Mzansi's Gabi Ngcobo on curating a major international art event

A Tina Turner hit was the jumping off point for the 10th Berlin Biennale, one of the most important events on the global art calendar. Curator Gabi Ngcobo tells us more

15 July 2018 - 00:00
Gabi Ngcobo also curated the 32nd São Paulo Biennale in 2016.
Gabi Ngcobo also curated the 32nd São Paulo Biennale in 2016.
Image: Supplied

What is a Biennale anyway?

It's an art event that happens every two years. The Berlin Biennale is an anniversary version - I don't really like the idea of an anniversary. I steer clear from that kind of commemorative spirit and rather look at ideas of history and memory - I came at it more sideways.

It sounds like quite a burden for one person.

I set up a curatorial team of four people: Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, Serubiri Moses, Thiago de Paula Souza, and Yvette Mutumba. They came from Berlin, Uganda, São Paulo and New York.

I like a collaborative way of working - having a conversation both with the people I work with and the city. My art career since 2000 has been quite collaborative.

When I was living in Durban I co-founded the 3rd Eye Vision Collective, and many projects done on my own and in my curatorial practice and as a lecturer at the Wits School of Art have been collaborative, like the Centre for Historical Re-enactment and NGO Nothing gets Organised.

What has Tina Turner got to do with the event?

Her 1985 hit We Don't Need Another Hero is the title of the 10th Berlin Biennale.

Yes, and?

Starting from the position of Europe, Germany, and Berlin as a city in dialogue with the world, the 10th Berlin Biennale confronts current widespread states of collective psychosis.

By referencing Tina Turner's 1985 song, 'We Don't Need Another Hero', we draw from a moment preceding major geopolitical shifts that brought about regime changes and new historical figures

By referencing Tina Turner's song from 1985, We Don't Need Another Hero, we draw from a moment preceding major geopolitical shifts that brought about regime changes and new historical figures.

The 10th Berlin Biennale does not provide a coherent reading of histories or the present of any kind. Like the song, it rejects the desire for a saviour.

Instead, it explores the political potential of the act of self-preservation, refusing to be seduced by unyielding knowledge systems and historical narratives that contribute to the creation of toxic subjectivities.

We are interested in different configurations of knowledge and power that enable contradictions and complications.

So what were you thinking, other than about the spectre of Donald Trump, and the fact that Berlin and Germany seem to be at the epicentre of huge questions facing the world, like migration and nationalism?

This is an exhibition that can only happen in Berlin - it's a very international city, a lot of people come through and many historical questions are activated as Germany grapples with its colonial history and participation in the colonial project.

I was very aware of the fact that for many people certain concepts are easily turned into buzzwords. We wanted to find a more political, but also a more poetic, way to discuss these things.

'Until the wind blows for another time', 2017-18, by Herman Mbamba; the Namibian-born artist will be exhibiting at the 10th Berlin Biennale.
'Until the wind blows for another time', 2017-18, by Herman Mbamba; the Namibian-born artist will be exhibiting at the 10th Berlin Biennale.
Image: Edgar Bachel/Blank Projects

The result is subtle - as works that are not in your face. We want people to sit with the exhibitions a little bit longer, or revisit the shows. It is a slow release.

Did you wear a South African hat in your curatorial work?

I am always looking back from SA. When I look at the world I look through a certain lens. It is important for me that l live in South Africa and in Johannesburg - it is interesting and always invigorating. Especially working at the university with young students.

I was also working from memory - re-exploring things I had experimented with on a smaller scale in South Africa and elsewhere but could be made to work on a larger scale.

But I also travelled to six Caribbean islands once I started on the project - we cannot afford to think without those regions - but I don't forget my obsessions at home. 

Do you think that contemporary African art is suddenly having a global moment?

I don't know if I can think of a time when the gaze wasn't cast towards Africa; we have always been part of European gaze since before colonialism.

I don't know if I buy into the idea of contemporary African arts - it is a label - I prefer the notion that people are making art.

Perhaps people are suddenly waking up to their ignorance and declaring this a moment, but there has always been a moment - we have always been making art.

Do you miss the Johannesburg Biennale?

I don't know if people remember it. We live with the terrible unease of not having it - a phantom pain where there used to be this thing. But now certain things are activated differently. At Wits we are making sure that students know that not everyone ends up in a commercial gallery, so they should take matters in their own hands - organise, activate, collaborate.

So what's next?

The Berlin Biennale ends on September 9 and my plan is to come home in September. Berlin has its moments - I have been living here since April 2017 but the northern hemisphere is not my best region. I can visualise the future better in the southern hemisphere.