What would European and North American collections look like if institutions, curators, and acquisitions committees didn’t continue to see the world through myopic visions? This year’s Berlin Biennale, titled “We Don’t Need Another Hero” (referencing Tina Turner’s iconic 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. Art, and artists from the global south have been producing aesthetically and technically remarkable and politically astute work; this is just Germany’s chance to house it.
At the same time, Gabi Ngcobo, 2018’s biennale curator, and her team of 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 via the lens of post-colonialiality or race and identity politics. This is clearly not a loud, “Empire Strikes Back” kind of exhibition. At the same time, nothing about this biennale seems to be from a defensive standpoint, to preen and pose, be “extra”, or find it necessary to demonstrate that it is worthy. It is the stance for which Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka argued, back in the 1960s, saying, “A tiger doesn’t proclaim its tigritude.”
However, as Ngcobo and Mutumba explained in an 2016 interview, engaging with the politics of “refusal” and opacity will result in a lot of push-back. After all, explaining oneself, where one comes from, and translating oneself into easy-to-pronounce phonemes for the dominant group is the expected lot of those who are racialised and othered.
But the curators recognised that they will have to guide the audience away from readings of the artists and their works in a reductive manner. That desire 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 towards the fact that we are assigned a reductive, racial identity only because that is the prevailing, and dominant way of categorising people in the geopolitical west, and because of that, we have all been taught the politics and ideology of race; that when we move about in different geographical and socio-political 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 self; that we may be able to negotiate, challenge, and change our own self-view as well, given the intellectual, aesthetic, conceptual, and conversational material.
2018’s biennale is an intimate affair, with just 46 artists and five venues, with most works housed in three main homes: Akademie der Künste (ADK) in Berlin-Tiergarten, KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin-Mitte, Center for Art and Urbanistics (ZK/U) in Berlin-Moabit. Installations were given remarkable amounts of space, without overcrowding artworks, giving audiences time to contemplate. There was no mention of the artist’s origins, or the list of nation states to which they owed allegiance – as is usually the case with artwork labels. That forces one to engage with the work, rather than attach it to one’s preconceived notions about the identity of the artist.
It stands in stark contrast to the previous biennale, which packed more than 120 artists, and was criticised for presenting an oeuvre that pretended to be above politics, under the aegis of being “contemporary” and “hip”. Hard to believe as it may be, it was still a time in which people blithely bandied the term “post-racial” or post-something as a protective talisman against charges of racism, sexism, or whatever blindness that privilege gave them. Dismissing attempts to counter such sentiments was met with being charged with being too mired in “identity politics”, a term that became associated with being unable to be intellectual enough to “get it”. All that, of course, is code for being homogenously white, of visibly European descent, beneficiaries of prevailing dominant ideologies that gives one the privilege of believing that one’s life and work is untouched by the political – which includes how one’s is interpellated through race, class, gender, sexuality, and origins.
Ngcobo made a strong choice in using the show’s €3 million ($3.5 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 passed away, including the powerful works of the late Cuban-born artists Belkis Ayón and Ana Mendieta, and South African Gabisile Nkosi, who was killed by her former partner.
In Akademie der Künste, Firelei Báez’s works greet visitors as they enter the exhibition rooms. There are two large acrylic gouache on paper works depicting individual soldiers and armies, their green and brown khaki fading into sun-bleached, apparently empty landscapes, as well as an installation of smaller acrylic, ink, and chine-collé on deaccessioned book paper of varied sizes. To “deaccession” is to officially remove an item from the holdings of a library, museum, or other similar institution; the deaccessioned book pages that Báez uses often depict maps of locations such as the tip of Southern Africa (turned upside down) or figure-drawings of the Texas-Louisiana Intercoastal Waterway. Many have something to do with mineral or petroleum fields. Over these maps and figures, Báez has drawn intricate conflagerations of rich, green flora, as well as people, vehicles, and other mundane consumer goods like a washing machine. In select works, there are actual fires: contained in burning tyres, and whole hillsides on fire.
