Art for the people - The Forecast 14 - Magazine | Monocle

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On workdays, Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, the new director and chief curator of Haus der Kulturen der Welt, cycles from his home in Neukölln to the office in Berlin’s Tiergarten park. “Every time I cycle down Karl Marx Allee, I cross different geographies,” says the Cameroon-born curator of his commute. “You can see the people and hear the languages change when you cross. This institution must belong to these people,” he says, turning his attention back to the museum he’s in charge of.

Since taking up his post in January 2023, Ndikung and the team have made huge strides to bridge the gap between the German capital’s sometimes high-minded art institutions and the tastes and desires of the 170-odd nationalities living here. Instead of just presenting art and ideas to the Berlin public, the Haus (known to Berliners as “hkw”) has created a dialogue where exhibitions, performances and events try to properly connect people with the far-flung topics it touches. “The idea was to create an institution that reflects the different kinds of people who live here,” he says in his trademark baritone. 

When O Quilombismo, a 68-artist exhibition,opened in spring 2023, the mission became a little clearer and offered a taste of Ndikung’s tenure to come. At the three-day open-house extravaganza, art lovers thronged hkw, where art adorned exhibition spaces as well as corridors, the atrium and even the building’s auditorium. Despite the serious subject matter (“quilombos” are self-governed communities founded by enslaved people in Brazil) it was the sense of levity and excitement – rather than sombre soul-searching – that was inescapable. Visitors of all ages hung out in a flag-festooned outdoor pavilion where a “kids’ disco” allowed youngsters to have fun while their parents took in the art. Sculptures, flags and installations by the likes of Ghanaian art star Ibrahim Mahama dotted the grounds and added colour and vivacity to proceedings. 

On the flat parts of a sweeping roof (Berliners have long referred to the oddly-shaped building as “the pregnant oyster”), food stands served Thai, Cameroonian, Nigerian and other specialities to the sounds of live bands from across Africa and beyond. Above it all, three flags flew in black, red and green stripes, each emblazoned with a letter: together they read ddr, an acronym standing for “decarbonise, decolonise, rehabilitate”: so far so serious? Perhaps, but this pointedly also stands for “Deutsche Demokratische Republik”, the name of the former East Germany. Fluttering close to the Federal German Chancellery and parliament buildings, the flags were artist Olu Oguibe’s poignant nudge to audiences to radically rethink the notion of Germany’s own divisions and all it’s been through.

“The idea was to reflect the different kinds of people who live here”

Henriette Gallus, Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung and Cosmin Costinas
Exhibition hall for the show ‘O Quilombismo’
Public foyer

The building was erected in the 1950s by the Americans, who later donated it to the West German government. In 1989 it became a cultural centre. In recent years the space attracted a cerebral set including exhibitions on the cia’s involvement in art and conferences on art-world topics such as the Anthropocene. Ndikung’s tenure, however, meant broadening that definition of art. “Berlin is one of the most unique cities in the world,” says senior curator Cosmin Costinas, who moved to Berlin from Hong Kong to work with Ndikung. “Because [the layers of migration are] so recent, the connections between people and their countries of origin are deeper and more alive.”

hkw’s agenda is in stark contrast to conventional art-historical institutions – especially the sometimes-criticised Humboldt Forum, another Berlin institution dedicated to non-European objects and art that opened in the summer of 2021. The Humboldt Forum, like many museums today, is in flux, paralysed by questions of provenance, power and some darker parts of Germany’s history. It holds the state ethnological collections, including the Benin bronzes, which Germany has begun to return to Nigeria. While the hkw has its own history, the curators and staff aren’t looking back; they’re trying to start a new chapter including renaming all the public spaces after women who worked, often invisibly, to improve lives. One of the ponds in front of the building is now named after Chilean folklorist Violeta Parra and the hkw offices are named after Senegalese women’s rights campaigner Awa Thiam, to name just two. 

Other changes were internal: instead of hiring a large staff on the art world’s precarious year-by-year contracts, Ndikung – Berlin’s first non-white museum director and a biotechnologist by training – offered longer contracts and fuller benefits but to fewer team members, many of whom hail from Africa and South America. East Germany-born Henriette Gallus is deputy director, a unique position in a system that still generates star museum directors (“No one can do this alone,” she says). After a long research phase beginning when Ndikung applied for the job in 2021 (a big decision after founding and operating Savvy Contemporary, a wildly successful project space, for more than a decade), the two restructured the hkw during a five-month closure. Teams now work across artistic disciplines, their members have more agency and the opportunity to combine family and work is not just a perk but a priority.

Forthcoming events will tackle the idea of the “Global East”, including Germany’s own past. But the hkw wants to generate some intrigue, fun and curiosity rather than shutting down conversations or tying itself in knots trying to signal its own virtue. “We want the audience to understand that this is about them: about their daily life, their understanding, love, passion and tears,” says Gallus. Just two weeks after hkw reopened, O Quilombismo was already the one of the most-visited exhibition the space has hosted in the past 25 years. The visitors kept coming – many more than once – and often for hours. The opening weekend’s kids’ disco was such a success that parents asked for more; hkw now runs it twice a month. “People feel like they’re a part of it,” says Gallus. “That’s the magic of us with the audience. Without them, these would be empty halls.”

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