This interview series starts with Hildegard Titus who talked to me about her work as a freelance curator. Hildegard reflected on the curator’s ability to transform a space, either by actively creating access for individuals who have been previously excluded or by converting a non-institutional site into an exhibition space. Hildegard also spoke about the difficulty of working in a context that often seems to have little conception of the value of curatorial and artistic labour. It is clear in her interview that she often finds herself defending the interests of artists in the face of institutions that are negligent or indifferent. However the importance of art-spaces, how they are experienced by artists and audiences alike, is Titus' main concern around which she builds a responsible and responsive practice.
Hildegard Titus studied photojournalism at the London College of Communication and graduated in 2014. Since graduating she has worked as a photojournalist, filmmaker, visual artist and curator in Windhoek. Much of her work deals with issues of gender, identity, culture and race. Titus has had two solo exhibitions of her photographic work since graduating. She also works as a freelance photo and video journalist for Agence France Presse and The Namibian. For her full biography you can visit her website.
Helen Harris: Tell me a little bit about the two exhibitions you curated at the Goethe Institut, has all your curatorial work been freelance?
Hildegard Titus: Yes, it's all been freelance. Basically, an opportunity came up with the Goethe, they wanted someone to curate two exhibitions in their space. Originally, there were supposed to be three artists, but early on, I told them that there's no way three artists could create new work in such a short amount of time. They gave me a lot of freedom, which was perfect. I looked for artists who normally wouldn't have had the opportunity to have a solo exhibition. I looked at catalogues of student work, and on Instagram. Eventually I found Elisia Nghidishange and I was blown away by her work. Similarly, with Ndakola Jekonia’s work; I was really excited to find both of them. I worked with each of them for a couple of months before each exhibition.
When people ask me what a curator is, I usually say, you're like an artist's mom. You say, I'm here for you, whatever you want, I'll do it for you. For these exhibitions I didn't want to be prescriptive or tell the artists what they had to do. I just wanted to give them the space to do what they wanted and to help facilitate that. I remember one time I went to Elisia's studio, and she had made these sculptures and they were unpainted and beautiful. When I came back again, she had painted them, and I was devastated. Of course, they were still beautiful but, in that moment, I really had to trust her. I had to realise that I was just there to facilitate what the artist wanted. That it's not about me, it's just about making them feel comfortable. Because, you know, they're the boss.
It was also interesting because it was both of their first solo exhibitions and also the first time I was curating solo shows. We didn't know who had to make certain decisions. We were trying to find the middle ground and figure out how to negotiate the artist-curator relationship together. I was asking myself, how do I not become a scary curator?
HH: Were those the first two exhibition you curated?
HT: No. When I finished university, I was asked to co-curate something that was more just texts and images, I didn't work directly with artists for that. It was for the charity Comic Relief while I was still in the UK. The exhibition was about 30 young people in the Commonwealth doing great shit, it was for the Queen's Leaders Award. It was the first year they were doing it, so they decided that they needed two people from the Commonwealth to curate it; they chose me and a British girl. They asked us to source photography from wherever the fuck we could find it. We had to choose the people we wanted to include and then we had to look for photographers who had photos of all these people. We also had to put it up. I don't know if I would necessarily count that as a curatorial experience. It was in London, at Buckingham Palace. We had to show it to the two Princes. It was two months of work and then about 30 minutes of people seeing the exhibition and then after they left, we had to pull everything down.
HH: Your own artistic practice started with a degree in photojournalism and relates mostly to portraiture and documentary. Now it has expanded beyond that with your performances that result in installations.
HT: Yeah. I don't really know how to define my work at the moment.
HH: Do you think that this work influences the way you work curatorially?
HT: Yeah, I think it does. I try to curate in the way that I'd want to be curated. When I've had to curate my own exhibitions, I’ve found it really difficult to organise everything as well as create the artworks. It can be stressful. So I think it's important for people to have someone who can do that work and let them focus on making the art.
HH: When you’re curating an exhibition, do you feel like your curatorial voice comes through? Or do you try to minimise that as much as possible?
HT: It comes through in some ways. I like to make sure there is text, because I like texts. I also always document with photography and video. I try to follow the conventions of a traditional art exhibition, but I also really try and find out as much as I can from the artist and make sure that they are leading the process.
HH: You've worked for the Goethe Institut, the Arts Association and the National Art Gallery. Can you speak a little about your relationship with institutions as a freelance curator? Would you prefer to be a full-time curator at an institution?
HT: I mean, for the money, yes. But I think for the stress, no. I like working on a project and then fucking off after, because it allows you to come in with a new perspective, and you don't have to deal too much with the politics of the institution. Sometimes, because you're slightly outside the institution, you can see things that they don't see. I think there is also more licence and freedom given to freelancers because the institution doesn't feel like it can control you as much. Maybe they won't call you again and you are responsible for maintaining the relationship, but the consequences are generally more manageable.
HH: You studied in the UK, worked with the Goethe Institut and are part of the Nje artists’ collective that crosses boarders all the time. What do you think about these transnational connections?
HT: For Nje we were all artists and we were all curators at the same time. Obviously, it was curated, but not in the same way as the other projects that I've been a part of. Maybe because there were more people's needs to deal with. I think it's always interesting going to other spaces and curating. Especially going to the Cape Town Art Fair and being asked to speak on a panel and talk about Namibian art, having to be the authority in that context. So many people are interested in Namibia, partly because everyone's like, 'Where the hell is that?' In that way you get to set the tone. Maybe it's because we have such a small population, but every time you leave the country, even if it’s as close as Cape Town, you automatically become a kind of ambassador. There's a lot of pressure in that.
HH: I think you've just hit on something that I have never been able to articulate properly before. There's this horrifying sense of responsibility, but at the same time, it's an incredible privilege.
HT: So much is based on trust and word of mouth. The Goethe approached me based on one good recommendation. In some ways it's a good thing because it takes away the glass ceiling. On the other hand, it's still about access and privilege, studying in the UK and knowing someone who recommended me to the Goethe.
HH: How does your practice function in relation to funding?
HT: So sometimes there's money and sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes, even when there is money, I realise I do much more than I'm supposed to be doing. They say that when you like your job, you never work, so the money doesn't matter... but it does! When I do get paid, it's usually by the institution I'm working with.
HH: You haven't been applying for funding independently?