The 10th Berlin Biennale is not interested in prescribed blackness

7 Sep 2018 - 12:00

 

After it was announced that a South African curator would headline the 10th Berlin Biennale Gabi Ngcobo – in an opaque interview that hoped to foreshadow the biennale as ‘’postcolonial’’ – refused essentialist positions that would box her curation into stringent identity politics. Identity politics that are often assumed because of her blackness.

Recounting this interview in the curatorial conversations of BB10’s catalogue, Ngcobo asserts to her co-curators (Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, Serubiri Moses, Thiago de Paula Souza and Yvette Mutumba) that:

‘’I did say that ‘’We are all postcolonial’’ so that people can understand ‘’postcolonial’’ … [as not] pertain[ing] to ‘’black’’ or “Others of Europe.’’’’

Here Ngcobo politely declines to see the international platform as an opportunity to ‘’exorcize Hegel’s ghosts’’ however, this undertaking does not necessarily make BB10 apolitical. In fact, BB10’s curatorial strategy of negating identity politics is situated against ideas of Othering as a critique of the authenticity of history – often Western in memorialisation – aptly titling the biennale: We Don’t Need Another Hero.

The title is a reference to Tina Turner’s 1985 song of the same name, written as a soundtrack for the film Mad Max: Beyond Thuderdome (1985). A disaffecting anthem that chastises present realities, yet still, seemingly remains hopeful for a future ‘’beyond the Thunderdome’’ questioning: ‘’Will our story shine like a light?’’. Inasmuch as Ngcobo disregards BB10 as providing a coherent reading of (post)coloniality – especially as it lays subject to relativism and historical colonial-imperialist biases that continue to be problematised – Masilela suggests that the biennale is still refusing to respond to questioning as multiple interpretations can be made:

‘’The sentence ‘’the biennale does not provide a coherent reading of histories of any kind’’ is critical for us because it marks our refusal. But we don’t want it to be read as purely a reaction. It’s a refusal that is then followed by a kind of openness or possibility… We can question the current conditions and create situations that allow for multiple readings.’’ (10th Berlin Biennale Catalogue for Contemporary Art 2018: 37)

BB10’s rejection of blackness is the foremost signifier in the readings of the 46 artists invited to showcase, and is evident in the sparse labels and non-existent artist biographies in both the catalogue and exhibition walls. This curatorial strategy – an irritation at times – allows the viewer to contemplate the artistic qualities and messages of the works on display rather than making (black) artists’ identities hypervisible in relation to their work.

Sondra Perry’s IT’S IN THE GAME ’17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Projection (2017) is reminiscent of the iconic Black Panther’s (2018) heist scene in a European museum with heavily guarded, looted, African colonial artefacts – a relevant debate in the contemporary art world as European museums concede with these uncomfortable legacies of colonial plunder.

Video still of Sondra Perry’s IT’S IN THE GAME ’17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Projection (2017). Photographed by author.

 

Perry’s video documents herself and her brother, Sandy, as they meander to the Metropolitan and British Museums’ collection of African, Oceanic and American art with the lyrics of the Stylistics’ song You Are Everything (1971) occasionally interrupted by a jarring computerised voice accounting for the language used in museum audio guides and labels. This voice uses very deliberate words such as ‘’acquired’’, ‘’collected’’ and ‘’donated’’ to mask the stealing of non-European artefacts during colonial conquest. She juxtaposes this with the exploitation her brother underwent during his basketball career when Electronic Arts, a video gaming company, stole his digital identity for the virtual sport without his consent nor compensation.

Perry nudges us to think of both museums and sports as not neutral spaces, but instead to look at them as deeply ideological signifiers, riddled with tactically concealed (geo)political implications.

Meanwhile, Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa’s Promise Lands (2015) unpacks the global topicality of the land question in postcolonial thought, both ideologically and materially. The video piece has an emphatic relevance to Europe as battles to reach concessional agreements mitigating the increasingly dire and deadly migration crisis continue to unfold. Wolukau-Wanambwa alerts viewers to colonialisms plunder and brutal European settlement in (East) Africa by inserting quotes from a utopian novel romanticising the dispossession of Africans. Similarly, she investigates the manifold meanings of the migratory functions Lake Victoria served during the early 1940s-50s when Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya became safe havens for Polish immigrants after Nazi Germany invaded Poland, subsequently igniting World War II. Wolukau-Wanambwa – just like the scope of BB10 – seeks to highlight stories such as these that tend to be erased in historical accounts and the problems with the biases inherent in the heroes that come out of them.

Meanwhile, Dineo Seshee Bopape’s large scale installation Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings] (2016-18) creates instant disorientation and disorder. Bricks and columns are collapsed on the floor and plastic buckets collect water droplets from the ceiling. Much like the biennale’s overarching themes, Bopape’s installation evokes a visceral experience of chaos which is felt by the viewer as they navigate a space concerned with incoherent histories of (collective) memory, the justice system, and gender inequality to name a few.

Still photograph of video piece Promised Lands (2015) by Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa. Photographed by author.

 

Bopape drawing from Bessie Head’s A Question of Power (1974) also invited three other artists – Jabu Arnell, Lachell Workman and Robert Rhee – to showcase their individual works. The artist asks important questions around remembrance and how it is linked to power. She evokes the stories of three deceased women who dared to question power – Head, Nina Simone and ‘’Khwezi’’ (Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo), who accused former President Jacob Zuma of rape in 2005. Bopape nudges us to think about how we choose to remember them - through dominant narratives about them, or by investigating how those narratives may fall short? It is pertinent to recognise the complexities of who these women were and the concealed power dynamics embedded in how they are remembered.

Bopape alerts us to how issues of remembrance – especially in remembering particular kinds of bodies such as black women – often mask problematic ideological agendas, reminding us that the business of remembering is political.

Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings] (2016-18). Installation by Dineo Seshee Bopape. Photographed by author.

 

Other notable artists showing at BB10 includes printmakers Gabisile Nkosi (1974-2008) and Belkis Ayón (1967-1999); video artist Tony Cokes; photographer Liz Johnson Arthur and multimedia artist Mario Pfeifer amongst many others.

In both its curatorial strategy and contributing artists BB10 is resolute in refusing to offer any answers to the current global, social instability that decolonial practises demand. In rejecting (exclusionary) heroism as plinths of statues lay bare, Ngcobo encourages viewers to consider who should occupy the vacant pedestals or perhaps, if there should be any pedestals at all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BB10 is in its last week across various venues in Berlin. It runs from the 9 June – 9 September.

Words and photos by Amogelang Maledu, honours in curatorship class of 2018.

 

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