For curator Osei Bonsu, Impressionist masterpieces by Monet and Manet first inspired the belief that art could fundamentally change your world.
Growing up in rural South Wales to Welsh and British-Ghanaian parents, “I was reminded that it’s possible to be a person of colour and articulate difference in a way that doesn’t align with pre-existing notions of what art should be.” After graduating from UCL where he studied History of Art, Osei was a contributing editor at Frieze Magazine, wrote and worked as an independent curator, working at the 56th Venice Biennale, and curating a major exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery, Pangaea II: New Art from Africa and Latin America and The Economy of Living Things at Jeu de Paume, Paris, among others.
In 2019, he moved to the Tate, he explains, seeking to bring challenging ideas about African and African diaspora art to a truly international audience, and because “I was interested in collection building, and how that could be a way of instituting social and political ideas about the art of our time.”
His role at the Tate is an opportunity to embody the change he hopes to see in the world, a long game that takes patience and persistence. “I’ve never not been aware of the politics of the institution and of the ways Black British artists have had to work in complex ways to define places and spaces outside the institutions because many didn’t embrace them.”
As the Tate Modern re-opened in May, one of the major exhibitions was a survey of the work of South African visual activist and artist Zanele Muholi. Muholi has worked tirelessly over two decades to make their community, the Black LGBTQI community in South Africa and the diaspora, visible in the world. Their dazzling photographs include documentary style pictures, portraits and self-portraits, many shot in their signature black and white to give them a timeless look.
“A lot of the most interesting Black artists make work that surfaces histories both personal and collective, contrary to simple ideas of ‘representing’ a universal Black subject and experience,” Osei says. One of his own recent discoveries is South African photographer Sabelo Mlangeni, and in particular a series called Country Girls, on the queer experience in rural South Africa, an unexpected perspective for the general viewer that proves the richness of LGBTQI subjectivity and imaginary. "That is what drives my interest, those kinds of complex experiences.and interactions."
Another artist Osei mentions is James Barnor, the Ghanaian photographer recently exhibited at the Serpentine Galleries, London, as well as the Bristol Museum. Barnor, now in his nineties, began working in the 1960s, taking portraits of life in Accra and London. Prolifically active, his pictures are immensely joyful, an astonishing document that pays homage to the style, fashion and culture of more than half a century.
The fact these exhibitions are happening now, Osei believes, “signals a real cultural shift, it allows people to see themselves reflected in the world, it's long overdue and I’m extremely excited about it.” Osei adds that “institutions are more attendant to the importance of difference not for its own sake, but more importantly for the profound experience of artwork that need to be seen and explored.”
“Working in the arts in a professional capacity there’s a tendency to want to constantly find the critical context that justifies the existence of an artist or an artwork,” but the best art, Osei maintains, does something visceral, and commits "to telling stories in lots of different, profound ways."
What he is most excited about now are artists who do just that, and who are able to shake up the world as we know it, much in the same way the Impressionists made their impact on Osei as a boy; “artists who illuminate history to make us view the present differently.”
Interview by Charlotte Jansen.
Photographs by Suzie Howell.
Osei wears our Garment Dyed Herringbone Jacket from our menswear collection.
Osei Bonsu is the author of African Art Now published by Tate publishing and Ilex on October 6th 2022.
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