Gabi Ngcobo, curator 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art. Photo: Masimba Sasa

We Don’t Need Another Hero. Period. 0

A conversation with Gabi Ngcobo, the artistic director of the 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art

Elina Ije
04/07/2018

In terms of scale, each biennial on today’s wide range of global art circuits is a rather monumental event; the main difference in these events lies in their formats and abilities to focus on more specific topics. On the other hand, the biennial or mega-exhibition may offer a great stage for experimentation, but surely one does not have to follow the script. That is, we can look at its specific location and relation to its surroundings, interconnectedness on a global level and the general circulation of discourse through the art world. What is, for instance, the connection with history, or with the making and unmaking of history and its relation to our view of the world, our horizon of possibilities and impossibilities?*

One such exhibition – the Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art – fits well into this picture. The two-decade-old institution has established itself as an open space that experiments, identifies and critically examines the latest trends in the art world, with the particular aim of giving young artists the opportunity to introduce themselves to an international audience. Starting from the position of Europe, Germany and Berlin in dialogue with the world, the theme of the 10th Berlin Biennale confronts the current widespread states of collective psychosis.

According to the organisers, by referencing “We Don’t Need Another Hero”, Tina Turner’s song from 1985, the biennale draws from a moment directly preceding major geopolitical shifts that brought about several significant regime changes around the world, new historical power figures and the emergence of the global turn in art. The 10th Berlin Biennale does not provide a coherent reading of histories or a present of any kind. Like the song, it rejects the desire for a saviour. Instead of holding out for a miraculous hero and relying on politicians, the biennial’s curator Gabi Ngcobo suggests we take matters in our own hands and question the ways of doing things in order to give ourselves a clear path forward. Her curatorial practice explores the political potential of the act of self-preservation and the refusal to be seduced by toxic subjectivities. One could believe that resistance is the key to Ngcobo’s  creative and curatorial success.

Since the early 2000s, Ngcobo has worked in collaborative arts and curatorial and educational projects in South Africa and internationally. In 2016, she co-curated the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo, which took place at the Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion in São Paulo, Brazil, and in 2015 she co-curated A Labour of Love, an exhibition at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. She is a founding member of two Johannesburg-based collective platforms: NGO – Nothing Gets Organised and the Center for Historical Reenactments (CHR). NGO deals with the processes of self-organisation. CHR, for its part, examines how historical legacies are taken up by and processed in contemporary art.

The We Don’t Need Another Hero exhibition is a conversation with artists and contributors who think and act beyond art. In Berlin, Ngcobo will bring together a range of local as well as international artists and collectives from the Southern Hemisphere.

In a conversation on the occasion of the exhibition’s 10th anniversary, Ngcobo kindly offered an insight into her curatorial practice and her opinions on current trends important to the South African art scene. Most importantly, however, she spoke about her contribution to the Berlin Biennale, which takes place from June 9 until September 9 at various venues throughout the city.


© 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art

How would you describe your approach to curating?

I would say that I don’t have one particular approach to curating. My methods develop through the process, which can take a different course depending on what the assignment is, circumstances such as the location of a particular project, and who I am working with at that specific time. I don’t like operating as an exhibition-making machine, so to speak.

I work at the Wits School of Arts in Johannesburg, where I teach students. Well, actually, I prefer to use the verb un-teach. I co-run a space called NGO – Nothing Gets Organised, and before that I cofounded the Center for Historical Reenactments (CHR), both in Johannesburg. I enjoy creating spaces because they allow the people I work with and me to come together, experiment and test out ideas. Everything I do is interrelated and not isolated from one another. So, whether I’m with the students or I’m working with my colleagues in an independent space, or I’m working on a curatorial project, for me, it’s all part of thinking curatorially. The term ‘curatorial’ is so encompassing. There’s no way I can exit it – whether I’m sleeping or eating, I exist within the curatorial. It’s neither a badge nor a job. Which is why I’m not sitting around and writing proposals and dreaming of exhibitions, because I don’t. My curatorial work is independent. I have various different things happening at the same time or at different times that are all part of one thing. For me, it’s all part of being alive.

How do you select the curatorial projects you want to work on?

