Dear History, We Don’t Need Another Hero. 10th Berlin Biennial

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Titled We Don’t Need Another Hero, the 10th Berlin Biennal for Contemporary Art —from now on BBX— opened its doors on Saturday June 9, lasting till September 9, 2018, at four permanent exhibition venues around Berlin: Akademie der Künste, Kunst Werke (KW), Volksbühne Pavilion, and ZK/U (Center for Art and Urbanistic). Also, the performance space HAU2 serves as a site for two acts over the course of the Biennale. Events for the public program I’m Not Who You Think I’m Not (named after poet Audre Lorde) are being held at these venues and at various other locations throughout the city.

The South African curator Gabi Ngcobo with a team composed of Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, Serubiri Moses, Thiago de Paula Souza, and Yvette Mutumba, is presenting a show with 46 artists, while there are few artists “from” Berlin, the show does reflect a diversified artistic context. A good-sized biennial —last Biennale in 2016 curated by the collective DIS invited 120 participants— shaped in the capital after Germany’s 2017 big art year, with Documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel and Skulptur Projekte Münster.

Historical radical figures and politically radical intentions inform the exhibition; this is a list of words found on the artists’ pieces descriptions randomly —whatsoever— chosen: contemporary wars, ecological disasters, feminism & black feminism, otherness, lost history, colonialism, indigenous culture, race & place, genocide, segregation, police murder, routinized aggression, racism, blackness &black viewpoints, forced manual labor, displacement, violence, medical violence, capital accumulation, restitution,  eroticization, exoticization or resistance. A remarkable lower number of “complex subjective” matters are shown —contrary to what was announced—: anxiety, identity, madness, family, alienation, disbelief or empowerment.

We Don’t Need Another Hero named after the hit song by Tina Turner (1985) is, according to the curatorial statement, a non-conformist exhibition that addresses “collective psychosis” and complex subjectivities in the heart of an increasingly divided and polarized Europe. “Starting from the position of Europe, Germany, and Berlin as a city in dialogue with the world, we draw from a moment directly 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 of any kind. Like the song, it rejects the desire for a savior. Instead, it explores the political potential of the act of self-preservation (after Audre Lorde), refusing to be seduced by unyielding knowledge systems and historical narratives that contribute to the creation of toxic subjectivities.”

A few years ago the artistic landscape of Berlin has grown international and culturally diverse, especially with regards to art from outside of Western traditions. Hence in the background, there are current cultural debates on repatriation and restitution of art and artifacts from European institutions; the history of Afro-Germans and black women’s movements in Germany and elsewhere and similar, although is not super explicit —which, I think, is good for the show.

Formally, the works are installed spaciously, refined and in a non-invasive way; the integration and the exhibition architecture is powerful. The show is kind of safe, without risks and perhaps little unexpressive for those who enjoy it. The exhibition includes all types of media: installation, sculpture, painting (figurative, abstraction), video, printmaking, crafts even music and sound.

Favorite and remarkable artworks across sites

At Adk, Sondra Perry, IT’S IN THE GAME ’17

Excellent self-critical video-work where the artist is commenting black bodies and physical statistics in a basketball video game, whose players are rendered from real-life players, on a kind of video collage of windows with digital footage of the artist with artifacts in the British Museum and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Debates of repatriation and decoloniality also shows connections between objectification, statistics, and racist legacies of typologies in the borderless digital world.

At AdK, Mario Pfeiffer, Again/Noch Einmal

Considerable space is given over to the video installation with two massive screens of artist Mario Pfeiffer, the piece is a video reenactment of the case relating to a refugee murder. It tells the story of a young immigrant man who was beaten and dragged out of a supermarket by four men in Arnsdorf in East Germany in 2016. A case of the so-called social civil justice, moral courage, and vigilance. Driven to ask questions ignored by the media and the court, Pfeiffer reexamines the incident gathering a jury of German citizens to review these events and decide on a verdict, mediated by actors Mark Waschke and Dennenesch Zoudé. The only objection to the piece is that kind of repeats a similar project Unraveling the NSU Complexby The Society of Friends of Halit with contributions by Forensic Architecture from the last Documenta.


At KW, Luke Willis Thompson, Autoportrait

The work is a silent portrait of Diamond Reynolds, who on 6 July 2016 broadcast to Facebook Live the ruthless murder of her partner Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black American, at the hands of officer Jeronimo Yanez, a gesture as a transformative elegy to reclaim her own image. Critics, however, stand that the work aestheticizes black trauma, which is undeniable.

