A South African cu­rates the Ber­lin Bi­en­nale

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The 10th Ber­lin Bi­en­nale

Why should you care

Well, our very own Gabi Ng­cobo is the cu­ra­tor of the an­niver­sary edi­tion of one of the most im­por­tant art events on the in­ter­na­tional cal­en­dar. Pay at­ten­tion, peo­ple.

What is a Bi­en­nale any­way?

I asked Gabi to ex­plain as she also cu­rated the 32nd Saõ Paolo Bi­en­nale in 2016 . “It’s an art event that hap­pens ev­ery two years.” I think she thinks I am a bit silly, but bravely con­tin­ues: “The Ber­lin Bi­en­nale is an an­niver­sary ver­sion — I don’t re­ally like the idea of an an­niver­sary. I steer clear from that kind of com­mem­o­ra­tive spirit and rather look at ideas of his­tory and mem­ory — I came at it more side­ways.”

It sounds like quite a bur­den for one per­son

“I set up a cu­ra­to­rial team of four peo­ple: No­mad­uma Rosa Masilela, Seru­biri Moses, Thi­ago de Paula Souza, and Yvette Mu­tumba. They came from Ber­lin, Uganda, Saõ Paolo and New

York. I like a col­lab­o­ra­tive way of work­ing — hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion both with the peo­ple I work with and the city. My art ca­reer since 2000 has been quite col­lab­o­ra­tive. When I was liv­ing in Dur­ban I co-founded the 3rd Eye Vi­sion Col­lec­tive, and many projects done on my own and in my cu­ra­to­rial prac­tice and as a lec­turer at the Wits School of Art have been col­lab­o­ra­tive, like the Cen­tre for His­tor­i­cal Re-en­act­ment and NGO Noth­ing gets Or­gan­ised.”

What has Tina Turner got to do with it?

Her 1985 hit We Don’t Need An­other Hero is the ti­tle of the 10th Ber­lin Bi­en­nale.

Yes, and?

The Cu­ra­to­rial State­ment ex­plains: “Start­ing from the po­si­tion of

Europe, Ger­many, and Ber­lin as a city in di­a­logue with the world, the 10th Ber­lin Bi­en­nale con­fronts cur­rent wide­spread states of col­lec­tive psy­chosis. By ref­er­enc­ing Tina Turner’s song from 1985, We Don’t Need An­other Hero, we draw from a mo­ment pre­ced­ing ma­jor geopo­lit­i­cal shifts that brought about regime changes and new his­tor­i­cal fig­ures. The 10th Ber­lin Bi­en­nale does not pro­vide a co­her­ent read­ing of his­to­ries or the present of any kind. Like the song, it re­jects the de­sire for a saviour.

In­stead, it ex­plores the po­lit­i­cal po­ten­tial of the act of self­p­reser­va­tion, re­fus­ing to be se­duced by un­yield­ing knowl­edge sys­tems and his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives that con­trib­ute to the cre­ation of toxic sub­jec­tiv­i­ties. We are in­ter­ested in dif­fer­ent con­fig­u­ra­tions of knowl­edge and power that en­able con­tra­dic­tions and com­pli­ca­tions.”

So what was Gabi think­ing, other than about the spec­tre of Don­ald Trump, and the fact that Ber­lin and Ger­many seem to be at the epi­cen­tre of huge ques­tions fac­ing the world, like mi­gra­tion and na­tion­al­ism?

“This is an ex­hi­bi­tion that can only hap­pen in Ber­lin — it’s a very in­ter­na­tional city, a lot of peo­ple come through and many his­tor­i­cal ques­tions are ac­ti­vated as Ger­many grap­ples with its colo­nial his­tory and par­tic­i­pa­tion in the colo­nial project. I was very aware of the fact that for many peo­ple cer­tain con­cepts are eas­ily turned into buzz­words. We wanted to find a more po­lit­i­cal, but also a more po­etic, way to dis­cuss these things. The re­sult is sub­tle — as works that are not in your face. We want peo­ple to sit with the ex­hi­bi­tions a lit­tle bit longer, or re­visit the shows.

“It is a slow re­lease.”

Did she wear a South African hat in her cu­ra­to­rial work?

“I am al­ways look­ing back from SA. When I look at the world I look through a cer­tain lens. It is im­por­tant for me that l live in South Africa and in Jo­han­nes­burg — it is in­ter­est­ing and al­ways in­vig­o­rat­ing. Espe­cially work­ing at the univer­sity with young stu­dents. I was also work­ing from mem­ory — re-ex­plor­ing things I had ex­per­i­mented with on a smaller scale in South Africa and else­where but could be made to work on a larger scale. But I also trav­elled to six Caribbean is­lands once I started on the project — we can­not af­ford to think with­out those re­gions — but I don’t for­get my ob­ses­sions at home. “

Does she think that con­tem­po­rary African art is sud­denly hav­ing a global mo­ment?

“I don’t know if I can think of a time when the gaze wasn’t cast to­wards Africa; we have al­ways been part of Euro­pean gaze since be­fore colo­nial­ism. I don’t know if I buy into the idea of con­tem­po­rary African arts — it is a la­bel — I pre­fer the no­tion that peo­ple are mak­ing art. Per­haps peo­ple are sud­denly wak­ing up to their ig­no­rance and declar­ing this a mo­ment, but there has al­ways been a mo­ment — we have al­ways been mak­ing art.”

Does she miss the Jo­han­nes­burg Bi­en­nale?

“I don’t know if peo­ple re­mem­ber it. We live with the ter­ri­ble un­ease of not hav­ing it — a phan­tom pain where there used to be this thing. But now cer­tain things are ac­ti­vated dif­fer­ently. At Wits we are mak­ing sure that stu­dents know that not ev­ery­one ends up in a com­mer­cial gallery, so they should take mat­ters in their own hands — or­gan­ise, ac­ti­vate, col­lab­o­rate.”

So what’s next?

The Ber­lin Bi­en­nale ends on Septem­ber 9 and my plan is to come home in Septem­ber. Ber­lin has its mo­ments — I have been liv­ing here since April 2017 but the north­ern hemi­sphere is not my best re­gion. I can vi­su­alise the fu­ture bet­ter in the south­ern hemi­sphere.” ● LS

Pic­ture: Sup­plied

Gabi Ng­cobo

Her­man Mbamba’s Un­til the wind blows for an­other time, 2017–18, acrylic on can­vas, 210 × 300cm, Cour­tesy Her­man Mbamba; blank projects, Cape Town. Pic­ture: Edgar Bachel

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