Why Claiming “Art is the New Black” About the Berlin Biennale is Both Misguided and Crass

As the art fair opens its doors, Eric Otieno interrogates one newspaper's sweeping statement about the apparent diversity of the German art scene.

Gabi Ngcobo, curator 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art. Image: Masimba Sasa. Courtesy of Berlin Biennale.

After Documenta, the Berlin Biennale is the second-most important contemporary arts event in Germany. This year’s appointed head curator is South Africa’s Gabi Ngcobo, whose previous curatorial accolades include the 32nd Biennal de São Paulo and “A Labour of Love” at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt. Shortly after being offered the role, Ngcobo announced her team of co-curators: an all-star, all-black lineup, which appears to have caught some by surprise. The Süddeutsche Zeitung — in reaction to her selection — went as far as declaring, “Art is the new Black.” In the same headline, the leading German daily casually misidentifies the curatorial ensemble as “African”. The newspaper argues that in addition to the popularity of postcolonial debate in museums and Germany’s heavy investment in artistic projects in Africa, their sweeping statement is an accurate summary of the state of affairs in the German art scene. Is art, then, really the new black?

A closer look at the co-curators reveals an accomplished and capable team. In no particular order, there is Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, a writer, historian, and artist based in New York, currently completing her doctorate at Columbia university. Then there is Kampala-based Serubiri Moses, an independent writer and curator interested in meta-narratives and scholarly practices beyond the field of art. The third member of the team is Thiago de Paula Souza, who lives and works in São Paulo, and was an educator at Museu AfroBrasil for several years. Dr. Yvette Mutumba, the fourth member, is widely known as the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the art magazine Contemporary And (C&), having previously worked as curator at Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt. In her curatorial statement, Ngcobo says she intentionally invited the co-curators “to complicate things, not to make things comfortable”.

Works on display at this year’s Berlinale, by Tony Cruz Pabón (L) and Portia Zvavahera (R)

But the media attention that her announcement stirred had less to do with the artistic intent behind her choice, and more to do with the fact that Ngcobo selected two black women and two black men to co-curate the event, marking several firsts — for the Biennale, for Berlin, and for Germany. The Süddeutsche Zeitung writer went as far as to question whether the Biennale would have an African theme this year. The emphatic response by co-curator Dr. Mutumba was that the Biennale is about art, not Africa, and that their appointment as co-curators had little to do with their heritage. Such questions are usually unheard of when the curatorial team is white. The media generally expects curators to have vast global knowledge of contemporary art, as indeed it is their job to do so. Black curators, however, are particularly expected to be experts of the contested category of African art, and to be its purveyors on the global stage.

The overarching suggestion of the SZ headline is that the German art scene is very diverse. This is misleading, and to some extent outright false. Here are the key reasons why — and what the German art industry should take away from this debacle.

Tokenism

First, while black German curators do exist, they are all too often are relegated to consultancy or short-term roles, even when they are just as qualified as those helming major exhibitions and institutions. On the surface, things are starting to look a lot better: there are some notable black directors in high profile positions, from Nigerian-born Okuwi Enwezor at Munich’s Haus der Kunst to the Cameroonian Dr. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung at Berlin’s SAVVY Contemporary. But, without calling anybody anything, it is worth noting that diversity is often personified by pinning it to individual black flag bearers, which is tokenism by any other name. Also, inclusion is inconsistent when not all levels of these institutions’ staff are taken into consideration. In the considerable amount of time I’ve spent at German museums in various capacities over the last five years, I have not encountered any non-white staff. When I worked at Frankfurt’s Nacht der Museen (Night of Museums) in 2012, I was the only “diverse” member of staff and arguably the only person of colour at the museum on the busiest night of the year. The same was the case in May 2018, when I spent three hours at the Schirn in Frankfurt reviewing Basquiat’s retrospective. This evidence, though limited by its anecdotal nature, is illustrative all the same.

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. Image: F. Anthea Schaap. Courtesy of Berlin Biennale.

