2019 Venice Biennale Special: Talking to Dr Zoe Whitley

Ahead of the 58th Venice Biennale Alt A managed to interview Dr Zoe Whitley who is Senior Curator at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London. Prior to her role at the Hayward, she was Curator, International Art, at Tate Modern, where she co-curated the exhibition Soul of a Nation. Whitley has curated works by Jenny Holzer, Lubaina Himid and Isaac Julien, among others, and in 2013 conceived the exhibition The Shadows Took Shape in collaboration with the Studio Museum Harlem. Following an open call issued by the British Council, she is the first mid-career curator attached to the British Pavilion for the International Art Exhibition at La Biennale di Venezia. The full interview appears in the current Spring edition of Alt A Review. (Image: DR ZOE WHITLEY_Curator, British Pavilion 2019 James Gifford-Mead)

AA: Congratulations on being appointed curator of the British Pavilion at the 2019 Biennale Arte 2019 in Venice. Tell us a bit about what that involves: working with artist Cathy Wilkes; and what are you most excited about in this year’s Biennale Arte?

ZW: Thank you! Working with Cathy Wilkes has been an enlightening experience. I wish everyone could have the insights that come from seeing a work of art nurtured from the stage of earliest conversations and vague concepts to a fully realised vision! There is such a strong showing from British artists in Venice this year. Charlotte Prodger’s new film for Scotland + Venice and Sean Edwards representing Wales with an ambitious presentation; Ed Atkins, Michael Armitage, Jesse Darling and Anthea Hamilton are among the artists included in Ralph Rugoff’s ‘May You Live in Interesting Times’; Lynette Yiadom Boakye and John Akomfrah are part of the stellar group show that will form the inaugural Ghana pavilion; there will also be performances by artists who make the London art scene so vibrant right now including Alex Baczynski-Jenkins, Florence Peake, Paul Maheke & Nkisi… There are literally too many exciting projects to mention –– even if I only stick to the UK.

AA: You were named in the 40 under 40 Thinkers by Apollo magazine and are widely celebrated as an expert in your field – how do such acknowledgements make you feel?

ZW: It’s really affirming to be recognised for my work, particularly because it can be really difficult at times and feel quite lonely when you’re in the thick of problem solving or mid-way through projects that aren’t going the way you’d envisioned. At the same time, I try hard not to “believe my own press”, as they say — even on the best days. There’s always more work to do and so much more to learn! I want to see many more people of colour forge and maintain viable careers in this line of work. Also, those closest to me aren’t active in the so-called ‘art world’ so it’s not all that hard to stay grounded. As an example, two of my oldest girlfriends came to the opening of Soul of a Nation in Brooklyn. They shared my hotel room with me and still made me sleep in the middle of the bed because I’m the smallest. In the best way, the external praise doesn’t faze my friends and family. They’re proud of me regardless but they won’t let any of the accolades go to my head!

AA: You came to London nearly 20 years ago for your MA degree: studying History of Design, focusing on black representation. What made you decide to study with that focus?

ZW: I was reading a lot of cultural theory at the time by writers such as bell hooks, Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy. While learning about graphic design on the course, the topic of my dissertation emerged in relation to fashion spreads. I’ve loved fashion magazines my whole life but was also acutely aware of how limited their editorials could be in terms of inclusive representation of women. I found during my research that, at least historically, some notion of “blackness” would be evoked visually in layouts without our presence — literally in the absence of black individuals. There was also a turning point in the industry around that time: I earned my MA just before Vogue Italia released their celebrated Black issue, which finally challenged some of the industry’s exclusionary practices in representation. I like to combine theory and practice, and it’s exciting when research has some resonance beyond academia. 

The full interview is in the Spring Edition of Alt A Review and you can find out more about the 58th Venice Biennale and British Pavilion here 

Runs: 11 May – 24 November 2019

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