Riley Gunderson: Could you start by introducing yourself and talking about your work?
K.O. Nnamdie: My name is K.O. Nnamdie my pronouns are he/him/they/them. I am a Nigerian-born curator. I was raised between Houston, Texas and Miami, Florida. I started Restaurant Projects, which is a curatorial project, in 2018 on Valentine’s Day out of a necessity for community bridging and hospitality within the arts. I wanted to provide a more hospitable service to guests who come to see an exhibition, whether they are well-educated with knowledge of the arts or whether they are novices like I was when I was younger. I have been doing a series of exhibitions on my own. Recently I have started collaborating with galleries and doing shows not only in the states, but there will also be a show in Oslo in the summer.
G: How exciting! What will that show be about?
N: That show is with an artist by the name of Nick Farhi. He is an oil painter who paints mundane objects within his home or at an antique shop. The show will take place in Oslo in September at Golsa Galeria and is titled Afternoon Delight. I have been a friend of Nick’s since I moved to New York. I have been here for almost a decade now, so we have had a friendship for a while. Usually, the shows I put together are with people that I have a friendship with or people that I greatly admire. For instance, for the show that I am currently at, The Ecology of Visibility, the artists are all friends of mine with the exception of Lutz Bacher who I did not have the pleasure of meeting or becoming friends with, but I am a very big supporter of her dedication to the arts at large.
G: Is there a meaning behind the name “Restaurant Projects”?
N: When I was in Houston my mom opened up a home health inc. named Keeni Care Health Services, which is an acronym for all of her five kids. My mom taught me a lot about hospitality. She also had a restaurant in South Florida and cooking is a really important thing for my culture as a Nigerian person. I wanted to say thank you to her, so I called it Restaurant Projects. Also, in an apartment I was living in Chelsea, NY, I was going through a lot and was listening to Blondie’s “Dreaming” every single day for a year straight. In that song, Debbie Harry mentions “you met me in a restaurant.” I really liked this idea of people coming to a place, a gallery, or a restaurant, and it is like a community center or a hub, a place where happenings go on.
G: Can you speak about your current show at anonymous gallery, “The Ecology of Visibility”?
N: The current show is with five artists: Mary Manning, who is showing two photographs with us; an artist by the name of Jade Kuriki Olivo (they also go by Puppies Puppies); Frances Stark, an artist from California, we are showing three photographs from her 2014 series, therealstarkiller; Frank Benson, who is a New York-based artist and sculptor; and Lutz Bacher who passed in 2019. We are showing an untitled video of hers, an hour-long conversation between her and her dealer that really reveals the power dynamics between art dealer and artist.
The “Ecology of Visibility” is essentially inspired by the ecstatic act of refusing predetermined identity, space, and time. All of the artists experiment with what is prescribed as the provisional self, then venture far beyond internal standards and external feedback. Essentially, the exhibition implicitly questions the values associated with modes of representation. That is especially key with Puppies Puppies’ work, Woman With A Penis. This work was inspired by Lawrence Weiner, who is a well-known conceptual artist that uses text primarily in his practice. Woman With A Penis is really an announcement, but not a very loud declaration like you would see with Lawrence Weiner’s work.
G: What did the process of curating “The Ecology of Visibility” look like for you?
N: I actually opened two shows at the same time. There is one that is called “Hands Body Object,” which is specifically about the trauma that we experience in our society both in and out of the workplace. It is a very broad umbrella for those six artists to work in.
I have all of these shows buried in me. I am always writing or thinking about shows that I’d like to have in the future tense. The process for this show was a similar process to cooking or getting ready to make a meal: I had all these ingredients, which was writing and meditating on artists’ practices, and then I prepared everything. I had the idea for this show two years ago, I was trying to figure out the right home for it but also when to serve the dish. It was a really great situation with anonymous gallery and Joseph Henrikson, who is the founder and director of the space, because we both thought it would be really fitting to house the exhibition, “The Ecology of Visibility,” here.
G: I really like what you were saying about thinking about the future and when to ‘serve the dish,’ why do you think this exhibition is important now specifically?
N: I believe this exhibition is important now. Not to get too political, but really thinking about Trump exiting the public stage and the communities that were demonized during his term, as well as the communities that are still going to be demonized during Joe Biden’s term. I felt it was really important to talk about what visibility really is and how it helps us, now more than ever. The reason it came out now was also that it was ready to. It was relevant. I felt like people needed it and I also needed to get this out now for the sake of the idea staying potent.
G: You mentioned that the space felt perfect for this project, can you talk more about anonymous gallery’s influence on the exhibition?
N: The space and programming at large at anonymous is one that I was very familiar with, mainly because I was practicing as an artist for most of my life, since I was thirteen. When I came to New York, I became aware of anonymous’ programing. I was following it for a while and actually ended up showing with the gallery a few times. March of 2017 marked my first time working with anonymous gallery to put an exhibition together. I felt that this would be a show that would be fitting not only for the space, but also for the programming itself.
G: Can you talk more about that shift from creating your own art to curating that of others?
N: I used to make images for ten years as a photographer. Making images is so closely related to curating for me. Photographing is maybe eighty percent of the job, while the real meat-and-potatoes is actually editing things down, trying to see what is the best, what makes the most sense, and what is relevant.
