Zoé photographed by Flora Maclean

Zoé photographed by Flora Maclean

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Zoé Whitley

In partnership with COS

Co-curator of the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

Zoé doesn’t remember this, but one of her close friends says she talked about working in museums back when she was 17. From that moment on, public art spaces have played a huge role her 20-year-long career. In fact, Zoé is currently at a very interesting moment in the story of her working life as at the end of March she will step down from Curator of International Art at Tate Modern and take up the mantel of Senior Curator at the Hayward Gallery, London. She’s very excited. “Their mission is specifically to present artists from world-wide, who are both influential and adventurous,” she says of her new employer. “And there's something about their willingness to take risks that I think I'm ready for.”

Zoé began her career in 1999 with a Getty multicultural summer internship, working in the costume and textile department at the LA County Museum of Art. She has fond memories of the inspiring people who mentored her there, their nurturing attitude going as far as actually driving Zoé to work. “I mean how generous is that?” Zoé says. “A curator who is willing to carpool with their intern.”

Since then, Zoé’s has woven a fascinating career in the arts: She was a curator at the V&A Museum for 10 years from 2003 until 2013 and has also worked as a curator of contemporary British art at Tate Britain and then at Tate while also completing a PhD. A career highlight for Zoé was to co-curate Tate Modern’s hugely successful Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power which Tate said “shines a bright light on the vital contribution of Black artists to a dramatic period in American art and history.” The show—which displays over 200 pieces of work by a huge range of African American artists particularly in between 1964 and 1984 is now on tour around the world. “It’s been incredibly humbling to be part of the process in such a major way of seeing the exhibition through and now for people to experience it all over the US,” Zoé says. “But also, it meant so much to have it here and to witness a real sea change in who was coming to the museum, and the excitement for it.”

This year, Zoé will be the first external curator appointed by the British Council to work with Northern Irish artist Cathy Wilkes on the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale which she describes as a “huge thrill.” Zoé says Cathy’s work reminds her of American poet and playwright Lorraine Hansberry. “Lorraine said that the supreme test for thinking about technical skill, or creative imagination, is the depth of art that can capture the kind of infinite variety of the human spirit both in its joy, but also in its despair,” says Zoé. “It’s something that is very true in [Cathy’s] practice so it's something that I'm really eager for people who are fortunate enough to get to Venice to experience.” 

Zoé is keen to communicate the less glamorous behind-the-scenes work surrounding exhibitions and museums which can, at times, be eclipsed by “this sense that people are wearing designer clothing and standing around at champagne functions.” In terms of her own style, Zoé tends to opt for simple, block colour dresses and “un-fussy” outfits teamed with her secret weapon of long-lasting lipstick. Despite her love for block colour unfussiness, Zoé is a constant admirer of the white shirt on others including the kind of androgynous, crisp white shirt formality sported by musician Janelle Monae. "Seeing Janelle Monae's style evolution has in some ways influenced my own approach to style: from her I learned to appreciate classic garments like a crisp white shirt could really make a statement; she's also given me the courage to embrace suits and tailoring a bit more and to have a little fun playing with proportion,” Zoé says. “She used to adopt the formal white shirt and tuxedo as an ultra-stylish uniform, it was her way of showing reverence to the African American entertainers who paved the way,” Zoé says. “It also paid homage to black labour, not just on stage and screen but in the domestic sphere too—that white shirt acknowledged our work and cultural contributions.” Sometimes the most powerful messages can be carried through seemingly simple items.

In terms of what Zoé will be wearing for her new role at the Hayward, Zoé is thinking about updating her wardrobe. “I've gotten so comfortable over the years wearing dresses with a bold, graphic print but am rethinking that as my default look,” she says. “There's something effortlessly sophisticated about vibrant separates, set off by a sharp white shirt that seems fitting for new beginnings.”

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All photography by Flora Maclean