One of the larger works, “Index (given the ground one has to actively look away)” shows, in the foreground, a soldier with his back turned to observers, pointing a curved sabre – a grim reaper’s scythe, positioned in the stylised fencer’s pose – towards a shadowy set of silhouettes in the distance. They, over there, are an unidentifiable mass of an inconvenient other, in a valley adjacent to mountains, which may, in fact, be a city of tents created for the displaced. The soldier’s back is erupting in glowing flames, oranges and yellows, and spewing a cloud of thick smoke that rises to the left of the soldier’s body. It reminds us of the images of oil wells set on fire as the Iraqi army disintegrated and retreated when US and allied forces attacked them in 1990. But there are no identification marks on the soldier to align him with a particular nation; his back is turned to us, so we cannot recognise him by face. The trimming on his uniform, and the washed out, mottled greens and browns of the uniforms and helmets on the figures in an adjacent large-scale work tells us that these are men doing the work of some powerful nation and its leaders – it could be any megalomaniac who has sent this army to conquer and access resources, convinced that he is in the right.
In one of the largest rooms of ADK, La Consagracion I, II, III (1991), an impressive black, white, and grey-scale triptych of collography works, akin to altar-pieces, and nine other smaller works, which stand as a testament to Belkis Ayón’s subversive practice. Collography uses a relief-printing process; she collaged a variety of materials to create texture, including paper, sandpaper, and vegetable peeling on cardboard, which served as the “collograph plate” onto which she applied paint, then ran through a printing press to make paper prints. Ayón inserted a narrative centering on Sikán, the sole female deity in Abakuá – an all-male Afro-Cuban religious fraternity. Sikán serves as the origin of power and magic for the Abakuá (having been told the secrets by a mystical fish that she had trapped), but was sentenced to death as punishment for divulging her forbidden knowledge to her fiancée. It is a mythology that the artist – and atheist – was drawn to, as a tale that rings true for our particular moment in history as well: a powerful woman who is the original translator, channel, and repository of magical powers, but also serves as a cautionary tale about the limits of her power within violent patriarchy, should she threaten its order.
Also at ADK, Johanna Unzueta’s far more gentle works – elegant pastel pencil drawings and needle-hole patterns on tinted watercolour paper, installed upright in frameless Plexiglas cases, each of which is set on recycled wooden beams varnished using a natural, low-sheen finish. From a distance, the intricate whorls of her pencil work seem to be attractive geometrical experiments in muted pastels, created using mathematical or draftsman’s tools. But they also look like ellipses, denoting overlapping orbits of objects making their way in galaxies. Closer up, when we see the details, some drawings remind of a basket of wool; even closer up, a black and white whorls mimic a fingerprint. This is women’s work, in pencil and paper, reminding of the daily labour of sewing and thread. We are reminded that women’s handiwork – often invisible, often muted – holds whole universes together. But her fingerprints are here, nevertheless. By chance, as I peer into this universe, I notice a petite woman in a finely made suit – pale blue short-sleeved jacket and trousers – standing by one of the works. What drew me to speak to this stranger was the fact that in the back of her jacket was a small pleat – a window – into which a blue and white chequered fabric reminiscent of dishtowels was sewn. It turned out that this was the artist, and that she herself had made the suit. She used recycled denim sourced from Guatamala, where old jeans are sent, washed, and made back into wearable clothes; the fabric in the “window” of her jacket was, in fact, an antique dishcloth – from Germany, made during the time when looms still operated. She had found both, and created this fine thing – subtle, yet visible, to anyone who appreciates good tailoring and elegance. Unzuetta then showed me something that I’d missed: the needlehole patterns that she carefully made in each work – visible from the back of the work, as light peeked though. Later, as I passed two journalists from Oslo, who were also admiring her work, I showed them this detail, passing on the gift of a treasure that is visible if one lingers, and looks at something carefully from all angles.
KW Institute for Contemporary Art contains a wealth of painting, including nine “kangas” by Lubaina Himid, titled On the Night of the Full Moon (2018) are dedicated to poets Audre Lorde, Maud Sulter, and Essex Hemphill, and include brief excerpts from their works. The lines of text she includes in each of these paintings – the Swahili proverb “much silence has a mighty noise”, and the less proverbial statements “Don’t let loneliness kill us” and “Champagne has ceased to be drunk out of slippers” – signal a resigned reflectiveness, a reminder of what is essential for living, and mourning their passing. Look out, also, for Thierry Oussou’s expressionistic, but minimalistic work, and Portia Zvavahera’s large-scale, evocative brides and bulls, engaged in dances with masculine and feminine constructs, and with power.
At Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik (ZK/U), a wealth of video works and mixed media installations by Dineo Seshee Bopape, Heba Y. Amin, Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, and 14 works by Tony Cokes. Each is worthy of deep engagement, and more than one viewing – revealing layers to the narrative that the respective artist has embedded, using technology, text, and experimental visuals.
Bopape’s film, which did not yet have a title at the time of screening, is one of the most powerful, moving works at the biennale. It based loosely on the court transcripts of a rape trial, “Khwezi vs. J Z” where a woman we then only knew as “Khwezi” (an alias for Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo), took the then-vice president (and later president) of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, to the Johannesburg High Court on December 6 2005, charging him with rape.
Those who read the news reports during this time, and knew the horrific threats that Khwezi faced from Zuma’s supporters were such that she was forced to seek asylum in the Netherlands. In 2016, she died from HIV complications. The events as they transpire in Bopape’s stylised film reference details from statements each person made on the dock.
It begins with two people in conversation, seated on opposite ends of a sofa, with the elder man (Bopape cast a grey-haired white man with craggy features) asking the young woman odd, and sometimes greasy questions, which make her confused (“Do you like flowers?”) and increasingly uncomfortable (a question that may sound like, “Do you like sex?”). But he follows those untoward comments with, “I knew your father,” and says that he regards her as a “daughter”, and we see “Khwezi” relax.
Much of the sound is sped up or slowed down dramatically, so that his voice either sounds like a cartoon squeak (we think this is a ridiculous, embarrassing uncle), or an ominous, deep-throated monstrosity (we realise that such uncles are not as funny and innocent as they may seem). The sound and visual distortions also mimic the ways in which events during a violent encounter are often difficult to decipher, and at times misrepresented. The last frames of Bopape’s film show “Khwezi” alone, wearing the “khanga” or cloth wrap that she put on the night on the assault – which Zuma claimed, at the trial, was an invitation to sex, despite the fact that she had told him that she was not interested in men, and was a lesbian.
The case was dismissed. In these last frames, we see her making breaststroke motions with her arms, as though she is pushing through a thick, viscous, resistant mire. Her face has a blank expression; it is neither determined to reach a shore (there is none), nor passive. She merely looks resigned. What is certain is that she is utterly alone. Bopape’s film – though referencing events specific to South Africa – traces the ways in which those who find the courage to expose the nation’s most beloved constructs or powerful figures as a lie, they are repeatedly violated in an attempt to silence them, and ultimately ejected from the nation’s narrative.
Heba Y. Amin’s work also engages 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. Amin’s name is familiar to a wider audience through her involvement in subverting an episode of the problematic and factually inaccurate American TV serial Homeland. She, and a collective of artists that ironically named themselves ““The Arabian Street Artists” graffitied ironic messages on the wall of the set, including, “Homeland is watermelon (al watan bateekh)” (“watermelon” is often referenced to indicate that something is a sham, a piece of trickery).
In her installation Operation Sunken Sea (2018), Amin references other, even more damaging watermelons: grandiose, unrealised plans devised by the German architect Herman Sörgel in the 1920s to drain the Mediterranean and connect Europe with Africa. Amin says that interest in this crazy idea was piqued by a 1905 novel, Invasion of the Sea, by Jules Vernes, where 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 positions herself onto a reenacted photograph of Sörgel; she is the ruler of a fictional nation, one among nine political leaders, each delivering impossible promises – each involving water and mineral resources – to their country. For her part, 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 plans are intended 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, and may possibly come across a tasteless joke to those who are not well versed in the history of the region. But the script of her speech meshes together actual texts of speeches made by eight dictators and megalomaniacs including those from the present, such as Erdogan and Xi Jinping, and from the past, such as Mussolini (part of whose Fascist North Africa campaign was to flood the Sahara and “Make the Desert Bloom”), and Briton Sir Anthony Eden whose claims she found so preposterous that she wanted to see what it sounded like if she used them, including this gem:
“My friends we do not seek a solution by force, but by the broadest possible international agreement. But this I must make plain, we cannot agree that an act of plunder which threatens the livelihood of many nations and its civilians should be allowed to succeed, and we must make sure that the life of the [nations of resources] cannot in the future be strangled at any moment by some interruption to the free passage of the sea!”
