A new energy is vibrating at this house

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Thursday, June 20, 2024

A new energy is vibrating at this house
Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, center, the new director of the House of World Cultures in Berlin, with his team of curators and administrators on July 19, 2023. From left: Paz Guevara, Dzekashu MacViban, Jan Trautmann, Emilienne Fernande Bodo, Ndikung, Eva Stein, Marie Helene Pereira, Henriette Gallus, Rosa Cordillera Castillo and Eric Otieno Sumba. (Mustafah Abdulaziz/The New York Times)

by Siddhartha Mitter

BERLIN.- 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, Berlin’s 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 World’s 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 Berlin’s alternative art scene.

Ndikung, who became a German citizen in 2006, is HKW’s 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 Berlin’s 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 Ndikung’s 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? That’s 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 she’s 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 chancellor’s office and near Germany’s parliament. The security presence can feel forbidding. “Whenever I pass, despite the fact that I’m the director of this institution, I have to look left and right,” Ndikung said. “That’s 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 institution’s 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 can’t always be on the other side complaining that institutions should change.”

Ndikung trained as a scientist, but grew up around writers in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s 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 friend’s 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 I’ll write a book about my odd jobs,” he said of the work he took in construction, restaurants and more to repay them from Berlin.

Ndikung’s 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 Germany’s 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.”

Ndikung’s new role lands him in Germany’s political battles, as Claudia Roth, the culture minister, made clear in an effusive but pointed speech at HKW’s 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 Germany’s parliament designates as antisemitic — would not be tolerated.

Ndikung has heard it before. After his nomination by Roth’s 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 exhibition’s 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.”

It’s a different energy for a German public institution — not necessarily in sync with its counterparts — but Ndikung isn’t 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 you’re coming with a teaspoon, that’s fine.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Today's News

September 6, 2023

Undying dread: A 400-year-old corpse, locked to its grave

Man Ray exhibition in New York, the first of its kind

Brendan Lynch appointed new Chairman of Asia Week New York

A painting looted at least once, from Hitler, is on the block

First exhibition in North America to examine Seifū Yohei Ceramic Studio's output over four generations

Hans Josephsohn sculptures show featuring 13 works ranging from 1950-2004 at Skarstedt

Groundbreaking exhibition at Cantor Arts Center repositions the self-taught Modern Art artist Morris Hirshfield

Have you seen Paul McCartney's lost bass guitar? Tips welcome.

'Superunknown' an exhibition of new work by Henry Mandell opening at Anita Rogers Gallery

A new energy is vibrating at this house

Brandi Twilley's 'Crest Foods' opens at Sargent's Daughters

The Rockwell Museum welcomes Amanda Lett as Curator of Collections and Exhibitions

19th edition of Edinburgh Art Festival draws to a close after first year under direction of Kim McAleese

Hannah Traore Gallery presents "Quil Lemons: Quiladelphia"

Dovecot's major exhibition Scottish Women Artists features new commissions and contemporary works

Jim Nutt, represented by David Nolan Gallery, to show for first time in decade in New York

Jordan Ann Craig's debut show with the gallery, sharp tongue soft skin, at Hales

David Krut Projects first solo exhibition with Raquel van Haver opening today

Edith Grossman, who elevated the art of translation, dies at 87

In the Faeroe Islands, art, food and fashion take a cue from nature

Gallery Wendi Norris appoints Leslie Rothenberg as director based in New York

A $700 million bonanza for the winners of crypto's collapse: Lawyers

Can shrinking be good for Japan? A Marxist bestseller makes the case.

Painting by Atsuko Tanaka headlines MBA Seattle Auction Houses Modernism sale

The Intersection of Famous Art and Online Slots

Reddit Anime: A Community for Anime Enthusiasts

Unlocking the World of Option Trading: What Is Option Trading?

Is It Safe to Buy Targeted Instagram Followers?

"Embrace Peacefulness: The Nursery Tranquility Package"

Museums, Exhibits, Artists, Milestones, Digital Art, Architecture, Photography,
Photographers, Special Photos, Special Reports, Featured Stories, Auctions, Art Fairs,
Anecdotes, Art Quiz, Education, Mythology, 3D Images, Last Week, .


Ignacio Villarreal
(1941 - 2019)
Editor & Publisher: Jose Villarreal
Art Director: Juan José Sepúlveda Ramírez
Writer: Ofelia Zurbia Betancourt

Royalville Communications, Inc

ignaciovillarreal.org juncodelavega.com facundocabral-elfinal.org
Founder's Site. Hommage
to a Mexican poet.

The First Art Newspaper on the Net. The Best Versions Of Ave Maria Song Junco de la Vega Site Ignacio Villarreal Site
Tell a Friend
Dear User, please complete the form below in order to recommend the Artdaily newsletter to someone you know.
Please complete all fields marked *.
Sending Mail
Sending Successful