Q&A: claire breukel

By Jess T. Dugan   |   March 7, 2019


South African-born, Claire Breukel works between Miami and San Salvador as Director and Chief Curator of Y.ES Contemporary Art El Salvador. Claire was introduced to Miami through the Rubell Family Collection. Here she took the position of Executive Director at Locust Projects, a renowned alternative non-profit, for 3 years before becoming nomadic in her role as Curator of PUMA.Creative for Sportslifestyle brand PUMA, where she worked on arts sponsorships and partnerships within Africa and the Caribbean. She then co-produced the 2013 (RED) Design Auction at Sotheby’s New York curated by Jony Ive and Marc Newson, and co-produced the 2018 (RED) Auction curated by Theaster Gates and Sir David Adjaye.  She co-edited the publication, Y.ES Collect Contemporary El Salvador with Mario Cader-Frech and Simon Vega. She is an immigrant. 

Photo by Michaela Roztomia Doušová

Photo by Michaela Roztomia Doušová

Jess T. Dugan: Hello Claire! Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today. Let’s start at the beginning. What initially drew you to the world of contemporary art, and what was your path for getting to where you are today?

Claire Breukel: Thank you so much Jess. I studied photography at university, and by circumstance, was invited to co-curate the Cape Town Month of Photography biennial at the tender age of 22. I then went to work at a gallery that put me in touch with the Rubell Family Collection in Miami.  I was invited to their curatorial program, and Don and Mera Rubell became my mentors. From that point I had some incredible opportunities including being the director of Locust Projects, the curator for PUMA, exhibition director for (RED) auctions and now working with El Salvador as the director of YES Contemporary, supported by The Robert S Wennett and Mario Cader-Frech Foundation, among others.

JTD: You were born in South Africa, have worked extensively in El Salvador, and are based between Miami and San Salvador. How do these varied experiences affect you both personally and as a curator? 

CB: I’m grateful to regularly experience different communities, which keeps me both grounded and motivated. My practice is inherently social and I’m interested in pushing against boundaries that dictate which artists get seen and how. I’m also interested in fostering awareness of the disparity between “First” and “Third” world realities (I re-appropriate these terms to acknowledge difference) as well as of the “other” or marginalized. Personally, I appreciate living in a fluid space as it keeps me reflexive and curious. Professionally, I’m interested in artists’ work that interrogates “different” realities and lifestyles using satire, humor, analogy, poetics, and more. I greatly admire the work of Simón Vega, Yinka Shonibare, Naama Tsabar, Ebony G. Patterson, Peterson Kamwathi, Beatriz Cortez, Jane Alexander, Jill Peters, and of course Jess T. Dugan.

Installation view, Simon Vega, “The Whitney Museum of Central American Art, a Post-Apocalyptic Dream”

Installation view, Simon Vega, “The Whitney Museum of Central American Art, a Post-Apocalyptic Dream”

JTD: Oh thank you! You have worked as an independent curator for several different art collections and programs. Can you tell me about some of the projects you’ve worked on that you were particularly excited by?

CB: Working on producing the 2013 and 2018 (RED) auctions with the incredible mind of Sheila Roche was so rewarding. These two auctions, spearheaded by Bono in partnership with Sotheby’s, Gagosian and the amazing support of top artists and designers, raised more than $50 million in the fight to end AIDS. The 2013 (RED) Design Auction was curated by Jony Ive and Marc Newson, and last year Theaster Gates and Sir David Adjaye took the helm.

Another highlight was working as the curator for PUMA.Creative with the visionary Jochen Zeitz, then CEO of PUMA. His love of African art, as well as his investment in improving environmental policies, is truly inspiring and groundbreaking. I learned an immense amount, and was lucky enough to join a trip to Mr. Zeitz’s game farm in Kenya with the PUMA-sponsored fastest man in the world- Usain Bolt.

Today my focus is on YES Contemporary, which fosters dialogue around the arts of El Salvador and its diaspora. Most typically associated with war and gang violence, El Salvador is topically so much more complex. Many contemporary artists delve in to the systemic issues of the country’s sociopolitical state while highlighting other aspects of the country that are not presented by the media, many of which are positive and uniquely creative. Think Okwui Enwezor’s concept of Afropessism relating to El Salvador, and artists challenging this concept.

Installation view,  Naama Tsabar,  El Salvador

Installation view, Naama Tsabar, El Salvador

JTD: How would you describe your curatorial interests? Is there a thread that unites the various artists you’ve worked with or the type of work you’re drawn to?

CB: I consider myself a moody activist and an excited curator so the work I gravitate towards is unconventional in presentation, offering its unique aesthetics as seduction, while harboring a message of sociopolitical weight. An example would be Simon Vega’s to-scale recreations of NASA space craft using found materials, which draw an analogy between “First world” aspirations of space exploration and “Third world” practicality and ingenuity, while alluding to the support of the USA and then USSR of opposing sides in the Salvadoran Civil War (1979-1991), as well the concurrent space race that was taking place.

