BY KJ Abudu AND Vanessa Peterson in Interviews | 27 JUL 22

‘Living With Ghosts’ Reckons with Africa’s Past, Present and Future

Vanessa Peterson interviews curator KJ Abudu about the latest iteration of his project, currently on view at Pace Gallery, London

BY KJ Abudu AND Vanessa Peterson in Interviews | 27 JUL 22

Vanessa Peterson Now in its second iteration at Pace Gallery in London, your ongoing curatorial project ‘Living with Ghosts’ was first staged in March this year at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery in New York.

KJ Abudu Expanding on four years of research, ‘Living with Ghosts’ argues that Africa is the central staging ground for global modernity’s ongoing, five-century-long drama, evident from the fundamental role the continent has played in shaping world-historical events, from the transatlantic slave trade to colonialism to corporatized neo-colonialism. This second iteration urges us to consider that we cannot think about the spectres that inhabit contemporary Africa and its diasporas without considering the ways in which these ghosts haunt the wider world.

Living With Ghosts install Pace London
'Living With Ghosts', 2022, installation view, Pace Gallery, London. Courtesy: Pace Gallery; photograph: Damian Griffiths

VP In your curatorial statement, you quote from Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s Coloniality of Power in Postcolonial Africa: Myths of Decolonisation [2013]: ‘The post-colonial African world exists only as that which is absent.’ How do the works on show speak to this sentiment?

KA The era of mid 20th-century anticolonial national liberation struggles features heavily in this exhibition (and so do histories of resistance that precede this era, dating back to the 16th century). For instance, Bouchra Khalili’s Foreign Office [2015] returns to Algiers as a mecca for revolutionaries between the mid-1950s and ’70s, contending with a global constellation of liberation movements – stretching from Angola, Somalia, and Mozambique to Oman, Vietnam, and the United States – that were all headquartered in the North African city during this Cold War period. Nolan Oswald Dennis’s biko.cabral [2020]  uses a word-search algorithm to restage a speculative dialogue between Steve Biko, the founder of the anti-apartheid Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, and Amílcar Cabral, an anticolonial revolutionary from Guinea Bissau. Mathieu Abonnenc’s Foreword to Guns for Banta [2011] is a slideshow reconstructing a work from the 1970s by Third Cinema filmmaker Sarah Maldoror, which was initially funded but eventually seized by the Algerian army. Abonnenc drew on two years of conversations with Maldoror to create a fabulation of the lost film.

It is easy to misinterpret artists’ fascination with this era as a form of nostalgia, but I hope that seeing these works will encourage viewers to confront what these decolonization movements really meant, what their leading figures tried to accomplish, and how and why – given the historical period in which they emerged – they might have ‘failed’.

We live in a time when the possibility of alternative worlds is continuously being eradicated by the post-historical aspirations of global capital and decolonization is being converted into a trendy, academic, commercialized metaphor. Consequently, it is crucial that we return to these anticolonial archives as a source of futurity to think about what these revolutionaries were – and what we are still – up against, their emphasis on transnational, multiracial, South-South solidarity, and the multiple liberatory futures they aspired to bring into being. I hope that the works in ‘Living with Ghosts’ haunt us with a sense that another world could have been and still is possible.

Bouchra Khalili Living With Ghosts
Bouchra Khalili, Foreign Office, 2015, film still. Courtesy: Mor Charpentier, Paris and the artist 

VP The influence of the archive on your project is clear and aligns with your emphasis on the presence of ghosts in the African continent’s present political reality. Can archives act as a liberatory tool?

KA Arguably, what we’re contending with in the 21st century isn’t anything new. We don’t have to invent completely novel frameworks to understand the present juncture. These archives have already articulated a useful critical language and so have bequeathed us with an emancipatory toolbox of thought and action. I see liberation as a collective, ongoing effort of which we’re all part and so, depending on the context we find ourselves in, these archives can help us avoid certain traps of the present moment.

VP You plan to publish a reader for the show. How does writing sit alongside your curatorial practice?

KA For me, theory, writing and curatorial practice have always been inseparable. The reader is an integral part of the exhibition project: it will outlast both the gallery display and the lectures, functioning as the exhibition’s afterlife.

Writing comes most naturally to me because I’m always looking to give language to things. In so doing, I’m better able to articulate connections and divergences between things – whether they be visual, textual, spatial or aural. At the same time, I curate precisely because I’m aware of the limits of writing.

The reader will contain archival texts from Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx [1993], C.L.R. James’s epilogue from A History of Pan-African Revolt [1938] and Achille Mbembe’s On the Postcolony [2001]. There is also an essay by Walter Mignolo on the work of Sylvia Wynter (who in turn reflects on James’s writings). Wynter’s work on the ‘coloniality of being’ has been particularly crucial to the formulation of this exhibition.

There will also be newly commissioned writing, including a piece I wrote about John Akomfrah and the Black Audio Film Collective, an interview with Khalili, and essays by Adjoa Armah, Emmanuel Iduma and Joshua Segun-Lean. The reader intends to intervene into discourses on postcolonial spectrality by centring various African indigenous systems of thought.

Foreword to Guns for Banta
Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc, Foreword to Guns for Banta, 2011. © Suzanne Lipinska; courtesy: Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc 

VP You’re curating a section at next year’s Lagos Biennial. Has ‘Living with Ghosts’ had an impact on your thinking in relation to that project?

KA Titled ‘Traces of Ecstasy’ after a 1988 essay by the photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode, whose works also feature in ‘Living with Ghosts’, the biennial project will take the form of a pavilion, including contributions from Dennis, Evan Ifekoya, Raymond Pinto, Temitayo Shonibare and Adeju Thompson. With the biennial scheduled to take place in Tafawa Balewa Square – a historically significant site in central Lagos that hosted Nigeria’s independence ceremonies in 1960, as well as some of the FESTAC’77 celebrations – the pavilion will critically respond to the spectres haunting that space while also functioning as a refuge of healing and freedom-dreaming. Given my primary concern with rigorously accounting for, and de-linking from, the structures of colonial modernity through theory and aesthetics, one could say that every exhibition I curate will be some version of ‘Living with Ghosts.’

'Living With Ghosts' is on view at Pace Gallery, London, until 5 August 2022.

Main image: Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc, Foreword to Guns for Banta, 2011. © Suzanne Lipinska; courtesy: Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc 

KJ Abudu is a critic and curator based between London, Lagos, and New York. KJ is a 2022-23 Helena Rubinstein Curatorial Fellow at the Whitney Independent Study Program and will be curating a pavilion-bound exhibition, Traces of Ecstasy, for the fourth edition of the Lagos Biennial in 2023. He won the 2019 Frieze Writer’s Prize.

Vanessa Peterson is associate editor of frieze. She lives in London, UK.