10th Berlin Biennale: We Don’t Need Another Hero (REVIEW)

David Frohnapfel

Curated by Gabi Ngcobo with Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, Serubiri Moses, Thiago de Paula Souza, and Yvette Mutumba

We will no longer be erased, but we refuse to be seen.

Jota Mombaça, May 2018, handout for the performance We Agreed Not to Die at HAU Hebbel am Ufer for the launch of the new issue of the journal C&  (anchor image)

The first artwork you encounter at the entrance of the 10th Berlin Biennale at Kunst-Werke in Berlin is a group portrait taken by São Paulo-based artist Cinthia Marcelle. In her ongoing series Legendaries Marcelle demystifies cultural institutions by taking portraits of several people working behind the scenes of cultural centres. She also selected 14 employees from the history and present of Kunst-Werke—the art institute hosting the Biennale—who are not all considered to be “main players” of the field and whose labour is often invisible. Most immediately, this photograph can be read as a gesture of appreciation of and recognition for invisible labour. But I cannot help but read Marcelle’s photograph of 14 white employees looking back at my own white body as a commentary about politics of accessibility. As a starting point for the Biennale, the introductory photograph captures the institutional whiteness of Kunst-Werke quite beautifully. 

Image 2_Cinthia Marcelle
Cinthia Marcelle, from the series Legendaries, 2018, installation shot, Kunst-Werke, photo taken by author

While the 10th Berlin Biennale and its group of 47 artists of mainly Caribbean, African, and diasporic heritage is indeed a very international and diverse endeavor, the everyday institutional reality of Kunst-Werke in Berlin (and contemporary art institutions in Germany in general) is clearly not. Whether intentionally or otherwise, the curatorial team reminds the audience from the beginning of the reality of institutional whiteness by starting the Biennale with Marcelle’s portrait. 

In 2014, I began an interview for my Ph.D. research about contemporary Haitian art with Port-au-Prince-based curator, artist, and art historian Barbara Prézeau Stephenson, with the following question: “So how do you express your post-colonial identity in your artworks?” Prézeau Stephenson had to control her automatic response of rolling her eyes at me; instead she politely smiled at me and replied: “You know what, David, I’m not waking up every morning thinking about a coconut tree!” Her answer took me by surprise and I needed a moment to understand the relationship between my introductory question and her irritated response. While I am a researcher based in Germany trained in questions around post-colonial, de-colonial, and critical race theory in relation to art, Prézeau Stephenson’s answer made me realize how I had used the term “post-coloniality” in this moment as an empty shell and a “racializing marker” for her identity. 

Would I have asked a white male colleague a similar question? “How does your white identity resonate with your artworks in the current post-colonial climate?” Paraphrasing Gabi Ngcobo, curator of the recent 10th Berlin Biennale, aren’t we all sharing a post-colonial condition in one way or another without regard to the locality of our different upbringings? Whiteness and racism are direct effects of the legacy of colonialism and slavery and the refusal to actively decolonize our hearts and minds. 

A very similar desire for reductionism and simple categorizations seems to underlie the first wave of journalistic engagement with the 10th Berlin Biennale in Germany after Ngcobo and her curatorial team (Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, Serubiri Moses, Thiago de Paula Souza, and Yvette Mutumba) were announced as curators of the show: Many journalists instantly framed the Biennale as a “post-colonial” event in the making before any curatorial statement or artists’ list were put out. By situating and pressuring a group of Black curators into narrow, easily legible “ethnic slots”, whiteness makes its presence felt in these writings more than anything else. 

White straight cis identities are produced as unmarked, universal and thus invisible because the rest of the world is constantly racialized and framed as a specific particularity aside from universal grand narratives. Scholars like Ruth Frankenberg and Gloria Wekker have shown in their work how naming “whiteness” displaces it from the unmarked status that is itself an effect of its dominance. This white privilege was manifest in the early media responses in Germany in the months leading up to the 10th Berlin Biennale. Conversations about the effects of whiteness, however—critical intentions notwithstanding—risk forcing attention back to white perspectives in a self-centred manner just in moments when different voices are being offered.

