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Interviewed by Gözde Filinta

Constellations of Knowledges: Annette Bhagwati

3 March 2020

Gözde Filinta: What is your professional background?

Anette Bhagwati: My professional practice began as an assistant to the department of exhibition in film and media in the early 1990s at Haus der Kulturen Welt (HKW), a multidisciplinary cultural institution in Berlin. I studied in Germany and the UK at the School of Oriental African Studies (SOAS). I’m an art historian, anthropologist of art, and geographer.

In the year 2000, I became the deputy head of the visual arts exhibition department at HKW and stayed until 2006. In conjunction with external curators I managed and oversaw numerous exhibitions that looked at rising and emerging contemporary art scenes from specific regions like Iran or China. Exhibitions included China-Between Past and Future, DisORIENTation: Contemporary Arab Artists in the Middle East.

In 2006, I left HKW for family reasons and moved to Canada for 6 years, where I worked as an affiliate professor at Concordia University in the Department of Art History. In my teaching and research I focused on exhibition studies, curatorial studies and global art.

In 2012, I returned to Berlin and joined the HKW again, this time as the project director of long-term curatorial research projects, including ‘The Anthropocene Project.’ I managed the project, devising the overall concept together with the artistic director and initiator of ‘The Anthropocene project’. My role was to oversee and weave together the themes, projects and strands of research, initiated and developed by the different departments of HKW. My task was to identify overarch- ing topics emerging from each project, to link them in meaningful ways, to devise strategies for research-oriented and transdisciplinary curatorial research, to initiate national and international cooperations, to curate exhibitions and develop a dramaturgy for public events. The Anthropocene Project is still running under the direction of Bernd Scherer. I moved to Zurich in November 2019 where I had been appointed as the new director of the Museum Rietberg.

GF: How would you define your curatorial practice?

AB: The HKW has informed my curatorial approach in many ways. I understand curating as asking questions, as developing particular forms, and giving a specific Gestalt, a curatorial shape, to specific issues. My idea of curating is not representational, in the sense that I do not come up with a visual equivalent, a representative form of an ultimate truth. Instead, I am interested in a philosophical question, a collection history, an object biography, and later understand in which forms, space, relations are required, correspond best to answer these questions. I understand it as a collaborative effort, a process in which knowledge is produced in changing constellations of objects, spaces and people.

In the mid-1990s, the notion of a curator was very different. In the early years at HKW, even the heads of the department who would conceive the exhibition would not be called curator. Another aspect of my work at HKW which shaped my understanding of curatorial practice is the notion of “collaboration and cooperation”. If you work trans-culturally, you have to ask yourself: What do I exhibit and to whom? Who is speaking? What is being conveyed?

Back at HKW, when we developed regional exhibitions featuring contemporary art scenes from around the world, we commissioned curators from the region in order to avoid a Western bias and invite an informed local perspective instead.

GF: How is your working process at Museum Riet- berg?

AB: The team of curators at the Museum Rietberg is very diverse; each of them has a different training, regional expertise and theoretical approach. They develop an idea and present it, first to the board of curators, then to the Executive Board for discussion and feedback. Criteria include the connection to the collection, the quality and depth of research, the relevance and acuity of its topic and its impact and relevance to different stakeholders and communities, both locally and internationally. Our latest exhibition, ‘Fiction Kongo, for example, dedicated one section to the notion of beauty in the art of Congo of the 1930s. From there a line of inquiry explored different practices of fashion and design, including the Sapeurs both in Congo and in Switzerland.

GF: How does the Museum Rietberg situate itself in current debates about restitution and provenance research?

AB: Museum Rietberg is very engaged in the question of provenance. More than ten years ago it employed a historian to research the collection history, as well as the context in which an object was acquired. Currently, there are nine objects from Africa whose acquisition history raises some questions. An essential part of the museum is the collaboration with source communities, but also the collaboration with artists, museums, experts, curators, art historians.

GF: What do you think of the Zurich art scene?

AB: t has been a great experience so far. I’m deeply impressed by the way, in which art institutions in Zurich reach out to each other, collaborate, connect, and develop something together. Another strength of Zurich is its outstanding universities, as well as a lively art scene, engaged with artistic and curatorial research, and experimental practices. These activities are highly stimulating for our own practice, and openness to ask fundamental questions about art, curating, and exhibition-making.

Annette Bhagwati studied Anthropology, African Art and Literature, Art History, and Geography in Freiburg im Breisgau, Berlin, and London and received her PhD at the School of African and Oriental Studies London. From 2012 to autumn 2019 she worked at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin where she headed various curatorial, long-term research projects. At the same institution she realized a number of exhibition projects at the interface of art and science in curatorial as well as organizational terms. Annette Bhagwati took up position as director of the Museum Riet- berg in November 2019. From 2009 to 2012 Annette Bhagwati taught Anthropology of Art, Museology, and History of Exhibiting Non-Western Art at the Department of Art History at Concordia University, Montreal. Annette Bhagwati has close ties with numerous associations and research networks some of which she co-initiated herself. In addition, she is a highly sought-after speaker and host at international symposia and congresses. Countries she visits for research and study purposes include Benin, India, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, and Canada.

Gözde Filinta is a curatorial researcher and writer based in Zurich. She has taken part in multiple art projects since 2012 in various roles. Currently, she is working on her research on multispecies survival in the Anthropocene and the use of art narratives, for her ongoing MAS program at ZHdK in curating. Along with her research articles, she writes about contemporary art in relation to her research area. She continues working on her curatorial projects in Zurich and Istanbul, and is genuinely interested in urgent global issues, interspecies relations, and the non-human in artistic expressions and narratives.

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