Anti-colonial Art We Don’t Need Another Hero

Mario Pfeiffer’s video installation “again” focuses on an incident in Saxony, where villagers presumably tied a refugee to a tree.
Mario Pfeiffer’s video installation “again” focuses on an incident in Saxony, where villagers presumably tied a refugee to a tree. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/Carsten Koall/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa

The art world expected great things from the tenth edition of the Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art – the first to be curated by an African woman. But the show refused to produce a simplified and linear narrative of colonialism. 

The tenth Berlin Biennale’s title We Don’t Need Another Hero, inspired by Tina Turner’s song for the film Mad Max 3, seems particularly poignant in 2018. The biannial exhibition of contemporary art has always engaged with political and social issues.Most critics expected a clear message on colonialism from the Biennale’s first female African curator; an artistic interpretation of the multiple histories of colonisation. But curator Gabi Ngcobo and her collaborators – all of them black people: Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, Serubiri Moses, Thiago de Paula Souza and Yvette Mutumba – took a clear stand against simplistic approaches to history. 
 
The show presented a layered analysis of two main topics: dispossession, violence and death in a neo-colonial regime on the one hand and anti-colonial struggles in present times on the other hand. Many of the works from 46 international artists operated through cuts, ruptures, the effects of displacement and distance to break away from linear narratives. The Biennale insisted on inhabiting multiple temporalities as a way of resisting the linear logic of Western ideas of time and history. It worked towards unearthing histories, making rooms for forms of rewriting and collective healing.

Art as a space of protest

The film by artist and activist Natasha A. Kelly, Milli’s Awakening (2018) is a portrait of eight African-German women artists and activists who tell their personal stories of struggle against racism, marginalisation and structural injustices in and outside the art world in Germany. One of the women, called Nadu, recalls the discomfort she felt coming to Germany as a young woman with a different skin complexion. It made her feel less than human. Another activist, Maseho, reads from her tongue-in-cheek guide for black people travelling in Germany. It advises them to save time by telling Germans that they are from the US or Africa, because a different answer would throw a German’s worldview into chaos. A woman activist from Bremen called Maciré recounts her “awakening” when she realised that her film had been used to legitimise an exhibition by providing a non-white perspective – a situation that might have sounded familiar to Kelly herself, an artist of Jamaican roots born in the UK. But the film also shows how these women have found in their communities and in art-making a way of overcoming their discomfort and of fighting for social justice. 
Cuban artist Belkis Ayon creates iconographies that draw parallels between her own life and that of Sikán, a female character in Afro-Cuban Abakuá mythology. Cuban artist Belkis Ayon creates iconographies that draw parallels between her own life and that of Sikán, a female character in Afro-Cuban Abakuá mythology. | Photo: © picture alliance/Carsten Koall/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa In the piece Sitting on a Man’s Head (2018), realised in collaboration with her partner, Peter Born, and several Berlin-based actors, choreographer and writer Okwui Okpokwasili takes a look at a traditional peaceful protest tactic employed by women in Eastern Nigeria. Known as “sitting on a man’s head”, it consists of causing collective disruption at seats of power, for instance by dancing or singing at someone’s house or office, and thus publicly shaming them. It enables marginalised women, as the artist explains, to “speak back, air grievances, and effect change”. Inspired by this, the piece begins outside a room whose walls are made of a semi-opaque soft plastic material, where members of the audience engage in intimate conversations prompted by questions such as “what is something you’ve been afraid to say and why?”. As the performer and the audience slowly enter the room, parts of the conversations reverberate inside it in movements, gestures, and vocalisations which together compose a new collective song. The transition from the intimate space of conversation to collective movement is powerful and renders inoperative any simple opposition between singularity and totality. 

Complexity instead of another hero

The idea that interruptions can produce changes is something that has always interested Lubaina Himid. For the Berlin Biennale, Himid produced a series of nine figurative paintings titled On the Night of the Full Moon (2018). Inspired by the style of “kanga” fabrics worn by East African women, the paintings represent organs, such as brain, breasts, lungs or a hand, while words from poets like Audre Lorde, Essex Hemphill, and Maud Sulter are inserted in the image. The insertion acts as a cut interrupting a previous visual narrative and thus opening a space for other stories. 
In Minia Biabiany’s installation “Toli Toli”, older people’s voices are heard singing a traditional nursery rhyme from the Caribbean island Guadeloupe. Children in Guadeloupe today no longer know the song. In Minia Biabiany’s installation “Toli Toli”, older people’s voices are heard singing a traditional nursery rhyme from the Caribbean island Guadeloupe. Children in Guadeloupe today no longer know the song. | Photo: © picture alliance/Carsten Koall/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa The tenth Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art presented many of those moments of interruption, displacement, distancing and introspection that open a space for different stories. It raised the question of how art can become a space where we can practice disobedience as a collective form of survival. Instead of providing “another hero” to present universal answers, the show pointed to the complexity and contradictions of the polarising topics of racism, colonialism and migration.