JTD: What is your process for discovering artists you’d like to work with?

CB: I’ve been fortunate to travel internationally with work and meet many artists first hand, and many I keep in touch with and work with more than once. In addition, talking with colleagues proves invaluable. I have a great circle of curators, gallery friends, collectors and artists whose brains I tap in to – Jose Carlos Diaz at The Warhol Museum, Natasha Egan at MoCP shares generously as does curator Amanda San Filippo, collectors Jorge Garcia, Mario Cader-Frech, Robert Wennett, and residency founder Kathryn Mikesell and gallerists Ernst Hilger and Monique Meloche are all great art brains. I talk with artist Simon Vega whose practice I deeply respect, and I’m currently working with Patricio Majano an emerging curator/ artist from El Salvador who shares fresh insights… I know I’m forgetting a few people....

I don't look for artists at art fairs, and I love museums to experience work but I mostly work with artists just before they get to museum stage so I can’t say this has been a source for my own discovery.  

Studio of Mauricio Esquivel

Studio of Mauricio Esquivel

JTD: As an independent curator, do you feel that you face certain challenges – or, alternatively, have certain freedoms – as a result of not having one consistent institutional affiliation?  

CB: Absolutely. The notion of “curating” things has opened and become non-specific. While I love and advocate for the accessibility of curating, is does mean the term independent curator has professionally become a swear word. So without institutional validation your credibility is based on your last project and/or getting an elevator pitch perfected. I often work on a number of projects simultaneously so it made it impossible to “pitch” myself succinctly. However, once I accepted that my work may not be easily communicated I began living in a “grey” area and appreciating the freedom of navigating various art communities and experimenting with ideas and programs. Currently, I work with YES Contemporary which is a nomadic program allowing us to be reactive and responsive to artist’s needs and ideas in REAL TIME.

Walterio Iraheta and Abigail Reyes studio

Walterio Iraheta and Abigail Reyes studio

JTD: Given your diverse perspectives, what trends do you perceive in the broader art world? Have there been any particular shifts that have caught your attention?

CB: The idea that there are “many centers” in the art world, no longer only New York, Paris and London, is slowly playing out. There are many art events happening “locally,” inviting collectors and art communities to travel to the source and see an artists’ work in context. The old-centers are also opening, and it’s inspiring to see museum programs and collections working to diversify the artists they include. A poignant moment illustrating this is the Cisneros Collection’s donation of a major Latin American Art collection to MoMA to insure this history is acknowledged, preserved and shared.  

Within the US however, and perhaps upon reflection of the current political climate, there seems to be a conservative backswing and a number of examples of art censorship. Along with isolationism, this too, I hope, shall pass.

Installation view,  Six Degrees of Separate Nations

Installation view, Six Degrees of Separate Nations

JTD: The mission of the Strange Fire Collective is to promote work by women, people of color, and LGBTQ artists. I know from previous conversations with you that this is important to you as well- can you talk about how you address this in your work? Is diversity an intentional part of your curatorial practice?

CB: I loosely identify as a South African white lesbian curator in no particular order. I was brought up during Apartheid and regrettably went to a whites only school for some years as a child. These experiences, among others of recent censorship, illustrate to me that we live in a world where diversity is intimidating and the “other,” due to lack of knowledge, is misunderstood. The artists I work with, and the exhibitions and programs I work on, aim to give entry to ways of living that the audiences I’m presenting to may not have had access to previously. In doing so, the goal is, through creativity, beauty and humor, to share sociopolitical beliefs in a way that can foster understanding and more-so appreciation. An example would be Jill Peter’s Sworn Virgins of Albania photo series depicting women who have taken a vow of celibacy in order to live and work as men in rural Northern Albania. Jill and I spent a lot of time grappling with how to accurately share their stories – some become a sworn virgin so they can do men’s work to earn money to feed their families, some avoid arranged marriages, some are called “she” and some prefer ”he,” and so on. The exhibition went on view in a public area and received a lot of wonderfully curious questions about these various positions, which opened interactive and inquisitive dialogue. Jess, your essay and having you as a speaker added great value to this dialogue! 

Mario Cader-Frech and Claire Breukel

Mario Cader-Frech and Claire Breukel

JTD: What are you currently working on, and what’s next?

CB: This February 14, I open a show ,“Black Mirror,” across the galleries at the Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. Featuring 15 artists, the work in the show addresses themes of disparity, ingenuity and the use of the body as a creative tool to transgress boundaries. The show marks the debut of the YES Contemporary Art Loan program, which will make the work –part of the Mario Cader-Frech Collection – available to museums for loan. We then head to Madrid where we are hosting two art talks during ArcoMadrid, and launch the 2019 YES Arts Writers Grant in collaboration with the Spanish publication ARTEINFORMADO. In April I curate a juried show at the ArtCenter South Florida, which I’m looking forward to… then Marfa, Barranquilla for the first time, and an art trip taking art professionals to El Salvador. I guess the gift of heading up a nomadic program is one can actually be nomadic.