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Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung : “We go to Venice and we will walk on water” / Interview Jonas Tinius

In SWAG high profiles, inaugural issue

« We want to go to Venice and walk on water. Turn water into wine. All the kind of miracle shit that is happening in the world. That’s it. On a deeper level, we will be dealing with the notion of the impossible. »

– Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung © Alexander Mercutio

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung and Jonas Tinius in conversation on Bauhaus, the Miracle Workers Collective, and Photography

Jonas Tinius : You’ve just come back from Congo, where SAVVY Contemporary has founded its first school of design. What is the core idea behind spinning the triangle, as you put it, that started 100 years ago with Bauhaus?

Bonaventure Son Bejeng Ndikung : Founding a school of design is taking our mouth a bit too full. We want to rethink educational systems, the curriculum, what it means to study, especially with regard to, but not limited to design and arts. We depart from notion of a school, called Bauhaus, founded in 1919, and which existed for barely fourteen years. We talk so much about ‘Bauhaus the institution’, but we too often forget ‘Bauhaus the myth’. One can say, while Bauhaus was important during its time of existence as an institution/school, what it became  after was even more important. For us, besides what it means to make an educational structure, we are also interested in the idea of how narratives are built and myths made.  

But since everybody wants to celebrate Bauhaus, we join the party. But we do so with a twist. We want to raise one hand in celebration, and another hand in reprimand. Instead of going to the usual suspects that everybody is running towards – Israel, India, Nigeria, where you would find buildings and structures done by Bauhaus students or teachers or affiliated to another person who was affiliated to another person at Bauhaus or where you would find local influences that might have influenced Bauhaus – we chose to go to Kinshasa in Congo. Not because of a clear linear or obvious connection to Bauhaus, but we came here exactly because it is a space with a particular architectural history in which you find elements that are or could be understood as elements of a modernist understanding of architecture: open structures, glass facades, etc. We wanted to see the failures also of such modernist ideas of architecture imported to places where the climate didn’t work with them. 

We were also in Kinshasa to work in collaboration with designers and artists in Congo who are questioning what design means. Design is functional and contingent to particular spaces and cultures. We tend to universalize the notion of design. But the way it is used in one context is not how it is understood in another. We have to reinvent the tools we need to help situate or accommodate us within particular space, and tools that will help us navigate spaces and live in them with minimum discomfort; that’s one of the reasons we were there. The Académie des Beaux-Arts, founded by colonialists, is run by a new director Prof. Henri Kalema who is trying to change the curriculum there befitting the temporal and spatial contexts. Our question then became: how can we situate art academies within the African context. 

The project was proposed by Elsa Westreicher, and with a team of researchers from SAVVY in Berlin and in Congo, we are questioning what design can do, and how we can move out of a dichotomous debate between modernism and postmodernism. We want to reframe design within the specific contexts of our societies, and their geographically-specific ecologies. 

A common approach to reframing modernist projects, such as Bauhaus, and their legacies in research and exhibition practices is to decontextualise its iterations and translations ‘elsewhere’ or to find predecessors to it ‘in a different time’. Both are in their own ways problematic. You do not seek to find Bauhaus in Congo, but you look forward by creating a new academy. Our school tries to reimagine what Bauhaus could have been. What was actually of interest to Gropius – and this emerged before the First World War – was the difficult social and political conditions of the world. Though Bauhaus started only in 1919, after the war, but he had been engaged in trying to understand what role design could play in accommodating you in the world for a long time. That’s it. This is the question we ask ourselves. We do not mimic Bauhaus, but it is about posing those questions in our time. 

This brings us to the present. May we live in interesting times, the next Venice biennale is coming up shortly. You are curator of the Finnish Pavilion and founding member of the Miracle Workers Collective, which is curating the pavilion together this year. Curatorial collectives abound – the next edition of documenta will be curated by the Ruangrupa collective – and you have been working collectively in many of your projects and at SAVVY. What does ‘collective’ mean for you in this context? It is a very difficult term. What I don’t want collective to mean is the idea of Basisdemokratie. That’s not how I understand it. Being a collective means people with different competencies come together to negotiate a space and a work. Forming the Miracle Workers Collective was an experiment that began with Christopher Wessels and Giovanna Esposito Yussif, and then grew into an even larger collective. The idea was to work ‘a-nationally’, beyond the frame of the nation state. We are people who come from different parts of the world and bring different kinds of knowledge and wanted to create – in fact, distort – the space of the Pavilion. We are working. 

I also see SAVVY Contemporary as a collective, but it has a structure. People often misunderstand the idea of a collective as flatness, where everything is equal. No, that’s not what I understand by it. To be able to deal with a collective, one has to divide roles. That’s what it means to me: the assumption of roles and positions within society. A society is a collective, where people assume different positions and responsibilities. 

 What is the core proposal you are bringing to the Venice biennale this year? Our principal proposition is to make miracles. We want to go to Venice and walk on water. Turn water into wine. All the kind of miracle shit that is happening in the world. That’s it. On a deeper level, we will be dealing with the notion of the impossible. To paraphrase Sun Ra: Until now the world has been dealing with the possible, and it has taken us nowhere. It’s about time we dealt with the impossible. We are engaging with the impossible.  There is a second proposal. James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time that “It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.”. That’s what we’re interested in. 

Then, the third notion is the idea of the welfare state as a miracle. This is something you see in Finland. People talk about the Finnish miracle and they mean its welfare system. We want to understand the construction of miracles within a nation state, but not disregard who has lost their privileges for someone else to be privileged. At whose expense do such miracles occur? We answer it in various ways: we work with film-makers based in Finland, but also we work closely with Sami artists who have joined our collective. They have been the dis-privileged within this state-construct, forced to remain within certain spaces of it, deprived of their resources and lands. We have invited them to think with us. In our Berlin iteration, they presented objects, hats worn by women, from the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, around which they problematised the notion of rematriation– not repatriation – that people don’t even know anymore about. They claim the hat, thinking about their lineage, and in doing so, already rematriate this knowledge. 

Since Okwui Enwezor’s untimely passing this year, Venice stands inevitably in the context of his legacy, especially his proposals and curation of the 2015 edition. In many ways, his reflections on transnational imagination, multidirectional histories, and the piles of history’s wreckage we confront in the present have irreversibly become part of the texture of contemporary art production and discourse today. How does the Miracle Workers Collective engage with the reframing and artifice of national belonging? Alexander Weheliye wrote in the Sounding Diasporic Citizenship about the idea of ‘diasporic citizenship’, which does not just blindly negate the nation, but is in existence between the nation and the transnational. His idea goes beyond the geographic limitation to land and space. He talks about the black diaspora, for example, which is ‘out there’ but not limited to any particular space anymore. Weheliye brings up the connection to the writings of Ralph Ellison, who says that the diaspora – especially the black one – is not bound together by a sanguinic affiliation, or a phenotypical one only, but a relation of passion based on common suffering. Okwui’s notion of the impossibility of attending to our contemporary problems within the frameworks of any particular nation-state is still reflected in those words.

Weheliye thinks through the sonic cases of The Fugees, but also Advanced Chemistry, the German rap group from the 1990s, which produced the piece Fremd im eigenen Land (stranger to your own country). These guys –  Afro-Germans, