Stereotypes: Multimedia artist Donna Kukama on stage in I’m Not Who You Think I’m Not at the 10th Berlin Biennale. Picture: ANTHEA SHAAP
Stereotypes: Multimedia artist Donna Kukama on stage in I’m Not Who You Think I’m Not at the 10th Berlin Biennale. Picture: ANTHEA SHAAP

The 10th Berlin Biennale takes its title from Tina Turner’s song We Don’t Need Another Hero. It is curated by a South African artist, curator and teacher at the Wits University School of Arts, Gabi Ngcobo. Forty-six artists are exhibited, three-quarters of whom are women drawn from countries as diverse as Iran, Poland, SA and Cuba.

Most of the artists have links to the global south. Power, knowledge systems and historical narratives all contribute to creating toxic subjectivity, the curatorial statement suggests. Ngcobo writes that centuries of repressed vocabularies have to be undone and reconfigured.

Dramatic: Brazilian-born writer and performance artist Jota Mombaca in The Feel of a Problem. Picture: ANTHEA SCHAAP
Dramatic: Brazilian-born writer and performance artist Jota Mombaca in The Feel of a Problem. Picture: ANTHEA SCHAAP

Spending a few days immersed in the exhibition was refreshing, uplifting and sobering — moving from room to room in an engagement with many powerful female voices and exploring ideas not always so prominent in international art exhibitions. The show is spread across three main sites taking in well-known art establishments: Akademie der Kunste, one of Europe’s oldest cultural institutions, and the KW Institute for Contemporary Art founded after the fall of the Berlin Wall to display and disseminate contemporary art. A once-disused railway depot turned artist collective and residence, ZK/U – Centre for Art and Urbanistics, provided an edgy third venue in the Moabit neighbourhood.

While the curatorial team declined to provide countries of origin along with the artists’ names, several South African artists were on display, including Dineo Seshee Bopape, whose large installation, Untitled (Of Occult Instability)[Feelings], 2016-2018, was prominently displayed at the KW Institute.

Peering over a balustrade onto the space below, one was met with piles of debris. A huge wrecking ball made of flattened cardboard boxes was tethered to two fallen columns from which cables extended. Tin drums, broken bricks and empty buckets littered the space. In the centre of the room two flat screens were propped up, taking viewers on a botanical journey through a Parisian park that was, in the 1800s, home to a human zoo, with six villages representing the French colonial empire.

All the while, a drum beat and the sound of Nina Simone wafted across the room, which was painted orange and the windows covered with an orange screen, giving the room a sunset feel, adding to the impression of civilisation coming to an end.

Cultural history: Akademie der Kunste, one of Europe’s oldest cultural institutions, is one of the venues of the Biennale. Picture: TIMO OHLER
Cultural history: Akademie der Kunste, one of Europe’s oldest cultural institutions, is one of the venues of the Biennale. Picture: TIMO OHLER

A TV monitor projected a woman’s response to the question "would you be prepared to take up a gun to attain your freedom?" She replied, "now I know I can. When I saw my children mowed down in Soweto in 1976, then I realised that in order to defend, that I would do exactly the same, if in order to attain my ideals I had to shoot back at that man." All the while another monitor screened Simone at her piano performing Feelings at the 1976 Montreux Jazz festival.

On one wall was hung a small wooden frame in which a paper serviette had a hand-written playlist including Miriam Makeba’s Khawuleza, Vusi Mahlasela’s Thula Mama and Tupac’s Pain.

Several guest installations were included in the space. Lachell Workman’s slide projector was propped up on a pile of books – entitled Freedom, Black Boy, and Reflections in Black. A T-shirt was pinned to the wall as a screen; each slide read Justice for ______, reminiscent of the T-shirts worn by activists.

Robert Rhee’s two sculptures rotated slowly. On closer inspection they were gourds, misshapen by their imprisonment in steel ligatures, cutting into the flesh, a comment perhaps on the oppressive contortions of female bodies.

The Biennale catalogue informed viewers that Bopape has drawn on Bessie Head’s novel A Question of Power, which explored a woman’s descent into madness. Certainly, the installation evoked a deep sense of disintegration. The pain and destruction in the room combined with many references to the anti-apartheid struggle might suggest the psychic damage wrought by apartheid or a sense that rebuilding has been incomplete.

With a budget of €3m, Ngcobo and her team commissioned 30 new works for the Biennale; many of the most compelling works were film and video based.

Natasha A Kelly’s black and white film entitled Milli’s Awakening (2018) is a moving insight into the experiences of Afro-German women. It includes interviews with eight artists who spoke about how black, female artists working in Germany are seen and see themselves. One points out that "whereas white, male artists supposedly make art from some neutral perspective" it is "nearly impossible to make art as a black woman that won’t be interpreted in terms of being black". Another says that "as a black artist you are a political issue and your work becomes political, even if that wasn’t your intention".

Grada Kilomba’s film Illusions Vol. ll, Oedipus (2018) is a retelling of the Oedipus myth that made for beautiful viewing and an interpretation that went beyond Freud’s concerns with the unconscious desire of boys to kill their fathers and have sex with their mothers. The film deals with issues of identity — Oedipus did not know who he really was. Hence to Delphi, where the oracle offered him a prophecy that he would murder his father and marry his mother. King Laius and Queen Jocasta are dressed in blankets festooned with the four playing card suits, blending African tradition with Alice in Wonderland, along with knobkerries and carved, wooden headrests on which characters sat.

A dance sequence when Jocasta marries Oedipus is a life-affirming moment to lift the spirits of the most exhausted art viewer. Kilomba’s narrative is about the threat to power and she relates this to the challenges to racial and gender oppression.

Mario Pfeifer’s gripping film Again/Noch Einmal (2018) highlights the troubling rise of far-right groups and problems Germany faces with racism and xenophobic attitudes towards refugees. The film recreates the 2016 attack in a supermarket on an Iraqi refugee with mental health problems who allegedly threatened a cashier with a bottle. He was assaulted by a group of local men, who tied him to a tree for several hours before the police arrived. The man later froze to death in a forest and the German court dismissed the case.

The re-enactment is watched by an assembled group of German citizens from the area where the incident took place, and the piece questions whether the intervention of the men was vigilantism or civic courage.

The Biennale provides a space for the public to engage with artists’ narratives that portray the troubled geopolitics of our time and challenges our understanding and experience of colonialism, gender, identity and complex subjectivities, all of which combine to create what the curator refers to as "incessant anxieties" and "collective psychosis".

The 10th Berlin Biennale sets out to address the complexities and contradictions created, rather than to provide another hero or a saviour who presents the answers.

Referencing the Rhodes statue removed from UCT during the #RhodesMustFall campaign, Ngcobo writes that it is not always clear how events of the present will affect the future but this need not prevent undoing what has become obsolete. The work on display responds to this challenge.

The 10th Berlin Biennale runs from June 9-September 9, 2018.

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