Gallery Girl meets Cairo Clarke

In the space of just one year Cairo Clarke has held a week long series of performance based exhibitions at Yinka Shonibare’s Guest Projects, collaborated with London’s Art Night and organised a show at Century Club in Soho. Gallery Girl spoke with Clarke about her curatorial approach, the artists she works with and her plans for the future.

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‘I have always been a thinker’, says Clarke, who explains that she didn’t know what to do with her thoughtful approach to creativity until after completing an undergraduate degree in Interactive Media Production at Bournemouth University. After what she describes as ‘flittering’ with design and art she always found herself coming back to research. She credits a lecture by Neal White about exhibiting and curating towards the end of her time at Bournemouth with prompting the ‘eureka’ moment that led her to seriously consider a career in curation. She then gained experience managing Sang Bleu Contemporary Art Space in Dalston for six months before embarking on an MA in Curating at Chelsea College of Art.

Girls in Film during Touch Sensitive at Guest Projects

Last year, Clarke held a weeklong exhibition called Touch Sensitive at Guest Projects in East London. The ambitious, and hugely successful show comprised six 24-hour exhibitions within itself. On each day a different female artist presented their work to the audience, from performance to installation to architecture, the exhibition covered a broad range of media. And, while women ran the show, male performers took centre stage on a number of occasions, particularly in Suzannah Pettigrew’s performance The Difference Between (a Mirage and Realness), where performance and video installation explored the relationship between real-life and digital worlds with participation from male and female performers. While much has been done recently to highlight feminism in contemporary art, Clarke doesn’t favour working with any specific gender. ‘I don’t think we can think as binary as male and female artists’, says Clarke, although she does explain the importance in working with artists who are ‘sensitive to the world around us and are really working outside of archaic or patriarchal structures that do exist.’ So, while her work with women may not be conscious, Clarke recognises that power structures do not directly benefit or acknowledge women, people of colour and non-binary artists.

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Harriet Middleton-Baker’s The Harlot’s Progress during Touch Sensitive at Guest Projects

Following on from Touch Sensitive at Guest, Clarke is continues to collaborate and support the artists involved. At the moment Harriet Middleton-Baker is working on a new adaptation of her The Harlot’s Progress at Cell Project that stems from the work she shared on the residency. The Guest Projects space, which is an initiative founded by Yinka Shonibare to provide artists with a space for a week allowed Clarke to develop relationships with a number of artists. ‘I think having a space for a week where we could just share incomplete, new, undefined ideas was really beneficial to all of us’, says Clarke, ‘I look back and think there are so many things I would do differently having had even more experience now, but I think it really has shaped lasting relationships with the artists and confidence in my own ability too.’ Since the project last year the artists involved have all gone on to work and collaborate on noteworthy projects: Lotte Andersen runs her interactive Dance Therapy performances, Suzannah Pettigrew has had an exhibition at Lewisham Art House and an upcoming show in Berlin, while Diana Chire is about to debut her new film Loulwa. The recently opened Breaking Shells at Koppel Project’s Holborn Viaduct site also includes the work of Hannah Perry and Lotte Andersen.

Lotte Andersen’s Dance Therapy during Touch Sensitive at Guest Projects

Thus, it is clear that Clarke is committed to nurturing deep relationships with the artists she works with. She credits honesty; transparency and sensitivity in helping her cultivate these collaborations. ‘Being calm is important when working with artists and I think if I’m as honest and transparent with all I do then that behavior and energy comes back’ says Clarke. Working outside of institutions, the work is competitive and often money driven, meaning that she works in a variety of public and private art spaces, ‘I think working independently has allowed me to really feel full in terms of the different types of experiences I have had, I feel like I am constantly learning and that’s super important to me.’ And, it is just the variety of exhibitions, artists and spaces that she has worked in, that makes Clarke’s career so far just so impressive.

Touch Sensitive at Guest Projects

Clarke’s artists work in a variety of media. Touch Sensitive was predominantly performance based, yet she works with painters, sculptures and digital media artists too. ‘I think performance is an amazing act of resistance’, says Clarke, ‘it’s visceral and it’s the kind of practice that is so diverse that it really does mean you have to actively engage with it.’ And, while Clarke’s latest show The Reinvention of Love (Faye Wei Wei, Lindsey Mendick, Anna Illsley and Adam Glibbery) at Century Club in Soho is not necessarily performance base, its location inside a club means that the audience is also engaging in it, where artworks have been spread across areas of the venue where you would not expect to find paintings or installations. The conceptual framework behind the group exhibition was inspired by Korean-German writer Byung-Chul Han. When working out whether she should curate a show in a private members club, something that conflicted with her passion for opening art to a wide audience, Clarke just happened to be reading about Zen Buddhism. ‘The idea was to look to artists who interrupt homogenous trains of consciousness by subtly intervening and sensitively inviting us to look a little closer or go beyond the surface of our everyday individualistic lives’, says Clarke, whose show distorts the regular wall display you would expect to find in such a venue. The setting of the show also dictated what work could be shown. ‘Every instance I work in has its own set of parameters’, says Clarke, ‘I think in general as a curator it’s important to treat each project differently.’

The Reinvention of Love at Century Club

So what’s next? ‘I’m working on a commission with Art on the Underground’ says Clarke, a programme that will also be collaborating with Nina Wakeford, Linder Sterling and Njideka Akunyili Crosby this year. Clarke is also researching a new project that will explore the contemporary exchange between Britain and India within art. Being Anglo-Indian herself, Clarke will be taking a de-colonial approach to diaspora.

It is clear that Clarke is definitely a curator to watch, she tells me: ‘It’s important to be physical and get stuck in. Try things out, experiment and be sensitive to the environment you’re in, the artists and the audience.’ This approach has certainly served her well, and I can’t wait to see the next exhibitions on Clarke’s agenda.

The Reinvention of Love is on display at Century Club, 61-63 Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 6LQ

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer and curator. She runs the Gallery Girl blog and has written for After Nyne, Arteviste, Canvas Magazine, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Ibraaz, Jdeed Magazine, ReOrient and Suitcase Magazine. Lizzy recently curated Perpetual Movement as part of Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN) Festival 2018 in London, which was featured in Vogue Arabia and The Art Newspaper.

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