Fair  June 11, 2018  Catherine Hickley

Berlin Biennale Challenges Art World’s White Male Dominance

Courtesy Dineo Seshee Bopape, Jabu Arnell, Lachell Workman, Mo Laudi, Robert Rhee, Photo: Timo Ohler

Dineo Sheshee Bopape, Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings], 2016–18, bricks, light, sound, videos, water, framed serviette. With Jabu Arnell’s "Discoball X," 2018.

As the western art world gradually wakes up to the realization that for centuries, it has been dominated by white male artists and curators–and that this state of affairs is neither sustainable nor desirable–the Berlin Biennale, Germany’s most important contemporary art event after the quinquennial Documenta, offers a timely new perspective.

Of the 46 artists and collectives represented, more than two-thirds are female. The exhibition also takes a giant leap away from habitual eurocentricity, with artists from Chile, Cuba, India, Cameroon, Uganda, Namibia and South Africa, to name just a few. Most of their names are unfamiliar to the German art public. For Gabi Horn, the director of the Biennale and the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, the discussion about the Biennale before it opened–which inevitably focussed on identity politics–“made us realize how far we still have to go.”

Photo: Masimba Sasa

Gabi Ngcobo, curator of the 10th Berlin Biennale for contemporary art.

The event’s head curator is Gabi Ngcobo, a South African artist who teaches at the Wits School of Arts in Johannesburg. An experienced and passionate collaborator, she recruited a team of four fellow curators whom she described at the opening press conference as “commanders”–Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, Serubiri Moses, Thiago de Paula Souza and Yvette Mutumba. After all, “we are at war,” Ngcobo said.

That sounds aggressive–and there is plenty to be angry about. In Germany, the debate about post-colonialism is only just beginning, and it has particular resonance given the huge influx of refugees from war-torn, poverty-stricken countries in the Middle East and Africa in recent years. Culture Minister Monika Grütters has conceded that Germany’s colonial past has been a “blind spot” for far too long.

Yet the Biennale itself is not aggressive. Ngcobo said she wanted it to be “political without being didactic,” and it is poetic, subtle and somewhat elusive–partly because Ngcobo has deliberately chosen to define it by what it is not, rather than what it is. The events program, starting in July, is titled “I’m not who you think I’m not.” The slogan for the whole event is “we don’t need another hero,” borrowed from Tina Turner. 

Ngcobo elaborated on the reasoning for that to journalists. “Yesterday’s hero can become today’s tyrant,” she said. As an example of hero-toppling, she told the story of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, a British imperialist, that was spectacularly removed from the campus of Cape Town University after students protested against it in 2015. The empty plinth on which Rhodes stood for 80 years is where Ngcobo sees the starting point for the Biennale–a site of destruction “that carves a space from which we can recover”–or to quote Tina Turner’s song, “Out of the ruins, out from the wreckage/Can’t make the same mistakes this time.”

The devastation is in evidence at the KW Institute, where Dineo Seshee Bopape’s installation takes over the main hall. Visitors can pick their way through broken bricks, torn-off metal pipes with protruding tangled cables, and buckets catching drips of water. Makeshift benches allow you to survey the damage, all lit in apocalyptic orange. Screens among the rubble show videos–one displays Nina Simone singing “Feelings,” while another plays scenes from a park on the outskirts of Paris. Bopape invited three other artists to contribute to her work, and at first glance, it looks as if Jabu Arnell’s giant ball suspended from the ceiling might be responsible for the wreckage. But “Discoball X” is made of cardboard hastily stuck together with tape–hardly materials capable of destroying bricks and mortar.

Dineo Sheshee Bopape, "Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings]," 2016–18
Courtesy Dineo Seshee Bopape, Jabu Arnell, Lachell Workman, Mo Laudi, Robert Rhee, Photo: Timo Ohler

Dineo Sheshee Bopape, "Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings]," 2016–18. Bricks, light, sounds, videos, water, framed napkin. Installation view (detail), 10. Berlin Biennale, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, Including works by: Jabu Arnell, "Discoball X," 2018, Lachell Workman, "Justice for___," 2014, Robert Rhee, "EEEERRRRGGHHHH und and ZOUNDS" (both from the series Occupations of Uninhabited Space, 2013–ongoing), 2015.