Lack of black stakeholders

Secondly, black stakeholders are still absent in boardrooms when it comes to decision-making, sector development and allocation of funds in the art industry. SAVVY Contemporary makes for a good example. As the only longstanding international art space in Berlin founded and run by a person of colour, it does not receive regular financial support from the state of Berlin. And this in spite of the fact that Dr. Ndikung did Berlin a major favour by bringing a piece of the Documenta 14 to the capital last year, and generally overlooking the fact of his track-record of highly relevant international programming.

Outsourcing talent

Thirdly, black German curators are regularly conflated with their black counterparts from abroad and overlooked for top jobs in Germany. Though several major international exhibitions have been curated by black guest curators in Germany (such as the “Divine Comedy” in 2014 by Simon Njami) and it is common practise for curators to be invited from other countries, black German curators have only recently gained visibility at home. The rest of the time they often (have to) make a name for themselves outside of mainstream art institutions, or only enter them at the behest of guest curators from abroad. In addition, while German money has funded projects to increase visibility of African artistic production in Europe, such as in the aforementioned group show at the Frankfurt Museum for Modern Art (MMK), black curators, gallerists and artists within Germany are hardly drowning in Euro bills. Bankrolling the arts on the African continent is important, but so is a solution to the structural exclusion of black curators and artists in Germany.

Work by Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, on display at this year’s Biennale

Deflated Postcolonialism   

Lastly, while German museums are new sites of postcolonial debate, these debates are depoliticised so as not to offend the sensibilities of power. A case in point was the temporary German Colonialism exhibit at the Deutsches Historisches Museum, which presented artefacts documenting Germany’s colonial ambitions at the turn of the 20th and the early 21st century, and the enduring influence of this epoch on Germany today. Admittedly, it was a historical, not an artistic exhibition and a milestone by many accounts, but if postcolonial debate in museums is as fashionable as has been suggested, the exhibition would surely have been a permanent one, instead of disappearing into the oblivion of collective colonial amnesia after a seven-month run. 

In stark contrast, a prestigious, highly contested and very contemporary archetype of colonial museology, the Humboldt Forum Berlin, will open to fanfare in 2019 despite a sustained campaign and a whole book of objections against it. On display will be a good scoop of items, including a shrunken head from the Amazon believed to have been fraudulently obtained in colonial contexts that were previously housed in the Ethnological Museum of Berlin and the Museum for Asian Art. Renowned art historian Bénédicte Savoy resigned from the museum’s board of experts citing the need for more provenience research, saying she “…want(s) to know how much blood is dripping from each artwork”. Meanwhile the German government continues to refuse to even discuss repatriation of artefacts. As it were, the postcolonial museum remains an oxymoron.

Deanna Brown at the exhibition opening for “WHOSE LAND HAVE I LIT ON NOW?” Contemplations on the Notions of Hostipitality” at SAVVY. Image: Marvin Systermans. Courtesy of SAVVY.

Not the new black

In sum, the German art scene has a lot to address with regards to its history, self-image, audience and diversity as Germany’s demographics continue to change. Black Berlin-based curator Sandrine Micossé-Aikins and author Sharon Dodua Otoo recognised this phenomenon years ago in an anthology explicating the impact of institutional racism on black creatives. Black creatives are often invited “inside” without any interest in sustainably transforming institutions towards long-term inclusion. In such cases, Micossé-Aikins argues, diversity is merely used a buzz-word. Diversity should not be embodied by the the occasional celebration of difference because it’s the fashionable thing to do. It should be an ongoing attempt to address the systemic imbalance of the art world on every level. Out of the five curators, four will go back to their countries after the Biennale, and Dr. Mutumba will remain as the single face of Germany’s “diverse” art industry.

“Art is the new black” and similar slogans are audacious, and problematic. They imply that paradigmatic shifts are underway to make a largely white German art industry more inclusive, which — save for a handful of exceptions — is simply not the case currently. Indeed, such headlines obscure the uncomfortable realities of the art world. Attempts at highlighting diversity in the arts will continue to fall short if their well-meaning authors are blinded by the superficial symbols that obscure the internal structures of the art industry. Instead of making proclamations, now would be a good time to learn.

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