After my first walk-through of the main venues of the 10th Berlin Biennale during the opening weekend—ZK/U (Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik), Akademie der Künste, Volksbühne Pavillon and Kunst-Werke—one aspect became clear to me: the curatorial team to a large degree favored in their selection process artistic positions that did not prioritize one aspect of identity over another. This is very much in the vein of queer, Black, feminist, activist, writer, and warrior Audre Lorde, who famously wrote: 

I simply do not believe that one aspect of myself can possibly profit from the oppression of any other part of my identity. I know that my people cannot possibly profit from the oppression of any other group which seeks the right to peaceful existence. […] Within the lesbian community I am Black, and within the Black community I am a lesbian. Any attack against Black people is a lesbian and gay issue, because I and thousands of other Black women are part of the lesbian community. Any attack against lesbians and gays is a Black issue, because thousands of lesbians and gay men are Black. There is no hierarchy of oppression. (Audre Lorde, “There is no Hierarchy of Oppression”, 1983)

Image 3_Natasha Kelly
Natasha A. Kelly, Millis Erwachen/Milli’s Awakening, 2018, installation shot, Kunst-Werke, photo taken by author

Lorde’s intellectual legacy looms large above the Biennale’s several venues. She seems to be one of the main intellectual patrons of many of the projects, as well as the curation at large. Ngcobo makes sure to emphasize that the new artistic revolution has women, gays, queers, and trans people at its forefront and concisely formulates that the Biennale “confront the incessant anxieties perpetuated by a willful disregard for complex subjectivities” (Biennale’s webpage). Lorde’s poetry is directly evoked in Lubaina Himid’s colourful pop paintings presented at all venues but also present in a more indirect fashion in Natasha A. Kelly’s video at Kunst-Werke, which portrays eight Afro-deutsche (Afro-German) female artists of different generations. Kelly’s video weaves together individual perspectives of Black artists like Maseho Woods, Maciré Bakayoko, Diana Hartmann and others, through very individualized autobiographical narratives, all of which allow the complexities of different femininities to shine through and speak to each other. 

A love letter written by activist and scholar Peggy Piesche to the lesbian, Afro-German women’s movement, published in the catalogue of the Biennale, accompanies Kelly’s videowork; it describes the BPOC influence on the 68s generation in Germany and also highlights Lorde’s intellectual influence on the Afro-German women’s movement in the last 30 years. Lorde was guest professor at Free University in Berlin in the 1980s and her ideas helped inspire and organize Black lesbian groups in Europe like ADEFRA in Berlin and SISTER OUTSIDER in Amsterdam. 

The title of Kelly’s video Milli’s Awakening, refers to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s painting “Milli Asleep” of 1910. The painting depicts a black circus performer called Milli sleeping naked. Kirchner painted the model during the peak of Germany’s colonial period. The title of the video opens up a critical commentary about distorted images of black bodies produced by canonized art history. These artworks continue to be presented in today’s museums as canonical masterpieces without critical commentary opposing racism. Paintings like Kirchner’s use the bodies of Black people solely as objectified and sexualized images, which keeps silencing Black experiences, robbing them of their agency as they produce exoticizing spectacles. 

In close vicinity to Kelly’s video on the second floor of Kunst-Werke, the curators have decided to present the colourful wooden assemblages of Afro-American artist Mildred Thompson who studied and lived in Hamburg in the 1950s and 1960s. By bringing together these different artistic voices that engage in one way or another with moments in time—1910, 1950, 1968, 1984 and 2018—the curators show a continuation of Black female intellectual and artistic influence and presence throughout the last hundred years of German history, re-telling a history which has been  underrepresented or actively excluded from its grand narratives. By making Kirchner’s work an indirect reference in the title of her work, Kelly transforms the famous avant-garde painter into a silent footnote in history overshadowed by the complex contemporary voices of female artists articulating their experiences today, fully awake.

To me, the highlights of the Biennale are several artists retelling and (more importantly) reclaiming historical narratives through the medium of art. How do you reclaim something that has been taken away, that has been misconceived and distorted by history? Several projects presented at the Biennale engage the past in multifaceted ways. Okwui Okpokwasili and Simone Leigh, for example, highlight Black female forms of historical protest, resilience, and self-preservation in their work while Grada Kilomba references the mythological past in order to intervene in often overlooked racist and sexist systems of knowledge production influencing the present. 

Image 4_Tessa Mars
Tessa Mars, The Good Fight, 2018, installation shot, ZK/U, photo taken by author

Other projects, as, for instance, those of Firelei Báez and Tessa Mars quite literally re-paint history. Their work engages with the crucial but often overlooked and silenced legacy of the Haitian Revolution. Mars challenges a masculinist canon of nationalist historiography through her drawings and paper collages. By creating a semi-autobiographical, fictional female alter ego called Tessalines, she responds to the dominantly male history of the Haitian Revolution. Wearing the military attire and symbols of the Haitian Revolution, Tessalines is a gender-bending, fictional version of Haiti’s national hero Jean-Jacques Dessalines. I see Mars’ fictional character Tessalines as a counter-narrative of what Michel-Rolph Trouillot has called a history of “silences within silences.” Mars is feminizing the past in order to speak about links to contemporary, societal concerns: How does the past continue to haunt the present? 

Tessalines’ current depiction drawn in Berlin for the Biennale, refuses to smile her signature smile from previous incarnations and is surrounded by blue Pickelhelmets worn by German militaries in the nineteenth and early twentieth century during the country’s violent colonial period. Mars’ favored use of paper transports a certain vulnerability and tenderness. The artworks’ materiality stands in contrast to the motif of the strong and resilient warrior woman. While Mars’ drawings and collages presented at ZK/U are a quiet, subtle, and unpretentious commentary on Haitian history and contemporary female self-care and decolonial healing, Firelei Báez on the other hand fills the exhibition space at Akademie der Künste through architecture, painting, and installation in a spectacularly loud fashion by combining baroque décor, Afro-diasporic symbolism, and what art historian Kobena Mercer has called Caribbean “toomuchness”. Báez’s mural “for Marie-Louise Coidavid, exiled, keeper of order, Anacaona” (2018) is charged with cross-cultural meanings. She is merging the cosmic symbols of the vodou religion called vévé (Damballah and La Sirene) with European baroque décor, and her individual iconography. 

Image 5_Firelei Baéz1
Firelei Báez, for Marie-Louise Coidavid, exiled, keeper of order, Anacaona, 2018, installation shot, Akademie der Künste, photo taken by author

The rich cross-cultural symbolism surrounds the portrait of a female figure with beautiful piercing eyes and a dramatically draped red headscarf with two Black Panthers painted on it. The title of the mural combines two legendary queens of the island Hispaniola with each other: queen of the Taíno, Anacoana (1464-1504), and queen of the Kingdom of Haiti, Marie Louise Coidavid (1778-1851). Báez is referencing these two historical heroines of Haiti’s past in order to undo silences within silences of grand historiographical narratives not unlike how Mars animates her fictional alter ego Tessalines at ZK/U. 

Image 6_Firelei Baéz2
Firelei Baez, 19° 36’ 16.89“ N, 72° 13’ 6.95“ W) / (52.4042° N, 13.0385° E, 2018, installation shot, Akademie der Künste, photo taken by author

The curatorial approach of the 10th Berlin Biennale reminds me of the early installments of the Havana Biennale under Gerardo Mosquera in the 1980s. The curatorial team of the Biennale follows a strong pan-Caribbean and pan-African trajectory through the selection of artists as well as a strong emphasis on the creation of new “horizontal” and diasporic art networks. Thus, the “Caribbeanness” is not only felt in the artist selection and themes on display but also at a conceptual level. The curatorial team offered residencies that brought artists in the run-up to the Biennale to the Dominican Republic, India, Namibia, Brazil, the Netherlands, and Germany, where artworks for the Biennale have been produced in different urban environments. There is an exhilarating performative contradiction at the heart of the 10th Berlin Biennale, which uses resources from an institution located in Germany to produce new “decentred” relations of queer, feminist, trans, and Black art networks on a global scale. 

In the last 20 years, Europe has “re-discovered” the rest of the world with persisting redundancy and waves of unsettled surprise ripple through the European art world every time journalists, curators, and art historians recognize again and again that there are indeed artists working today who are not part of the old institutional discourse pact of established art magazines, museums, galleries, and art history departments. Such artists do not endorse the official chain of old, centred power. Nonetheless, these multiple artistic networks are in decentered, intersectional, and diasporic dialogues with each other. Fondation AfricAmericA in Haiti, Alice Yard in Trinidad and Tobago, or Savvy Contemporary and Be.Bop in Germany, to name only a few, are all part of this global conversation and the process of decentred network building. 

Image 7_Dineo Sheshee Bopape
Dineo Seshee Bopape, Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings], 2016-2018, installation shot, Kunst-Werke, photo taken by author
I see in Ngcobo’s wider curatorial concept for the 10th Berlin Biennale also a socially engaged component creating new queer, trans, Black, and feminist art communities that transcend the idea of physical exhibition making. While the venues of the Biennale are in large part quite traditionally constructed and hosting very well-crafted exhibitions, at the same time interviews with the curators show a certain pessimism and critical understanding that comes with the politics of visibility in creating art exhibitions in the supposed centre. Art historian Krista Thompson, following Peggy Phelan, pointed out that we need to start interrogating the implicit assumptions about the connection between representational visibility and political power and the “limited effectiveness of strategies of visibility”. There seems to be a similar skepticism at the heart of the Berlin Biennale regarding institutional visibility and the politics of respectability that goes along with it. 

