Unlearning the Negation of Presence

In conversation with Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung

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Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung writes about dis-othering in his text Disothering as a Method, published within the framework of the transnational project Dis-Othering: Beyond Afropolitan and Other Labels  (2018–2019). The overall project is the result of a collaboration between BOZAR Centre for Fine Arts (Brussels), Kulturen in Bewegung (Vienna) and SAVVY Contemporary (Berlin) on the necessary deconstruction of othering practices in European cultural institutions, funded by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union. It ecompasses an exhibition, symposia, a residency program, a mapping research, and a website (materials available: https://www.academia.edu/42099872/Beyound_Afropolitan_and_other_labels_On_the_Complexities_of_Dis_Othering_as_a_Process

The work of the curator and author Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung has had a big  impact in Berlin and beyond. Just recently, he was appointed the new director of Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), a position he will begin in 2023. Last year, the senate granted him The Order of Merit for his outstanding service to the city as well. All this while his main project so far, the trailblazing art space SAVVY Contemporary, has flourished at a time when right-wing extremism has become pervasive in the German mainstream, offering respite from oppressive paradigms and systemic forms of discrimination. 

However, Ndikung is not tied to “the local”. His outlook exceeds Berlin, expanding to a global perspective. For example, he has also left his curatorial mark on the 12th Bamako Encounters Photography Biennial, the 13th Biennale Dak’Art, the 58th Venice Biennale, documenta 14, the ongoing Sonsbeek, and many other events. Refusing institutionalized spaces, claiming presence over representation, and challenging multiple processes of othering in the art system are some of the strategies he employs that we discuss in this interview.

CCQ
Can you talk about your observations of any embedded privileges and unconscious biases within the Berlin art scene? How do you see your own position and role in relation to systemic change? 

BSBN
I am thinking about what it means to have a privilege. Too often, it is presented as if some have privileges and others do not, but I would like to refuse that categorically. I think that in this way, we are also perpetuating some deep-rooted segregationist notions. Some can have privileges, and therefore they have to dismantle them. Others don’t have them, while the essential privilege we all have is the privilege of the life we all live. We are all born until now of a woman. That is a privilege and the point we have to speak from. There are other, acquired privileges that are secondary. Wealth, for example. They come from constructs⁠—gender, racial, economic, and so on. We all have to deal with that, not only curators. Curators are just a tiny bit of the world’s population. Therefore, if that is a concern for everyone in the world and not only the so-called privileged, we all have to tackle it. I believe that each person involved in the arts is in the business of making the world perceptible. So, if the question is, “How do I deal with my own privileges?” Well, I try to create spaces where we can deliberate and cogitate on these issues. Creating such spaces is how I understand what exhibition-making really is. In doing so, my hope is to bring in people who are, firstly, more knowledgeable about this specific matter; secondly, who are emphatic and can share with us what we have to do to live better in this world together, and thirdly, are able to find a medium through which to disseminate this knowledge. At the end of the day, it is really about how to live in this world better together⁠—with an emphasis on togetherness.

CCQ
Is the collaborative work in Savvy Contemporary part of this search for ways of living better together?

BSBN
Yes, Savvy is an example of a social space that can be created. It is an effort, a trial, a daily “encountering and struggling” with sociopolitical and socioeconomic realities. We can not afford ourselves the luxury of keeping ahead all the time. We try to be conscious about what is happening in the world today as much as about the histories of the place we find ourselves in. We are also very conscious of the fact that Berlin is a space too small for us to deal with. This is why we conceive projects which manifest themselves not only in Berlin but also in Lubumbashi in Congo, Douala in Cameroon, Rio in Brazil, or Jakarta in Indonesia. We try to conceive projects that find echoes in these spaces, but also simply acknowledge the fact that there are geographical specificities and knowledges tied to a place. If we really want to know how to live together in this world, we need to be sensitive and conscious of things that happen in different places. We are interested in diverse and plural epistemologies. This means thinking about knowledges rather than knowledge. With Covid-19, it has become really clear that the world is so interconnected that a virus could emanate from Wuhan in China and succeed in bringing the world to its knees because we are connected, and these connections are creating repercussions, whether we like it or not. Whatever stone is thrown into the water, we are interested in perceiving the ripples that come out of it.

CCQ
How can sonic communication—as an alternative to the visual—contribute to the development of a language that might allow us to speak across a multitude of experiences?

BSBN
We have tried to develop a practice around sonic and sonority and understand the character of sound itself. Sound plays an important role in our modes of perception. Society has been driven by a kind of hyper-sensuality toward the visual. However, there are things that we cannot see but can hear. Hearing is a practice that goes beyond the ears. Sound is very physical, you can feel the sound waves. Sound evokes emotions that lead to an intersection of other senses. Lionel Manga wrote that the hearing organs are among the ones that get developed in children the earliest. From around the twelfth week, the fetus starts listening, so there is a very early communication between the fetus and the mother through sound. It seems that hearing is one of the most advanced senses but also the most neglected. The photographer Akinbode Akinbiyi talks about his interest in listening in his practice. Listening defines his way of seeing. For someone who is in the business of seeing and capturing images, this is quite something. In the past few years, we have been trying to explore sonic spaces as spaces where you would find philosophies of the character of the sound itself, which I think is massively under-explored. What does a certain sound evoke in us? Why do I taste or see something when I listen to a particular sound? It is one of the many spaces we are interested in exploring in our search for knowledge. Of course, music is not exempt from it because it is a composition of sounds. Halim El-Dabh [the late Egyptian composer] was interested in carving music from noise. We are interested in that which is carved out of noise and in noise as well, and actually in the negation of the concept of noise.

