The Berlin Biennale has become synonymous with controversy. In 2012, it invited the Occupy movement, a decision which drew criticism for its naïveté. Last year it sparked contension again through its focus on post-internet art. So with the 2018 edition just around the corner, its curator Gabi Ngcobo is staying aware of the pitfalls. “I know it’s impossible to please everyone and I’m fine with that,” she says. “And anyway, the ground is always shifting so you can’t control everything. Either way, I find the idea of ‘an audience’ always so mysterious.”
Ngcobo is familiar with adversity. Born in Durban, South Africa, she had to convince her parents to allow her to study fine art, being the first one in her family to do so. “I studied [it] in the Nineties and my parents didn’t know what [it] was,” she says. After her BA, she moved to Cape Town, worked at the South African National Gallery and the Cape Africa Platform before going to New York for an MA in curatorial studies. But it was in Johannesburg during the Aughts when her career took off. There, she co-founded Nothing Gets Organised, a collaborative platform focusing on processes of self-organisation. Additionally, in 2010 she also co-founded the Center for Historical Reenactments. Another collaborative project, it explored how historical legacies resonate within contemporary art, and was itself present at the 8th Berlin Biennial in 2014.
Previously, Ngcobo has also co-curated Cape Town’s 2007 Biennale, “A Labour of Love” (2015), at Frankfurt’s Weltkulturen Museum, and more recently the ongoing 32nd Bienal de São Paulo. On top of this, she also writes and works as an educator. Nonetheless, despite wearing different hats, she still sees herself as an artist. “I don’t want to give up [that identity] because [it] helps me to think and allows me to touch things many curators would shy away from. It’s a way to be deviant,” she says.
Deviancy is also in the Berlin Biennale’s DNA, whose core mission is to expand exhibition formats and the curatorial agendas. “[It’s] also an interesting [way] to think through hierarchical ways of organising,” she says. Accordingly, Ngcobo’s first move was to ask for help, inviting curators Yvette Mutumba, Moses Serubiri, Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, and Thiago de Paula Souza to join her team. “They’re not there to make things comfortable for me but to complicate things further,” she continues. “I don’t want to agree with myself. I don’t want to be making all the decisions – I think that’s boring.”
So far the full list of participating artists has not been revealed, but the public programme is underway and may indicate what’s to come. Entitled “I’m not who you think I’m not”, it launched with a series of performative gestures by a small group of artists including Philipp Khabo Koepsell, Donna Kukama and Jota Mombaça, aiming to develop the social potential of narrative.
Moreover, Ngcobo has also warned the media against inferring in the event an expliticly post-colonial critique simply because of her background. “I [want] to move away from being a body that only stands for one historical reading,” she says. Such radical thought is also present in the Biennale’s grey and pink visual identity. Colours, Ngcobo explains, represent ways of thinking about the future and the past respectively. “It’s not about solving problems but remaining with certain problems and finding solutions,” she concludes. By the sounds of things, next year’s show should also be garner attention – this time, for the right reasons.