It’s Berlin Biennale time again. 9 June marks the opening day of Gabi Ngcobo and her curatorial team’s presentation ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero’. Hosted at four venues across the city, including the KW – Institute for Contemporary Art; the Volksbühne Pavillion; the Akademie der Kunste at Hanseatenweg and ZK/U Center for Art and Urbanistics, the exhibition will run until 9 September and, if anything, it promises to be experimental and challenging.
One thing the curators tell me the project will certainly not be is ‘a coherent reading of histories or the present.’ Instead, they are more interested in ‘different configurations of knowledge and power that enable contradictions and complications.’
If the 10th Berlin Biennale (BB10) is to be purposefully elusive, less preoccupied with providing answers and more intent on raising questions, then it brings this dilemma: distilling down a complex curatorial practice, developed through many varied experiences, is never an easy task; nor does it ever truly do justice to the richness of that practice. While it highlights the work and makes it easier to introduce to new audiences, it also labels it. It essentially reduces years of work to a narrow, simplified, and digestible reading. And this is exactly what Ngcobo and her team are using this biennale to work against.
So what then should curatorial profiles for a group who are purposefully producing an exhibition to upend their prescribed labels and escape their audiences’s expectations of them contain? Or, put another way, what is there to anticipate in (un)learning aspects about them and their work?
Can Each One Teach One?
Based on their biographies and résumés, Ngcobo has brought together a diverse set of curators with many different interests and focus areas. Along with her, the four other curators who make up the team are: Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, Serubiri Moses, Yvette Mutumba, and Thiago de Paula Souza.
Each comes from a different country: Ngcobo from South Africa; Masilela is based in the US; Moses is from, and lives and works, in Uganda; Mutumba is based in Germany, and Souza calls São Paulo, Brazil, home. Each also has a different artistic background. Moses writes and curates, and is an occasional poet; Ngcobo mostly curates and teaches now, although she refuses to give up her identity as an artist; Mutumba is co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Contemporary And (C&) — an online platform for writing on the arts in Africa, Souza cut his teeth as an educator at the Museu AfroBrazil and Masilela is pursuing a PhD on public and performance art of the 1980s in Senegal at Columbia University in the US.
The coalescing of these critical professionals and their philosophies is a pertinent example of one of Ngcobo’s best attributes: her ability to bring great minds together to create, rich, complex and experimental projects that shake up the status quo. Judging by her work, Ngcobo is a collaborator by nature.
Arguably, her most impactful project to date was her co-founding and running of the Center for Historical Reenactments (CHR), a collaborative creative platform based in Johannesburg. Conceived in April 2010 with Sohrab Mohebbi and co-founded later in July with South African artist Kemang Wa Lehulere (with fellow South African artist Donna Kukama joining later), CHR was essentially an ‘institution’ of sorts that brought together a local and global network of artists, cultural practitioners, and thinkers to re-examine particular histories and narratives and explore the political possibilities and power of art as a tool. Its entire existence was predicated on working with different people in unusual ways. Even as Ngcobo and co ‘staged CHR’s own death’ in 2012, it was done so in order to allow the project to take on new and unexpected forms – one of which became its participation at the 8th Berlin Biennale in 2014.
Over its lifetime, CHR (and by extension Ngcobo) produced exhibitions, staged ‘actions,’ offered residencies and has participated in projects such as the 11th Lyon Biennale, the New Museum’s ‘Museum as Hub’ initiative and the 2013 exhibition ‘The Rise and Fall of Apartheid’, curated by Okwui Enwezor and Rory Bester at Haus der Kunst in Munich. The way CHR operated and what it stood for, reflects many of the characteristics that make Ngcobo so intriguing.
Her work through CHR has shown how fluidly she is able to move across the disciplines of education, curating, and collaborative artistic endeavours. Her many projects demonstrate how Ngcobo is unafraid of risk, and unflinching in tackling big issues in exciting ways. But, most importantly, her contributions to CHR reflect her interest in the real world; in topics that people face every single day and her belief in the power of art to broaden one’s thinking.
CHR also provided a connection between Ngcobo and the Berlin Biennale. Her participation in the project in 2014 was in fact her second appearance at the biennale, her first having come in 2008, when she was involved with the 2nd edition of the Young Curators Workshop, titled ‘Eyes Wide Open’. Her inclusion in the 5th Berlin Biennale was later followed up by her participation at the 8th (in 2014) with CHR where they presented Digging our own Graves 101. Fast-forward four years and Ngcobo returns once again, having achieved a great deal along the way, including curating the 32nd São Paulo biennale.
