An Interview with Inaugural ARCAthens Curatorial Fellow, Larry Ossei-Mensah, on his return to Athens as Co-Curator of the 7th Athens Biennale


One year ago, Larry Ossei-Mensah was in Athens as the Inaugural Curatorial Fellow of our Pilot Program. We are happy to share with you that he will be returning to Athens, this time as co-curator of AB7: ECLIPSE, the seventh edition of the Athens Biennale, currently scheduled for September 25 – November 29, 2020.

Left to right: Larry Ossei-Mensah (Co-Curator), Omsk Social Club (Co-Curators), Poka Yio (Artistic Director). Photo by: Nysos Vasilopoulos

Co-curated by Omsk Social Club and Larry Ossei-Mensah under the artistic direction of Poka-Yio, the Athens Biennale will feature artists based in North and South America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe, many of whom will be exhibiting in Greece for the first time.

The theme of the Biennale is ECLIPSE. It’s intent is to engage the social, political and spiritual changes of today’s global construct and that of Athens itself, as a rising metropolis located at the intersection of Europe, Asia and Africa both physically and historically. Yet as the Covid 19 pandemic had spread through Europe, all arts events have either been postponed, cancelled or have had to reconsider their purpose. The Athens Biennale’s most recent response is eerily prescient.

“As the clouds go by, they often seem so distant and still, one can hardly imagine how fast the sky darkens.

The 7th Athens Biennale ECLIPSE, due on 25th September 2020, has been outlined as an attempt to grasp the fleeting and ominous signs of an imminent era of agony. A dark period accentuating fears, prejudices, and superstitions. Unfortunately, what was being devised as a metaphor, an omen, is now reality. Shadowed by the threat of actual death, art is striving to stay relevant, to address the universal needs for contemplation and release as well as to provide alternative answers to both existential and socio-political dilemmas.

The 7th Athens Biennale team and artists are currently collaborating towards realizing the AB7: ECLIPSE endeavour, seeking to transmute this experience into our lives, thinking, and artistic practice. In tune with the developments of the pandemic, we are working remotely towards opening ECLIPSE according to plan, unless any contrary turn of events restrains us from doing so. Artists’ and visitors’ safety has always been our first priority. Far more than an exhibition, a Biennial is a snapshot of an era. No matter how dark and blurry this era is, it is up to the creatives to capture it and narrate it.”

Larry Ossei-Mensah’s time in Athens as an ARCAthens Fellow had a large impact on his thinking and the way he has approached the Biennale. We had a chance to catch up with Larry this week and ask him a few questions about that, as well as cultural exchange and ARCAthens.

ARCAthens: Did your Fellowship with ARCAthens have an impact on your thinking about the Biennale, even indirectly, and how so?

Larry Ossei-Mensah: Yes, totally. I think having an opportunity to spend six weeks in Athens, having the ARCAthens fellowship, enabled me to have a lot of one on one engagement with the Athenian art scene and establish a level of familiarity that I don’t think I would’ve had if I hadn’t spent time. So getting to know not only artists but getting to know the issues, the thoughts, the concerns, the themes, get a sense of the rhythm, what excites people, would interest people I think that was all significant insight that I’ve been able to garner from my experience as the ARCAthens fellow. And you know, thinking about the push and pull between living in Athens and spending time in Athens clearly those are two different experiences, but I think they’re both vantage points that allow me to kind of think about what are the various elements and components that potentially can add value to all the overall experiences. So super excited to be working on this project and I’m super grateful to ARCAthens for providing an entryway into that conversation and engaging with the team at the Biennale.

AA: You are from the Bronx, and ARCAthens is based there, and will soon be hosting Greek artists there. What parallels do you find, or stark differences, between Athens and the Bronx? How would you build a bridge between the two communities?

L O-M: I think in terms of art Athens hosting Greek artists in the Bronx I think that’s an exciting opportunity for me. I think most of the true learning occurs through cultural exchange. And I know for me, having had an opportunity to travel to various countries around the world and engaging with artists, creatives in a very one on one intimate fashion that I think has been a truly significant added value. I think in terms of a comparison, I don’t think you can really make an apples to apples comparison between Athens and the Bronx. But definitely this experience will build a bridge between the two communities. I think if anything, both communities are definitely highly engaged in a way that I find to be refreshing. I think they  are also communities that work from a DIY kind of point of view and so, you know, have the capacity to kind of just self-organize and really leverage the tools that are available and if they’re not available, create them too. Express themselves culturally, express themselves artistically, express himself socially. I would say that’s probably two parallels that I would see, but I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for artists in Greece to be able to spend time in the Bronx and just get to understand the history and what makes the Bronx such a unique place.

AA: You say, ECLIPSE, which is the theme and title of the Biennale, provides an opportune platform for a robust and critical cross-cultural dialogue that questions assumptions, explores new possibilities and stimulates the imagination. I could think of no better place to have this important conversation than in Athens.

Has the pandemic changed your thinking at all about how to stage a biennial, so that cross-cultural dialogue can occur? It seems many assumptions are up in the air now, including whether biennials are of the same value as before the pandemic, since people do not want to go out in crowds to art events the same way they have been?

L O-M: I think for us we had some type of foresight it seems but I think the pandemic has kind of accelerated something that I think we’ve recognized that there is a shift happening around the world whether that be social economic or this being health-related. There’s a shift that’s occurring that I think is going to require all of us to take stock about what’s happening around us, really reconsider how we work, how we collaborate, how do we create, and identify new ways and modalities of expression, and to reconsider ways of working that have been kind of more that tradition and really evaluating is that tradition still relevant? And within that evaluation, how can we also kind of re-look at things. So I think with the pandemic, it’s really inviting people to kind of look at the past and kind of evaluate things that have occurred, artistic gestures that have been offered to us and see what we can really learn from that.

And then how does that give us a pathway or blueprint to think about the future? I can’t really comment on times of like value. I think at the end of the day art is an essential part of our life and I think there’s always going to be a desire for it, whether it is in the physical form, on a virtual form. So it’s kind of hard to predict how individuals will engage with the arts in the future. But I think for us it’s thinking about those things, considering them as we shape what we plan to offer through Eclipse. I think it’s also just kind of taking it day by day and not really being too consumed with trying to pontificate the future. I think within that, trying to reimagine possibilities that can re-contextualize ideas of things that might not have been salient before now, become more salient.

I think really just kind of being attuned to the changing climate attitudes, perspectives and how do we leverage that as an entry point for this cross-cultural dialogue that we want to have. I think when we refer to dialogue, we’re not thinking about it from a perspective that’s static. I think we’re very fluid in our approach because I think it allows you to adapt to your environment and really pull out the themes, the thoughts and concerns that are really percolating within the current moment. So I’m super excited about the opportunity to collaborate and the opportunity to just deepen my relationship with the Athenian community, but then also have an opportunity to introduce individuals who have an opportunity to travel to Athens and travel to the Biennale, to the various things that I’ve just kind of found interesting and fascinating about the Athenian art community. I think, you know, just going into this with a pragmatic, positive attitude, looking to just kind of lean into the uncertainty. I think, within the uncertainty, that’s where true learning and growth occurs. And so, for me, I’m always looking for opportunities to grow and learn and expand on my understanding. And so I’m super excited. So thank you.