Dineo Sheshee Bopape, "Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings]," 2016–18
Courtesy Dineo Seshee Bopape, Jabu Arnell, Lachell Workman, Mo Laudi, Robert Rhee, Photo: Timo Ohler

Dineo Sheshee Bopape, "Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings]," 2016–18. Bricks, light, sounds, videos, water, framed napkin. Installation view (detail), 10. Berlin Biennale, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, Including works by: Jabu Arnell, "Discoball X," 2018, Lachell Workman, "Justice for___," 2014, Robert Rhee, "EEEERRRRGGHHHH und and ZOUNDS" (both from the series Occupations of Uninhabited Space, 2013–ongoing), 2015.

Dineo Sheshee Bopape, "Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings]," 2016–18
Courtesy Dineo Seshee Bopape, Jabu Arnell, Lachell Workman, Mo Laudi, Robert Rhee, Photo: Timo Ohler

Dineo Sheshee Bopape, "Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings]," 2016–18. Bricks, light, sounds, videos, water, framed napkin. Installation view (detail), 10. Berlin Biennale, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, Including works by: Jabu Arnell, "Discoball X," 2018, Lachell Workman, "Justice for___," 2014, Robert Rhee, "EEEERRRRGGHHHH und and ZOUNDS" (both from the series Occupations of Uninhabited Space, 2013–ongoing), 2015.

On an upper floor at the KW, Natasha Kelly’s fascinating documentary, “Milli’s Awakening,” examines the lives of eight black women artists who live in Germany. They discuss how they are perceived in mainstream white German society with quiet resilience, perceptiveness and a good dose of humor. “It’s impossible as a black woman to create art that won’t be interpreted as black,” says one–another reminder of the difficulties of escaping identity politics.

Spread over five venues around the city, the Biennale presents something of a logistical challenge for visitors who want to see it all in a day–but it’s not impossible. Outside the biggest location, the Akademie der Künste, Firelei Báez has built a picturesque painted plaster ruin that looks as though it has always been there, despite its stark contrast with the Brutalist architecture of Germany’s elite arts academy. Her work discusses the various histories connected to the name Sanssouci–the palace built by Frederick the Great in Potsdam, a castle in Haiti that was reduced to ruins in an earthquake, and a Haitian colonel who was betrayed and killed by his rival.

Inside the Akademie der Künste, Báez is showing pages of old textbooks containing maps and diagrams of such institutions as the American Sugar Refinery and the Old New Cotton Exchange that she has painted over. Her additions include burning tires, patches of abstract color, palm trees and cascades of black hair. This seems like another post-colonial comment–a literal rewriting of history.

Courtesy Firelei Báez; Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago

Firelei Báez, "Untitled (memory like fire is radiant and immutable)," 2016, sketch for A motor with medical function 2, 2018, gouache, ink, graphite, and charcoal on paper.

There are pockets of darkness and anger. A video work by Mario Pfeiffer examines an incident that took place in eastern Germany in 2016. An Iraqi refugee complained at a supermarket that he couldn’t activate a mobile phone card. Brandishing a wine bottle, he insisted that the card was defective. He was beaten and tied to a tree by four men until the police arrived. Pfeiffer uses these events to examine issues of moral courage and vigilante justice, and asks a jury of German citizens to give the fair verdict–something the justice system can no longer provide, as the Iraqi man was found dead in the woods before he was due to testify in court.

Courtesy Johanna Unzueta, Photo: Pablo Faccinetto

Johanna Unzueta, "May 2016 NY," 2016, watercolor, pastel pencil, charcoal, and needle holes on tinted watercolor paper (añil and fustic), 100 × 65 cm.

Throughout the Akademie der Künste, the Chilean artist Johanna Unzueta’s colored abstract drawings pierced with needle holes reflect the traditional skills of weaving and embroidery. Mounted in plexiglass on old wooden beams, they are accompanied by tall pale grasses that appear to have sprouted through the cracks between wooden tiles in the floor of the Akademie der Künste. As the show progresses, the grass becomes more abundant. Like a delicate, poetic seam running through the exhibition, Unzueta’s works are serenity amid the chaos, a poignant reminder of the beauty there is to fight for.

About the Author

Catherine Hickley

Catherine Hickley is a Berlin-based arts journalist and the author of The Munich Art Hoard: Hitler's Dealer and his Secret Legacy (Thames & Hudson, 2015).

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