Curating & The Curatorial

When I decided to write this article I started off with a vague idea of wanting to write about “curating”. Normally, I would resort to English when writing, researching or speaking about art. So when asked to write this essay in Arabic, I was faced by a shortage of words, and so, resorted to asking a friend for her help with translating the word “curating” into Arabic.  She offered me two different translations for the word – “tanseeq” (which is a transliteration for the Arabic word meaning coordination) and “taqyeem” (which is a transliteration of the Arabic word meaning evaluation). Unconsciously, I immediately  translated these words back into English, and was left sensing an incompleteness in the meaning encapsulated by both of these words. The word ‘tanseeq’ refers to the administrative and organisational, while the word ‘taqyeem’ evokes the act of determining the value of an object or idea. In my mind, both fell short of embodying the breadth of curating as an activity. Yet, this will have to be a discussion for another time as this is not what I am here to write about today. 


Increasingly, since the 1990s we have witnessed the uptake of the notion of ‘the curatorial’ across the arts. This recent development brings me to reflect on what are the differences between curating and the curatorial? And building on this, what possibilities does the curatorial present to us? 


Today, curating is an integral activity across the arts and cultural sectors. Curating can be understood as a series of professional practices related to exhibition-making, usually taking place in institutional settings such as museums and galleries as well as biennials. Curating signifies a number of activities that culminate in putting on an exhibition; this includes the selection, organisation and presentation of a series of artworks for display. On the other hand, ‘the curatorial’ does not lend itself to being defined with such an ease.  What I set out to do here is not define it and anchor it in meaning, but rather curiously trace its contours, to secure a glimpse of the possibilities that such an alternative mode of enquiry presents. 


The curatorial is not restricted to the process of exhibition-making, as its methodologies are ever-evolving and its outputs multifarious. The nature of its projects are longer-term, discursive, educational and collaborative. Stemming from this understanding, the curatorial seeks to engender new understandings by straying away from established methodologies and practices, as it does not seek to reproduce dominant narratives, but rather sets out to disrupt them. In doing so, the curatorial sets out to question the authorial and consolidated practices associated with curating. Rather than perceive knowledge as static, the curatorial lingers around haunting absences, and sets out to establish new connections between discourses, allowing new constellations to take shape. The curatorial avoids following the same well-trodden paths, and instead sets out to carve out new paths of its own, arriving at new and unfamiliar ground. As soon as a sense of familiarity begins to creep in, the process of discovery begins all over again. It is in a state of constant flux. I draw on Irit Rogoff’s words, who argues that ” ‘the curatorial’ is thought and critical thought at that, that does not rush to embody itself , does not rush to concretise itself, but allows us to stay with the questions until they point us in some direction we might have not been able to predict”1


This development can be interpreted as a growing desire to embark on alternative process- knowledge and research-based endeavours that break loose from rigid practices and expected forms linked to current forms of exhibition-making. The curatorial unleashes new possibilities by its ability to spill over into the political and social realms, enabling new sensibilities and understandings to emerge, allowing the world to appear other.


This also indicates an important change: the changing role of the curator. The curatorial brings the curator into a role that is creative and innovative, where the curator creates artistic and cultural value. In light of this change, it has sparked a growing discussion that seeks to distinguish the role of the artist and that of the curator. This has also given rise to various criticisms over the years. One critique is that it gives priority to the curator, placing them in a position of greater influence and authority than the artist as the creator of art. 


In my opinion such criticisms reflect the curatorial’s ability to transcend pre-existing practices, methodologies and power structures, as it sets out to find novel ways of thinking, working and collaborating. Although this may pose a threat to some, I am hopeful of the more radical possibilities that it can present. By way of conclusion, I echo Eszter Szakács who posits that the curatorial presents a way forward, a direction to follow, and reminds us that the emphasis should be placed on the relation between curating and the curatorial, rather than on the difference between them2.


  1.  Irit Rogoff (2006) ‘Smuggling’ – An Embodied Criticality. On [Accessed on 10 April 2021].
  2. Eszter Szakács (n.d.). The Curatorial. On: [Accessed on 10 April 2021].

Cyrus Karibu: Slay Queen (2018).
Photo: SMAC Gallery.

Online | 27 January to 28 February 2021 | Free Access


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Presenting artists an curators working with e-waste as artistic material.

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