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The Most

Woman in the World


Rujeko Hockley

Assistant curator at the Whitney Museum, intrepid traveler, lifelong dancer

The Most
Woman in the World: Rujeko Hockley

Assistant curator at the Whitney Museum, intrepid traveler, lifelong dancer

When Rujeko Hockley joined the Whitney last spring, the museum’s chief curator hailed her as one of “the brightest and most passionate curatorial voices of [her] generation.” A lot to live up to, perhaps, but Rujeko was fresh from co-curating a major exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum (“We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85”) and up for the challenge. A few weeks ago, she hosted us in her Brooklyn apartment to talk about quarter-life crises, fending off impostor syndrome, and the next phase of her blossoming career.

July 31, 2017 | Filed in: The Most Remarkable Women In The World

ON ADAPTABILITY: My mom is from Zimbabwe, and my father is English. They met in Harare, where I was born. When I was little, my mother got into a Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins, so we moved to Baltimore. Then she started working for the United Nations, so we moved a fair amount to different countries when I was growing up. I spent the most time in New York and D.C., but we also lived in Somalia, Barbados, and Malawi.

Living abroad taught me how to be flexible and comfortable in different situations from a young age. I changed schools a lot, and had to make new friends. I’ve spent most of my life in the United States, but no one of my family is American, so I have many different perspectives in my mind at all times. I grew up seeing all sorts of people—different classes and races, different religions and education levels and ways of living. My parents are of different races, too. I think these are all, in composite, very influential on me as an adult. I don’t know if it affects the way I look at art, but it definitely affects the way I do my job. It encouraged me to have an open mind, and be porous and receptive to things, and to be curious. That sort of curiosity, both about the world and lived experience but also about research and study, is a big part of my work every day.

I was initially going to major in English. I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll be a lawyer. ’ I didn’t even know what a curator was. 


Sometimes I’m like, ‘Wow, how did this happen?’ But most of the time I’m just writing and reading and answering emails and talking to artists, and it’s not very glamorous. There’s always more work to do. There’s always more to be read, to be looked at—that’s not something that ends.

ON DISCOVERING ART HISTORY: My childhood dream was to be a vet; then I found out that I was allergic to a lot of animals. I went to Columbia for college, and I was initially going to major in English. I was like, “Maybe I’ll be a lawyer.” I didn’t even know what a curator was. When I took my first art history class, I had this moment of realization that there was this whole field of study that encompassed all my interests. Art history is about looking at people and the development of societies and cultures through the things that they make—the things they cared about enough to keep in their homes and share with each other. I was very compelled by that. I was also very interested in social justice and politics and race, and art history involved studying those things, too.

ON HER CAREER PATH: I got my first museum job two months after I graduated from Columbia. I worked at the Studio Museum in Harlem as a curatorial assistant for two years, and then I went abroad to Southeast Asia, to Laos, for a year and a half and taught English. After that, I came back and lived with my parents and applied to grad school. I went to UC San Diego from 2009 to 2012, and then came back to New York and got a job with the Brooklyn Museum. I was there for four years, and I came to the Whitney Museum this spring. It doesn’t feel like my career has moved quickly, really. In the day-to-day, things do take a long time. “We Wanted Revolution,” the show I co-curated at the Brooklyn Museum, took years of work.

I don’t know if I’ve “hit” any point in my career—I have so many more things that I want to do. Like everyone, I have days where things are crazy and intense and overwhelming. Sometimes I’m like, “Wow, how did this happen?” But most of the time I’m just writing and reading and answering emails and talking to artists, and it’s not very glamorous. There’s always more work to do. There’s always more to be read, to be looked at—that’s not something that ends. I see that continued curiosity in people I’ve learned from and work with who are in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, and I feel lucky to see these careers paths as lighting a way for me.

