C& in conversation with Marie-Helène Gutberlet

“Becoming more transparent”

C& in conversation with Marie-Helène Gutberlet, curator of the exhibition THE SPACE BETWEEN US at ifa-gallery Berlin.

Serge Alain Nitegeka 'Tunnel VIII' 2013 Installation view at ifa-gallery Berlin

C&: What was the original idea, the point of departure of “The Space between us”?  

MHG: THE SPACE BETWEEN US presents contemporary artists from the trans-African cultural sphere between Africa, America and Europe, and also between different conceptions of history and aesthetics. It is a huge and confusing field. That’s why we decided to focus and on the viewing and on the exhibiting itself. By doing that, we wanted to ask what it means to present contemporary art and photography related to the African continent here and now in Germany – therefore also dealing with the history of the presentation of “African art” on German ground. When you’re doing a show on mobility, migration and Africa, there will be certain expectations and notions attached to these catchwords. We wanted to find a space which is not a priori defined, as museums, collections and galleries often are. So, among other places, we are also exhibiting in public spaces, on large billboards.

C&: What is meant by the “Space between us”?  

MHG: It is an abstract space of trans-African discourse and history, but also one that develops through individual and artistic practice, shaped by the distances travelled, by the extremely mobile biographies not only western artists have. It is a space that is constantly shifting, growing and shrinking, sometimes bulging in this direction or that. Even us, doing the project, have a limited idea of what exactly is this space as a whole. That is why we can only offer fragments and use different formats: exhibiting elements in the ifa-Gallery and in the urban space outside, a reading room, music and film events, walks and talks. After all, relationships are being negotiated on all of these levels and in various spaces of memory – the “space between us”.

C&: What are the artistic standpoints represented in these spaces?  

MHG: The standpoints are diverse. I have already worked with several artists in Bamako and Johannesburg. For example, I first saw the photographies of Ayana Jackson in Johannesburg. However, she had also studied in Berlin. These points of intersection are important to me. We shouldn’t only be doing binary imports from outside Europe but should make the circular relationships between different places like Bamako, Johannesburg and Berlin tangible. That is how artists living in Berlin and responding to Berlin can be included.

C&: For example?  

MHG: Dierk Schmidt, Brigitta Kuster, Satch Hoyt or Abrie Fourie. Schmidt engages with the presentation of African objects in the permanent collection “Art from Africa” in Dahlem’s ethnological museum. He traces a kind of staging of the ‘dark continent’, which seemed long bygone and plays around the idea on how the exhibits can be ‘liberated’ from their colonially informed setting. Satch Hoyt goes about it quite differently. His piece “Fragmented” shows 19 small figures made of pieces of porcelain figurines which Hoyt collected over time from Berlin flea markets. They are grotesque-cute pieces, half animal, half human, partly depicting extremely violent scenes. They hold some of the violence which is no longer apparent in today‘s Berlin, but has had a strong impact on the city in the past 150 years, and show some of the destructive potentials of ‘Arcadia’ motives and times.

C&: Do any of the artists specifically interrogate East German history?

MHG: Branwen Okpako’s video installation titled “Christa/Christopher” is a staged dialogue on two screens between the German writer Christa Wolf and the Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo. Both of them were regarded as important literary and political voices in their respective contexts – in East Germany and in Nigeria during the Biafran War – until they fell from grace. Their fictitious encounter now takes up the “space between us” in a particular way, because it is about a kind of inner connection between two intellectuals who probably never met in real life.

C&: To what extent do you aim for the exhibition to counteract the stereotypical gaze of the public, which, after all, is also informed by certain institutions?

MHG: I don’t want to invoke any enemy images but I do believe that the issue of transparency has not really been tackled. I think that especially in Germany there is a great lack of knowledge of the many African art scenes and so far there has not been a lot of interest. I suspect that is why established art institutions present major events such as “Africa Remix” or “Who Knows Tomorrow”, trying to do something big. And the heading always spells AFRICA in capital letters. “African” is a label, which is more powerful than singular persons at specific places doing art, really interesting and exciting art.

How do I deal with that as an independent curator? How can I avoid AFRICA in capital letters and show specific works and individual positions? I was lucky to have fallen on really sympathetic ears with my project. The artistic direction of the ifa had originally asked me to curate an exhibition on migration. But then the ifa Galleries were open to it not being an exhibition “about migration” but that it would be covering movement in a broader sense. Now the result is a programme of events, which allows all of us to be inspired by the dynamics and the transformative potential related to mobility. And we have to move ourselves to catch a bit of it.

C&: Your concept depends on the inclusion of very diverse artists. How did the many voices come to an understanding regarding the form of presentation?

MHG: We came together in a laboratory early in 2013. Many of the contributing artists and authors of the publication took part. For five days we engaged with one another, went for walks, talked with each other and tried to put our hands on the “space between us”. Interestingly, this did not lead to the formation of hard-edged camps, but alternating alliances – whether the question was about what is African, Diasporic, Afro-German or white, or if and where conflicts and different positions can be addressed. Nevertheless, became visible an uneven terrain, one with idiosyncratic lines, different ways of discussing, different terminologies. It is just impossible to find a common sense – and that’s also the interesting part – that there is no standpoint in the “space between us” that can speak for the whole. Everything always comes back to the singular standpoint. That is why the project ultimately focuses on the power and the ability of constantly repositioning ourselves.

 


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