The five curators have repeatedly claimed in interviews that they wanted to offer a platform where artists and curators retain the right to remain “opaque” (Edouard Glissant) and explained how they were resisting easily legible categorizations. Following Glissant, opacity is a defense mechanism against easy understanding, at least in the hierarchical, objectifying way in which it usually operates in processes of academic knowledge production. Lorde has also described the permanent drain of energy which minorities and women often have to face when they are forced into a position where they have to explain and teach their experiences to more privileged social groups—groups which still refuse to take responsibility for their own actions and for starting to decolonize their hearts, minds, and institutional realities. The energy lost on explaining and rendering their own position legible to a majority can, according to Lorde, find better use in redefining oneself and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future! 

In public debates on the Biennale, a lot of emphasis has been placed on this presumed “opacity” of the curation, or on the stance of the curators resisting fixed categorizations for their identities, and on making themselves unavailable for lazy anticipations. What this focus on the presumed opacity of the curation overshadows, however, is, to my mind, the openness and potential for unexpected dialogues and enriching encounters that are enabled by the Biennale. On the curatorial level, there is a wide openness, availability, and empathic identification necessary for bringing together all these different artistic subjectivities, for facilitating dialogues between them, and for letting a new energy circulate and flow. We can see the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) material traces of those journeys and dialogues in the artworks on display like Mimi Cherongo Ng’Ok’s photographs taken in the Dominican Republic, the paintings by Hermann Mbamba inspired by a journey to Namibia, the triptych “Hapana Chitsva” painted by Portia Zvavahera in India, and also Mars’ drawings created during a residency in Germany. 

Image 8_Sara Haq
ara Haq, Trans:plant, 2018, installation shot, Akademie der Künste, photo taken by author

While I wandered further through the exhibition venues, I realized that I would have loved to find out more about the new intersectional, horizontal, and communal spaces of dialogue and contact created here behind the scenes, so to speak. How lasting and productive will such transglobal, curated solidarities be between these different queer, female, Black, and trans subjectivities coming together from so wide a global scale? I’m wondering if we have already developed intellectual and affective tools sophisticated and intersectional enough to understand and facilitate these complex conversations without risking sidelining certain subjectivities over others and creating new silences of the future. 

During the impactful performance We Agreed Not to Die at HAU Hebbel am Ufer, artist and writer Jota Mombaça spent hours creating weapons out of broken glass, red ribbon, and wooden branches. Mombaça’s performance was held during the launch of a new issue of the journal Contemporary And (edited by BB10 curator Yvette Mutumba and her co-editor-in-chief Julia Grosse) in May and was not part of the Biennale’s official programme. However, Mombaça also worked as a collaborator for the 10th Berlin Biennale in many projects and already two weeks before the event opened, this performance set the tone beautifully for the entire Biennale. 

The physical weapons created during the performance were a quite literal call to arms but also metaphorical stand-ins for a larger debate about political, affective, and rhetorical tools that trans people continuously have to develop to fight for equality and the right to be seen as human. The open and fragile category LGBTQ+ alone gathers such a variety of different subjectivities in the context of the Biennale, which are not without contradiction and conflict, especially on such a wide global scale where LGBTQ+ identities are often still in the process of getting defined and are in a constant process of getting re-defined. 

Contrary to the right to opacity, maybe we need to invest more energy and time in debating closely and maybe even defining new intersectional global spaces of contact and consider what these social artistic environments can do to our multifaceted queer, trans, cis, gay, female, male, white, brown, and Black identities by being in horizontal, vertical and rhizomatic contact with each other. Who is draining energy from whom in these new artistic networks and who is at risk of becoming the new grand meta-narrator in global conversations if our identities remain opaque and our language is still not sophisticated and intersectional enough to speak to each other? What kind of tools do global creative communities have to develop to become accountable to each other without creating newly layered hierarchies of oppression in intersectional art networks? Such a debate would transcend any biennale’s logic of exhibition making and will be an ongoing conversation for the development of new communal and intersectional potentialities of the future. 

The 10th Berlin Biennale: We don’t need another hero opened to the public on June 9 and ran through September 9, 2018. 


David Frohnapfel (b. 1985) studied art history, comparative literature, and religious studies at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich and at the Universidad de la Habana in Havana. He works on contemporary art and visual culture from the Caribbean region and finished his dissertation, Disobedient Musealities. Dialogue and Conflict in the Art Scene of Port-au-Prince, at Freie Universität Berlin in 2017. His research focuses on decolonial theory, critical race theory, and whiteness studies. He was a fellow in the research group Objects in the Contact Zone: The Cross-Cultural Lives of Things, at the Max-Planck-Institute in Florence in 2012. He also worked as curator of The 3rd Ghetto Biennale: Decentering the Market and Other Tales of Progress in Port-au-Prince in 2013 together with Leah Gordon, André Eugène, and Jean Herald Celeur and curated the exhibition NOCTAMBULES: the hidden transcripts on Queer Visualities in Haiti on the occasion of Le Forum Transculturel d’Art Contemporain in 2015. 

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