BERLIN — Since relocating to Berlin in 2015, I have encountered time and again the phrase “Refugees Welcome.” On the S-Bahn, printed on t-shirts, plastered onto innumerable bathroom stall doors, “Refugees Welcome” has become the rallying cry of Berliners opposed to the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which last year won nearly 14% of votes in the federal election. The first right-wing political party to enter parliament since 1949, the AfD opposes Chancellor Angela Merkel’s long-standing open-door policy towards refugees, undermining Germany’s reputation as a safe place for displaced people.
This year’s Berlin Biennale offers incisive commentary on the disturbing resurgence of nationalism in Germany. Entitled “We Don’t Need Another Hero” — a reference to Tina Turner’s 1985 anthem — it makes a strong case for art as a force for social change without pretending to offer any easy solutions.
“We draw from a moment directly preceding major geopolitical shifts that brought about regime changes and new historical figures,” lead curator Gabi Ngcobo writes in the exhibition’s outline, “refusing to be seduced by unyielding knowledge systems and historical narratives that contribute to the creation of toxic subjectivities.”
Since its founding in 1996, the Berlin Biennale has sought to foster radical political discourse. The first Berlin Biennale was fueled by a desire for “civic transformation,” as curators Nancy Spector, Hans Ulrich-Obrist, and Klaus Biesenbach put it in the exhibition catalogue. At the time, Berlin was still coping with the collapse of the German Democratic Republic and the subsequent influx of refugees from East Germany, and the messy politics of reunification served as a catalyst for artistic experiments. The idea of establishing a biennale in Berlin was not only about marketing the city as a newly reunited Western capital, but also about developing new artistic resources in terms of organizing, activism, event planning and political protest.
In 2012, after the emergence of Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and growing discontent in Europe over austerity, the 7th Berlin Biennale became an incubator of protest and politics. While there have been blips along the way — BB9 gave us aRihanna statue — the Berlin Biennale has tended to serve as a political gathering place.
That remains the case at BB10. This year, for the first time in its history, the Berlin Biennale is led entirely by curators of color, and most of the artists featured are women. Gabi Ngcobo chose four co-curators — Yvette Mutumba, Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, Moses Serubiri, and Thiago de Paula Souza — who together commissioned 30 new works, set across three main venues.
One work, a video by Natasha Kelly, features eight black women artists and curators describing how various forms of oppression have prevented them from finding meaningful employment in the German cultural sector. Called “Milli’s Awakening” (2018), the film’s title references an expressionist painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, called “Sleeping Milli” (1911) — a highly sexualized and exoticized depiction of a reclining black female nude. In contrast, the women in Kelly’s film speak loudly and clearly against their objectification and oppression. Implicitly directed toward entrenched German cultural elites, the majority of whom are white, the women’s voices reverberate with a sense of defiance.
The piece brings to mind the controversy that surrounded the Brooklyn Museum’s recent appointment of Kristen Windmuller-Luna, a white woman, as curator of African art. The museum subsequently faced backlash from Decolonize This Place, a coalition of activists who advance redress for ongoing legacies of oppression, especially with respect to the status of African art and culture.
Juxtaposing racial exploitation in art and sport, Sondra Perry’s multi-layered art-documentary “It’s in the Game ’17″ (2018) offers a strong one-two punch. The film masterfully compares the unfair profiteering off of college athletes in the NCAA to the ill-gotten gains of African and Asian objects in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (As recently as 2013, for example, the Met was forced to repatriate two statues to Cambodia after Cambodian officials presented evidence that the artifacts had been looted from an ancient temple in the country.)
Heba Y. Amin’s installation, Operation Sunken Sea (2018), one of the most powerful works of the biennale, references a ridiculous, unrealized plan by German architect Herman Sorgel in the 1920s to drain the Mediterranean Sea and merge Europe and Africa into one supercontinent.
In a video, Amin performs as a leader of a fictional nation, delivering a speech about how connecting Africa and Europe would “bring an end to terrorism and the migration crisis [and] confront the rise of fascism,” as she puts it in her artist’s statement. This bewildering rant, it turns out, is composed entirely of fragments from actual speeches of eight dictators from the past and present, including Benito Mussolini and the recently re-elected Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
One of the most talked-about works of the Biennale, Mario Pfeifer’s chilling two-channel video installation, “Again / Noch einmal” (2018), reconstructs a recent case of xenophobic violence in Germany. In 2016, in Saxony, four German men dragged an Iraqi refugee with a history of epilepsy out of a supermarket, brutally beat him, and tied him to a tree. After video of the incident went viral, the attackers claimed they had been acting out of “civic courage,” and the AfD championed the accused perpetrators as heroes protecting the nation. One week before the accused men went on trial, the frozen body of the Iraqi refugee was found in the woods. The four attackers were eventually acquitted.
Pfeifer’s video presents the grizzly details of this case via footage of various reenactments. At one point in the film, a group of Germans are asked to judge the actions of the perpetrators. “Nothing has changed,” one says, in what I saw as a foreboding reference to the Holocaust. The film offers a grim reminder that, for many in today’s Germany, “Refugees Welcome” is an empty promise.
As I left the venue and made my way home towards Wedding, a district in Berlin with streets dedicated to German colonizers, I saw my surroundings with a renewed sense of contradiction, and reflected on the many ways in which Germany has failed to acknowledge its colonialist past. Walking past numerous “Refugees Welcome” stickers, I turned onto Peters Allee — a street named after Carl Peters, a man who served as Germany’s top colonizer in Kilimanjaro during the 1880s, veering towards Nachtigalplatz, named after Gustav Nachtigal, founder of Germany’s West Africa colony.
“Colonization has not been the focus of [Germany]’s narrative,” Serpil Polat, a scholar who works at a migration academy linked to Berlin’s Jewish Museum, recently told Al Jazeera. “On the one side, there is a lack of knowledge and if it is talked about, we have a sense of nostalgia mixed with the thinking that what Germany did wasn’t as bad as other European colonizers. So a critical approach hasn’t really happened so far.”
As I criss-crossed my way through these streets, I started to wonder about how this collective failure to contend with the German history of colonialism relates to the women in Kelly’s film, to the Iraqi refugee nearly lynched last year, to initiatives like Decolonize This Place, and to long-delayed, necessary conversations currently taking place in museums across the West.
Earlier this year, curator and writer iLiana Fokianki wrote a blistering critique in e-flux journal arguing that decolonization should be regarded as a threshold with multiple points of entry, which can at times become problematic given the “art world’s current obsession (bordering on fetishistic) with ‘the Other.’”
In this vein, BB10 establishes a road map. It envisions curatorial practice as a form of social engagement. It inhabits the space of a Western institution without falling into hypocritical tropes of art speak. In doing so, BB10 signals the possibility of a new vocabulary directed at exhibition-making through field work and radical pedagogy. Rather than “giving voice” and whitewashing collective experiences of otherness, BB10 enters into a discourse of non-complacency, reframing historical patterns of colonialism with urgent, intersectional issues, firmly rooted in the present.
The 10th Berlin Biennale continues through September 9 at Akademie der Kunste (ADK) in Berlin-Tiergarten, KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin-Mitte and the Center for Art and Urbanistics (ZK/U) in Berlin-Moabit.