Mainly, if I see it’s going to be an exciting challenge for me. Sometimes I’m interested in subjects I don’t particularly like. If I choose a certain project, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I endorse it, but it also doesn’t mean the opposite. It means that maybe there are interesting questions that could be activated through the process.


Curatorial team of the 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, f. l. t. r.: Thiago de Paula Souza, Gabi Ngcobo, Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, Yvette Mutumba, Moses Serubiri. Photo: F. Anthea Schaap

What about the curatorial team accompanying you, can you introduce them?

I selected each of them for different reasons. The main reason was for them to cover different capacities. I’ve worked quite a lot with each and every one of them before the Berlin Biennale presented itself, although with some longer and more closely than with others. They all come from related fields. Serubiri Moses is a writer and also a curator with whom I worked in Uganda. Yvette Mutumba and I worked together in developing the A Labour of Love exhibition at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt. She comes from an art history background and so does Nomaduma Rosa Masilela. Thiago de Paula Souza’s background is in art education and public programming. I got to know Thiago when I was working in Brazil. He contributed to the reader at the São Paulo Biennial. For me, it was important to pick up specific conversations that have already started and to continue them here in Berlin and to develop something together.

So no one is an engineer?

(Laughter) No no, but when we come together, we become engineers.

How do you make up your own team of artists?

There are individual artists, especially from South Africa, whom I’ve known for a long time and whose works I appreciate. And those who are close to my heart I also tend to engage in various projects. There are also people who are important for my own practice whom I need to take with me in order to not have to start everything from the beginning all the time. These people vary according to the subjects and projects. Sometimes they’re artists, sometimes they’re writers, they can be other curators and even musicians. And sometimes it can be a piece of text that remains important for my thinking for an extended period. Also, it can be open questions or interesting subjects I tend to go back to. All these things serve as my toolbox that I always carry with me.

What is the priority for you in the curator-artist relationship? Do you work with the art or with the artist?

Definitely both. I mean, if the artist is alive, of course. There are cases in which the artist is no longer among us, and I have to figure out how to work with this person as an artist. That’s a different kind of invitation. I might invite an artist who is no longer alive to be part of a project in order to have a haunting side to the project, which is something I am very much interested in. As in, how not to scare things away but kind of activate things from a different circle, with a different energy. And I think sometimes you have to leave a chair at the table free for those people who are no longer with us, because it’s absolutely possible to converse with them through their work.


KW Institute for Contemporary Art, courtesy Tatjana Pieters. Photo: Frank Sperling

This is the first time that the appointed curator of the Berlin Biennale is not from the Western context, so to say, which is an exciting moment for us, the audience. And I assume it’s also exciting for you, to be a pioneer.

With the Berlin Biennale, I’m working in a situation that I don’t know very well. For me, this experience is again an opportunity to realise what is unknown. It’s not like we know what’s going to happen here.

Unknown?

Unknown is how all these things – working with students, experimental projects, projects executed long ago – become visible again and take up space in a large-scale format. How they become visible on an international platform, where one really needs to work with a different grammar, so to say.

First and foremost, I had to learn how to work in a German context and, at the same time, how to resist. There’s no ultimate way of doing things. Of course, I am touched and moved, but at the same time, I don’t feel disillusioned that everything functions in the same way in Germany as it does somewhere else. It doesn’t. This is the Northern Hemisphere, and I’m from the Southern Hemisphere, and we do things differently. I’m very much interested in how to do things and undo things. It becomes a learning process in how to resist these established systems. This is the only way I will be able to go home touched but intact.

What are the specifics of this work, working at a large international art exhibition like the Berlin Biennale?

When I first arrived to work in Berlin, it was unclear to me what the other curators before me had left behind in the institution that is the Berlin Biennale, in the fabric of the institution itself. It was a little disturbing, because I don’t believe that with each new curator everything that has happened before must be erased and started over again with a fresh slate. There is no fresh slate. So for me, it has been essential to state clearly that there are processes that are already in motion and that I am not coming to virgin, unsettled soil. It is important to think about what previous curators did and stood for, what they shifted concerning exhibition practice in general.

