International Curators Program: Q&A with Mariama Attah
In advance of participating in Australia Council's International Curators Program at PHOTO 2021, Open Eye Gallery and LOOK Biennial curator Mariama Attah shares insights into her collaborative curatorial practice and amplifying voices through long term support and collaboration.
Hi everyone. Something interesting that isn’t in my bio is that my career path wasn’t quite as neat as it looks now. There were times when I wasn’t working as a curator or times when I wasn’t working at all. It’s easy to smooth over those parts when I summarize my bio and look back on my career but I think it’s important to be honest and transparent about career expectations and what success looks like.
I didn’t grow up going to museums or galleries but I always loved stories and storytelling. I started taking photographs and understood that it was another way of building narratives. At the end of my photography degree I realized that I didn’t have the personality to make it as a photographer! Instead, I decided to become a curator and advocate for and support other practitioners.
I’m interested in the gaps in art history and visual culture and in getting a sense of whose stories and voices have been left out, intentionally or otherwise and how to redress this. I’m interested in collaborative curating, in working with people, groups, organisations and communities who want to share their ideas and experiences while I provide a structure to present those thoughts to audiences.
Open Eye Gallery produces exhibitions, long-term collaborative projects, publications, festivals, and university courses—locally and worldwide. We’re taking a lead on socially engaged photography and pushing for social change. This means that we program collaboratively by bringing in voices and experiences and making sure that the artists or communities that we are working with are clearly reflected in whatever the outcome is (exhibitions, publications, online events) and wherever they are shared (gallery based, in the community, or online). For us, the collaborative process of making art is just as important and interesting as the final outcome.
We also support talent development through exhibitions, outreach and partnership projects. We have a particular focus on amplifying voices through long term support and collaboration. We also do a lot of work outside of the gallery as we realize that art can happen anywhere and everywhere.
LOOK Biennial is a moment that allows us to focus on and work towards a specific theme and is the outcome of many months, sometimes years, of research, exhibitions, events and programming. The Biennial is always tied to our interests which ensures that it always has a meaningful impact and that the theme makes sense to us, our audiences and artists.
The theme of LOOK 2022 is centred on climate catastrophe, change and environmentalism. We will use photography and visual culture as a way of understanding the past, present and future impacts on communities, audiences and people around the globe. Whether this is by looking at climate migrancy and how communities are being reshaped, the history of land and water management, how resources are being shred, or how photography is being used as a tool to tell us who we are now and what we can expect in the future.
We will definitely be sharing any opportunities that we have! The Biennial can’t exist without artists and we are always excited to be introduced to people who can show us new ways of seeing, exploring and making sense of the world. The program is still being shaped but we will share any opportunities to get involved with us through our website.
The history of photography is bound up in its relationship to the truth. Photography’s early position was that it would reliably tell us the truth about everything that it captured, and that it wasn’t capable of being anything other than neutral and truthful. From this, we ended up with the camera being used as a type of scientific tool that categorized, indexed, classified and ordered people, things, and ideas to the detriment of many. Now we can see that in the act of framing a truth the camera is leaving out parts of the story. In the present moment, I think the relationship between photography and truth is much more elastic and we as viewers are more aware of its malleable nature. It is capable of showing us things as they are but also that the truth often looks different depending on who you are and where you’re standing.
I’m hoping to see work that shows me what photography is capable of communicating, achieving and advocating for. This can be through personal projects or more political or research inspired ideas. I’m always curious to see how people use photography and visual communication to share ideas and prompt change, reflection or discovery.
I would have loved to have seen Zanele Muholi’s Faces and Phases exhibition in person. I am really interested in photography as activism and the social responsibility of visual culture and this project is a beautiful and provocative example of what art can achieve for communities.
See as many shows as possible, whether that’s in person or online! This will give you an idea of all the small design choices and elements that are involved in guiding audiences through a space and how to support them in understanding ideas at their own pace. This will also help to train your eye and give you a clear idea of what approaches, styles or methods you are and aren’t interested in. Read and write about visual culture and think about what your interests are and what you want to say through curating.