Fulufhelo Modabi is a South African curator and photographer. Lover of spaces, feminist advocate and global citizen, she strives to create a more connected and visually stimulating world. In August 2019, at the Rencontres de la photographie d’Arles, she was awarded the first curatorial research fellowship granted for African projects. Entitled “She Bad Bad”, her exhibition project investigates Southern African/ East African ideas around contemporary African photography in relation to documentary photography.
How did you first become a curator—and why?
I realised I wanted to become a curator when I figured out I did not want to be an artist. In December 2017, I had just had my solo exhibition “In Between” in London Mayfair, about my project working with girls in Nairobi. I came back and realised, ‘This is not what I want to do for the rest of my life.’ I did not like the pressure and anxiety of creating work, and being pushed to create. It was too much.
My first show at the National Gallery in Zimbabwe in 2006 was an exciting challenge, visualising how to order work within a space, and audiences reception. Later, in Nairobi, I used 400 postcard-sized photographs in an enormous gallery space! This broadened my understanding that curation was not just putting art on the walls, but understanding how to represent others. My favorite part of creating work was placing it in space.
What makes South African photographic artistic practice unique, when compared to other cultural contexts in Africa, such as Kenya and Zimbabwe?
Honestly, that is the basis of my research! In South Africa we have a lot more freedom – of movement and identity – than in other African countries. Whatever sexual practice you want, we are unrestricted, while it is still a very male-dominated industry. In other countries, it is not such a popular practice or profession to follow, because: you are Black, you are female, and you know, you should not be running around the streets with your camera!
I am interested to see how other women navigate male-dominated spaces. This whole experience for me has been about learning, and one thing photography can teach you is curiosity.
Why is your identity significant in your curatorial process?
The obvious is that I am Black and female. When I was studying photojournalism, one of my trainers was a White man. He would drum into our heads just how much this industry was male-dominated. It would always make me feel so bad, like, ‘Why did I choose this industry? It is for men only… Where am I going to work?’
On my own journey over the years, I realised that there are not actually enough spaces for female representation. When I am curating shows, men will come up to me and say, ‘Why are you doing an all-female show? Why are you only doing it for women?’. I needed to create something for us. I needed to say, these are the women in the industry who are doing amazing things, and this is the space where you will find them. It is vitally important for me to represent Black women, because our industry is really quite small. The more of us who are being shown out there in the world, the more the world will know what we are doing—and what we are capable of doing.
The exhibition project you’re currently working on for the Rencontres internationales d’Arles is entitled “She Bad Bad”, referring to a “bad bitch”. Where does that name come from ?
The word bitch has been used in negative connotations for women doing things out of the ordinary, things that should not be done. But we also live in a time where young girls own it within these male-dominated spaces, saying, ‘Yes, I have a right to be like this. I can swear if I want to.’ For me, a bad bitch is someone who is owning her narrative, her power, her practices. Women who have found their voices and are not afraid to speak out. I want to remove negativity from it so that if someone labels you, it does not hurt you.
The name of my latest project ‘she bad bad’ came from when I told my 18-year-old niece about my career, and she said, ‘Oh you’re a bad bad. You’re a bad bitch, but you’re much badder than the bad bitch. You’re a double-bad bitch.’
Is there something you feel audiences are in danger of misunderstanding about your work?
I have been getting a lot of flak for only representing women and I think people are misunderstanding my intentions with this and my career. There is a sense that I am only pro-woman. I have a little baby boy, and I want to create a world where we all have equal opportunities; a world where he does not feel like he is better than another woman, or that women are taking over his spaces. I think that is what feminism is about—a world for all spaces. Whatever it is that you identify as, we just want a prosperous world for everyone. As much as I do everything pro-woman at the moment, I am not going to be stuck in this little box. My process is about learning.
The Rencontres de la photographie d’Arles curatorial research fellowship – African projects is supported by the Institut français as part of the Africa2020 season. Find out more about the curatorial research fellowship
Initiated by Emmanuel Macron, the President of the French Republic, the Africa2020 Season will take place throughout France (mainland and overseas territories) from June 1st to mid-December 2020. It will be dedicated to the 54 states of the African continent. Find out more about the Africa2020 Season
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