Critics’ Picks

El Anatsui, Ozone Layer and Yam Mounds, 2010, mixed media, dimensions variable.

El Anatsui, Ozone Layer and Yam Mounds, 2010, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Berlin

“Who Knows Tomorrow”

Neue Nationalgalerie
Potsdamer Straße 50 (closed for renovation)
June 4–September 26, 2010

In the competition for a place in public memory, Berlin’s colonial history has lost out to the cold war and the Holocaust. While the city is seasoned in displaying certain shards of its fraught twentieth century, this exhibition of contemporary African art exposes the continual absence of visual traces of Berlin’s colonial ties. Extending across four branches of Berlin’s sweeping museum network, “Who Knows Tomorrow” foregrounds commercial paths between Europe and Africa, with works inspired by the very products of these exchanges.

Yinka Shonibare’s Scramble for Africa, 2003, reenacts the 1884–85 Berlin-Congo Conference where European leaders met to divvy up the African continent. In Victorian costumes cut from the swirling patterns of Dutch wax cloth (the artist’s shorthand for the tangled relations of international trade), fourteen of his trademark headless figures stake their claims. Set in the context of the Friedrichswerdersche Kirche’s neo-gothic splendor and its permanent collection of classical busts, the installation intimates the sinister side of nineteenth-century aristocratic society. Meanwhile, outside the Hamburger Bahnhof, António Ole’s monumental installation turns steel shipping containers into building modules, linking the international shipping economy to improvised housing construction in his native Angola, and thus global commerce to the private sphere. Screening inside the museum, Zarina Bhimji’s Waiting, 2007, is a seductive meditation on the deceptively beautiful materials in a Kenyan rope factory. Close framing transforms the arduous conditions of industrial production into a sequence of wispy abstractions in shades of white. Elsewhere, El Anatsui’s shimmery tapestry made from foil liquor-bottle labels drapes the Alte Nationalgalerie’s sumptuous facade, applying a colonial veil to this seat of German art history. Through these juxtapositions and the concomitant provocation of public discourse on colonialism, both the works and their museal settings become more complicated, resulting in a productive (if temporary) new layer in the city’s rich texture.