The recent appointment of Gabi Ngcobo as the curator of the upcoming 10th Berlin Biennale should come as no surprise to those who have paid attention to her trajectory.
The announcement coincided with her involvement in the 32nd São Paulo Biennial, curated by Jochen Volz, who she says called her up one day with the invitation to collaborate. The biennial got off to an eventful start, opening just days after the impeachment of Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff and witnessing anti-government protests by the artist collective Opavivará.
The protests dominated the biennial’s preview and press conference, with an Opavivará-led group donning black and white T-shirts with the message Fora Temer (Get Out Temer), directed at the new president, Michel Temer. The same message was also affixed to the pavilion’s third floor internal wall.
“Volz was someone that I had never met before but he had heard of the work that we did at the Centre for Historical Reenactment [CHR],” says Ngcobo. “When I came back from Bard College [where she did her masters at the Centre for Curatorial Studies] I started and cofounded the CHR, which became this experimental platform to think about institutional platforms and the idea that sometimes we need to stop and let them die and maybe that is not such a tragic thing.
“With CHR, I developed a way of thinking about curatorial practice that became visible in many parts of the world, not just Europe and America, but I got invitations to Dakar, Cairo, and all of a sudden you realise that by creating these other parts, you not only contribute to the history of curatorial practice but also develop other forms of curating.”
“Contribute” is a word Ngcobo uses with reservation, for it implies that “someone is holding this thing in place and we are putting something in it, but really, we are part of this global discussion”.
Ngcobo says her approach to the curatorial practice is “one where it can reflect our lives and the problems that people deal with in the world as authentically as it would appear were one watching it unfold through a window.’’
“The art education I received at the time … I went to an Indian university so we got introduced to Indian philosophies and so on but it was still very much Eurocentric, so the unlearning process always begins after the learning process, because some things are not applicable to your community, so you have to find a new language of speaking to our concerns through art.”
To an extent, she says she has been able to do that at the biennial, which has an extended public programme and saw the participation of writers such as Binyavanga Wainaina, sound artist Sinethemba Twalo and a story on the notion of black guilt, which revolves around Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai Chiurai.
Summarising her experience of São Paulo, where she has been based since March, Ngcobo says: “I didn’t come to São Paulo with a list of names; I came with an open attitude.”
The Durban-born Ngcobo has always sought the company and galvanising spirit of other artists. A key example is the establishment of 3rd Eye Vision in the early 2000s, a collective of Durban-based artists and curators that included the likes of Khwezi Gule, Thando Mama, Zamani Makhanya and others. “It really began with 3rd Eye Vision in Durban,” she says. “As a collective, it made us visible and some people sort of moved on to to do curatorial work.”
Having studied art at the University of Durban-Westville, Ngcobo says the school was not part of the network that could help young artists enter the mainstream, so a lot of these efforts into organising were a way of getting to know the artists.
With the Johannesburg-based contemporary collaborative space Nothing Gets Organised, which she cofounded with artists Dineo Seshee Bopape and curator Twalo, Ngcobo is proud of how it has become an open space for a new generation of South African artists.
The first time she went to Berlin was in 2008 as part of the second instalment of a young curators’ programme that ran alongside the biennale.
After her studies at Bard, Ngcobo says she has frequented Berlin at least once or twice a year, be it for conferences, talks or workshops. “Since 2014, I’ve spent maybe three months in Berlin, working on a project for the 8th Berlin Biennale as the Centre for Historical Reenactments. I feel like I know the institution and the people working in it, but that was obviously on a different level to now.
“I’m curious as to what I can effect, being someone who is interested in how institutions work. It is still early to speak about the structure [of the team I want to assemble], but I am interested in collaboration and having conversation partners. What they will bring to the project is also dependent on the budgets.”