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The Berlin Biennale and its reluctant curator

INTERVIEW! The Berlin Biennale kicks off Sat, Jun 9. We talked to South African educator and curator Gabi Ngcobo about how she put together Berlin’s 10th Biennale for Contemporary Art.

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Photo by Masimba Sasa

South African educator and curator Gabi Ngcobo on how she put together Berlin’s 10th Biennale for Contemporary Art.

Gabi Ngcobo has been involved in collaborative artistic and curatorial projects since the early 2000s and recently co-curated the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo, Brazil and A Labour of Love, 2015, at Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt am Main. You may have already experienced her touch on your Berlin art life as she participated in the Young Curators Workshop at the 5th Berlin Biennale in 2008 and presented the Centre for Historical Reenactments project Digging Our Own Graves in 2014 at the 8th Berlin Biennale.

The title for this year’s Biennale is We Don’t Need Another Hero. Are you trying to challenge the traditional role of the curator as the ‘hero’ of the show?

Yes, that’s what we are striving for. Some people have asked me and members of the curatorial team “which of you came up with this title?” and I wonder: why does it matter? The title is the title and it implicitly demands that you do not ask that question.

How does it work concretely?

My understanding of the curator’s role is not a traditional one, in fact I reject that role, for now. I come from an artistic background. Self-organising is something I insist upon and I’m always involved in forms of collaborative practice: with platforms I co-founded, Centre for Historical Re-enactments and Nothing Gets Organised, as well in my role as an educator at art school. For the Berlin Biennale, I put together two artists who didn’t know each other and I thought would collaborate well together: Jabu Arnell and Sinethemba Twalo. I put them in touch and they are creating new work. I think we have 46 artists in the Biennale, but the total number is 50 because of this and another collaborative duo, Lydia Hamann and Kaj Osteroth.

Are there any highlights you can tell us about?

Yes, a work that will be shown here at KW Institute for Contemporary Art titled Legendary by Brazilian artist Cinthia Marcelle. Cinthia has made similar projects in Brazil, working with institutions to create a portrait of 14 people linked to that institution’s history and present. The portrait mimics one taken by Hermann Landshoff in New York at Peggy Guggenheim’s house in 1942 of artists and writers who had fled WWII, including Mondrian and Duchamp. So this work takes 14 people that represent KW, an institution shaped in the 1990s [KW was founded in 1996]. The final photo was shot here at KW in April, but a lot happened before that, as we brought the people together again and had them talk about how they were involved with the institution. Lots of stories came up and it was a kind of reunion as well. Many people have moved on to do all sorts of things and some are still directly engaged with KW.

So how does the resulting portrait look?

Of course we are in Berlin and this was the 1990s, so the KW group is all white and almost all German, with the exception of one Polish person [Artur Zmijewski who also served as curator of the 7th Berlin Biennale]. It’s interesting that in that short period of time, the demographic of Berlin has dramatically changed…

The 10th Berlin Biennale

The Berlin Biennale is a bi-annual contemporary art exhibition founded in 1996 by Klaus Biesenbach (also founder of the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art and today a curator of New York’s MoMA). As an experimental platform for exhibiting art, the biennale sets out to examine “current global discourses and developments in relation to Berlin as a local point of reference” and in 2016 attracted over 100,000 visitors. Funded to the tune of €3 million this year by the German Federal Cultural Foundation, each edition of the Biennale is curated by a new curator chosen by an international panel of curators, artists and gallerists. In this 10th edition, 50 artists will be showing new work across four main venues in the city: Akademie der Künste at Hanseatenweg, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Volksbühne Pavilion, and ZK/U – Center for Art and Urbanistics.

Berlin Biennale, Jun 9-Sep 9, see website for full programme