Art does not need another hero: Reflections on the 10th Berlin Biennale

Rethink: Lubaina Himid’s work incorporates lines of text. (Tim Ohler)

Rethink: Lubaina Himid’s work incorporates lines of text. (Tim Ohler)

What would European and North American collections look like if institutions, curators and acquisitions committees did not have myopic vision? This year’s Berlin Biennale, titled We Don’t Need Another Hero (referencing Tina Turner’s anthem), gives audiences a glimpse into what that might look like.

The biennale’s title reminds us that there is no need for a saviour to “correct” or redirect how we see art, and who we see in art. Artists from the Global South have long been producing aesthetically and technically remarkable and politically astute work; this is just Germany’s chance to host it.

Biennale curator Gabi Ngcobo and her co-curators — Yvette Mutumba, Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, Moses Serubiri and Thiago de Paula Souza — stressed that the works in this biennale should not be read solely through the lens of post-coloniality or race and identity politics.

This is clearly not a loud Empire Strikes Back kind of exhibition. Nothing about this biennale seems defensive or finds it necessary to demonstrate its worth.
It is the position of strength that Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka articulated in the 1960s: “A tiger doesn’t proclaim its tigritude.”

But the curators recognised that they will have to guide the audience away from reading the artists and their works in a reductive manner. This desire is apparent in the team’s curatorial statement, which positions the biennale as a “conversation with artists and contributors who think and act beyond art as they confront the incessant anxieties perpetuated by a wilful disregard for complex subjectivities”.

This term, “complex subjectivities”, signals the fact that we are assigned a reductive racial identity only because this is the prevailing and dominant way of categorising people in the geopolitical West. This is why we have all been taught the politics and ideology of race.

When we move about in different geographical and sociopolitical milieus, our persons may be read and positioned differently.

We may even have the opportunity, if the host society is going through a generous moment, to offer a more complex reading of the self — a reading we may be able to negotiate, challenge and use to change our own self-view, given the intellectual, aesthetic, conceptual and conversational material.

The 2018 biennale is an intimate affair, with just 46 artists and five venues, with most works housed in three main places — the Akademie der Künste (ADK) in Berlin-Tiergarten, the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin-Mitte and the Centre for Art and Urbanistics (ZK/U) in Berlin-Moabit.

The biennale gives installations remarkable amounts of space. By not overcrowding artworks, it gives audiences time and space to contemplate them. The artists’ origins, or the list of nation states to which they owe allegiance, is not mentioned on artwork labels.

This allows one to respond to the work, rather than attach it to one’s preconceived notions about the identity of the artist.

Ngcobo made a strong choice in spending the show’s €3-million budget on 30 new commissions, including several short films that debuted during the biennale’s opening week.

The strength of those original works is juxtaposed with works of artists who have died, including the powerful works of Cuban-born Belkis Ayón and Ana Mendieta and South African Gabisile Nkosi, who was killed by her former partner.

Cautionary tales

The KW Institute for Contemporary Art contains a wealth of paintings, including nine “kangas” by Lubaina Himid, titled On the Night of the Full Moon (2018). The kangas are dedicated to poets Audre Lorde, Maud Sulter and Essex Hemphill, and include excerpts from their works.

The lines of text — including the Swahili proverb “much silence has a mighty noise” and less proverbial statements such as “Don’t let loneliness kill us” and “Champagne has ceased to be drunk out of slippers” — signal a resigned reflectiveness and a reminder of what is essential for living.

At ZK/U, there is a wealth of video works and mixed-media installations by Dineo Seshee Bopape, Heba Y Amin and Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa. There are also 14 works by Tony Cokes. Each of these works is worthy of more than one viewing. They reveal layers to the narrative that the respective artist has embedded, using technology, text and experimental visuals.

Heba Y Amin’s work, Operation Sunken Sea, mocks the gradiose self-serving plans of colonial powers (Tim Ohler)

Bopape’s film, Title Unknown, is one of the most powerful, moving works at the biennale. Amin’s work also deals with the violence wrought by patriarchal megalomaniacs, all in the name of the nation — but in a more playful way, which nonetheless reveals the violence of those actions. In her installation Operation Sunken Sea (2018), Amin references grandiose, unrealised plans devised by German architect Herman Sorgel in the 1920s to drain the Mediterranean and connect Europe with Africa.

