Who Knows Tomorrow @ Nationalgalerie, Berlin
I’m currently not in Berlin. I don’t know whether I’ll go any time soon. But this is an important moment as far as contemporary African arts in Germany are concerned: An exhibition of works by the artists El Anatsui, Zarina Bhimji, Antonio Ole, Yinka Shonibare, and Pascale Marthine Tayou in, and this is what’s so significant about it, the Nationalgalerie. Under the title Who Knows Tomorrow the exhibition has been curated by Udo Kittelmann (Nationalgalerie), Chika Okeke-Agulu (Princeton University), and Britta Schmitz (Nationalgalerie).
Thus the official press statement (English version) explains the concept behind the exhibition:
Invitation to change perspectives
During summer, five internationally renowned artists of African descent will show their art on the grounds of the Nationalgalerie Berlin. El Anatsui, Zarina Bhimji, António Ole, Yinka Shonibare, and Pascale Marthine Tayou have been invited to present themselves in the various, architecturally significant buildings in which the Nationalgalerie accommodates its large collections of art from the 19th to 21st century. Their artistic treatment of the different stylistic, political, and social references will conspicuously mark the buildings and their collections during the course of the project. The ensemble of the Nationalgalerie will thus become an itinerary of large-scale, sculptural, and installation-based works, which are for the most part created outdoors in a site-specific manner.
The participating artists prompt a dialog on questions that, in face of the current radical economic, social and political changes, are more relevant than ever. Is uncertainty regarding the future the greatest certainty we now possess? The title of the exhibition, “Who Knows Tomorrow,” was inspired by an inscription on a small bus in Africa that was photographed by chance. This maxim of life widespread in Africa now stands for the meaning-generating theme of the exhibition.
Field of projection and tension
A Nationalgalerie is and always has been a mirror and the expression of the nation’s history and present. Each of its buildings is linked to specific historical situations. The exhibition uses this context as a field of projection and tension. It looks to the past, to the future, and especially to the present. The works of the participating contemporary artists address issues related to identity, globalization, and history. Far from claiming to represent or, even less, appropriate current African art production, the exhibition is instead dedicated to leaving monuments of German history to artists of another continent, raising the question as to what and whose history is narrated and written down. How does art contribute to overcoming (art) historical constructions, clichés, and stereotypes?
German history in view of museum architecture—and African reflection
The artistic projects reveal the entanglements and connections between Africa and Europe: The contours of the political map of the African continent still existing today were marked out at the “Berlin Africa Conference” in 1884/85, sealing the division of Africa among the Western powers. Hence, the history of Africa’s colonization is closely linked to the situation of Berlin at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Fifty years ago, in 1960, seventeen states initially became independent. Both historical events are connected to questions of a national sense of belonging and identity.
Artists always respond to these changes in a seismographic and sensitive manner. This will also be revealed in the works being created in Berlin.
The former German president Horst Koehler in 2004 initiated an Africa Initiative called Partnerschaft mit Afrika. He has also been (or still is, I don’t know, because he resigned a few days ago) the patron of the exhibition. Chika Okeke-Agulu reports that he still attended the reception and met the curators and artists at Bellevue on 30 May 2010 (his assessment of the comments that preceded Koehler’s resignation as opposed to its reception in German papers is quite refreshing …). The exhibition is featured on the foreign office’s Aktion Afrika website and is promoted by Deutsche Welle (there is a link to a Video on Demand on the site which contains a comments by Chika Okeke Agulu and comments by the artists).
Universes in Universe provides a list of the artists and their work (and soon, I hope, a review). The artists’ names link to separate sites in which biographical background as well as some photographs of their work in-situ are provided.
Visitors and journalists eye the installation 'Scramble for Africa' by Yinka Shonibare at
An interview with Udo Kittelmann (Nationalgalerie) and parts of Chika Okeke-Agulu’s speech at what I assume was the official press conference have been made available by Art in Berlin (again, I don’t seem to be able to embed it here). The interview with Udo Kittelmann is in German. This is my quick transcript translated into German (Disclaimer: I’m not a translator so this NOT literal, if you find any mistakes pls. let me know):
It was the wish of the former German president to have in Berlin an exhibition of artists of African origin. We [i.e. the Nationalgalerie] were interested too. Thinking about the project and its possible framework we soon decided against one of the usual group exhibitions with 30, 40 or 50 artists. Instead we decided to build the exhibition around the individual creativity of great artists whose aesthetic compositions and art works also reflect upon our own history, a history that has also always been a history between Europe and Africa. Particularly relevant here are certainly the works of Yinka Shonibare who is represented with an installation in the Friedrichswerdersche Kirche. It addresses the so-called Congo Conference in Berlin 1884/85. The Congo Conference provided the basis for the division of Africa, of course with consequences until today. This provided a point of departure from which to discuss the early 20th century and then the second half of the 20th century. Here, Antonio Ole and his container work constitute, of course, a metaphor for our current global trade relationships and takes us straight to today.
António Ole The Entire World / Transitory Geometry, Hamburger Bahnhof
What can art achieve? Just this morning I heard a statementby Louise Bourgeois, this wonderful artist who died at the age of 89 years. She said, the power of art derived from its ability to keep us sane – and this I believe is achieved by this project as well. We will have to discuss why an artists like El Anatsui install his wonderful golden curtain at the Alte Nationalgalerie where the inscription above the entrance still reads To the German Art 19871. Once there was such a thing as German art, or at least that was the belief. Today, we know, there is art, there are artists who aim towards a global impact, who do not anymore believe in national borders.
El Anatsui Ozone Layer and Yam Mounds, Alte Nationalgalerie
Finally, especially against the background of the disinterest by many African ambassadors noted by Chika Okeke-Agulu let me also link you to an article about the exhibition in the Nigerian Compass.
* Just stumbled across this online version of the actual document the other day, i.e. the agreement of the 184/85 Berlin Conference … in case anybody was interested …