At KW, Joanna Piotrowska’s, Frowst

Individual and collective dynamics appear in the work of Piotrowska. The series Frowst portrays pairs of family members whose expressions and positions embody a feeling of discomfort. Drawing on the Family Constellation therapy developed by Bernd Hellinger, the atmosphere of the photographs locates the family as a source of both hostility and safety. The body is an essential tool in the attempt to make power systems visible.

At ZK/U, Tony Cokes, Black Celebration

One of my favorite presentations of this Biennale, is the work of Tony Cokes, a US-based artist whose video installations combine images with texts scrolling over a repeating image or a monochromatic background with pop music as a temporal vehicle. Black Celebration includes newsreel footage from rebellions in the USA in 1965, where the news voice-over is replaced with industrial band music. Cokes has created a thrilling argument about the complex relationship between image and forms of protest and the non-visual as a positive space for possibility, nicely overlaid with texts from Martin L. Gore, Barbara Kruger, the Situationist International, and Morrissey lyrics. The artist explains that the intention “to introduce a reading that will contradict received ideas which characterize these riots as criminal or irrational.” With this work, we see a bit about what opacity has to do with resisting forms of image-making.

At ZK/U, Tessa Mars, The Good Flight

Haitian artist Tessa Mars explores herself and her relation to a historical figure: calling the protagonist of the series “Tessalines”, she refers to Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a former slave who became first governor and emperor of Haiti at the beginning of the 19th century. offering an alternative takes on empowerment and healing by adopting an alter-ego. Mars reveals her own deeply personal ritual of self-reorganization.

At HAU 2, Keleketla! Library, The Allure Of Gold And Other Solidarity Stories

Keleketla! Library is an interdisciplinary, independent research and media arts project founded by Malose Malahlela and Rangoato Hlasane. The exhibition at HAU2 investigates the materiality of solidarities with banners, letters, music videos and publications.

At Volksbühne Pavilion, Las Nietas de Nonó, Ilustraciones de la Mecánica

The practice of the duo Lydela and Michel Nonó, merges theater, interventions, and performances of everyday life. They have a communal space in a working-class neighborhood in San Juan de Puerto Rico. The piece brings the atmosphere of the barrio to Berlin and involves video, performances as well as objects, masks, and “skins” of female bodies —figures made of kombucha (vegetable leather). The making of the material is a reference to the interventions made to black women’s bodies through clinical experimentation in Puerto Rico.

Other highlights

KW Institute for Contemporary Art

At the central room, Dineo Seshee Bopape’s Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings] installation features a video of Nina Simone 1976 performance of Feelings, an arrhythmic drum track, and works by J. Arnell, R. Rhee and L. Workman in a warm orange glow chaotic room that reminds one of a construction site: piles of bricks, pillars, polyethylene sheets and cardboard. A (de)construction site that draws on the novel A Question of Power (1973) by South African author Bessie, about a woman’s descent into insanity and intersections between madness and the colony.

Middle floor piece Sitting on a Man’s Head by Okpokwasili adopts the tactics of a form of protest by women in eastern Nigeria, metaphorically called “sitting on a man’s head.” It presents an unfolding score that can be activated by all who enter the space. Both score and embodied space work in the service of resistance and self-preservation —again Audre Lorde—, so we can “come together, find each other, and call out.”

In the top floor another site-specific installation, A Kind of Black: An Emergent Poetics Of The Imminent Unknown, an ongoing conversation between Jabu Arnell and Sinethemba Twalo. Their ongoing research-led process attempts to inquire into the politics of affect. The piece revels in a certain suspension of disbelief.

Visceral violence in Julia Phillips’s Expanded series where she sprayed broken hosiery with ink and spread it on sheets of paper, to remove it after and leave just the memory of its presence. Most likely that memory is “pain”. Alongside these ghostly forms is a medical trolley with barbaric medieval look operating ceramic tools—the source of the suffering, perhaps. Its title reads Operator I (with Blinder, Muter, Penetrator, Aborter). The works reflect the history of medical violence against black women’s bodies in the name of research.

