PRINT October 2010


“Who Knows Tomorrow”


THE LANGUAGE OF GEOGRAPHY—Africa, Europe, the West, the periphery, local, global—inevitably drives exhibitions that critique Eurocentric paradigms. “Who Knows Tomorrow,” a multivenue exhibition on view this summer in Berlin, marked an attempt to move beyond this cartographic model by focusing on temporal interconnections. “Africa” and “Germany” were not considered spatial or conceptual opposites, but rather were signposts of a specific historical moment when discrete spaces such as nation and continent became operative for the modern management of “global” power. The texts accompanying the show thus constantly returned us to the late nineteenth century, when Berlin figured prominently in the colonization of Africa. Similar themes have been examined by curators before, but “Who Knows Tomorrow” imbued its narrative of reflection with a powerful specificity. Five works by artists “of African backgrounds” were not only installed but literally inserted into the architectural fabric of four of the city’s museums (all of which come under the umbrella of the Nationalgalerie). The curators of “Who Knows Tomorrow”—Udo Kittelmann, Chika Okeke-Agulu, and Britta Schmitz—saw the show as a means of interrupting the Nationalgalerie’s generally celebratory memorializing of Germany’s history. The adage “Who knows tomorrow,” which is “widespread throughout Africa,” here served as the point of departure for an analysis of links and associations just below the surface of national and continental histories.

El Anatsui’s Ozone Layer and Yam Mound(s), 2010, was in many ways the exhibition’s flagship work. Commissioned specifically for the show and made using the artist’s signature technique of recycling West African aluminum bottle caps and cans into flexible clothlike forms, it featured a tapestry that draped across the grand Neoclassical facade of the Alte Nationalgalerie, and a pyramidal sculpture constructed of undulating layers of the same material. The mesh of the tapestry’s surface was luminous, while its center was a raw web of reddish tendrils. In sharp contrast to the solidity of the building, the fabric had been rent into two asymmetrical parts, imbuing it with a tattered, frayed, and precariously fragile quality. The tapestry’s prominence further destabilized the foundational principle of the museum, inscribed on the pediment above the work: DER DEUTSCHEN KUNST (To German Art). (This dedication has itself been an embattled notion since the end of the nineteenth century, some thirty years after the museum’s construction, when director Hugo von Tschudi found himself in hot water with Kaiser Wilhelm II for a rehanging that highlighted new French art by figures such as Cézanne and Degas.) Like so many of Berlin’s public projects signaling Germany’s commitment to facing up to its contested past, Anatsui’s work—like the exhibition as a whole—was first and foremost another entry in the city’s growing catalogue of critical “memory sites,” albeit a temporary one.

Far more winking was Pascale Marthine Tayou’s Colonial Erection, 2010, for which fifty-four flags (one for each African nation) were installed on the terrace of Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Neue Nationalgalerie. Fact and fiction were here allowed to meet in a seemingly happy naïveté. The designs of the flags were slightly “off” in each case—manipulations of the “real” originals. Simplified life-size fiberglass statues of Africans dressed in colonial-period costumes acted as sentinels on each side of the flags. These figures are modeled on hand-carved figurines that were made during the colonial period for Europeans who wanted charming souvenirs of how they imagined that Africans saw colonial “progress.” Both Tayou’s and the original sculptures border on caricature and embrace double meanings. Fittingly, visitors seemed happy to pose for photos with the statues in Berlin, apparently unaware that they were participating in a send-up of their own imaging.

More direct in its engagement with colonial history was Yinka Shonibare, MBE’s well-known Scramble for Africa, 2003, and Colonel Tarleton and Mrs. Oswald Shooting, 2007, both presented in the pristine neo-Gothic interior of the Friedrichswerder Church. Suspended in the chancel was the pheasant at which Tarleton and Oswald aim their weapons, which disintegrates midair in a puff of bloodied feathers. Shonibare’s life-size figures are dressed in multicolored batiklike textiles and create an order of representation of the past radically different from the marble visages of German Enlightenment figures and portrait busts on permanent display in the church. Scramble for Africa, Shonibare’s installation of fourteen headless mannequins around a grand table, presents a rereading of the infamous Congo Conference, which inaugurated the formal European colonization of the continent. That this event took place in Berlin in 1884–85, on the instigation of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, made the presentation of Shonibare’s work in the city a homecoming of sorts.

