The Wick - Zoé Whitley (James Gifford-Mead) The Wick - Zoé Whitley (James Gifford-Mead)
Monday Muse

Interview Chisenhale Gallery’s Dr. Zoé Whitley

Zoé Whitley
James Gifford-Mead
20 February 2022
Zoé Whitley
James Gifford-Mead
20 February 2022
In just a few short years, Dr. Zoé Whitley has become one of the UK’s most prominent curators, facilitating important conversations about diversity in the art world.

After starting out as an intern in the costume and textiles department at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), she held curatorial positions at Tate Modern, the V&A and Hayward Gallery, before being appointed as director of Chisenhale Gallery in 2020.

Tate Modern’s 2017 exhibition, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power exhibition, which Whitley co-curated with Mark Godfrey and featured more than 150 works by over 60 artists, many on display in the UK for the first time, has been described as one of the defining shows of the 2010s.

As Whitley approaches her second work anniversary at Chisenhale Gallery, a leading non-profit space founded by artists, she continues to commission and exhibit works by emerging British and international artists. In March, Chisenhale Gallery will present say cheeeeese, a new commission by artist Rachel Jones and her first solo exhibition in an institution.

Whitley also serves on the 2020-22 Arts Council Collection committee, the boards of Creative Access and Decolonising Arts Institute, University of the Arts London and was one of the judges for the Turner Prize 2021.

THE WICK:   Talk us through a typical Monday.

Zoé Whitley:   My alarm goes off at 6.45am. I’m usually the first one up in my house – if you don’t count our dog, Missy Elliott, who always provides a cheerful, waggy-tailed good morning. My day starts with a milky coffee while packing my daughter’s lunch. Missy and I do the morning school run while my husband takes care of after-school. Mondays tend to be meeting-heavy, whether virtual or IRL. The work day commences with emails, phone calls and our weekly team meeting, celebrating large and small victories from the previous week and collectively discussing priorities for the week ahead.

TW:   Who is your Monday Muse?

ZW:   Eva Langret [director of Frieze London]. We started out together as young curators, new to London and attending one another’s early curated events and shows. We met at an evening lecture at Goldsmiths more than 15 years ago.

TW:   What can your passion for art be traced back to?

ZW:   My grandmother’s appreciation of beautiful things and her skilful ability to hand-make just about anything.

TW:   What are you most proud of accomplishing at Chisenhale Gallery so far, and what are your ambitions for the year ahead?

ZW:   I’m really proud of having honoured commitments to every single artist in our programme, despite the major uncertainty and instability of the last two years. The consistently good feeling each artist has about Chisenhale is a testament to the hard work and dedication of the entire team. ‘Working together’ has meant so many different things during the pandemic – rarely actually together, so I’m super eager for simple, enjoyable things like shared team lunches and establishing different efforts for our work to resonate beyond the gallery. This is why I’ve launched a partnership between Chisenhale and art book publishers Hurtwood, so that our ambitious commissions can be accompanied by stunning artists’ books, extending the reach of our exhibitions and allowing us to collaborate in new ways with talented writers, poets and thinkers. Our first book with Rachel Jones launches in May.

“The consistently good feeling each artist has about Chisenhale is a testament to the hard work and dedication of the entire team.”

TW:   Why do that you think Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power resonated with the public?

ZW:   Co-curating Soul of a Nation will be a perpetual career highlight. That project gave so much to me and I am still in regular contact with many of the artists and their families. Nothing about that show was realised at arm’s length or left to chance. I think it resonated because at no time did we stand between each artist and their message; we allowed them to speak freely – often through direct quotes, even where those statements were in direct contradiction with one another. There was also crystal clarity that this exhibition’s intended audience was young audiences and we worked very hard to achieve that.

TW:   Fashion and design have also played into your career. What’s the most cherished item of clothing you own, and which designer’s collection would you like to have in your wardrobe?

ZW:   I love this question! I wore my grandmother’s wedding dress, which she made for herself, to my own wedding more than 50 years after hers. I like a lot of my clothes but nothing beats that. Duro Olowu introduced me to a young Nigerian designer, Amaka Osakwe, whose clothing label is Maki Oh. For colour, cut and originality, you can’t go wrong with either Duro or Maki. We curators have a reputation for wearing black so I tend to go the other way in terms of pattern and palette.

TW:   Who are some of the emerging artists currently on your radar?

ZW:   Rachel Jones, Nikita Gale, James Leadbitter and Ayo Akingbade, all of whom can be seen at Chisenhale this year. I’m excited for them to be on everyone else’s radar, too.

TW:   If you could add any artwork to your personal collection, what would it be?

ZW:   This feels like an impossible question when you’re lucky enough to work with living artists every day. I’d have to say Alma Thomas’s ‘Wind and Crepe Myrtle Concerto’ because it reminds me of childhood summers with my grandparents and the crepe myrtle tree in their backyard. It’s in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, so can be seen free of charge in Washington DC.

TW:   Desert island quarantine — which albums, book and artwork do you take with you?

ZW:   Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a super-fan of hip-hop band The Roots, so I’ll take their live-recording double CD Come Alive. It’s full of bonus material and hidden tracks, which should help pass the time. For artwork, I’d take one of Cauleen Smith’s banners so that I could walk it around the island in a solo procession. I’m currently reading Marie NDiaye’s Trois Femmes Puissantes (Three Powerful Women), so my island quarantine seems the right time and place to finish it.

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