CCQ
Concerning sound and privileges in the art world, an interesting decision of yours was to broadcast documenta 14 via radio program (Every Time A Ear Di Soun) to make it accessible to people who cannot participate on site, such as your grandmother, who was at the time living in Cameroon. During one broadcast, you asked: “How could someone like her experience and even in certain ways be a participant in documenta?” You said it was your way to democratize this privileged space. Can you tell us about the outcomes of this experiment?

BSBN
documenta might not be aware that it is not as important as it thinks it is. The simple declaration of being the most important exhibition in the world does not make it so. For this reason, if my grandmother participates in documenta by listening to it, I am not sure whether it is my grandmother profiting from being part of documenta or the other way around. I do not want to see this “power ingredient” as a given, as if people in the world are profiting from what is happening in Kassel. Kassel is a rather insignificant city in the world. If we go back to the previous point of being conscious about what is happening in the world and learning from others, or knowledges from other places, one can say that inviting people from other parts of the world actually helps documenta a lot. The radio is a communication apparatus. This means that the radio is not only giving “inputs” to the listeners, but it is also taking from them. My project was about this radio being the possibility of extending spaces, meaning: expanding what documenta could be and the possibility of people to contribute to it, to a significant extent. I don’t know if there is a result to that, but what I was interested in doing, together with the rest of the team, was to understand the importance of radio, the centrality it has in everyday life. The people in Cameroon can tell you so much about Cuba without ever visiting it. They have such closeness with that space because of what they are listening to on the radio. Not everyone has access to the internet, but many have access to the radio. As Frantz Fanon reminds us, the radio played an important role in resistance movements, in Algeria for example. There is also something about the world collapsing within that space of the radio: by tuning a slight notch down or up, you shift from one continent to the other. I am interested in how the radio weaves the world together. Each thread has its particularity, but they are woven. It is a fabric. And this weaving of the world together is what we are trying to do and what one should continue to do. This is why we do Savvy Contemporary and many other projects. 

CCQ
Care is one of the main topics of the recent developments of your research. In your new book, The Delusions of Care (Archive Books, 2021), you investigate care in a time of crisis. Can you tell us about the meanings and motivations behind it? And how would you define “care”?

BSBN
One of the motivations to write the book is the discrepancy I found between the claim of care and care itself. It is very difficult to find a common denomination of what care actually is. In one of his articles, the art critic, scholar, and art historian Horst Bredekamp wrote that the collection of artifacts, subjects, and objects put in an ethnographic museum was done in the spirit of anticolonialism. This man is telling you that in 1897 when the British burned down the Kingdom of Benin and looted thousands of bronzes, works of art, and beings, this was done in the spirit of anticolonialism. He is telling you that, when Europeans went to the Pacific, Australia, and the Americas, killed the indigenous people, took away their things, and put them in the ethnographic museum, that this was done in the spirit of anticolonialism. He is telling you that they were actually caring. From the very onset when indigenous people started to claim these objects and subjects and ask for them to be sent back, they have often been told that they wouldn’t be able to care for them, that someone else has to care for them because they have museums. How can you better take care of them than people who made them thousands of years ago and have kept them safe for so long, only in their terms and conditions? That is why I called my book The Delusions of Care

There is a whole business around NGOs that aim at sustaining themselves rather than the people whom they claim to be helping. One has to ask, with all these developmental aids, who are they actually aiding? We know that they caused more harm than good. One of the projects I have for next year is commemorating one of the books that Walter Rodney wrote in 1972, titled How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, which already engaged with these questions 50 years ago. According to him, the idea of classifying the world as so-called “developed” and “underdeveloped”, where the former is sustained by the latter, does not make sense. This is not care. For these reasons, we need to redefine what care is and could be. Care which is mutual and not based on exploitation. Care that is not built around notions of patriarchy or disenfranchising the other for your own benefits. This cannot be done by one set of people, by the formerly colonized, by the racialized, by women. It should be done by all of us, and we should conceive a renewed notion of care together. 

CCQ
In museums, care is used in a misleading way—or worse. There are processes of othering at play within such institutional spaces. As a response to this, you propose a refusal of those power relations that rely on turning someone into that Other for their existence and benefit (1). How can this refusal be enacted within the institutional space?

