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Giving Contours to Shadows

Review of the exhibition and art project by SAVVY Contemporary and n.b.k., 23 May - 27 July 2014 in Berlin. Including a large Nafas photo tour.
By Ingo Arend | Jul 2014

"Giving Contours to Shadows" –in the title, the Berlin project already tries to fill an empty space in identity. Though there have been a number of exhibitions of African art in recent years, Africa’s aesthetic production is not a constant in Germany’s cultural consciousness. But if something is lacking in this joint project of Neukölln district’s project space Savvy Contemporary and the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.), it is any attempt to remedy this shortcoming with a succinct image of Africa. Neither the rebellious nor the suffering continent, nor that of the "noble savage" is celebrated here.

Instead, the exhibition fragments into a plethora of political viewpoints and advanced aesthetic positions that provide no clue about a nationality – from the subtle serigraphs by Virginia Chihota of Zimbabwe to the family archive of Badr el Hammami and Fadma Kaddouri of Morocco. In The root of the flower we don’t know (2014), Chihota uses Madonna-like female figures to hint at moments of intimacy and grief. With the installation Fadma Kaddouri’s family archives (2010), El Hammami and Kaddouri examine the role of cassette tapes as a medium of communication among African migrant families.

The ambitious exhibition groans a bit under the burden of the philosophical superstructure that its curator, Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, founder and head of Savvy Contemporary, and his co-curator, the Berlin art historian Elena Agudio, have placed on it. The exhibition organizers pull out all the stops of postcolonial theory in their curatorial statement. But the tight corset of portentous section titles that they pour it into greatly narrows any unbiased reception of the works.

A work like Alexandre Singh’s (France, USA) Assembly Instructions: The Pledge (Donatien Grau) (2012) has only its form in common with the life stories, branching like rhizomes, that Ndikung invokes as an alternative to a totalizing historical narrative of "Africa" in the section Unthinking the Chimera. Singh turns a talk with the French art critic Donatien Grau into a clash: pictures copied from magazines and framed from science, cinema, and art serve as visual counterparts to the dialog.

The work can be taken as evidence for Ndikun’s hypothesis that, today, postcolonial everyday life concerns artists in Africa more powerfully than the eternal dealings with history and colonialism – if the poster Black Power (2008) by Hank Willis Thomas (USA) didn’t demonstrate the contrary. Thomas has mounted the slogan of the Afro-American civil rights movement of the 1960s as letters, glittering like jewels, on the gold teeth of an Afro-American whose face cannot be seen – a bold and simplifying cipher of an imposed identity between commodity character, racism, and resistance. Apparently, the struggle against them not yet finished; otherwise these posters would not be laid out for visitors to take home.

The exhibition is full of examples of how powerful the effect of this trauma still is. In Fanon cou coupé (2011), Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc (France) placed editions of the books of the Afro-French psychiatrist, philosopher, and revolutionary Frantz Fanon in the world’s languages on bookshelves. The work demonstrates Fanon’s intellectual range. But his classic The Wretched of the Earth also seems like an antiquarian relict.

Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa (United Kingdom) problematizes the classical historians’’ approach to colonialism. Her installation Untitled (2014) focuses on the photos that, for years, the British Colonial Office had taken of the prison inmates in the British protectorate Uganda. In a secret "Operation Legacy", they were destroyed immediately before Uganda’s 1962 declaration of independence. Wanambwa wants to point out the precarious "character as evidence" of the former rulers’ photos by deciding to exhibit, not these photos, but ones that document life in the country during the colonial period.

Just as the references and consciousness of the artists oscillate between colonialism and postcolonialism, so too their image of Africa swings between dystopia and utopia. In the science fiction film Pumzi (2007) by Wanuri Kahiu (Kenya), the desert in East Africa becomes the underground refuge of people on a planet on which all nature has been extinguished. In the video Kempinski (2007) by Neïl Beloufa (France/Algeria), under pale neon light on the outskirts of Bamako, the capital of Mali, lay actors speak about how they imagine the future. One of them talks about a life with hundreds of oxen, another of a life without cars. A surreal, remote city in Africa becomes a symbolic interface between nature mysticism and ecological utopia.

One searches the showing in vain for the "alternative historical narrative" that the exhibition organizers invoke. The endless red carpet that Lerato Shadi (South Africa) crocheted into the exhibition space in a spectacular opening performance in Berlin while sitting silently on a chair establishes this claim only generally, rather than offering an African master narrative. But at least the exhibition captures an idea of political self-empowerment that is no longer subsumed in a raised fist.

In his video World Domination (2012), Neïl Beloufa instead reflects on the ambivalence of power. The symbolic picture of civil society’s claim to govern itself serves also as a warning against the self-contradiction of power. In it, lay actors take the roles of politicians and military leaders and have to react to a fictitious geopolitical problem. In one of the improvised conferences, they consider the idea of attacking and annihilating Europe from Africa, in order to protect African youth from the sirens’ song of the luxurious European lifestyle. The symbol of civil society’s claim to govern itself serves also as a warning against the self-contradiction of power. An alternative can be gleaned from the work of Bouchra Khalili (Morocco). In her video trilogy The Speech Series (2012/13), she lets working-class migrants in Paris, Genoa, and New York have their say. Sometimes they pose as mute. Here, self-empowerment begins as a rhetorical and performative act.

Kiluanji Kia Henda (Angola) gives visibility to another alternative. In his photo series Redefining the Power (2009), he questions the historical legacy of his homeland. To this end, he visited a kind of open-air cemetery in his home city Luanda’s fortress São Miguel. It serves as a collection point for dismantled Portuguese monuments from the colonial era. He placed performers from various subcultures on the orphaned pedestals of these artifacts. In one of his photographs, a man poses in a white dress tailored from cutup plastic sacks. The photo series (2009) is titled Homo Novo, alluding to Angola’s national anthem. The new African is practicing a hybrid, cross-gender identity.

It’s not clear whether the new, postcolonial and post-heroic epoch that the picture half-ironically conjures up should be interpreted as "optimistic", as the curators interpret his work. What does make one optimistic is that, in November 2012, Kiluanji Kia Henda was awarded Angola’s State Prize for Visual Art for this work.

(Translation from German: Mitch Cohen)

>> Photo Tour through the exhibition


Giving Contours To Shadows is a project by SAVVY Contemporary and Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.), Maxim Gorki Theater, Gemäldegalerie Berlin, Centre for Contemporary Art of East Africa (CCAEA, Nairobi, Kenya), Ker Thiossane (Dakar, Senegal), 5th Marrakech Biennale Satellite (Marrakech, Morocco), Video Art Network (VAN Lagos, Nigeria) and Parking Gallery/ VANSA (Johannesburg, South Africa).

The exhibition and program are framed in five thematic chapters:
Performing and Embodying histories, Wandering through histories, Unthinking the Chimera, Sequestrating History, Pre-writing histories
Furthermore, the roundtable program is dedicated to discussions on the ideologies of space, performativity and the archive, and notions of pre-writing history.

Ingo Arend

Studied politics, history and journalism. Works as a cultural journalist and essayist in Berlin since 1990.

Photo Tour ►

Giving Contours to Shadows

23 May - 27 July 2014

Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.)

Chausseestr. 128-129
10115 Berlin

Curator: Dr. Bonaventure Ndikung
Co-curator: Dr. Elena Agudio
Roundtable Series Co-curator:
Storm Janse van Rensburg

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