7 Days in the Cultural Life of a MoMA Photography Curator

7 Days in the Cultural Life of a MoMA Photography Curator

As a curator in the photography department of the Museum of Modern Art, and a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Columbia, Oluremi C. Onabanjo squeezes as many exhibitions and talks as she can into an already packed schedule.

“I tend to absorb heaps of images, texts and sounds in one day,” she said. A New Yorker for the past 12 years, she previously lived in Kano, Nigeria; Lagos; Johannesburg; Fair Lawn, N.J.; and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. “Living in New York has given me a political education,” she said, “taught me how to look alongside and think with artists, and made me sensitive to how the forces of history structure the contemporary conditions of social life.”

Onabanjo tracked a few days of her cultural life, noting some of the books, music and conversations that inspired her. These are edited excerpts from phone and email interviews.

At the moment, my days start at 5 a.m. I am currently A.B.D. (All But Dissertation), which means that I’m in the final stretch. With a full-time job, this requires being resourceful with my time: rising early to crank out two hours’ worth of pages every morning before heading to the office, so that I can hopefully finish a full draft of my dissertation by December. At first it was slow going because I’m not naturally a morning person, but the words are coming more easily as the months pass — especially as the sun rises earlier to keep me company.

Reading: “O Defeito de Cor” by Ana Maria Gonçalves, “Slave Rebellion in Brazil” by João José Reis. Listening to:Don’t Touch My Hair” by Solange, “Green Grasshopper” by Marcia Griffiths.

We recently closed a yearlong presentation of Ernest Cole’s work on the fourth floor of the museum. We took Cole’s 1967 photo book, “House of Bondage,” as a site of departure for an exhibition on the structures of settler colonialism and apartheid in South Africa, as well as their echoes stateside. Aperture rereleased that book, along with a new one, “Ernest Cole: The True America,” which takes up his photographic production in the United States — the subject of a forthcoming documentary directed by Raoul Peck.

Reading:To Our Land” by Mahmoud Darwish, “The Cry of Black Worldlessness” by Panashe Chigumadzi. Listening to:Mannenberg” by Abdullah Ibrahim, “Strasbourg / St. Denis” by Roy Hargrove.

I rarely get the opportunity to talk with colleagues in the field about the politics of curatorial practice. This is what made “The Radical Practice of Black Curation” so special. Organized by Tina Campt at Princeton University and Tavia Nyong’o at the Park Avenue Armory over two days, an international group of curators came together to think about the status of Black curatorial work in a time of “racial reckoning.” It was a precious convention for me, spent thinking aloud alongside the brilliant curators Gabi Ngcobo and Legacy Russell, both directors of crucial centers of experimental art.

Reading: “Discourse on Colonialism” by Aimé Césaire, “No Roses From My Mouth” by Stella Nyanzi. Listening to: “Help” by Duval Timothy, “Carmen” by Olivia Dean.

On Saturdays, I spend most of my time looking and reading. Moving steadily across the city’s galleries and museums, I find moments to read on the subway or at a pit stop for coffee and pastry. The motley crew of art shows currently populating my hit list include Francesca Woodman at Gagosian, “Melissa Cody: Webbed Skies” at MoMA PS1 (which I loved during its first stop at MASP in São Paulo), Sonia Delaunay at the Bard Graduate Center, Counter Histories at Magnum Foundation, and Arthur Jafa at 52 Walker. No matter who is on view, I stop by Artists Space.

Reading: “Great Expectations” by Vinson Cunningham, Momtaza Mehri’s Substack. Listening to:Dangerookipawaa Freestyle” by Ab-Soul, “Get Close” by Ari Lennox.

I often joke that one of the reasons I’m still in New York is because I live uptown. I’ve never resided below 110th Street, and I have no inclination of changing that anytime soon. One of my favorite places in Harlem is Revolution Books, an independent bookstore. I’ve witnessed some of the most nuanced conversations about politics and culture, theory and criticism inside and in front of that bookstore. On a good day, I pick up a secondhand book from one of their carrels out front and popped across the street for a bottle of wine from Pompette. The owners are good people and just opened a pretty excellent wine bar next door, Musette.

Reading: Hammer & Hope’s Spring 2024 issue, “The Rebel’s Clinic” by Adam Shatz. Listening to:When the Poems Do What They Do” by Aja Monet, “I See You” by Little Simz.

I’m spending a great deal of time with our holdings of West and Central African studio portraiture, thinking through how these pictures powered notions of Pan-African subjectivity and solidarity during decolonization and the Civil Rights period. After work, I stop by Harlem Yoga Studio for an evening vinyasa class before walking home.

Reading: “Portrait and Place” by Giulia Paoletti, “The Invention of Africa” by V.Y. Mudimbe. Listening to: WKCR 89.9FM NY, voice notes from my oldest friend, Yvette Dickson-Tetteh.

I spent a good chunk of today processing research photographs and notes gathered over a research trip on Afro-Atlantic futures with my colleague and friend, Thomas J. Lax, who is MoMA’s media and performance curator, and André Lepecki, a professor of performance studies at N.Y.U. Over two weeks last December, we visited Afro-Brazilian quilombos (maroon societies) and autonomous art spaces in São Paulo, Piauí and Rio de Janeiro.

Once a month, I make a point to listen to music downtown. I’m open to all sorts of genres, but there’s nothing like seeing jazz live — especially with stages like the Village Vanguard still around. When our schedules align, my friend Gabrielle Davenport (a music and performance programmer and co-founder of BEM Books) joins me. Tonight, we saw the pianist Gerald Clayton and his band. They filled our senses and stilled my mind. A true feat and exquisite gift, in a city like this.