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Britta Schmitz, Head Curator at the National Gallery, is one of the key initiators of the project “Who Knows Tomorrow”, whose curatorial concept she, Udo Kittelmann, and Chika Okeke-Agulu developed and implemented. In August 2010, we asked her how the idea arose and about the background and context of this unusual exhibition that presents the works of five artists of African descent at and in four of the houses of the National Gallery in Berlin.
Haupt & Binder: How did the idea for this project arise?
Britta Schmitz: The idea for this project developed out of various parallel interests. For a long time, we have been expanding the exhibition activity of the National Gallery, which has always been international but is now planned with a real global outlook. Having already shown several exhibitions of artists from China, Australia, Africa, and the Near and Middle East [see the list at the bottom of the interview], I thought we should take a closer look at Africa. At international exhibitions, I had occasionally seen powerful works by artists of African descent, but in my opinion they did not receive the attention and appreciation I would have hoped for. When the German Federal President’s Africa Initiative began, we were thus already well prepared and had had the theme in mind for quite some time. At the same time, we were involved in the communications process about a Department of African Art at the Art Historical Institute at Berlin’s Freie Universität, because the National Gallery regards itself as a research institution, of course.
Haupt & Binder: “Who Knows Tomorrow” is not one of the usual exhibitions in Hamburger Bahnhof. The works of the five artists will be shown at or in four museums with differing profiles that belong to the institution of the National Gallery. Three of them are site-specific installations, visible at a great distance, at outstanding sites of German art, which lend the works a certain level of significance. In your text in the reader, you noted how the division of Berlin led to the geographic “sprawl” of the National Gallery and that now a public, recognizable connection between these sites is being recreated for the first time, precisely through a project with artists of African descent. What led to this unusual decision to choose only a very few artists and to present their works in such a striking way?
Britta Schmitz: Indeed, even twenty years after the formal restoration of German unity, the National Gallery with its various houses in the East and West of the formerly divided city is still far too little perceived as a single institution. That’s why, with this project with contemporary artists, we wanted to present something in front of the spatial separation, and at the same time we wanted to stimulate a comprehensive discourse about the complex questions of nationality and its connection with the constituting of global society. In the course of Germany’s reunification, debates about national identity and the representation of art were sparked in connection with the National Gallery. “Who Knows Tomorrow” adds new dimensions and perspectives to the East-West lines of vision from which such discussions have been and will continue to be conducted. By temporarily “occupying” such marked art sites in the German capital with “Africa” or artists who come from Africa, we wanted to launch another dialog, starting from the stimulus of perception that turns into reflection. The artists were not chosen so that they would express themselves about typical “African” themes, as in so many of the exhibitions customary today, themes that people here think they are familiar with because of the recurrent media reports. Rather, as our theme we take much broader, issues of identity, globalization, and history that affect our view of ourselves and of certain chapters of this city’s and this country’s past in a way that few people are aware of.
Haupt & Binder: You are surely referring to Germany’s involvement in Africa’s colonial history. In the framework of this project, you are pointing especially to the “Berlin Conference” of 1884/85, where, at the invitation of German Reich Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the colonial powers gathered in the Reich Chancellor Palace on Wilhelmstraße to divide Africa up among themselves and to draw the boundaries that still exist on the continent. Did you as organizer have the feeling that the public really understood the exhibition as a challenge to delve into this topic?
Britta Schmitz: That’s why we chose exterior works, so that the challenge to engage in dialog is visible for everyone and one needn’t enter the museum to encounter the art. On the many tours we gave, we could see very directly how people engaged with the theme and recalled what and how little they actually know about colonialism. Impressive was also, for example, that in the Friedrichswerder Church, which has always been fairly well visited, the numbers of visitors tripled for “Who Knows Tomorrow”. There the works of Yinka Shonibare MBE are being shown, including his installation “The Scramble for Africa”, which refers directly to the Berlin Conference of 1884/85. Last week, when, in the context of their interest in issues of reception, the artists’ group HAJUSOM surveyed the public for three days on various exhibition sites, they discovered a great interest in learning more about Germany’s involvement in colonial history. At any rate, this process in which the colonial powers sit down together and divide up a whole continent without a single native representative was a unique act in world history. Now, when artists of African descent are making the issue visible at a distance, a traditional Western monopoly on memory is fractured once more, and the public here must accept being put into question.
Haupt & Binder: Is the National Gallery drawing specific conclusions from its experience with this project for its continued work and future exhibitions? Are you considering continuing this kind of project or pursuing certain aspects of it?
Britta Schmitz: When a curator considers a concept, she simply has to delve deeper into its diverse facets. An essential aspect thereby is the question of whose history we really have in our consciousness. There are many interesting artists in other parts of the world who are interested in the significance of such a question and thus there are plenty of possibilities to continue working on such themes. For example, we are currently thinking about a project dealing with the definition of territories, for instance when and in what form they are noted in maps and atlases. Our experiences with the reader that accompanies “Who Knows Tomorrow” flow into this, because we have gathered and worked through a great deal of factual material on the subject.
We will certainly carry on the idea of bringing to consciousness the way World War II and Germany’s and Berlin’s partition fragmented the National Gallery and of using works of art to subject it to questions. As with many other histories people are not familiar with, most people are not aware of the history of the National Gallery.
Haupt & Binder: Will such a project also have effects on the collection, i.e., are you considering purchasing works by African artists for the National Gallery’s permanent collection?
Britta Schmitz: We esteem the participants in the project “Who Knows Tomorrow” as great artists, whether they are of African descent or not. For us, their individual strength was a crucial reason not to tie them together in a group exhibition, but to present them in major solo projects. And indeed they are being perceived as individual artists; the exterior works in particular are so striking and attractive that thousands of tourists are taking their pictures in front of them. Of course works by every participant in this project would be highly welcome in the collection, quite apart from the “Africa” label, just as the National Gallery has purchased many works by other international artists, based on their artistic quality.
Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt
Publishers of Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art. Based in Berlin, Germany.
A project of the Nationalgalerie - Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
4 June - 26 Sept. 2010
Nationalgalerie - Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Princeton University, USA
Nationalgalerie - Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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