Curation as Care

By Bhumi B. Patel

February 2, 2024, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Curation comes from the Latin root word “curare” which means “to take care of,” but Gayatri Gopinath, Director of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at NYU, suggests that we take this further to mean “to heal” so that curation does not simply become a rearrangement of dominant ideals, values, or aesthetics, but rather, “a mode of intersubjective, interrelational obligation.”[1] There is a long history of curation as an act of exercising power, rather than one that takes care of or heals artists. But in recent years, more and more predominantly white performing arts institutions are calling upon either external or internal curators to diversify their stages and depart from exclusionary histories. In the aftermath of the 2020 uprisings for racial justice, many artists of color have been invited to stages, panels, and administrative positions we had never been invited onto before. In the Bay Area in particular, since 2021, we’ve had the opportunity to witness ODC Theater bring in guest curators, and now Maurya Kerr as the inaugural ODC Theater Resident Curator. This position is meant to expand the breadth of the performance offerings at ODC Theater and to engage with more collaborative modes of curation.  

In February and March 2024, a program curated by Kerr along with guest curator Leyya Mona Tawil and ODC Theater Creative Director Chloë L. Zimberg will bring four remarkable performances to ODC’s stage. From February 23-25, ODC Theater will present Fanny Ara’s Lilith, and from March 8-10, the theater will present Kayla Farrish/Decent Structures Arts Put Away the Fire, dear, both of which were curated by Maurya Kerr and Leyya Mona Tawil. February 16-18 brings Rachael Lincoln and Leslie Seiters’ presentation of Long Playing to ODC Theater, which, along with Degenerate Art Ensemble’s Skeleton Flower from March 15-17, was curated by Zimberg. I had the chance to ask Kerr a few questions about her curatorial practice and can see the strong connections between the curated program and her “personal goal for our curational work together was to very consciously center racially marginalized voices.” Kerr sees part of her “responsibility as a black [sic] woman with access to power is to keep spending that privilege over and over and over again until as many of us are free(r) as possible.” This sort of values-centered curation can make space to change the paradigm of what is presented and who gets to be produced. 

Values-centered curation is what brings six fantastic programs to ODC Theater in early 2024, and speaks to the importance of diverse bodies on stage. On the other hand, I admittedly wonder about the lenses through which we engage with diversity. Racial diversity is, of course, of paramount importance. As Kerr points out, “whiteness has been socially, politically, and artistically centered since white settlers slaughtered America’s indigenous peoples and enslaved and tortured Africans to build capital—it’s so fucking beyond time for that to end.” I wholeheartedly believe that decentering whiteness is necessary. And I wonder, in a larger picture beyond ODC’s upcoming season, if the curation of diversity has only gone skin deep in many attempts at diversifying stages across the performing arts. We are seeing Black and Brown bodies on stage (though not everywhere, and not all the time), but they aren’t always representative of the diversity of movement forms or playwrights, or composers. While I recognize that one person or one theater can’t do everything, I wonder when presenting institutions will demonstrate a priority to produce works that engage with forms of movement or music or theater that come from minoritarian artists. Movement form itself continues to be a lens of diversification that hasn’t yet been engaged quite as deeply as would be possible in larger institutions.  

But I believe a different world is possible, and perhaps that possibility comes from the potential power of curation. So then, instead of an act of creating a new dominant narrative or recreating the old dominant narrative, what if we imagined the practice of curation in our institutions as liberatory, as acts of love, as ways to engage with social practice? How would this change the impact of our curatorial practices? I wonder if we can think about curation as a way to “open up other ways of seeing and sensing the world unimaginable through a normative lens.”[2] When curation is wielded as a tool for promoting counter-narratives, rather than a manifestation of power and privilege, we have the opportunity to convene with the possibility of other worlds and other ways of being. We get to engage with imagination. And we get to rearrange how we are in relationship to one another. The performing arts often transport us to new places and transform our world views, so we must lean into models of curation that highlight artists and art forms that are on the margins. I hold a healthy level of skepticism about the sustainability of such diversifying curatorial practices in performing arts institutions, but while it’s here, I’m going to enjoy and celebrate seeing artists like Fanny Ara, Degenerate Art Ensemble, Kayla Farrish, and Rachael Lincoln and Leslie Seiters this upcoming February and March. 

[1] Gopinath, Gayatri. 2018.Unruly Visions: The Aesthetic Practices of Queer Diaspora. Durham: Duke University Press.

[2] Ibid.

This article appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of In Dance.

Bhumi B Patel directs pateldanceworks and is a queer, desi, home-seeker, science fiction choreographer, movement artist, and writer (she/they). In its purest form, she creates performance works as a love letter to her ancestors. Patel seeks to create movement at the intersection of embodied research and generating new futures, using improvisational practice for voice and body as a pursuit for liberation. Bhumi is a 2022-2023 Dance/USA Fellow and a 2023 YBCA 100 Honoree. She is a PhD candidate at Ohio State University, presents her research across the US on queer decoloniality and improvisation, and creates site specific work as a way of tracing the deeply woven connections in which we live–past, present, future–to build communities of nourishment and care.