Karima Boudou: An Interview

February 2019

As published in in the quarterly journal Something We Africans Got #7 p.26 - 28

Born in France and living in the Netherlands, Karima Boudou curated the 1-54 FORUM Marrakech programme (23-24 February 2019), the talks, panels and screenings programme of 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair. Working between Europe and Morocco, she has been assistant curator at Palais de Tokyo, Paris and also curated projects at Le Cube, Rabat and Mu.ZEE, Ostend. She is currently part of the curatorial delegation of L’appartement 22, Rabat and curatorial team for the first Rotterdam Triennial (May, 2020). 


Olivia Peterson: How would you define your curatorial practice? Looking at your curatorial trajectory, you are increasingly working in Morocco, can you also tell us a bit about how this has unfolded?


Karima Boudou: I was trained as an art historian at Université de Rennes and also have a background in Philosophy. In my practice art history and curating both inform each other. Whilst studying I began specialising in American art from the 1960s to the present time, with a particular focus on African-American artists. These research lines have evolved and taken new forms with every curatorial project I work on. 


I started working in Morocco in 2011 as an assistant curator at L’appartement 22, a contemporary art space in Rabat.At the time, Morocco was in a specific political and social climate. As we know, similar climates brought revolutions tothe region, but this process of political transition manifested differently in Morocco: we had a new constitution, but no revolution. So the timing of my professional point of entry in this context has informed much of what I have been doing in Morocco ever since. I am saying this in relation to our role and responsibility in reflecting upon the historical and contemporary conditions of society. I realised that artists and thinkers could be great allies in collectively reflecting upon our immediate surroundings and the world around us in a plurality of ways.  I have been involved in a variety of capacities with other institutions in Morocco as a freelancer, with artists from my own generation to dig into questions related to historiography, post-colonial debates, literature and the dialogue and connections which can be formulated and raised in the visual arts. As I am living in the Netherlands, but often going back and forth between the two countries, I have also been actively working with Moroccan artists outside of Morocco. I am interested in sustaining a certain density in the curatorial process and playing with different formats to do so:  exhibition making, publishing interviews, writing essays, giving conferences. 


Your point of departure for this year’s 1-54 FORUM Marrakech programme is Ted Joans (1928-2003), an African-American Surrealist poet, painter and jazz musician, how did you first encounter Ted Joans and why has his life and work resonated with you? 


Yes, Ted Joans was an African-American Surrealist, whose practice was multi-dimensional. The best description of Ted Joans that I have read comes from Miguel Perez Corrales who wrote an impressive biography on him. Born in Cairo, Illinois, Corrales describes Joans as a major figure in the Surrealist movement in recent decades. Surrealism and jazz were Joans’ lifestyles, he made his ‘official’ entry into the movement in 1963 by producing the cover of La Brèche (No.5), a Surrealist magazine founded in 1961. For this particular edition of La Brèche (No.5), French-Moroccan filmmaker Robert Benayoun wrote the introduction. Joans was at the intersection of several avant-garde trends, some think that he is one of the precursors of the orality and spoken word movement and he is described as one of the few African-Americans who took part in the Beat Generation movement.


I discovered the figure of Ted Joans when I came across a photograph of him and the African-American painter Beauford Delaney, taken in Paris by photographer Marion Kalter in 1975. At this point I didn’t know anything about Joans and Delaney. This starting point coincided with another: an independent search in the library and archives of the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam. The museum has an important archive related to Surrealism. The contact between these two elements pushed me to ask a series of questions in relation to my own position as an art historian: how is this material being articulated? Who are the narrators and the protagonists? Which stories are ‘overflowing’ and cannot be contained in the context of a museum? 


What interested me from the beginning were the aspects of play, automatism, dreams, unconsciousness and the freedom within Joans’ work. The political claims throughout his work are also an integral part of his life. His trajectory was that of an African-American Surrealist, with a course that goes beyond the usual chronologies and contexts that we usually know about the history of Surrealism, it is an international course with an African and African-American perspective. 


At this stage did you know about Ted Joans’ time in Morocco and Mali in the 1960s? 


I knew about it, but very loosely with just a few things appearing occasionally here and there. I had seen some photographs of Ted Joans that Marion Kalter had taken in Morocco, which I knew were part of Kalter’s book All around Ted Joans (2016).  


What conversations do you want Ted Joans to instigate at 1-54 FORUM Marrakech?


Ted Joans is strongly anchored to the context of Morocco, a connection which is almost unknown in this context, hence the need to highlight some of these aspects here and now in Marrakech. He lived in the country from the 1960s, during important moments of his life. But above all, he loved, created, dreamed, militated and shared his art in this country, criss-crossing the roads of Morocco from Tiznit to Marrakech, to Tangier, where he had a house. One of the starting points of 1-54 FORUM is also the involvement of the Parisian group with the Rifians. I am referring to the Rif war in the mid-1920s and the struggle against the French and Spanish colonial powers. There is therefore a pedestal and a very dense Moroccan crucible, in which the trajectory of Ted Joans fits in a singular and relevant way. 1-54 FORUM is an important moment and constitutes a stronghold for debate in Marrakech and more broadly Morocco. We want to re-introduce these ideas, understand and open the artistic and political potential of this material in Morocco today.


