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  • HKW director Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung on creating an “institution for the people”


HKW director Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung on creating an “institution for the people”

HKW is one of Berlin's iconic artistic spaces and - under new director Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung and Senior Curator Cosmin Costinaș - something new is growing there.

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung. Photo: Makar Artemev

The Haus der Kulturen der Welt has often been considered a dry and academic institution, but your first act was to put on an epic three-day opening party, filled with performances and music. It felt like a new and inclusive spirit was sweeping through the establishment.

Cosmin Costinaș: We had over 15,000 visitors, and it showed that people are eager and thirsty for having a place where they can feel at home. But it was important to us to understand how an exhibition should create community and experiences for the different Berlin audiences coming together.

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung: Don’t forget that the etymology of the term ‘academia’ is from Plato’s garden, the grove of trees where he taught. And this is what we want to do too. It is an academic institution, but for the people, because what are we planting here? What are we sowing? What are we going to reap from what we sow?

Curator Cosmin Costinaș. Photo: Makar Artemev

CC: In Berlin, there are artistic and intellectual viewpoints that come from very different parts of the world – diverse perspectives from migrants and people who are still very much connected to places they come from. So I think that’s what really makes Berlin one of the richest places in the world from their point of view. And you can see that this has hardly been reflected before in the institutional policy of the city.

It is an academic institution, but for the people, because what are we planting here? What are we sowing?

What has been the response to this change and to your ongoing first exhibition, O Quilombismo, which focuses on people fighting against imperialist exploitation and oppression?

CC: I think there’s a mutual process of welcoming, but there was also savagery and racist responses in a small part of the media. I think that’s also part of the reality of Germany and, more broadly, Europe at the moment, and something that we need to deal with.

There was a comment in the Tagesspiegel, which suggested there were issues with positioning yourselves too much on the side of the “good guys”. Meaning, perhaps, that it could lead to complacency…

Photo: IMAGO / Jürgen Ritter

BSBN: What world do we live in where to be the good guy is something negative? We’ve come in at a very particular time of history, and these visitors came because we’re not just speaking about them but speaking to them. The exhibition touches on some of the most difficult moments in the history of humanity, but we found a way to do it with dignity. So the question is how not to fulfil other people’s ways of seeing the world, but actually radically insisting on our way of seeing the world. Thinking about our differences, in a way that doesn’t need to separate us but can bring us together. So I do think that we are actually coming in here wanting to be the good guys. I’m very happy about it; it’s not criticism, it’s a compliment.

What world do we live in where to be the good guy is something negative?

CC: Nobody is complacent here – we are so aware of the responsibility, meaning and implication. But I suppose if in 50 years we do not appear obsolete and stale to the people at the forefront of advancing culture, then this means that there will be a really big problem for the world!

You’ve put together a 17-person curatorial and management team hailing from all parts of the world – such a diverse lineup has never been seen before in Berlin. Could this change how institutions are run in this country?

BSBN: If, in a few years, every institution is as diverse as us, that would be wonderful. But in the meantime, we’re very conscious of the historical ground on which we’re standing. And we haven’t missed an opportunity to thematise those things, be it the proximity to the Brandenburg Gate, or Wilhelm Straße 77 where the African continent was partitioned, or this house [the HKW] and its proximity to John Foster Dulles Street [named for the former US Secretary of State], which is not just a proximity but a programme informing the history of the institution and why it was created in the first place.

We are working from where we stand, engaging with at least 500 years of world history. And what we’re doing now, in all humility, is to address those things of the past as well as set a very clear path towards the future.

Bernardo Oyarzún, Kilombo: Piwuchen (2023), courtesy the artist; Ange Dakouo, Imagine (2023), courtesy the artist. Installationsansicht der Ausstellung O Quilombismo: Von Widerstand und Beharren. Von Flucht als Angriff. Von alternativen demokratisch-egalitären politischen Philosophien, Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), 2023. Photo: Laura Fiorio/HKW

One of your first interventions was covering up the allegedly pro-colonist quote by the American founding father and slave owner Benjamin Franklin that’s engraved on the wall: “…so that a philosopher may set his foot anywhere on its surface and say: ‘This is my country.’” Are such sentiments written into the DNA of the building?

