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A Conversation with Nadine Wietlisbach

episode 39
Sept 20 2022

Nadine Wietlishbach talks about her career as a curator and her philosophy in relation to exhibitions and art, and insights on being a woman in her environment.

About our guest

Nadine Wietlisbach is the director of the Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland since 2018. With an interdisciplinary team, she creates exhibitions, publications and projects in the field of Contemporary Photography and Arts. In 2015 She won the Swiss Art Award for Critic Publication, exhibition category, and she was the curator in residence at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago.


fotomuseum winterthur

Other very interesting links from the photomuseum winterthur:

Visual literacy and media competence offer

Journey regarding cultural participation and diversity

Conversation around how to work with contemporary photographic practices at Fotomuseum Winterthur

Exhibition view fotomuseum winterthur artist: Frida Orupabo

“ No vision is becoming a livable experience by only dreaming and writing about it. It sort of takes ressources and ideas, people that are committed to this vision, in order to make it happen”.

Exhibition view fotomuseum winterthur artist: Claudia Andujar

“Expectations are always there, they’re always gonna haunt you down in the middle of the night and I won’t find any peace of mind if I am constantly bothered by what everybody else is thinking”.

Exhibition view fotomuseum winterthur artist: Anne Collier

Exhibition view fotomuseum winterthur artist: Chosen Family

“Life is very short. What we have to do must be done in the now”.  Audre Lorde

Exhibition view fotomuseum winterthur artist: Frida Orupabo

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Nadine Wietlishbach has an unusual background for her career as a curator and museum director: she has no formal education or background in arts history. But her immense curiosity and interest for visual arts in all its mediums has propelled her to her current standing. In this episode we discuss the catalyst of her interest in visual arts, where she draws inspiration from, her approach and vision on exhibition creation and the space that surrounds it, the reality of contemporary photography being a medium of exclusion, and her punk attitude coasting through her career.

Conversation Highlights:

  • Nadine’s background and inspiration
  • The art of making exhibitions
  • Photography: a medium of exclusion
  • On Institutions’ social responsibilities & the punk attitude 

Nadine’s background and inspiration

Nadine begins by telling us she used to be a carpenter. She did not grow up with art, so it came a little later. While she was doing her apprenticeship, she worked in large houses in Zurich that “were really well equipped with artworks.” A specific painting struck her, sparking her initial interest in visual arts. She then moved to Lucerne and had the opportunity to write about art and artistic practices. “And eventually,” she concludes, “I took over an independent art space, which is now in the almost third generation of young curators.”

Nadine draws inspiration from literature, film, cinema, poetry and theoretical texts. No matter the discipline, each having “their own sort of narrative, their own texture, and their own way of actually taking up space and creating space”, Nadine explains she has a particular interest for artists and creators that are “really aware of ambivalence.” It is their way of challenging perception that makes her tick.

“I’m thinking about creating spaces where you can both experience the magic and the sheer horror of images,” Nadine says. She believes in the power of curations and exhibitions to enable different voices and create progress. Trying to make this space safe and welcoming is important for Nadine.

The art of making exhibitions and being a woman curator

“I have a little note by Audrey Lorde,” Nadine explains, “and it says: life is very short and what we have to do must be done in the now.” She tells us this is inherently true in regards to the making of exhibitions, and that creating them is a matter of committing to a vision, but also of trying and testing beyond the conceptual. “A lot of people forget how practical curating actually is,” she continues, “in a sense that after the concept, the selection has to be done, and it’s really also about creating a narrative within the space.”

Nadine shares the difficulties she experienced in trying to access collections. When she would apply, she was told she had the experience and the critical wits but was not a trained art historian, which was problematic to some gatekeepers. It was the trust in her curiosity that eventually unlocked some of the possibilities for her to expand her career.

Nadine confides that being a woman in a certain position was a real challenge. “You have to deal with very, very high expectations,” she says. “And they are coming from all different kinds of sides. And they all have different agendas.” Finding and keeping focus has been one of the main challenges Nadine has had to face. “Finding allies is crucial,” she declares. “And to be able to ask for support, to be able to exchange ideas.”

Nadine presses on the notion that curation is a collaborative effort. “You are never a curator of a project without the artists, without the editor, without the person working in the technical departments,” she says. “You are supposed to create the framework for the artists.”

Photography: a medium of exclusion

Many of the images Nadine has looked at in the past “were sort of influenced by colonial gaze.” She elaborates on this notion explaining that some of the images reflected an anti-feminist approach as to how they were captured. Our visual culture is distorted, because there have been long standing photographs reflecting current societal issues that reveal that they are in fact, not so current. Nadine tells us that this is probably due to lack of attention on our part. “It takes a lot of effort,” she says. “And it’s our duty to put that effort in; to question those ways of looking at someone else or to be looked at.”

Nadine elaborates on her thoughts concerning photography through the male or female gaze. “I still believe that patriarchy is a very long standing concept,” she says. “And I really think that it’s not that easy to deny this concept visually. So even though there are a lot of artists who claim this idea of the female gaze, I’m not sure if this concept is still really interesting to talk about. I would rather think about different sorts of perspectives, and to be very precise about what those perspectives are.” Nadine is positive that more platforms and communities are rightfully taking up their space to expand this notion and open this debate.

On Institutions’ social responsibilities & the punk attitude

Nadine underlines the institution’s responsibilities: “mainly to rewrite stories, existing narratives, to really question narratives and create places for dialogues.” She makes the analogy of all artistic institutions being an archipelago, “interconnected through certain questions.”

She underlines the importance that artists get enough to voice their opinion, in time, space, and economically. She talks about resistance and its power to render productivity. “You need to have the privilege to form ideas of resistance as a woman, as a feminist, as a queer person. And it’s not the case for all of us.”

Nadine shares her tips for women and non binary artists to stand up against inequality and feel empowered. She believes that “exclusion does not happen (...) only because there are evil people. Many times it’s just being unaware, or being focused on other things.” She invites to take part in rigorous questioning but points out the large amount of energy required for this. Asking questions opens dialogues.

“What I really liked about having at least partially still a punk attitude,” Nadine tells us, “is that punk is also about failing, it’s not about perfection.” Nadine reveals that she has realized, despite our inherent interest in validation, that she can’t “constantly be bothered by what everybody else is going to think about (her)” if she is to do her job well. She thinks this is linked to being a woman in the desire to please and not to fail.

So for Nadine, this punk attitude is ultimately “being aware of vulnerabilities without forgetting the strength, which is actually directly linked to vulnerability.”


next story ︎︎︎

Olivia Fahmy

Curator Fondation Gandur pour l’art

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Aldeide Delgado
Founder and director of WOPHA
Women Photographers International Archive