On a bright morning in early June, German lawmakers, Berlin city officials, ambassadors and other dignitaries clustered at the door of a hulking modernist edifice, waiting for a Vodou priest to conclude a ritual under a tree.
The priest, Jean-Daniel Lafontant, had come from Haiti to help reopen the House of World Cultures, Berlins distinguished but dowdy center for non-European arts and ideas. His task was to invoke Papa Legba guardian of thresholds and crossroads before the doors opened on a radically reinvented institution.
The house or HKW, as everyone calls it, using its German initials is an unwieldy beast, an anachronism with promise. It has prestige and generous state funding. It has space: a 1957 congress hall with a concrete plaza and a dramatic curved roof. (The building was an American gift to West Berlin during the Cold War.)
But its mission has been ambiguous, down to the name, with its whiff of Worlds Fair pavilions. Founded in 1989 at the dawn of multiculturalism, and just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, HKW has yawed between programs that highlight foreignness for instance one-country exhibitions, or world music and films and more complex fare.
In recent years, with debates in Germany over migration, Israel-Palestine policy and the rise of the far right oozing into the culture sphere, HKW seemed hunched in an academic stance, aiming, per its now-archived former website, to initiate reflection processes and devise new frames of reference.
To inject new dynamism, the government made an atypical choice for a state-run institution. Since January, it has been led by Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, a former microbiologist from Cameroon, who emerged as a curator, critic and charismatic figure on Berlins alternative art scene.
Ndikung, who became a German citizen in 2006, is HKWs first nonwhite director. The institution had never had a non-European staff curator until his ultra-diverse new team arrived. Their first move was to close HKW for four months for maintenance, but really for much more: a total overhaul of its programs and spirit.
Since reopening, HKW has run at a manic pace. It held a weekendlong festival around the spirit of the Haitian Revolution, and another on artificial intelligence and ancestral knowledge. Talks and films have delved into topics like queer performance and Berlins Black history. The grounds throb with concerts and DJ sets.
On view throughout the building is O Quilombismo, a 68-artist exhibition inspired by the quilombos, self-governed communities founded by freed and escaped enslaved people in Brazil. Many works in the show (which runs through Sept. 17) are new commissions more evidence that Ndikungs HKW is investing serious funds.
You might say that Ndikung came out swinging, but he rejects the combat metaphor. Love has everything to do with it, he said in an interview in July. How can we build society with love as a foundation? Thats really the project that we are trying to do here.
The early returns are positive. HKW is reporting record visitor numbers. Artist Temitayo Ogunbiyi, who built a child-friendly outdoor installation for the exhibition, called the reopening festivities, full of families of all backgrounds, the most joyous shes witnessed.
Revving HKW up is no small feat, even with a strong program. The building sits in a vortex of state power next to the chancellors office and near Germanys parliament. The security presence can feel forbidding. Whenever I pass, despite the fact that Im the director of this institution, I have to look left and right, Ndikung said. Thats the truth of it.
Ndikung said he felt no draw to HKW when he arrived in Berlin as a student in the mid-1990s. After entering the arts world, he respected the institutions seriousness, but rankled at its mindset. I was very critical of the house, Ndikung said. I wrote critical texts on the othering that I thought happened here.
But, he said, he applied for the job when the opening was announced in 2021 because we cant always be on the other side complaining that institutions should change.
Ndikung trained as a scientist, but grew up around writers in Yaoundé, Cameroons capital, and Bamenda, the main city of its English-speaking western region. His parents circle included professors, playwrights and poets. At the University of Yaoundé, he avoided classes, preferring to hang around musicians and artists.
He also studied German at the Yaoundé branch of the Goethe-Institut, following a friends lead. His mother sent potatoes from Bamenda to sell and pay the fees. When he qualified for a visa to Germany, his family mortgaged their house to support his travel. One day Ill write a book about my odd jobs, he said of the work he took in construction, restaurants and more to repay them from Berlin.