Belkis Ayón was a Cuban artist working with collagraphy until her suicide in 1999 at the age of 32. Her imagery about the all-male society of Abakuá transcends the printmaking process. Ayón juxtaposed her own life with that of Sikán, a central female figure in the Abakuá mythology. La Consagración I, II, III depicts a grand ceremonial ritual. “The image of Sikán is evident in all these works because she, like I, lived and lives through me in restlessness, insistently looking for a way out.”

Poetry, theatre, dance, Grada Kilomba, ILLUSIONS series combines Greek myths with video, text, and storytelling, in order to explore symbolism and allegory as carriers of oppression. She retells a story, gradually turning its metaphors upside down and unpacking a deep analysis of the oppressive, racialized, and gendered social relations that form its structure. Here she presents iteration dedicated to Oedipus.

Not an ordinary bar but a Mastur Bar dedicated to female masturbation by Fabiana Faleiros occupies the basement level. A traveling bar which offers a program of its own, consisting of lecture-shows, workshops, and a collection of objects related to the topic of female masturbation.

Akademie der Künste

Outside, stands the ruin of an architectural façade, 19° 36’ 16.89” N, 72°. 13 6 95’’ W / 52.4042° N 13.0385” E  by Firelei Báez. The name combines the coordinates of the Sanssouci palace in Potsdam and the castle, called Sans-Souci, in Milot, Haiti; and a murdered Haitian colonel named Jean-Baptiste Sans-Souci. The bidirectional work is there to show that historical events take place, not in one space but many.

Inside and starting the exhibition there is a set of overpainted maps and archival documents, Those who would douse it (it does not disturb me to accept that there are places where my identity is obscure to me, and the fact that it amazes you does not mean I relinquish it), also by Báez, which is an almost literal subjective “repainting” of history.

The group of drawings that portray the organic curves of leaves and fruit, in ink or graphite on paper by Ana Mendieta were mostly made in the early 1980s and illustrate the gentle relationship she saw between her body and nature, suggesting a quiet tribute to femininity, touching because of its vulnerability.

Craft and tradition, old techniques and raw materials are used in the next set of works. Minia Biabiany uses weaving bamboo fish traps for the video installation Toli Toli is a metaphor for the painful entanglement of Guadeloupe’s tropical environment with the colonial past and present.

Typical kanga fabrics that one can find in markets all over East Africa are used by Lubaina Himid in her series On the Night of the Full MoonHimid’s Kanga are decorated with slogans from the writings of poets Audre Lorde, Maud Sulter, and Essex Hemphill. Accompanying the kanga images are spoken recordings of selected poems by these writers. The kanga are also spread in other sites as ZK/U and KW.

Sara Haq act of transplanting reeds from outside of the building into the gaps between the floor inside AdK is both delicate and violent, an attempt at integration. An act of quiet resistance and contemplation.

The Basir Mahmood video piece all voices are mine is made in a studio in Lahore. The film was shooted in a single day. Using professional technicians and actors, the artist asked them to reproduce simple actions that they remembered having performed in other films. The result is a disparate collection of images, visual reminiscences evoking the history of Lollywood and his own memories.

Thierry Oussou’s Impossible Is Nothing documents through film and objects an archaeological excavation carried out in Tokpa, Benin. The artist buried a replica of King Béhanzin throne at a location known only to himself. After a year he led an excavation in collaboration with history and archaeology students. Currently, the throne is the source of a diplomatic dispute between France, the holder of the original, and Benin, which is demanding its restitution.

Herman Mbamba abstract paintings seem to follow a Western tradition better than the African one —as expected from an African artist. For the Biennale, Mbamba returned to Namibia and the large-scale canvas Until the wind blows for another time and the triptych Wait for me in the lurking landscape are inspired by this journey.

ZK/U – Center for Art and Urbanistic

Heba Y. Amin appropriates the megalomaniac idea of a supercontinent (Atlantropa) in her Operation Sunken Sea (The Anti-Control Room). Between history, the present, and the future; truth, fiction, and megalomania the work also presents documentation of other utopian visions for alternative geographies.

If someone asks, Luke Willis Thompson, the same of Autoportrait, at KW has a series of ready-made golden fountains at every site.

BBX faithful to its prioritization of artists excluded from the Western canon, calls upon realism, visualizing the oppressive systems of knowledge and power. We Don’t Need Another Hero provides a reminder that there will always be more stories to tell. Another hero is not needed, the need is of those stories to be heard. All in all, a fine start of a highly anticipated biennial.

Text: María Muñoz. Photographs: María Muñoz and some of them by BBX, credits listed individually.

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