When I was proposing the concept of the Berlin Biennale, I was reminded by the committee that the upcoming edition marks 20 years since the establishment of the Biennale. Normally I would not get into commemorating. I do think about commemorations or historical events and places, but I like to stand apart from them. With this hint, however, I had to think about the Biennale from its very first issue up to the ninth and what the future of this event might be. And it’s been fascinating to look back to that very first event. There are many interesting ways of going back and looking, and I like to look with the ‘side eye’.

Today, we’re sitting here in the courtyard of the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, which used to be entirely run-down when this group of young art practitioners occupied it and turned it into a cultural institution. The first, second, third Berlin Biennales happened within a very different set of dynamics than they do today. There were still no established rules regarding the event, everything was up for grabs. Subsequently, as the early initiative became an institution, rules became established. I also wondered how come the venues of the first Biennale, which were on this very street, are not available anymore today. For me, it’s interesting how the Biennale itself has shaped or transformed this part of the city into what we see as the Mitte today. It’s very much a part of that dialogue.

So what do I do? I can’t find an empty building. I go to an administration that has rules and regulations, and then these intense negotiations start. And during these negotiations, they don’t even establish a friendly understanding. OK, maybe at the end we come to a mutual agreement, but you have to fight for it. There’s always tension. But for me, it’s essential that this tension is productive tension, so no one feels victimised at the end. But something in the event itself produces this tension. So, one must embrace this tension and not try to hide it behind curtains as if it doesn’t exist, because it does, and it will always exist.

I also come from a different kind of perspective, in which I think about different histories and hierarchies and I think about my place in the world. I think about my students and what they struggle with. Quite recently, youngsters students in South Africa were protesting against rising tuition fees and for free, high-quality, decolonial education. And thinking about what it means to undo all these histories and ways of doing things? 

What themes are you willing to cover, and what do you hope viewers will take away from the show?

We are addressing the ongoing collective state of madness, which we have to confront. There is no other way. In recent years many things have unfolded that have led many people in the world to wake up. Things are crunching into our spaces. It’s happening everywhere. Certain historical traumas are repeating themselves, and things that we thought would never be permitted again are right there, facing us.

It's very easy to see that more conservative fractions of leadership are taking over. You see it in Brazil, in Cameroon, and you see it in Austria and Germany. And we will propose a plan for how to face this collective madness. We cannot just sit down and rely on how good citizens we are, because this has not helped. 

In terms of the Berlin Biennale, one has to start with the position of Europe and the place of Berlin within this geography. For me, Berlin is also a fascinating city because it activates a different kind of memory for different people. Different histories that have an effect on people in different parts of the world have been formulated in this city and in Europe.

I wanted to remind the Biennale-goers that we have to have these conversations together. In South Africa we think about the future a lot. There, you can almost see the future, whereas here we are confronted with a heavy past that many are still trying to grapple with, many others would like to wish it away. 

At the Wits School of Arts, I have students coming from various different perspectives, also students whose parents benefited from the system of apartheid. Clearly, these kids also gained from the same privilege. It’s not that I wish to take this privilege away from them and throw it in the bin; instead, I wish to acknowledge it and work with all the types of opportunities in order to break down the boundaries between the haves and the have-nots.

Often youngsters say, “I wasn't even born yet when some of those histories took their turn.” Well, I must say that that is not an argument. Because those students who are still suffering from those historical constructs were not born yet then, either. But they’re still confronted by the history. In a classroom situation like this, I know I’ll be confronted with those things. In the end, it is not my wish to put guilt on them, but these unpleasant historical constructions are part of our present, so let’s work them out together! It is not enough to say “it’s not my history”, or “it’s not part of me”. Let’s not stay stuck in the past, but we need the right tools to move on.

As an Afro-Caribbean thought leader, Frantz Fanon stated that a programme of undoing, of decolonisation, “cannot come as a result of magical practices, nor of a natural shock, nor of a friendly understanding” (cited from The Wretched of the Earth [1961]). And, working in an educational setting, I do witness at times how misunderstandings take shape. Students fight ideologically, but by their third year of study, you can see the change in attitude. They start to be friends for real and not only on a superficial level, but they also sit together and disagree in a productive and healthy way.

