Curator Elvira Dyangani Ose on marrying music and art 

A woman laughing.

The London member and director of acclaimed art centre, The Showroom, discusses building a shared community for both music and art

By Osman Can Yerebakan Above image: Elvira Dyangani Ose (Christina Ebenezer)   Wednesday 26 August, 2020     Short read

A globetrotting curator and the director at London’s beloved art space, The Showroom, Elvira Dyangani Ose had to miss late saxophonist Manu Dibango’s performance a few years ago at Ronnie Scott’s. These days, she can’t wait to see the curtains raised again at her favourite music venues. ‘I still remember seeing Roscoe Mitchell perform at Cafe OTO – it was inspirational,’ she reflects, on small but poignant moments of her pre-quarantine life from her south-east London home, which she shares with her three-year-old son. 

Spearheading an influential cultural institution, however, comes with its perks, such as bringing jazz to the audience when a pandemic makes the opposite a challenge. The Showroom recently launched the digital platform IN·FLO·RES·CENCE to exhibit minute-long compositions by 10 international musicians. New York-based pianist Elio Villafranca performs pieces commissioned to J.D. Allen, Bokani Dyer, Nduduzo Makhathini, Elaine Mitchener or Corey Mwamba intimately from his apartment. The mastermind behind the geography-pushing project is film-maker Reece Ewing, who presented the idea to Dyangani Ose and her curatorial team. It gives musicians the opportunity to create during a mandatory hiatus and even utilise this obstruction as a prompt for inspiration. 

‘My love for jazz comes from my parents, especially my late father,’ says Dyangani Ose, who was born in Spain to parents from Equatorial Guinea. Between curating for cutting-edge international institutions, including Fondazione Prada or Creative Time, and helping Tate Modern build its African diaspora collection, music has occasionally appeared in her projects. ‘IN·FLO·RES·CENCE, however, is different from my collaborations with Theaster Gates, Nick Cave or Laura Lima – here, production of music joins the conversation, too,’ she explains, and accepts that ‘this is an invitation that challenged me.’
A jazz musician holding a saxophone.
Roscoe Mitchell, The Showroom (Getty)
Throughout October, The Showroom’s website, as well as its Vimeo and Instagram accounts, continue to premiere Villafranca’s performances, juxtaposed with intimate talks between musicians and guests that include curators Christine Eyene and Katherine Finerty, or artists Phoebe Boswell and Evan Ifekoya. A conversation between musician Thandi Ntuli and writer Kevin Le Gendre, for example, accompanies Ntuli’s melodic piece ‘Gently As The Sower Reaps’. 

For Cuban-born Villafranca, The Showroom collaboration crystallises his intention to hold ‘intellectual understanding of music secondary to the full experience of culture’. He founded multimedia ensemble The Jass Syncopators in 2012 with a motivation of cultural exchange between disciplines and genres, and interpreting scores by musicians he never met contributes to conducting what he calls a ‘musical dialogue’. 
A woman sitting on a stool with potted plants on the wall behind her.
A pianist playing the piano.
Dyangani Ose emphasises the project’s unconventional way of pushing the boundaries of our ‘living rooms or attics’ through jazz. A curator who ‘literally sighs in front of “breathtaking” art’, she has gradually processed the sudden shift from experiencing artworks in person to the digital. IN·FLO·RES·CENCE is the ‘quarantine era’ reflection of The Showroom’s nearly four-decade commitment to giving artists their breakthrough voices. After showing Mona Hatoum, Sam Taylor-Wood and Eva Rothschild at its original Bethnal Green home, the centre’s move to the current Marylebone space was inaugurated with The Otolith Group’s Turner Prize-nominated show in 2010. 

The 90 sq m exhibition space and a multipurpose library upstairs continue to serve a hub for the community. At the top of Dyangani Ose’s to-do list when she joined The Showroom in 2018 was to connect with the centre’s family of former collaborators. She then slowly familiarised herself with the surrounding community by getting lunch from the food truck outside or talking to visitors who made their way up to the library after seeing the ground-floor installation. 
The interior of a gallery space.
The exterior of a warehouse building with The Showroom written on it.
‘Hyper-locality’ is an expression she uses to explain her approach to maintaining a cultural hub for critical discourse, without claiming the centre stage in its discussions. She moved to London from New York in 2011 for a curatorial position at Tate Modern, where she focused on championing the museum’s support for African-origin artists. She witnessed opportunities blossom for Black artists throughout her role, but still thinks institutions – large or small – have more to achieve. ‘If I only I could combine the two,’ she says, about the distinctions between curating at the country’s national modern art museum and leading a modest groundbreaking art space. ‘The main difference is closeness to artists and the community,’ she explains, in relation to organising far-reaching projects under Tate, or receiving immediate reaction and response in her current directorial role. 

Working with artists in global biennials and museums has familiarised Dyangani Ose with the intricacies of creating, whether for an artist or musician. She connects with a young generation of cultural producers through the Goldsmiths’ Visual Cultures department: ‘I explain to my students what it means to be confronted with struggles of the artists besides putting on shows with them.’ 

With decades of ‘in-person’ exhibitions under her belt, Dyangani Ose embraces the alternative connection with her audience in IN·FLO·RES·CENCE, and also understands values of artistic production in a global web of collaborations. ‘Sometimes we forget what it takes to create, and moments not reflected in the physical work,’ she says, but quarantine has urged artists, curators and institutions to redefine artistic production. ‘How do we convey the rigor and agency of each composer similar to a jazz venue?’ is a question she discussed with American artist Jason Moran. His practice spans from exhibiting multimedia installations at international museums, to composing Oscar-nominated film Selma’s theme score. Moran’s discussion with Villafranca and Ewing for the project’s conversation series will articulate on spaces reserved for presenting jazz and art in terms of social norm, class, and even surveillance. 

Life during quarantine may run at a stubborn pace, but try giving in to 10 composers’ vivacious melodies about subtle thrills of repose. Let Villafranca’s generous piano rhythms intimately fill the void of listening to music in a crowd, not at Cafe OTO but from home. 
IN·FLO·RES·CENCE is live through September
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