ON SELF-DOUBT: I definitely had sort of an early quarter-life existential crisis when I left the Studio Museum to go to Southeast Asia. My boyfriend at the time got a teaching fellowship there, and I had wanted to take a gap year and teach English, but it also seemed crazy to walk away from that position. And once I made that decision, I had moments of thinking I had made a terrible mistake to leave this amazing job that I really liked, that anybody would die to have. But in the end I really enjoyed being abroad, and I think it was important for me and important for my work—but that’s the perspective of almost 10 years later. When I was in grad school, I didn’t love it; I often felt very deflated. I was living in a new city and I didn’t know anybody. I was intending to finish, but then I left and came back to New York and got a job at the Brooklyn Museum, so I still haven’t finished my PhD; I’m ABD, which is “all but dissertation,” and so I definitely had angst about that, too, like, “Should I be finishing this? Should I stay here? Is this going to be good in the end or bad in the end?” And you’re just not sure. I have moments of doubt all the time.

As a woman of color, and a young person, sometimes you have these moments of insecurity and anxiety, of feeling like we should be quiet. Like, ‘Oh, maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about.’ But don’t dampen your spirit or shine—don’t act like you don’t know the things that you know.

 

ON WORDS OF WISDOM: An early piece of advice that’s stuck with me came from Christine Y. Kim, who was my boss at the Studio Museum and now works at LACMA. She was talking about how curatorial is more public-facing, in some ways, than other departments in the museum—curators get their names on things, for example—and she said, “Don’t ever think that, because your name is printed somewhere, that you or your job are more important than the person who built the wall where the art hangs, or the person who painted that wall, or the person who coordinated the loan for the show, or the person who created the education curriculum for students based on the show.” Basically, the message was, “Take a seat. Don’t get it twisted. Sometimes you will be validated and encouraged to feel important, but don’t fall for it, because none of what you do is possible without others.” And if anyone is the most important, it’s the artist, always and forever. We work in service of the artists.

Something else I often remember is the saying, “Don’t act like you don’t know what you know.” I think that as a woman of color, and a young person, sometimes you have these moments of insecurity and anxiety, of feeling like you should be quiet. Like, “Oh, maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. No one wants to listen to us, and we aren’t worth listening to.” But don’t dampen your spirit or shine, and don’t act like you don’t know the things that you know.


Think of yourself as a host, not a guest. That means you should feel empowered to be where you are, and not feel like an outsider... You belong there. There is no wrong place, or wrong setting.

I was at a talk a couple of years ago by Okwui Enwezor, who is a curator at the Haus der Kunst in Munich and incredibly influential and brilliant, and a woman in the audience asked him, “How do I feel confident in myself?” And he gave a piece of advice I’ve always loved: Think of yourself as a host, not a guest. That means you should feel empowered to be where you are, and not feel like an outsider. Growing up, when we were moving a lot, my parents instilled in me this idea that wherever you are is the place you’re supposed to be. You belong there. There is no wrong place, or wrong setting. I try to carry that belonging with me in everything that I do, and it inspires a certain confidence. And that’s actually the whole point, in some ways, of the work that we do as curators. In “We Wanted Revolution,” we wanted to show that black women are not outsiders to the art world or to the feminist movement—we are right in the middle of it, being hosts and not guests.

ON EXPERIENCE: I think it’s it’s valuable to have friends and peers who are both older than you and younger than you at every age of your life. It’s easy to be insecure about inexperience, but you can only be the age that you are, and you can only live as long as you’ve lived. The reason that an older person has a huge wealth of knowledge is because they’ve been in the field as long as they have, and if you’re in your 20s, it’s just logistically not possible to compare yourself. And even the most put-together, knowledgeable person ever has mornings where they wake up and feel like, “I don’t know anything.” Something that’s been inspirational about coming to the Whitney is that there are curators who have been here for 30 years or more, and they’re still putting together new exhibitions, they’re still acquiring work, they’re still thinking about new artists, they’re still coming up with new ideas.

I think it’s valuable to have friends and peers who are both older than you and younger than you at every age of your life. It’s easy to be insecure about inexperience, but you can only be the age that you are, and you can only live as long as you’ve lived.

 


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