The market for modern and contemporary African art performed strongly in 2017. The 1-54 Art Fair is exposing international collectors to young talent from across the continent. The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa opened in Cape Town last September. The forecast by experts for 2018 is bright. How much influence do you see artists from Africa having in the global art world?

I don’t know what African art is. What is African art?

I suppose there’s no easy answer to that question. But this pairing of words isn’t always incorrect. What I mean is ‘artwork created by a contemporary artist of African origin’.

Good correction! But still I’ve always found both terms problematic, because they’re categories that exist only in the West. In many parts of Africa, artists are not hanging around in studios thinking about contemporary African art – they just make art. They don’t think about these categories. Only when the artwork enters a Western context does it become contemporary African art.

It’s really hard to not come across the wrong way when it comes to cultural identity and artistic practice.

I cannot entertain that question without throwing it back at you. Interestingly, in South Africa or Brazil people don’t think about ‘European’ contemporary art. It’s a gaze from a certain perspective. So, if you ask me who is the subject of that gaze, I have to disturb that gaze because the answer to this question may not be as simple as you may initially think.

Concerning the art market, I must say that’s another world to me. I know that it exists, and I do realise it’s essential. Lately, more and more people are asking me about the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MoCAA). So I knew this question was coming! The museum has become this big thing people associate Africa with. There is so much money invested in developing the museum, so much visibility. People in Europe and America talk about the Zeitz MoCAA as if it’s saved our lives... But it’s really taken us backward. It didn’t change anything! The fact that the Zeitz MoCAA is located on African soil doesn’t change anything about how it looks or represents things. In fact, it’s a Eurocentric museum in Africa.

However, I do agree that the 1-54 contemporary art fair has shifted something in the market and also in how artists think of themselves as citizens of the continent. Zimbabwe is a very interesting case study. The country’s economy went down and is still in bad shape because of the sanctions it’s the country was subjected to. But starting with Raphael Chikukwa, the chief curator of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, he insisted on having a Zimbabwe pavilion in Venice. The Zimbabwean artists kept on working under very harsh precarious economic conditions – they worked together, they created shared art spaces, providing ateliers and exhibition space for more than one person. Such actions have moved lots of artists out of poverty, and you can see it. For me, 1-54 is definitely more important than Zeitz MoCAA in that respect. The new museum just created hierarchies again.

I work a lot with students in my projects. It’s a good way to keep a dialogue going between the generations. As I mentioned before, the students experience great transformation over their years of study. Meschac Gaba’s immersive installation Museum of Contemporary African Art (1997–2002) is significant to me because it deals so much with the idea of making your own institutions. “My museum has no walls,” says Gaba. It is “not a model...it’s only a question”. I try to tell my students that nobody is waiting for them at the gates of the university to take them by the hand and bring them to a gallery and serve them countless opportunities. Instead of waiting for someone else to set them up, I advise them to establish self-governing spaces, places to experiment and to create their own world and take matters into their own hands. Free spaces to generate questions they want to generate for themselves. Gaba said “it’s only a question”. But it’s a great model.

Concluding our conversation, could you highlight some of the selected artists at the upcoming Berlin Biennale?

Picking one over another is tough. I could highlight the work-in-progress of the New York-based choreographer and performer Okwui Okpokwasili. For the 10th Berlin Biennale, she’s creating a score for a collective song of grievance. It’s inspired by a protest method practised by women in southeast Nigeria when they protest against patriarchy; it’s called ‘sitting on a man’s head’. The song of grievance will be performed by Okpokwasili herself and a small group of performers.She already held workshops involving body and movement here at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art. It’s going to be presented at the 10th Berlin Biennale here at KW, and all visitors to the Biennale can participate in this shared practice.

Okpokwasili project is like the pulse of a space. If I imagined each exhibition venue having a heart, then her project could be the beating heart of KW. It breathes and creates new impressions. Something is ‘activated’ here through the interaction between the participants and viewers.


Gabi Ngcobo, curator 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art. Photo: Masimba Sasa

Simon Sheikh, Marks of Distinction, Vectors of Possibility. Questions for the Biennial (2009), in: Open. Cahier on Art and the Public Domain. Issue The Art Biennial as a Global Phenomenon