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Issue 11

Questionnaire: Valerie Cassel Oliver

The curator of Spotlight talks about the influence of David Hammons and Senga Nengudi, her ‘North Star’ James Baldwin and wishing she could have met Augusta Savage

BY Valerie Cassel Oliver in Frieze Masters | 13 OCT 23

Is there one work of art that made you want to be an art historian?

I cannot remember a singular work of art that created the spark or became a catalyst for the work that I currently do. I will share that as a child growing up in Houston, thoughts of being an art historian or curator were foreign to me. It was only as an adult that I learned about career opportunities in the arts. My love and interest were fostered by a number of people, including artists (emerging and established) who drew me into their orbits. The initial entry began with my interest in sharing their stories and providing a platform or a context. It is still what propels me in the field.

Elsa Gramcko, Tótem Nº 2, 1974, organic material, casein plaka and metal on Masonite, 46 × 36 cm Courtesy: Sicardi Ayers Bacino, Houston, Texas; photograph: Paul Hester

What was the first art gallery you visited?

I first visited art museums – we were bussed to them as part of the city school offerings. I remember vividly visiting the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and their exhibition of Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys. There were a few art galleries in Houston at the time, certainly Texas Gallery, but also closer to home, the Barnes-Blackman Gallery, a small African-American-run gallery where I eventually worked as an intern. And, I credit Michelle Barnes for being such a generous mentor to me during those very early days and stages of my career.

What’s your favourite work of art?

Favourite work of art? There are far too many to determine ‘a’ favourite.  I can situate an aesthetic that speaks to me that lies in the 1970s, and includes the work of artists like David Hammons and Senga Nengudi, who used ordinary materials in masterful, extraordinary ways. I also have a strong appetite for traditional craftworks that are pushed beyond the decorative and practical.

What do you want to bring to Frieze Masters as a curator?

I think that I have brought my desire to celebrate artists whose works or practices are underknown. I also have a desire to shift the frequency toward embracing artists who remain a bit outside of the frame, but whose works are significant to the overall understanding of how practices continue to evolve in the most interesting of ways. The most powerful narrative embraces multiple points of origins, shifts and evolutions.

Mehdi Moutashar, Parallèles, Paris, 1968, acrylic on cardboard mounted on wood, 55 × 66 × 5 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Lawrie Shabibi, Dubai; photograph: Lionel Roux
Mehdi Moutashar, Parallèles, Paris, 1968, acrylic on cardboard mounted on wood, 55 × 66 × 5 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Lawrie Shabibi, Dubai; photograph: Lionel Roux

What are some of the significant works and artists in Spotlight this year?

There are a few really remarkable features this year, including the work of Indonesian painter I Gusti Ayu Kadek Murniasih, a formidable artist who pushed the boundaries of a male-dominated art world to speak specifically about the female body in its totality. Also featured are the Iraqi artist Mehdi Moutashar, whose paintings and sculpture highlight modernism in the Middle East; Elsa Gramcko, whose work delves into the expansive experimentation happening in South America; and Alonzo Davis in Los Angeles, who, like Hammons and Nengudi, highlights the amazing practices happening on the West Coast in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.

Which artists or writers (or other people) inspire you?

I would say that James Baldwin serves as a North Star, as do current writers: poets and thinkers like Claudia Rankine, Christina Sharpe, Hilton Als, Saidiya Hartman and Fred Moten.

Which historical artist would you like to meet if you could?

Augusta Savage. She is such a brilliant artist, and yet we know so very little about her.

Alonzo Davis, A U.S. Bicentennial Reflection #3, 1975, mixed media collage,  49 × 65 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Parrasch Heijnen Gallery

What are you looking forward to doing whilst you’re in London?

I am looking forward to drinking it all in: the museums, the galleries, hopefully a few artists’ studios and, of course, the fair!

What could London learn from the American South?

We often discount the significance of art not born from the academy, and yet the work is as profound and extraordinary in its own right. We must be mindful that the history of art does not emanate from one singular source and that the most powerful narrative embraces multiple points of origins, shifts and evolutions.

Main image: Mehdi Moutashar, Parallèles, Paris, 1968, acrylic on cardboard mounted on wood, 55 × 66 × 5 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Lawrie Shabibi, Dubai; photograph: Lionel Roux

Valerie Cassel Oliver is the Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Over the past two decades, Cassel Oliver has organized numerous exhibitions including The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture and the Sonic Impulse (2021) at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, USA.