Biennales and exhibitions also provide many points of connection between Ngcobo and her curatorial team. Notably, every one of the four curators chosen by Ngcobo have collaborated with or worked for her on a biennale or exhibition project within the last decade: Serubiri Moses worked with Ngcobo as part of the Kampala Arts Festival in 2014; Mutumba collaborated with her on the exhibition ‘A Labour of Love’ in 2015; Masilela wrote an essay, in 2011, for the catalogue that accompanied Ngcobo’s exhibition ‘Don’t/Panic’ and Souza took part in the 32nd São Paulo biennale.
Now having all come together for this year’s exhibition, the group contains a mixture of philosophies, ideas, modus operandi and theoretical interests that present a great example of the ‘complex subjectivities’ that they seem to have all worked so hard to allow to flourish in Berlin.
For Moses, literature, and poetry, are two foundational elements of his creative projects. Poetry in particular enacts a significant influence on the way he thinks and operates. As he explained via email ‘poetry is something I return to often’ as it ‘helps clarify form and it also points towards gaps in perceived knowledge.’ In Souza’s case, there seems to be a sense of importance in meeting, bringing together and learning to work with different people through art. In our brief interview, he framed his practice in terms of a conduit; as if it were a vehicle through which to connect, flow into and through, and enliven the work of others – much like Ngcobo’s work seems to do.
By comparison Mutumba’s approach feels much more direct and frank. In late April, she detailed how as an editor, curator (she previously held a position at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt), and art historian, she constantly works towards ‘strengthen[ing] the visibility of discourse around seeming marginalized (art) histories and contemporary artistic positions.’ As for Masilela, she prefers to work through the uncanny, the absurd and the dissonant. She writes in her response to my question on why her focus areas are important to her, that ‘the moments that espouse a feeling of uncertainty (whether one caused by a feeling of dissonance or through collective voices) are often the most generative, as they open a space that had possibly previously been foreclosed, ignored, or simply overlooked.’ It’s as if a certain kind of destabilizing, or process of making something certain uncertain, can lead to new ideas and paths for exploration for her.
Taken together, the work of the team spans numerous topics that include music, the theory of language, spoken word (Moses); arts journalism, art history (Mutumba); the ambivalence of history, identity production (Masilela); global race relations, and education (Souza). Perhaps it’s unsurprising then that these curators have attempted to create a biennale that speaks beyond the world of visual art.
Do We Need More Heroes?
The last verse of Tina Turner’s 1985 hit song, We Don’t Need Another Hero, used in the soundtrack of Mad Max 3: Beyond the Thunderdome, reads as an apt question for the cultural moment the BB10 finds itself occupying:
‘What do we do with our lives
We leave only a mark
Will our story shine like a life
Or end in the dark’
If Mad Max showed the world jaded characters grappling with the nature of civilization – asking is civilization really civilized? – then I read the curatorial premise of BB10 as confronting a social zeitgeist that is embattled, chaotic and bogged down by a frantic madness. The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
And just how do they propose to do this? ‘By refusing to be seduced by unyielding knowledge systems and historical narratives that contribute to the creation of toxic subjectivities,’ they write.
This approach seems to enliven what I felt to be a distinct air of frustration, in their conversations around the biennale, about being boxed-in, labelled and expected to create a specific kind of exhibition because their work is connected to the continent of Africa. It seems as though they feel that the world only expects a ‘post-colonial, decolonial’ approach from them, as curators from African countries and the diaspora.
But, as they state, the biennale will reject ‘the desire for a saviour.’ and on the whole, the presentation I gather will be difficult to reduce to a simple, hegemonic reading. The year-old public programme, ‘I am not who you think I am not’, has already produced such results and in an interview Ngcobo says one reason behind her choosing a curatorial team was not to ‘make things comfortable for me,’ but rather to ‘complicate things further.’
So while Ngcobo and her team may be the curators of the BB10, they do not intend to be its heroes.
Main image: Thiago de Paula Souza, Gabi Ngcobo, Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, Yvette Mutumba, Moses Serubiri; curators of 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, 2018. Courtesy: Berlin Biennale; Photograph: F. Anthea Schaap