Interviewing: Zoé Whitley, Director of Chisenhale Gallery
Can you tell us about your career background and how you got to running Chisenhale Gallery?
It’s not easy to summarise 20+ years but I’ll try: A friend who met me on the first day of university in 1997 says I told her then I wanted to be a curator. I have certainly always loved working with and learning from artists whose outlooks variously challenge and inspire. Artists like Ayo do both! The road to being Chisenhale’s Director included meaningful stints at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where I had a J. Paul Getty Summer internship in 1999 igniting my spark for this kind of work; earning an MA in the History of Design at the Royal College of Art; learning the ropes of collections care and writing about artworks as an Assistant Curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), where I was later a Curator of Contemporary Programmes. From there, I received a PhD in Contemporary Art under Turner Prize-winning artist Lubaina Himid CBE and returned to curating, first at Tate Britain then at Tate Modern (2013-2019). In a particularly eventful year, I curated Cathy Wilkes’ presentation in the British Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, the world’s largest international contemporary art exhibition, and briefly served as Senior Curator at the Hayward Gallery. Chisenhale advertised for a new Director toward the end of that year, and it was an opportunity that several friends and artists encouraged me to apply for. I’m so glad they did! It’s a privilege to come to work every day and to help artists realise their most ambitious ideas and to work with such a committed team.
Can you tell us more about Chisenhale Gallery and the artists and art that you showcase?
Founded by artists nearly 40 years ago in a former factory in the East End, Chisenhale is an award-winning non-profit known for being one of London’s most innovative art spaces, showing the work of significant artists early-on in their careers. With a reputation for identifying new artistic talent, we collaborate with artists working in all media, resulting in four new bodies of artwork annually. Concurrently with Ayo’s film co-commission, we are working with British and international artists as they develop new suites of paintings, monumental sculptures and immersive installations. Chisenhale Gallery is an evolving space for experimentation, transformed by each artist ’s commission: a riot of colourful paintings one visit, a monochrome concrete ruin the next, or a cinema transporting you to experience other perspectives…
How did you learn about Ayo’s work and what about her art caught your attention?
Ayo’s relationship with Chisenhale actually predates my directorship, and is a testament to how we aim to sustain relationships with artists. In 2016, she directed Tower XYZ, a short film commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery, in collaboration with Institute of Contemporary Arts London and Channel 4, Random Acts. I probably first saw her work at South London Gallery in New Contemporaries 2018. What I recall is being immediately gripped by what was so evidently an assured and distinctive aesthetic. Her films don’t look or feel like anyone else’s; they are totally engrossing and utterly poetic.
Can you explain the Chisenhale process of working with Ayo on this commission?
Ayo is the latest talented British artist filmmaker invited biannually by co-producers Chisenhale Gallery and Spike Island, Bristol to create a new film. Previous artists include Imran Perretta, Maeve Brennan and P. Staff. Ayo shot the film on location in Nigeria, creating one film in the Guinness brewery in Lagos and another film in the Idanre Hills, a UNESCO world heritage site.
What can we expect from Ayo’s exhibition?
Ayo’s works are nothing less than transporting. Whether providing an astutely observed portrait of a day in the life of a working factory or evoking a poignant journey of nascent grief, you can expect to be moved and for the images and soundtrack to live on in your mind’s eye long after the end credits.
Show Me the World Mister will tour throughout the UK, premiering at Chisenhale Gallery in London before onward exhibitions with co-producers Spike Island and thereafter with co-commissioning partners BALTIC , Gateshead; John Hansard Gallery, Southampton and the Whitworth, Manchester. Ayo is also working with Chisenhale and Book Works on her first publication, so the project is ambitiously wide-reaching!
What are Ayo’s thoughts around developing her most ambitious commission to date?
Ayo notes about her Chisenhale commission:
“The commission has pushed my practice in new and unexpected ways and has been a process that I've learnt so much from. Shooting on location in Nigeria was truly a life-changing experience, and one that I will continue to return to.”