, like we want this to be accessible to everybody, because without the people this doesn’t exist, it doesn’t survive, it doesn’t thrive. So I think helping people understand that has been a humbling opportunity.

Are there any museums in particular that you think are doing a good job at this?

I think we’ve been doing a really good job, in terms of MOCAD. I think the TATE has been an interesting example to look at, MASSMOCA, where I did a show with Allison Janae Hamilton, co-curated with Susan Cross, and they’re interesting because they’re the only game in town (North Adams), so they have to serve so many different needs. I look to them for inspiration in terms of how I think about what we can do here. But I think MOCAD is doing a good job, but I come from a point of view that is always thinking about continuous improvement, and it’s like how can we continue to do a good job, do a better job, are there audiences we aren’t reaching and if not how can we engage them?

You seem like a pretty relentlessly positive guy.

That’s the only way to live.

Yeah, I guess I mean that I felt like when I was in art school everything was super critical, and you always had to watch your step, which I think is helpful but—

But that’s common sense.

Yeah and I think just talking to you now though it’s like “everything is an opportunity to learn”.

Yeah because coming from where I come from, to actually do this for a living is a blessing, so there’s no reason for me to complain you know? I know the power of art and how it has the capacity to change lives, right? I also try to not think of things in a binary ‘positive or negative’. I focus on what’s going to help you grow, what’s going to help you thrive, and those are the things I like to focus my energy on.

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