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From the catalogue of the 10th Berlin Biennale

Dear History, We Don't Need Another Hero

Gabi Ngcobo


A photograph of a protest banner with these words is one of several iconic images associated with the Fallists—a South African student group that emerged out of the recent #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protest movements. Among these images, the most striking shows the removal of the statue of imperialist Cecil John Rhodes from the grounds of the University of Cape Town on April 9, 2015, exactly a month after the beginning of the protests. Also visible in this image is a placard reading “WE ARE NOT DONE YET”.

What has remained evocative for my curatorial thinking—beyond the images plastered across the internet—is an image inscribed in my mind, that of the vacant concrete plinth where Rhodes sat contemplatively for more than eighty years. What future possibility does this open space hold or enable us to foretell?

Addressing history in the present is to speak to a future unknown. Belonging to the generation of the current moment, we cannot immediately understand, in relative opacity, how the events of the present will affect our futures. This unknowing, however, should not stop us from undoing what has become obsolete.

The dazzle camouflage that is our visual identity for the 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art references camouflaged warships from the First World War, which were painted with patterns meant to obscure the intentions, direction, speed, and size of the ships. Clad in this camouflage, the 10th Berlin Biennale is not a platform for superfluous obscurities but rather carves a space from which we can keep and recover our collective distances from overly simplified notions of beingness. Our camouflage is imagined in shades of grey and pink—respectively denoting, at least in our fiction, the color of history and the color of the future.

Titled We don’t need another hero, the 10th Berlin Biennale has been a journey of inhabiting a grammar towards the unknown. Our journey begins twenty years into the existence of the Berlin Biennale, now in its tenth version, placing us at a historical crossroads. This intersection demands that we tread carefully before crossing over, or turning. To be at this crucial point, right now, also demands an introspective approach. Here, things may collide and create a state of disarray. Here, too, we can still change our attitudes to the world and the people we share it with.

A number of artists invited to the 10th Berlin Biennale took up residencies in cooperation with partners in different parts of the world: in Johannesburg, South Africa; Salvador de Bahia, Brazil; Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; Bangalore, India; Windhoek, Namibia; and Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Some artists came to take up residencies in Berlin, coming from Port-au-Prince in Haiti, Allada in Benin and Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago. For us, artist residencies are tools for unsettling cultural creation by expanding our understanding of ourselves in the world, whether this becomes visible as part of the work in the biennial is of little significance. Residencies are platforms for staging a new set of contradictions that may arise from a refreshed understanding of alternative historical configurations.

The public program of the 10th Berlin Biennale I’m Not Who You Think I’m Not was launched a little less than a year before the opening of the exhibition in collaboration with Each One Teach One e. V. (EOTO), an association located in the neighborhood of Berlin-Wedding, where this first event was staged in July 2017. The event featured poets affiliated with EOTO, Philipp Khabo Koepsell and Victor Omere, and participants invited by the 10th Berlin Biennale, cultural theorist George Shire and artists Donna Kukama and Jota Mombaça. The inaugural public program set the tone for an ongoing journey towards the 10th Berlin Biennale and continues as an open space for negotiations and active contradictions that the format of the biennial exhibition may not be able to sustain. The public program disavows assumed beingness and know-hows, perspectives that are often based on existing, constructed social frameworks and their associated speculations about particular subjectivities. [...]

The 10th Berlin Biennale takes place in five venues. KW Institute for Contemporary Art has been the venue of the biennial since its beginning in 1998. It is an institution that has experienced an exciting history engaged in post-Wall Berlin. It provides us a space to contemplate the narratives that have shaped it and its future in the city. At the Akademie der Künste on Hanseatenweg we consider the multiple histories contained in the institution’s vast archives and the lineage of its exclusive membership system, posing questions about the hierarchical nature of historical constructs. In 2008 the 5th Berlin Biennale collaborated with the artist collective KUNSTrePUBLIC, whose project Skulpturenpark Berlin_Zentrum became one of the venues for the biennial. The 10th Berlin Biennale is again working with the collective to collaborate within a space that they have since established in the neighborhood of Moabit. Z/KU – Center for Art and Urbanistics features the works of artists who reflect on the built environment, starting from their own subjectivities and how these subjectivities are performed or interpreted in different parts of the city. A coproduction with HAU Hebbel am Ufer features two evenings of musical production that trace the history of Kwaito, a music genre that emerged from the townships of South Africa during the post-1994 period. The musical journey is accompanied by club events and an interactive space in the HAU2 project space.

We don’t need another hero is a collective dialogue and a space that holds a historical process already in motion, here in Berlin and in many parts of the world. The work of undoing and reconfiguring centuries of repressed vocabularies and their complexities is an undertaking that has thrown us into states of disarray; it “is a program of complete disorder”, to quote Fanon. The 10th Berlin Biennale proposes a plan on how to face a collective madness; it offers a platform for collective dreaming and for action. We don’t need another hero is a message to the future and a command for us to fearlessly heed the present.

We are not undone yet.

10th Berlin Biennale, 9.6.–9.9.2018; catalogue