Amin combines these passages with references to Nikita Kruschev’s speech from the opening ceremony of the Aswan high Dam which the Soviets helped fund, and 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 very common Arabic phrase to suggest that we don’t care about your opinion.” Notably, we also find traces of Dwight Eisenhower; under him, the CIA also got in on the “drain the Mediterranean Sea” game; they proposed that it be moved “into a giant sink hole in Egypt called the Qattara Depression,” notes Amin. She found the material in a declassified file, where the CIA claimed it would be a ‘spectacular’ and ‘peaceful’” operation that would “‘distract’ Nasser who had Communist tendencies (for collaborating with Khrushchev)” and noted further that it would be a “solution to Peace in the Middle East because they wanted to make the Sahara more arable, and then move all the Arab Palestinians” there. Eisenhower ultimately rejected the proposal because it was too expensive, but Amin’s use of the CIA’s text in her speech ensures that we realise that megalomania is something that is not reserved to some far-away, banana republic dictator.
On the Saturday of the Berlin Biennale’s opening week, I decided to skip the art venues and be a tourist. My plans were to meet a friend at Checkpoint Charlie – the infamous crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin during the Cold War, and a picturesque boat ride on the Spree, the river that cuts though the city. On the way to the famous border checkpoint between East and West Berlin, I noticed a heavy police presence – dozens of vans with tinted windows, outside which stood police officers in bulletproof vests and firearms – a presence that had not been there on the previous days. The police presence increased steadily, and by the late afternoon, when I returned via the U-bahn to Kreuzberg, police were patrolling the train station, had blocked the entryways to all but one exit, and closed off the bridge I had been using daily to get to my hotel. I asked a policeman what was going on, and for an alternative route to my hotel. “It is…how do you say…women’s rights march,” he claimed, and directed me to another bridge. A man on a bike next to me interrupted. “It’s not a women’s rights march. It’s the far right, claiming that immigrants are raping white German women, and using this occasion as an excuse to be on the streets.” I spoke to him briefly about the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which expediently used a “women’s rights” agenda to capitalise on fears, peddling commonplace mythologies about immigrant men’s aggressive, entitled sexuality, which harm “German women’s freedom”. He looked embarrassed, but defiant, determined to counter the police officer’s whitewashing attempt. “Don’t feel bad,” I replied, adding, “In the US, white women, and feminists like Carrie Chapman Catt who campaigned for the women’s vote, tried to encourage white men in Southern states to support women’s right to vote, saying ‘White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage’, since white women will help outnumber any black men who attempted to vote.”
We agreed that things hadn’t changed much. “I hope that there will be a strong anti-fascist presence,” he concluded, and we went our separate ways. My friend, with whom I’d met earlier, texted to ask if I’d got back to the hotel safely. She added, matter-of-factly, “This, too, is Berlin.” I thought then, of Mario Pfeiffer’s Again /Noch einmal (2018), a two-channel video installation commissioned for the biennale. Here, he returns to a recent wound in Germany, to a case that revealed the underlying xenophobia towards migrants: four men were charged with using plastic ties to “handcuff” and immobilise a young, Iraqi man with a history of mental illness and epilepsy, and beating him, purportedly for displaying chaotic, threatening behaviour at a supermarket in Saxony, a former East German state. The man was later found frozen to death in the forest; the men charged with beating him claimed that they were acting out of “civic courage.” Pfeiffer uses the conceit of two strangers – an attractive, tall, slim black woman, and a white German man – who meet at the checkout till, with the man asking the eternal question that is asked of the other to initiate conversation: “Where are you from?” The film then morphs into a sort of talk-show/performance for the audience, with the two strangers – consumers from the supermarket with two different racialised identities – presenting the “facts” of the case, showing footage from variations of staged re-enactments or what transpired in that supermarket, and what could have been – had someone intervened in a different sort of way, and offered to help this lost, frightened, and unbearably lonely stranger separated from his family, who was came in looking for help using a prepaid phone card, with which he was having trouble. The camera cuts from the two interlocutors to scenes from the reenactment to grainy CCTV footage from the supermarket, then to 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 engaged in an ac of “civil courage,” as they claimed, or behaving as a vigilante mob. I hear, repeatedly, several say that they would not step up to help if they see a similar instance, 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 interpreting, leading, and teaching the audience), drew the most visitors. They stood in small groups and on their own, focused on the unfolding narrative as few films during an opening week manage to accomplish. 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 Pfeiffer’s, which address the fraught nature of having a “complex identity”.
Again / Noch einmal shows us that layers, enrichments, complications to 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. — Al Jazeera
M Neelika Jayawardane is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York-Oswego