The theatricality of Shonibare’s colorful and wildly gesticulating figures suited the show’s intention to rebuke Germany’s past by mocking the normative “truths” of the country’s heritage. By contrast, Zarina Bhimji’s film Waiting, 2007, which was installed in a darkened exhibition hall at the Hamburger Bahnhof, provided a far more ambivalent view of the postcolonial constellation. Made inside a cavernous factory in Kenya, the film presents oblique shots of light-infused walls, cobwebbed corners, and dusty machines. Kenyans labor in the harsh conditions of such factories to produce twine from sisal, one of the country’s main exports—first introduced as a cash crop by German colonialists. Yet a human presence is evident only fleetingly, as indistinct movements in the background, and in an audio track of inscrutable voices and machinic pulses that is radically dissonant with what can be seen. The viewer is blinded by the beauty of surfaces and discomfited by a sense of being out of place. Waiting reverberated with the links between past and present explored in “Who Knows Tomorrow,” adding to them the notion that the representation of injustice and violence is always an exercise in elision.

The exhibition was organized under the auspices of Germany’s recently resigned federal president (and former head of the International Monetary Fund), Horst Köhler, whose catalogue text points to the show’s geopolitical ambitions—among them, to bring more visibility to Africa’s many challenges. Critics of Western policies toward Africa have insisted that colonialism and imperialism are not some historically distant problematic, since current trade policies ensure that the G8 dominates the global economy at Africa’s expense. Another work in the exhibition, António Ole’s The Entire World/Transitory Geometry, 2010, explicitly addressed this point: A wall of shipping containers—which facilitate the unequal trade between Africa and Europe—was installed on the grounds of the Hamburger Bahnhof; many of the containers had been sourced locally, symbolizing that it is here, in Berlin and other Western centers, that the management of political and economic power and its cultural representation currently unfold. By calling attention to the complicated relationship between a nation’s foreign policy and its cultural institutions, “Who Knows Tomorrow” suggested that this relationship may in fact have been the actual focus of the exhibition’s critique. Moreover, when Köhler told us that the five works on view “make it clear that cultural globalization does not inevitably lead to the loss of local cultural idiosyncrasies,” we were invited to consider why questions of globalization and other fraught topics, such as war, are displaced into the cultural field of exhibition-making precisely during moments when these issues are most contested.


I EXPERIENCED “Who Knows Tomorrow” in the context of the World Cup, so the drone of vuvuzelas invariably accompanied journeys between the four exhibition sites: Cafés and restaurants everywhere had outdoor flatscreen televisions tuned to the games in South Africa. It was the first time an African country had hosted the international soccer competition. Daimler Contemporary marked the occasion with a “conversation” between their permanent collection and works by contemporary South African artists; the Willy-Brandt-Haus, home to Germany’s Social Democratic Party, presented the survey show “South African Photography 1950–2010.” The organizers of “Who Knows Tomorrow,” conversely, made no attempt to link their high-profile endeavor with the reason Africa was on everybody’s mind. Yet whereas the exhibitions focusing on South Africa effectively underlined intersections between local specificity and global trends, “Who Knows Tomorrow,” which aimed to do just that, instead reinstated the familiar primitivist pitfalls it was attempting to move beyond.

The logic of the exotic encounter pervaded the exhibition, whose very structure encouraged an explorer’s mind-set. A tourist visiting Berlin’s Museum Island would almost inevitably have been confronted by El Anatsui’s partial draping of the Alte Nationalgalerie’s facade; she might then have been inspired to check out the installation of Yinka Shonibare, MBE’s Scramble for Africa, 2003, not too far away in the Friedrichswerder Church. One could defend such a strategy as conducive to self-conscious reflection on the relevance of colonialist patterns of “discovery” in our postcolonial present. Who was the explorer and who the explored, in the case of Pascale Marthine Tayou’s towering painted fiberglass statues arrayed in front of the Neue Nationalgalerie? Modeled on African carved-wood representations of Europeans during the colonial period, these were, by contrast, African voyagers in Berlin, some clad in safari gear, others in traditional garb. The point was obvious (the possibility of colonialism’s reversal), but it was nevertheless lost on most visitors, who posed for a quick snapshot with these friendly figures before running on. For all the curatorial talk of criticality, the works chosen were high in visual pleasure and low on what it takes to jolt viewers out of complacency.