BSBN
I do not want to speak as if some people have no privileges and others have. That is othering. To “dis-other” is to refuse that. We all have privileges. So, that is the first thing of dis-othering. The idea of refusal, as important as it is, is built first and foremost on the possibility to properly understand the context in which one finds oneself; to properly understand what has been done wrong. In the context of museums, this means to understand what is a museum and what is not; and similarly, who makes the museum and who does not. The text on dis-othering is related to an invitation that came from BOZAR Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels. If museums are spaces where knowledge is preserved in some forms—such as a painting, a sculpture, or whatever else—for generations to come; if museums are spaces where that mediated knowledge finds ways of dissemination, then one could think of different kinds of museums, starting from the conception of the body as a museum. Because we do that in our bodies, we carry the knowledge with us. As Esiaba Irobi [the Nigerian-born theorist, playwright, and poet] said, the body is a site of discourse. Meaning, every time you go into a museum, it is an encounter between your primary museum and the secondary museum. There is always a negotiation between these two institutions: the body and the museum. The question that arises is—are you part of that institution, or is the institution in the business of making you not part of it? Do you see yourself within that institution? Like Kerry James Marshall [the American artist and academic] once said, he started painting black bodies because while growing up, he did not see people that looked like him in museums. And whenever they appeared, they were in the position of the servants. He wanted to create other images. Museums have played a massive role in creating the divide between the so-called “civilized” and the Other so-called “uncivilized”. If museums continue to do that, that means they exclude a huge part of the population. In the past few years, there has been a craze to get people to do outreach, and then institutions wonder why their strategies have not been successful. It is because instead of rethinking their exhibition programs, their outreach strategies have been to get a Black or Brown body, a woman, to go to some communities and tell them to come and see how the institutions are celebrating whiteness. This is why, when we did the project at Bozar, it was on dis-othering. We started the project around a few countries in Europe, such as Germany, Belgium, and Austria, and looked at institutions that get more than 60 percent of their funding from the state. We asked, who makes these institutions run? We looked at the curatorial board, at the directors’ board, and so on. How does that reflect the taxpayers of that society? You could do it the other way around and look at the people who are cleaning or doing security in those spaces. You see a particular image, and then you look at the board, and you see another image. You look at the curators, you see another image. In that context, you can send as much outreach as you want to get people from the communities to come. They will not because they do not see themselves in the institutions; the institutions do not give them any reason to come. Dis-othering relies on paying attention to these three things within an institution: the personnel, the program, and the public.

CCQ
We would like to expand on this topic of inclusion and exclusion and the question of who gets to participate or to be represented. Your curatorial work seems to often focus on the under- or unrepresented. For example, the 12th edition of Sonsbeek, which revolves around the issue of labor and other interconnected struggles, renders visible and audible that which is unseen and unheard. If we talk about engaging with the politics of representation as a curatorial strategy, how is it part of your work?

BSBN
I do not think I am interested in representation of any kind. I don’t do representation. I am interested in multiple narratives and multiple vessels of narration—the people that narrate. I am not interested in representation, especially because, as [the Ghana-born philosopher] Anton Wilhelm Amo wrote, you cannot talk about representation when people are present. So, I don’t understand the prefix “re-“. There is a construct of erasure that is kind of omnipresent, so what we are maybe interested in is “de-erasure”. De-erasure is different from representation, it is a method of learning. Things are there, and, in many cases, a layer of covering has been placed upon them. We just want to uncover them. If this is what you mean by representation, then maybe, yes, I might be interested in it. But in itself, the discourse of representation, I am not really into it.

When I went to see the Park Sonsbeek and its extreme green beauty, the artificialness of it, I was confronted with the following questions: How did it become what it is? How did we get here? Who made this? Where did the money come from? In the process of that investigation, things just came up—for example, the story of the Black Anna. After going to the Park Sonsbeek and the neighboring parks a couple of times in a couple of months, in one of the castles that wanted to collaborate with us—an 18th century castle of a rich family from Arnheim—I was asking, how did they make their money? People told me it is a rich family in the Netherlands. Every time I was there, they would tell me something new. One time they told me about plantations in Indonesia and Suriname. They also told me that it is one of the most respected families, that they are very kind, and so on. At one point, they told me that there is one trace of a woman who did not have a name and was just called the Black Anna, who was the caretaker of the two girls of the family. She was brought there from Surinam. She was Black, they were white. She lived there her whole life, taking care of them. One of the two mentions of her in the books was the fact that she was accounted for bringing up the children, and the other was when she was sick, and the doctor took care of her. In that sense, they were quite nice people because they could afford to bring a doctor to take care of an enslaved person. In both cases, it is accounted for with money, how much it cost. So I asked, is there any place where we can see how much she was paid for all the work she was doing? Since they were so meticulous in the accounting of money, there must be a place where you can see how much she earned. Until now, we have not found that, and also, the institution did not want to collaborate with us anymore. What is interesting in that story is that a few of the artists that came with us to Sonsbeek were touched by this story and decided to produce work on it. I do not know if that is representation because, actually, you feel the sorrow when you get into that space. She is present. So, I do not think it is representation. What we are doing is finding ways to tell her story. Representation, especially the way it is linked to the representation of politics, tends to mislead. Let’s acknowledge the presence of people that are there. Let’s acknowledge the stories of people that are there. Let’s acknowledge the fact that a lot has been done to negate their existence, let’s work towards unlearning some of those processes of the negation of their presences, and let’s work towards de-erasing them.

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