G: Do you consider curating to be an art practice itself?
N: I wouldn’t say that curating is an art practice because I really feel it is a service. It is influenced by creativity, however, it is a different hat that I put on, and the only hat that I put on these days.
G: What were the biggest challenges you faced while bringing “The Ecology of Visibility” to life?
N: The biggest challenges for me were in my own skin, being comfortable with stepping out and putting on an exhibition like this. All of the other exhibitions that I have done, whether I knew it at the time or not, were very close and personal to me. They were about not only my life but my friends' lives and my communities at large: the LGBTQIA+ community and people of color. I was really hoping that the exhibition would be well received, and it has been, the only thing that was a bit hard was just reminding myself that it's ready, the dish is ready to be served, and I have to do it now or it's not going to happen.
This show absolutely needed to happen in 2021 at the start of the year, at the start of a new president coming into office. Hopefully, we will ricochet some sort of change outside of a gallery construct. I am not focused on just wanting to hit my audience, I want to hit a broader audience and allow more people to step into the work.
G: What were your biggest priorities when curating and creating this exhibition?
N: My biggest priorities were making sure all the artists understood what it was that I was trying to do and allowed me to have the space to do it, and I allowed them to have the space to speak to me about what they thought was best. Every show that I have done is collaborative. It is not just me running the show. Without the artists, what am I here for? I am at service to the artists. As someone who was an artist, that role is even more important to me. In every show, the priority is always: how does the artist feel? Some shows you may want to do something aligned with “me” or “I,” but I am always more interested in the “we.” I am a part of the “we” and I am doing this for us, for the people in my community that are not seen or heard. I am doing it for all of us. To be able to provide maximum visibility, to elevate not only the works in the show but also the practice and dedication of the artists.
G: What does it mean for you to independently produce exhibitions through Restaurant Projects?
N: For me, working independently or collaborating with galleries is no different. I am always collaborating regardless. With anonymous gallery, I was collaborating before I even thought about what the show would be because I am considering the space, I am considering the programming, and I am considering the longevity of the shows that I am doing. Doing something independent and doing something with an institution are one in the same for me. The start of it is really a collaboration: talking, communication, and working together towards something.
G: I know you mentioned that a lot of the artists you work with are your friends but I am curious, what qualities do you look for in emerging artists?
N: Most of the people I work with are my friends only because when I was an artist I had a lot of friends in my community that also practiced. I will step out of that many times though and show someone who I think is just completely fantastic that I don’t have a relationship with, though often we actually do end up branching that relationship. That was the case for Mary Manning. I was a big admirer of their photographic practice since I was making images. I reached out to them as an admirer and now we have become friends.
The qualities that I look for in emerging artists are the qualities I had in myself: someone who is committed and invested. Not everyone always knows their worth, so my job is to remind emerging artists of their inherent value. Mainly I aim to be a support system. Not everyone will have the qualities that I possessed when I was emerging. We are not in the days of Motown anymore where there is an artist who is taken and taught what they should do, what they should say, and who they show with. These things are not happening in the art world anymore. It is pretty much that you have to be pre-packaged and ready to go at the door because no one has time to wait. I try to work with artists that I know have ‘it’ and are completely committed and guide them in ways that are really priceless.
G: I admire how you are seeing flaws within the art world, that you either experienced yourself or noticed through working with other artists, and are actively working to change them yourself.
N: I’ve worked at five galleries in the past, four in New York and one in Berlin. I just took notes of things while I was working: things that I did like and things that I didn’t like. I made a list of the things that I did like and that is how I started Restaurant Projects. I will also put myself in the interrogation room at some point and see what I did and what I didn’t like about what I’ve done so far with exhibitions. Hopefully, in the future, I will open up a space called Restaurant. Restaurant Projects is actually a curatorial project that I either do independently or that will be housed by other spaces in the future.
G: Can you speak more about that progression you are working towards for Restaurant Projects?
N: That progression is happening quite quickly right now and I am very excited about it. It is like a baby that is about to be born, so I am not talking about it too much because there are always superstitions around that. Restaurant is something that I have always wanted. I was really just a young kid from Houston and Miami who worked with the medium of photography to reach out to and see other communities and it took me everywhere. Then I realized that I didn’t want to be selfish anymore by just focusing on my work. I was actually always meant to be more curator than artist. I have an eye and ear for things, but I definitely credit that to the years of my photographic practice.
Restaurant Projects will hopefully be something that is really considering marginalized people in a way that isn’t pandering, in a way that is how it should be. As a person that is African-born and as a person of color in the arts, what I am doing is not really new but what is new is that I am getting visibility and attention for it. There are not that many people of color working in the arts and why is that? Why do we not feel comfortable in these spaces? Why do we feel othered? Why do we feel pushed out? I want to open up a space that is centered around community building in an authentic way, something that I would be proud of inviting my younger self to. When I started out at thirteen, I did not see anything like this. When I got into my twenties, I still didn’t see anything like this. I know other curators and art directors that are people of color that are also working towards this. It is starting to get the attention it deserves and that is really promising.
K.O. Nnamdie on Instagram: @koartadvisory
Restaurant Projects on Instagram: @restaurantprojects
Interview by Riley Gunderson