SAVVY Contemporary

“We’ve arrived”

Our author Elisabeth Wellershaus meets Bonaventure Ndikung, director of Savvy Contemporary

Bonaventure S.B.Ndikung. © Paul Ruf

The first exhibition in Savvy Contemporary’s new gallery space opened on the 10th of August in the Neukölln district of Berlin. The director of the project, Bonaventure S.B. Ndikung, talks to C& about artistic exchange between the continents, his Rixdorf neighbourhood, and the new space.


C&: What led you to open Savvy Contemporary?

BN: It’s been a long process. The project started in 2009 and was more or less born out of necessity. In my opinion there were and still are far too few opportunities in Berlin and in Germany for candid discourse between Western and non-Western artists. So the logical thing to do seemed to be to start my own. I had been working as a freelance curator for several years and had the impression that while there are a lot of great exhibitions in Berlin, they almost always feature artists from either the US or Europe. But the world is bigger than just these two regions.


C&: How did you want to position yourself in relation to this?

BN: I didn’t want to simply open a gallery that shows exclusively non-Western art. We didn’t want an immigrant connotation or to be a multicultural label. It was about creating a platform the international Savvy team and I could use to explore different topics – with artists from the West and the non-West: from Africa, Europa, Latin America, North America, Asia. We wanted a place where established artists like Bruce Naumann could interact with non-Western talents. And where we could present artistic positions rather than draw comparisons.


C&: What were the initial reactions to your idea? Enthusiastic artists, a curious public, a non-committal press?

BN: The artists of course were pretty excited, simply at the prospect of a new and experimental place, somewhere where you didn’t have to sell yourself but could try things out instead. At the same time a lot of artists felt that the concept underlying the project needed clarification. The problem of labelling – is something Western or non-Western art – was and continues to be fiercely debated. This is precisely why it was important to me to communicate that at Savvy emerging artists like Ato Malinda or Soavina Ramaroson have the freedom to define themselves, to very subtly position themselves and their work against the persistent misperception that world art is Western art. What we’re interested in is the deconstruction of such notions.


C&: Notions to which most of the public and the media presumably still subscribe?

BN: The public has always been curious and receptive. But there were also people at our first exhibition with Ramaroson who came up to me and asked: “So where’s the African art here?” The kind of assumptions these people have are a mystery to me. I can only imagine that pictures by Salgado or Riefenstahl are floating around in their heads. But Ramaroson is a young artist from Madagascar, and he is interested in the world, not in ethnic stereotypes. His subjects do happen to often be African men – but even that doesn’t seem to be enough to qualify his work as African art in the eyes of some people. Does an African artist need his or her subjects to be sick, starving children or safari animals? I don’t think so. And yet the public, artists, and curators continue to debate questions like this here. Which I think is great.


C&: You’re not just interested in reaching the typical art crowd and the critics but also your neighbours in Rixdorf.

BN: That’s right. When we started out, I put flyers in people’s mailboxes with invitations to dinner, and not a single person came. That brought me back down to earth; I realised then that it was going to take a while. The people here are skeptical. They’re not interested in the blah-blah-blah about Western or non-Western. But when at one point we took a performance project out into the street – simply because we didn’t have enough room inside – they started to become curious. Today when we stage something in the street, the neighbours bring out their chairs, crack open a beer, and watch. Even if to this day the newsstand owner next door doesn’t understand how I make my money.


C&: So how do you make your money?

BN: The truth is: we can barely cover our expenses. I simply do what I have to do. In the beginning I invested a lot of my own money; today we submit applications for funding, receive small grants from other institutions. Finally, early this year, we were awarded a larger sum. We won the Berlin Senate Prize, which is what we’re using to pay for our move into a new space. We’ll have more room there for exhibitions and accompanying programs and will be able to use the old space for the residency program we’re planning. The architectural input for the new space was conceived and is coordinated by Henning Wiethaus.


C&: Has Savvy arrived in the new space?

BN: The public and the media definitely notice us more in the larger space. But we’ve been a presence in the neighbourhood for some time. A while ago the father of a neighbour died, an old immigrant from Kosovo who had lived in Rixdorf for a long time. There was a beautiful funeral procession, with horse-drawn carriages moving his coffin across Richardplatz; the whole neighbourhood was there. Afterwards his son came up to me. He told me that he wanted to honour his father’s memory – in our gallery. He hasn’t followed through on his idea yet, but since then I’ve known that we’ve arrived.


Translated from German by Millay Hyatt.


Ghostbusters II {Haunted by Heroes}, Exhibition, Lectures and Performances. 

Artists: kara lynch and Délio Jasse 

Curators: Nadine Siegert and Storm Janse van Rensburg | Art Director: Bonaventure S.B. Ndikung

11th Aug. – 11th Sept. 2013

SAVVY Contemporary

Richardstrasse 20, Berlin-Neukölln




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