Writing Art History Since 2002

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This past summer in Berlin, five senior artists of African descent showed work at venues managed by the German city’s leading public museum

El Anatsui, Yam Mounds, 2010
Berlin claims a central role in the modern history of
Sub-Saharan Africa: the contours of the political map of the continent were
discussed and eventually demarcated at the Berlin-Congo Conference in 1884/85,
two years before the discovery of gold in Johannesburg.

Recognising this history, a trio of international curators, Britta Schmitz and Udo Kittelmann, both senior curators from Berlin’s National
Gallery, and Chika Okeke-Agulu, an art scholar from Princeton University,
invited five internationally renowned artists of African descent to show work
in and about the various institutions forming part of the Berlin’s chief public
cultural repository. Titled Who Knows Tomorrow, after a statement seen on a minibus taxi in East Africa, the high-profile line-up for the exhibition comprised Zarina Bhimji, António Ole, Yinka Shonibare, Pascale Marthine Tayou and El Anatsui, whose contributions included a large fabric-sculpture made from recycled aluminium. Displayed at the entrance to the Old National Gallery, it hung resplendent beneath the inscription “DER
The Cameroonian artist Tayou, a participant on the Daniel Birnbaum’s main exhibition at last year’s Venice Biennale and recent exhibitor at Johannesburg venue Goethe on Main, presented an installation comprising flagpoles and kolon figures at the entrance to the New National Gallery — a high-modernist showpiece designed by Mies van der Rohe and opened in 1968. Ole, who was born in Angola in 1951 and continues to live in Luanda, presented a large-scale outdoor piece at the Hamburger Bahnhof, a work comprising a series of stacked containers adorned with interpretive motifs and swathes of bright colour.

Born in Uganda in 1963 to an Indian immigrant family, Bhimji moved to London in 1974 following the expulsion of all Asians from Uganda by Idi Amin. Like Shonibare, whose sculptural reconsiderations of history were installed in the Friedrichswerdersche Church, Bhimji was the only other artist to exhibit indoors, showing a video work in the Hamburger Bahnhof. Shonibare was represented by two relatively well-known pieces, Colonel Tarleton and Mrs Oswald Shooting (2007), after a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and The Scramble for Africa (2003), an installation of 14 headless seated figures re-enacting the Berlin-Congo conference. The former work included a loan from the collection of South African collector Gordon

The exhibition, which opened on June 4 and ended on September 26, included a large catalogue in German and English. It includes an essay by Emma Bedorrd, formerly of the South African National Gallery and Goodman Gallery, now with auction house Strauss & Co. Art South Africa caught up with Britta Schmitz, chief curator at the National Gallery at Hamburger Bahnhof and one of the three driving forces behind the exhibition.
El Anatsui, Ozone Layer, 2010

ASA: Really, contemporary Africa as we know it, started here in Berlin in 1884 with the division of the continent between the colonial powers.
BS: Yes, and this was always on our mind when we were developing the concept for the exhibition. The Congo Conference — in English you call it the Berlin Conference — was so unique, and that it happened here in Berlin.
ASA: Where exactly did the conference happen?

BS: In Wilhelmstrasse, very
close to the old National Gallery — the building was destroyed in World War Two.
There is an ugly little plaque dating from the GDR times; it has never been
renewed, although there many initiatives pushing for a better memorial.
ASA: What drew you to the artists you selected?

BS: We choose them because they can tell their story with
African eyes and comment on our history — they bring us their sight and
thoughts on our history. This was the most important thing: we know our
history, our history is written, but we don’t know the taught or written
history from an African perspective. Yinka Shonibare has been doing this for a
long time, implanting this in our artistic field.
ASA: So it is a way of understanding German history in slightly different manner, if I understand you correctly?
BS: Yes, but I don’t think it is only German history; it is our western colonial history.
António Ole, The Entire World / Transitory Geometry, Hamburger Bahnhof
ASA: Was there any negative reaction to the show?

BS: Yes, some journalists and visitors expected more
artists from the diaspora based in Berlin, or Germany. They expected us to
exhibit these artists, Robin Rhode and many others. We were never concerned
with where the artists live, although they should have an African background.
Another criticism centred on the expectation of a big, representative African
group show. I was very shocked when I read this.

ASA: For the most part, the work is placed outdoors. If I explore the idea, it could be argued that the work is brought to the museum but is not allowed to enter it. Was that ever a thought?

BS: This was a criticism. I was astonished by it. Everyone enters the museums past these works. We always wanted to open the discussions for these artists. We did not want to have any barriers, like an entrance fee.

António Ole, The Entire World / Transitory Geometry (detail)

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