Amin says interest in this crazy idea was piqued by a 1905 novel, Jules Verne’s Invasion of the Sea, in which the plot included “comprehensive proposals to move the Mediterranean and flood the Sahara”.

She adds: “After that book came out, many other proposals were presented by different colonial powers.”

In the video installation, Amin acts as the ruler of a fictional nation, one among nine other political leaders, each making impossible promises — each involving water and mineral resources — to their country. She promises to initiate a “large-scale infrastructural intervention that proposes to sink the Mediterranean Sea” and relocate it to the Sahara. This time, the plan intends to benefit the African continent: to deliver justice, end “terrorism” and the migrant crisis, feed millions and even provide fish. Her grandiloquent, utopian speech sounds totally bonkers.

Amin combines lines from former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s speech at the opening ceremony of the Aswan High Dam, which the Soviets helped to fund, and from then Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s “language and behaviour regarding the nationalising of the Suez Canal, as well as the way he stood up to colonialism”. She notes that she particularly enjoyed including Nasser’s phrase, “If you don’t like our behaviour, you can drink the sea”, which is a common Arabic phrase to suggest that
“we don’t care about your opinion”.

Mario Pfeifer’s Again/Noch Einmal (2018), a two-channel video installation commissioned for the biennale, examines one of Germany’s recent wounds — a court case that revealed underlying xenophobia towards migrants in Germany.

In July 2016, in the former East German state of Saxony, four men dragged an Iraqi refugee with a history of mental illness and epilepsy out of a supermarket, beat him and tied him to a tree using plastic ties purportedly for displaying “chaotic, threatening behaviour”.

The police later established that the man entered the supermarket to ask someone to help him to use a prepaid phone card. The men, who were eventually charged with beating him, claimed that they were acting out of “civic courage”. The Iraqi man never had the chance to testify against the attackers — his frozen body was found in the woods a week before the trial.

To tell the story, Pfeifer uses the conceit of two strangers — an attractive, tall, slim black woman and a white German man — meeting at the checkout till. In an attempt to initiate conversation, the man asks the woman: “Where are you from?” The film then morphs into a sort of talk-show performance. The two strangers, who have different racialised identities, present the “facts” of the case, showing footage from various reenactments of what happened in the supermarket — and what could have happened had someone intervened in a different sort of way.

The camera cuts from the two strangers to scenes from the reenactment, then to grainy CCTV footage from the supermarket and finally to the audience, a group of people seated together like a focus group. From them, we gather different viewpoints, musings and conclusions. They debate whether the actions of the German men who beat the Iraqi immigrant were an act of “civil courage”, as they claimed, or whether they were nothing more than violent vigilantes.

Several of the them repeatedly say that they would not step up to help if they saw a similar situation, given what happened. This film, though didactic at times, with an overly wrought conceit (the two interlocutors serving as narrators from opposing sides of experiencing what it is like to inhabit Germany, leading and teaching the audience), drew a large crowd in the opening week of the biennale.

People stood in small groups and on their own, focused on the unfolding narrative — something very few films managed to accomplish during an opening week. Perhaps they realised no cultural event, at this moment in Europe and North American history, can be considered a legitimate reflection of the zeitgeist if it does not include works like Pfeifer’s, which address the fraught nature of having a “complex identity”.

The questions Pfeifer addresses seemed especially pertinent, given that the Alternative for Germany party, which expediently uses a “women’s rights” agenda to capitalise on fears about violent and hypersexual immigrant men, organised a march through the heart of Berlin’s heavily immigrant Kreuzberg district on the Saturday of the biennale’s opening.

Again/Noch Einmal shows us through layers and enrichments that complications of one’s identity may mean that one’s life is expendable, and one’s execution an inconvenience to be erased by blaming the complexity itself rather than the refusal to read it.

M Neelika Jayawardane is an associate professor of English at the State University of New York-Oswego. This is an abridged version of an article that originally appeared on aljazeera.com on June 18

M Neelika Jayawardane

M Neelika Jayawardane

M. Neelika Jayawardane is Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York-Oswego, and a Research Associate at the Visual Identities in Art and Design (VIAD), University of Johannesburg. Read more from M Neelika Jayawardane

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