In 2015, the exhibition ‘Wir Sind Alle Berliner: 1884–2014’ at SAVVY reflected on the repercussions of the 1884 Berlin Conference, in which European powers divided Africa. In 2016, the German Historical Museum ran an exhibition on German colonialism. These exceptions aside, a continual refusal of exhibition-makers to seriously engage with the legacy of Germany’s colonialism has many consequences. Many of these became visible at a Künstlerhaus Bethanien exhibition which opened last week in Berlin.
Named ‘Milchstraßenverkehrsordnung – Space is the Place’ after author Stanisław Lem’s term ‘Milky Way’, and the 1973 Sun Ra Arkestra record, the exhibition explores ‘cosmic expectations regarding the idea of socialism’. It drew criticism from Soup du Jour – a collective of art workers founded in Berlin – who sent Künstlerhaus Bethanien (an exhibition and residency programme) an open letter condemning its lack of black artists, despite the show’s thematic context of Afro-Futurism. The show’s initial curatorial statement naïvely linked Elon Musk’s space colonization ambitions with Sun Ra’s ‘artistic response to the revolutionary social strategies of the Black Panther Party’, in relation to ‘perspectives of people who because of their dark skin colour, were not represented, excluded and suppressed.’ Despite the statement’s acknowledgement of racism, from the 22 invited artists in the exhibition, 18 were men – and none were black (with only Juan Atkins scheduled to DJ at the opening).
The near-erasure of black voices and favouritism for the privileged in Germany is systematic; propped by an oversimplified attitude towards racism. ‘Our primary interest is in applying the kind of pressure that might be effective in accelerating structural transformation’, Soup du Jour explained in our Facebook exchange. ‘Racism and patriarchy [...] must be understood as systemic violences.’
It seems underhanded, then, that Christoph Tannert – the Künstlerhaus Bethanien’s artistic director since 2000 – reacted to this pressure by obscuring thematic inconsistencies from the press release ahead of the opening. ‘Both the current press release and the foreword to the catalogue as well as the exhibition itself prove that there can be no question of a thematic fixation on Afrofuturism,’ he explained to me via email. The catalogue only mentions Afrofuturism once.
It’s precisely this appropriation of race issues and black culture when it suits that lies at the core of the Soup du Jour’s criticism. ‘Given the serial failures of white feminism, it is crucial to us that each of our interventions analyses and makes visible a number of exclusionary paradigms that are at work in our cultural institutions,’ they write. The exhibition ‘combines historical works in particular. A content-wise [sic] arc is made from the seventies until today’, Tannert further explains. But how can it be justified to reference race issues in an exhibition text for a show that ignores these very issues?
This tone-deaf approach to racial politics is present in Tannert’s previous endeavours. In 2005 he curated ‘Urban Realities: Focus Istanbul’ at Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin from which ten invited Turkish artists, including Ahmet Ögüt, withdrew, citing biased distribution of funds and tokenism. On a phone call with me Ögüt suggested that institutions need to replace patriarchal vertical structures with a more democratic distribution of power, while also mentioning the precarity of art workers’ conditions as a factor in dubious curation not being flagged internally.
‘Space is the Place’ is a glaring example of the disdain for black lives and perspectives engrained in German society, which often leads to deadly impunity. Some of the participating artists have acknowledged their complicity in the show’s ‘whitewashing’, while Tannert displayed the open letter at the opening (he did the same at ‘Urban Realities’). The mammoth challenge remains in identifying discrimination that takes more abstract forms. For that we need to move beyond apologetic gestures. The changes must be structural: diversity (from race to gender to class) has to happen across the entire hierarchy, decision-making needs to be shared and those in power must be held accountable. Berlin’s international art community is no longer willing to remain silent for fear of reprisal.
‘The fact that the exhibition has too few female artists and people of colour is a mistake, I regret,’ Mr Tannert concluded in his reply. To mitigate the scandal he invited Soup du Jour for a roundtable discussion in September, which the collective rejected on the grounds of keeping anonymity as well as the inefficiency of such talks. Discussions alone won’t atone for the continual discrimination in Tannert’s exhibitions. After such blatant negligence towards Berlin’s institutions and audiences, the only logical next step is for Tannert to resign as artistic director of Künstlerhaus Bethanien. Our cultural institutions deserve to be led by serious directors who can understand and can appropriately act upon Germany’s historical colonial violence that’s entrenched in our culture.
Main image: Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin. Courtesy: Künstlerhaus Bethanien; photograph: Georg Schroeder