BY Terence Trouillot in Profiles | 25 MAR 21

Larry Ossei-Mensah Is Not Wasting His Time

Despite the pitfalls of the pandemic, the independent curator continues to organize exciting exhibitions and find new and creative ways to engage with artists

BY Terence Trouillot in Profiles | 25 MAR 21

Dressed in a black and white striped dashiki with a bright-yellow trim, Larry Ossei-Mensah projects a serious yet convivial air as we meet via Zoom to discuss his curatorial practice. He’s speaking to me from Ghana, just a few days before he sets out for Dakar, where he plans to visit the Black Rock residency – a multidisciplinary artist residency founded by the painter Kehinde Wiley in 2019. ‘I wanted to check out the artists there, do some studio visits. I went to Black Rock when it launched and I was going to go again last year but, due to COVID-19, I wasn’t able to. Since I’m not that far away, I thought I would just go for a couple of days to see how things are progressing.

Larry Ossei-Mensah
Portrait of Larry Ossei-Mensah. Photography: Aaron Ramey

As a curator, Ossei-Mensah is a bit of maverick – an independent practitioner always on the move, looking to share ideas with new and exciting artists across the globe. The Ghanaian-American, who hails from the Bronx in New York, came to this profession somewhat by accident, having initially aspired to become a music producer. ‘All the way through college, I interned at different record companies. I actually wanted to be a record man,’ he tells me with great fondness. After spending several years in Europe studying in the early 2000s, Ossei-Mensah returned to New York and visited Simon Watson’s group show ‘Defining a Moment: 25 New York Artists’ at House of Campari in 2008, where he was enthralled by the works of Titus Kaphar and Rashid Johnson. That same year, Ossei-Mensah  co-curated his first exhibition: a show featuring his own photography and Stanley Lumax's work at Harriet’s Alter Ego, ‘a boutique on Flatbush that had a gallery in the back. So, it wasn’t in Chelsea; it was in Brooklyn, where my community lived.’

Since then, Ossei-Mensah has written extensively about art and has successfully curated exhibitions all over the world – for commercial and non-profit spaces – with artists such as ruby amanze, Firelei Báez, Derek Fordjour, Hugo McCloud and Stanley Whitney, among others. He was formerly senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit – a position he held for a little over a year until he was appointed co-curator of the 7th Athens Biennale, which opens this fall. He currently serves as curator-at-large at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where earlier this year he curated the public arts exhibition 'Let Freedom Ring', which featured new and existing work by Derrick Adams, Alvin Armstrong, Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, Lizania Cruz, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Hank Willis Thomas, and Jasmine Wahi.


Grace Lynne Haynes, Sunday Mourning, 2021, screenprint on satin paper, edition of 50, 73 x 73 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Avant Arte, Naardena
Grace Lynne Haynes, Sunday Mourning, 2021, screenprint and lithograph on satin paper, edition of 50, 72 x 73 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Avant Arte, Naarden

Although he has recently returned to some facet of his travelling, Ossei-Mensah has had to rethink his peripatetic approach to curating over the past year, much like everyone else in the art world: ‘COVID-19 has allowed me to rest and recalibrate my participation in the art-world ecosystem, which was actually necessary. It has also taught me the importance of being fluid: a lot of projects have been pushed back, so I’m learning to embrace that and adapt and not get frustrated, because it’s for the safety of the artists, the gallery staff and the public.’

The pandemic has also made Ossei-Mensah readjust his methods to working within the community, and he now – with the help of his collaborators – offers artists weekly virtual studio visits through ARTNOIR, an interdisciplinary organization that he co-founded in 2013 with the aim of fostering a network for Black and Brown creatives. ‘Community is at the foundation of my practice, whether as a maker or as a curator or as a facilitator of experiences. I think, over time, through my journey in the art world, I recognized that there were other people wanting to be part of this ecosystem, but they either didn’t know how to join or didn’t feel welcome.’


Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, View of Yoei William, 2021, oil on canvas. Courtesy: the artist and Avant Arte, New York
Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, View of Yoei William, 2021, screenprint, edition of 35, 115 x 75 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Avant Arte, Naarden

Ossei-Mensah reminisces about the early days at ARTNOIR, which started as just co-ordinated field trips to museums: ‘Hey, I’m going to Storm King Art Center. I’m going to Barnes Foundation. Who wants to come? It was organic!’ Fast forward to last summer, ARTNOIR raised over US$100,000 dollars via an online art auction in collaboration with Artsy for its Jar of Love fund, which awards grants to BIPOC curators, artists and cultural workers around the world who have been impacted by the pandemic. This summer ARTNOIR will plan another online art auction with Artsy to raise money for a new scholarship fund for BIPOC MFA students. Despite all the hardships of this past year, Ossei-Mensah’s energy is unwavering. He is still working on several different projects contemporaneously, including an online exhibition in collaboration with Avant Arte titled ‘Inner Visions’ – after Stevie Wonder’s 1973 album – featuring the works of Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, Grace Lynne Haynes and Ferrari Sheppard. His enthusiasm is palpable, stemming from a great sense of purpose and appreciation for his work: ‘If I’m not doing what nourishes me, gets me excited, gives me goosebumps and butterflies – which is how I feel working in the arts – then I’m wasting my time.’

Main image: Portrait of Larry Ossei-Mensah (detail). Photography: Aaron Ramey

Terence Trouillot is associate editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.