Joans’ writings and engagements remain of incredible relevance and liveliness. In the process of realising the programme, as you know as 1-54 FORUM curatorial assistant, we have initiated threads of discussion from Dakar to Marrakech, from Amsterdam to Los Angeles and Casablanca, from Rotterdam to Montreal…. For example we realised that Ted Joans gave a fervent speech in William Klein’s film Festival Panafricain d’Alger (1969). The 35mm copy of the film contains this speech I am referring to, in which Joans urgently vocalises the necessity and urgency of European countries and their museums to recognise the responsibility they have in returning objects and art from Africa to their communities and peoples across the continent. 


In Ted Joans’ manifesto, Black Flower (1968), he speaks of ‘black flowers’ in reference to activists who are ready to fight for the eradication of the imperialist American system. The manifesto is rooted in the social, political and artistic history of the United States. Joans connects the Black Power movement to the Surreal revolt and proclaims, “I use my senses, exerted by Surrealism. I am Maldoror, Malcolm X, the Marquis de Sade, Breton, Lumumba and many others.” Joans’ words circulated and resonated on an international level, particularly on the African continent. In 1969, during the same speech at the Pan-African Festival of Algiers, Joans recited, in English, his poem We have Come Back as a collective improvisation alongside saxophonist Archie Shepp. The ‘black flowers’ imagined by Joans bore within them an African movement capable of undermining imperialism from within through poetic imagery.


In line with this issue’s theme, ‘Women in the Arts’, I want to bring attention to the contradictory relationship between Ted Joans’ position on women and the position of women in the Surrealist movement. Joans respected and admired women, he was also well aware of the particular position of black women, who face both racial and gender discrimination. I am thinking of a particular quote, said by Joans before he left for Africa, he vowed not to return “until the President of the USA was a black woman.” How did Joans converse with surrealism’s infamous misogyny? 


I think you are referring to Michel Fabre’s text Ted Joans: The Surrealist Griot (1993). It’s hard to give one opinion or one line of thought as it seems to materialise both ways. If you take his poem Nadja Rendez-Vous (1969) you could see it in the present time as a patriarchal take that emphasises the femme-enfant (the surrealists referred a lot to this term) and passive aspects of woman. In other poems, as well as in his own life, Ted Joans loved women and they were often allies rather than muses (I am referring to the usual meaning of this word in Western art history, and particularly the Surrealist movement). Beyond Joans, there are many urgent debates in relation to the inscription of women in the history of Surrealism. It is not only a question of visibility but also a structural one as some institutions want to reflect those changes in their own acquisition policy, exhibition programmes and publication policies. A lot needs to be done in relation to these topics, we also need to de-centre those narratives beyond the Euro-American contexts. 


I remember our first conversation in which you stressed how important it was that we make a particular effort to ensure women had an equal role in the programme, I think it would be interesting if you could elaborate on how you approach this in your curatorial process, not just for the 1-54 FORUM programme, but other projects you have worked on as well?


It is of course something I pay attention to in my curatorial process, but also something I have always been aware of across other aspects of my life. This comes from my background and Berber roots: I come from a matriarchal Berber society and for centuries this matriarchal aspect regulated many aspects of women’s lives in Morocco. I inherited this legacy and it materialises in my own curatorial process, practice and research. My Berber roots also taught me that women are allies and warriors, so questions such as sharing resources, visibility and agency are key to me in relation to our role and responsibilities as women operating in the arts. When shaping the programme together we decided that key parts of the programme would be taken by women and art historians. Of course it was about their expertise and experience first and foremost. In this specific case and also in other projects if two persons (a man and a woman) are equally qualified, my choice and decision will go in favour of the woman. That is a rule I never break and it’s about empowering ourselves as women. As the programme opens up a constellation of historical and contemporary voices and contexts, we decided that 1-54 FORUM’s keynote would be given by art historian Joanna Pawlik. Her talk, Ted Joans, Surrealist Traveler, will set the tone and highlight little known aspects of Ted Joans visual arts production in the American context. Another corner stone of 1-54 FORUM is a keynote by art historian Vanina Géré which will take place at Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech. Following a screening of American artist Kara Walker’s film 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Making of African-America (2005) Géré will focus on the aspects of Afro-surrealism in her work.


Looking forward, what do you hope 1-54 FORUM Marrakech programme will establish in the long-run? 


I am convinced that 1-54 FORUM Marrakech will continue establishing itself as a platform anchored in the city and connected to broader contexts in Africa and its diasporas. By doing so we acknowledge local specificities and histories, but we also establish a safe space for unsafe ideas. It’s an experimental approach which puts ideas at the core, while sustaining a space for expressing a plurality of voices and experiences, and gaining a mutual understanding of who we are in the time and society we live in. On my office wall in Rotterdam is a photocopy of the cover of the first issue of Tribes Magazine, published in the Fall of 1991. The magazine, founded by Steve Cannon, operated for two decades and also became a gallery, a place where multicultural artists and thinkers of New York’s Lower East Side, who got overlooked in favour of dominant narratives, could meet and exchange ideas. It is a great issue of art, poetry, prose and interviews featuring, amongst others, David Hammons and Ishmael Reed - who were both familiar and close to Ted Joans. The cover of Tribes Magazine is an artwork by Hammons, another declination of his well-known "body prints" in the form of a multitude of hands intertwined and coming together. In the middle of this mix we also see a face appearing. For me that is a metaphor of how 1-54 FORUM can manifest and sustain itself as a gathering of Tribes, as one thing and many things in the same time.