Ndikungs academic path pointed toward a brilliant career in life sciences: a biotechnology degree in Berlin, a doctorate in Düsseldorf, and postdocs in Berlin and Montpellier, France. Before he wrote seriously about art, he published on mutation mechanisms in chronic myelogenous leukemia.
But his avocation was creeping up on him. He visited Documenta, the prestigious five-yearly exhibition in Kassel, Germany, in 2002, struck that Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor had organized it. It was like some other world, he said an appealing one. He began helping art students with write-ups and organizing pop-up exhibitions.
For 10 years, he stopped reading fiction to catch up on art history. From the Renaissance painters to all the movements, he said, I always knew I was studying them from my vantage as an African and seeing what was lacking in those narratives while also learning them.
In 2009, Ndikung started the art space Savvy Contemporary with a few colleagues, first in a storefront in the immigrant-rich neighborhood of Neukölln. It later moved to Wedding, a district with a strong labor-union history. Savvy became a force, its exhibitions and events linking artists and scholars with local families and neighborhood characters, with an emphasis on conviviality.
Ndikung quit his last science job at a medical equipment company when he joined the curatorial team for Documenta 14, in 2017. As a curator and a prolific writer and critic, he has become a familiar presence on the global art circuit. Those credentials and his academic status he is Herr Professor Doktor Ndikung, even if his qualifications are not in the arts check the official boxes to lead HKW.
But his success at Savvy was a crucial factor, said Andreas Görgen, the secretary-general of Germanys culture ministry. He has proven that he is able to steer a house as a community focal point, Görgen said of Ndikung. Now we are asking him to take these skills and support the community building of Germany as an immigrant society.
Ndikungs new role lands him in Germanys political battles, as Claudia Roth, the culture minister, made clear in an effusive but pointed speech at HKWs reopening. She thanked him warmly for choosing to become German, then pivoted, noting that this made him part of a Täternation a nation of perpetrators, referring to guilt for Nazism and the Holocaust.
After lauding intersectional solidarity, she cautioned that the BDS movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel over Palestinian occupation a campaign that Germanys parliament designates as antisemitic would not be tolerated.
Ndikung has heard it before. After his nomination by Roths predecessor, Monika Grütters, in 2021, the newspaper Die Welt accused him of BDS sympathies. Detractors pointed to a 2014 Facebook post in which he said Israel would pay a millionfold for its bombings of Gaza. Ndikung has repeated that he does not support BDS; Roth, in office by then, supported him.
The bigger context is the current state of German memory culture, in which accusations of antisemitism are routinely levied against critics of Israeli policy (even Jewish ones), resulting in a series of event cancellations and withdrawn invitations for Palestinian thinkers from German institutions.
Last year, the appearance of an antisemitic image within a mural-like work by an Indonesian collective at Documenta 15 led to the resignation of the exhibitions director. As HKW director, Ndikung knows that critics await any slip-up.
But he also wants to lift the debate from its bog. The real antisemites in this country, and xenophobes and anti-Muslims, he said, are gathering forces. He pointed to recent polls that showed support for the far-right Alternative for Germany party at more than 20%. This is what we should focus on, he said.
At HKW, Ndikung has launched a discussion series on memory politics in Germany and Europe, hosted by Jewish writer Max Czollek. Memory culture is fundamental, Ndikung said. The question is how to deal with it in a productive way.
His overhaul of the institution includes another kind of commemoration. It has named every space for a woman in the arts or social movements, with explanatory placards. You might come in through the Nawal El Saadawi Entrance, cross the Sylvia Wynter Foyer, or ascend the Gloria Anzaldúa Stairs. The congress hall is now the Miriam Makeba Auditorium.
Like the Vodou ritual at the reopening, renaming the spaces is ceremonial and symbolic. In his opening speech, Ndikung spoke of inviting other spirits and reinhabiting the institution, of finding peaceful coexistence with all animate and inanimate beings.
Its a different energy for a German public institution not necessarily in sync with its counterparts but Ndikung isnt worried about that. We want to build a different world, he said. We want to think of the world differently, he added, and every step matters. Every drop of water matters. And even if youre coming with a teaspoon, thats fine.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times