This is not to dismiss the value of a show that, through its deliberate coupling of art and site, had the capacity to facilitate prolonged contemplation of Germany’s imperialist past. Along with his figures, Tayou installed Africa’s fifty-four national flags in front of Mies van der Rohe’s 1968 glass-and-steel shrine for modern art. If Shonibare reminded us that Berlin hosted the conference that ratified the division of Africa by fourteen European powers, Tayou’s Colonial Erection, 2010, imagined Mies’s International Style architecture as the new seat of the African Union. But what are the stakes of transplanting African governance to an erstwhile colonialist contender? Although the accompanying pamphlet provided information about the institutions involved, to aid viewers in making connections between the installations and their sites, some of the most potentially explosive points were left unsaid. No one mentioned Mies’s 1934 design for a German pavilion—also minimalist glass and steel, but with National Socialist flags prominently fluttering. To what extent can the replacement of one flag by another solve problems of injustice? That question was implicit in Tayou’s work but could have been made even more pointed through this comparison.

The organizers also omitted the recent history of the Hamburger Bahnhof, where António Ole’s The Entire World/Transitory Geometry, 2010, nestled outside the Beuys wing, and Zarina Bhimji’s film Waiting, 2007, was ensconced in an upstairs suite. The contemporary art institution houses Friedrich Christian Flick’s collection, bought with a fortune amassed by his grandfather, a Nazi Party member who profited from the Holocaust. Switzerland refused to allow a Flick Museum in Zurich, but Berlin managed to withstand protests. Apparently, that controversy did not merit mention in this exhibition’s interrogation of institutional narrow-mindedness.

Note how these discoveries consistently returned us to Germany. At every level, “Who Knows Tomorrow,” as an exhibition, locked us into a primitivist cycle where the other exists for European edification. The works themselves did not necessarily fall into this trap, but neither did they militate against it. Ole’s massive assemblage of stacked shipping containers, fittingly installed at a former train station, spoke to global trade routes and Angolan shantytown construction. But this monumental structure seemed oddly demure, dwarfed by the adjacent museum. Its shabby chic matched Berlin’s own stylish aesthetic, the worn-out industrial prettified by colorful plastic sheets.

Bhimji’s Waiting came closest to providing an immanent critique of the show. Like the other selections, it invited viewers to enjoy the exotic, in this case not through bright colors or African-craft references but rather through sumptuous cinematography that portrays sisal-processing factories in Kenya with the evocative atmospherics of magic realism. The warehouses appear, for the most part, long abandoned, silken threads glittering in shards of sunlight, but the film cuts briefly to workers binding mounds of sisal. The realization that our pleasure in these colonial-era spaces and modes of production entails gratification at the expense of our contemporaries confronts us with our ongoing complicity in dynamics of inequality and its benefits. The lesson was salutary in light of this exhibition’s excessive self-satisfaction; the real power of Waiting, however, lies not in its repetition of a familiar analysis but in the intensity of its chronological distortion and play between documentary and dreamworld.

When will the art cognoscenti stop retracing the worn ruts of primitivism, with those twin engines of pleasure and guilt? I suspect we will be stuck here for some time. Sports fans seem quicker on the uptake. No need to belabor the point (as admirers of Tayou’s Colonial Erection do) that Africa is not just one country: It’s sufficiently evident that Ghana, which lasted the longest of any of the African teams participating in the World Cup, is not South Africa. It was also clear, however, that a continent can have pride in the performance of one of its nations—that there are ways in which the local can legitimately represent the multinational. While these are not subtle distinctions, they continue to trip up curators and critics. But: Who knows tomorrow.

Prita Meier is an assistant professor of African Art History at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Bibiana Obler is an assistant professor of Modern Art at George Washington University in Washington, DC.