CC: He is problematic, but they probably also chose one of his most problematic sentences. It was important for us to make it as an institutional statement. So this is a semi-permanent installation. I think it’s also important to qualify the fact that we did not cover it completely. It’s not erased. Everyone can still read the quote quite easily. So it’s opening both a physical and intellectual discourse.

BSBN: We felt that this statement of Benjamin Franklin on the wall, which we invited people to respond to, needed to be engaged with from the present time and also physically and aesthetically. We found the responses were not bitter but rather conciliatory, reparational and wanting to engage into creating a better world.

The upcoming exhibition, As Though We Hid the Sun in a Sea of Stories starting in October, focuses on the countries of northern Eurasia, fulfilling an important objective: for the HKW to reflect non-Western perspectives…

Afrah Shafiq, Nobody Knows For Certain (2023), Videoinstallation (Still). Courtesy of the artist

CC: This new exhibition highlights and celebrates those that have lived in territory, loosely under the control of the central government of the current Russian regime, the USSR or the previous Russian Empire. Their political control was manifested by a singular monolithic vision, defining how it should think, how it should look, how it should be represented. And we wanted to engage with that reality, especially with what is happening in Eastern Europe at the moment with the war. We’re very interested in reimagining cartographies and this will be defined through ideas and efforts around remapping.

Who chooses the programme? Does it ultimately come down to you, Bonaventure, as director?

BSBN: Decisions are important. Equally important is engaging in conversations that end up becoming something. There’s certain impulses I give, as someone who heads the institution, but the head is not the most important part of the body. So we work together on these things, we discuss them and things crystallise.

This is your first appointment heading a government institution. What has surprised you about taking on the role?

BSBN: What continues to surprise me is the mismatch between what culture should do and what is actually invested in culture, and this is applicable all over the world. Culture plays a very important role in our societies. But if you look at the budget, culture is allocated comparatively little. But that is not a surprise, it is a reckoning with reality.

Akhmat Biikanov, Ohne Titel (2023), Wasserfarbe auf Papier. Courtesy of the artist

You recently published the essay Every Straw Is a Straw Too Much: On the Psychological Burden of Being Racialized While Doing Art, in response to the recent suicide of the Berlin-based artist and activist Heiko-Thandeka Ncube. You suggest endemic racism contributed to his death. You highlight racist comments from art teachers, the fact that pink paint is labelled as a skin tone while black and brown are not…

BSBN: What I was trying to do with this essay was to explain something that a large group of people feels. That could be related to the question of race, but it could also be related to many other issues, like class. I’m just reading a book called The East: A West German Invention by Dirk Oschmann. It’s a brilliant book and he talks about inner-German discrimination.

It’s about turning around the prism through which we see the world. And by looking at the way people write about the DDR in German papers, it reveals the incredible violence that majorities in societies enact on, quote unquote, “minorities”. The six states that believed they’d become part of a new Germany actually experienced a usurping, as they became a part of the West. What I’m trying to say is that we need to be more conscious about our vantages and actually understand that for us to be able to move on in this world together, we must be more empathetic towards what other people are experiencing.

You were particularly critical of institutions who fail to acknowledge ingrained racist tendencies…

BSBN: One can say it’s ingrained and not recognise them. But I wouldn’t say that is the whole picture, in many cases, it is very recognisable. When Binyavanga Wainaina wrote the book How to Write About Africa, he was actually portraying something that was omnipresent in the media, regurgitating 500 years of racist depictions still cultivated and used by the media today. There’s an unconscious part, but there’s another conscious, demeaning part, too.

Going back to the book, The East: A West German Invention, the author reveals examples of the structuring of the former DDR as the place where Nazis come from, because the [far-right party] AfD has a very large following in the former DDR. Then he does a very simple analysis and discovers that apart from one person, all the other heads of the AfD come from the West: Björn Höcke, Alice Weidel. He points out that people move from the West to the East so they can fulfil their fascist dreams, and then some blame the former DDR as the place where the neo-Nazis come from. It’s a very comfortable externalisation.

Your appointment as director at the HKW was not met with universal acclaim, which some in the media have put down to you being the first person of colour to lead the institution. Do you believe that was a result of underlying racism?

BSBN: I think my guess is as good as yours. That’s my answer. As Toni Morrison rightly said, a big part of racism is to distract us from the work we have to do. And we have so much work to do, but I think we will get there.

O Quilombismo through Sep 17, As Though We Hid the Sun in a Sea of Stories Oct-Jan, HKW, Mitte