Sowing the Seeds for Future Practice: Osei Bonsu on Paris Photo 2019

In September, the British-Ghanaian curator and art critic Osei Bonsu was named Curator of International Art at Tate Modern. As he settles into the new role, he has also been busy preparing for the 2019 edition of Paris Photo, where he will be curating “Curiosa,” one of the fair’s three sectors that consider the broader discursive landscape of modern and contemporary photography. Modern Painters caught up with Bonsu to find out more.  

Last year, the Curiosa sector focused on erotic photography.Can you tell us more about this year’s theme and how the idea developed? The exhibition will focus on emerging artists, right?  

Exactly. The focus on emerging artists seemed to me to be a really interesting starting point, and then what I tried to do was draw out a set of positions in relation to the idea of what emergence means. The speculative theme of the exhibition is “Vanishing Point” and it’s about trying to look at the ways that photography deals with issues of visibility. That could be visibility in relation to ecological issues and the current crisis of climate change, but it could be something about the crisis of representation and what it means to be visible in front of the camera. There are examples of artists who deal with what seem to be set, traditional ways of approaching photography, but who use those methods and modalities to invent new ways to present the self or the subject. The theme is much looser than erotic photography, but what I hope you get from that is a sense that younger photographers are now more than ever engaged in this question of what it means to make a photograph in the first instance. I don’t think it’s some passive act anymore. I think these photographers are deeply interested in the origins of photography, as much as they are in the political potential of what it means to make an image. 

In what sense are they interested in the origins of photography? 

We have one artist called Marie Clerel who works with cyanotypes to create images that fundamentally look like mirror images of the sky, but are in fact chemicals on paper, held to light. This then creates a kind of content-less form of cyanotype that’s almost like photography without any form of intervention. They’re a series of panels on a grid; it looks extremely innocent, but the complex she’s using is a historical one. She’s also using it in ways that index a subject –  it’s related to but is not actually the subject that the image is representing. At first glance, people think they are just multiple images of the sky, but it’s not quite as simple as that, and that’s the interest here: What’s at stake when you’re a photographer that has to wade through a world of images in which it feels like everything has been done? Often, what’s interesting is to look at both the origins of photography, but also this chemical and – dare I say it – magical relationship photography has to ideas of process, ideas of making meaning, ideas of memory, literally bringing things to light… That’s also what I mean by visibility; by engaging with that process, Marie Clerel is summoning certain kinds of ghosts of other images. 

Are there other artists’ works that provide an interesting counterpoint to that? 

There’s a really interesting artist called Thomas Hauser who deals with the printing processes behind photography. He prints on multiple layers of materials such as glass, wood or aluminum. It’s photography that’s really about the sculptural, and creating a relationship between the image’s 2D and 3D form. He’s an interesting example of a photographer who’s not necessarily interested in producing a single image, nor in the effects of collage or montage, but is interested in thinking about the literal materiality of photography as an object. There’s another artist called Roman Moriceau who works a lot with silkscreens, but who uses copper dust and ash to create images. They’re incredibly sensory and tactile images and yet fundamentally exist in a 2D format. So it’s playing with what gets considered a stable support for photography, which I don’t think is simple or straightforward printing techniques any longer. 

Are there artists you’ve discovered through curating Curiosa? 

Yes, the duo Elsa & Johanna. They met at the School of Visual Arts in New York and have a really strong foundation in a fine art practice, but then what they’ve done is adapt that to the world of fashion and branding. In a way, they are their own work. They’re known for producing portraits of themselves as other characters in other lives, but as opposed to Cindy Sherman’s work that was almost a form of making the self disappear, they say they want to constantly remain present in the image. So they’re not trying to create a disguise, but just multiple versions of what they could be. It becomes really interesting in terms of photography today: the grip of social media; the way we see the world as we take a million images at an exhibition that we never look at again; this social impulse to document without necessarily knowing why. I think Elsa & Johanna tap into that in a really innocent and deeply critical way. 

That innocence and criticality is really the thrust of what makes this edition of Curiosa interesting. I don’t think any of these artists are claiming to have the answers to the future of photography, but they’re starting to sow the seeds for what future practice will be; I think it’s something much more flexible, much more interdisciplinary, that refers back to the origins of photography, but also finds new ways of manipulating what we consider to be a tried-and-tested technique. 

What does the exhibition say in terms of photography’s place within the broader field of Contemporary art? 

I think the exhibition is perhaps trying to say to look further afield. We all have strongly held ideas about what we think constitutes a viable or critical practice in photography, but there are much more fluid and poetic and responsive ways of working that need to be honored. There was a moment when lots of people in the art field were very focused on the digital, and the idea that technology was going to transform everything, and that soon artists would start making things that felt completely reflective of the moment we’re in technologically by using the various innovative supports that are available. I think this exhibition testifies to the opposite. All of these photographers could use the most advanced forms of technological reproduction, but in many cases they’re much more interested in simple things like how to represent a body. There’s an artist called Alfredo Rodriguez who created a machine called the “Bodybuilder” that photographs the body from multiple angles to create a warped distortion which he then reprints onto ceramic vases. In a way there’s a kitschness about it, but it’s using technology to create an object that looks like craft. It’s the sensitive and the poetic, and how those things are interwoven into technologies, but the technologies don’t necessarily control us, even though it often feels that way! 

You’ve just taken up this role as curator at Tate Modern, with a particular focus on African art. What projects are on the horizon, and what would you like to do during your time at Tate? 

This change certainly means a broader platform, but it’s really to do the things that I’ve always been interested in which is to figure out how artists have disrupted the course of history in one way or another, and to take practices, positions and ideologies that feel pertinent to our times and find a way to insert them within a historical narrative. 

For 10 years now, Tate has had a focus on Africa and I have colleagues who have worked in a really dedicated way to ensure that more African artists are represented. But the question, for me, is more complicated than that. As a Black British person of Ghanaian heritage who grew up in Wales with a Welsh mum, I have a vested interest in what it means to complicate questions around identity, biography and notions of the self in relation to an artist’s biography. So it’s really about getting beyond the idea of Africa as a geographic land mass and thinking about what Africa represents symbolically, intellectually, even politically, in a broader context that can relate just as much to Eastern Europe as it does to Africa or as it does to Paris in the 1920s. I’m not really invested in the idea of Africa as a singular subject. The Tate is really thinking about itself in relation to a broader art history now. I do wish it had happened sooner, to be perfectly honest, and I think I speak for the Tate in that respect. 

Besides my work at Tate, I have a project opening at the end of November called “Counter Acts” at Central Saint Martins’s Lethaby Gallery. It’s a historical exhibition looking at 35 years of artists who studied at the University of the Arts London. It looks at how British art has developed from the year of 1984 until today, and “Counter Acts” is a reference to the way in which artists have always, in one way or another, confronted institutions of power.  

Article published in Modern Painters magazine (October-November 2019).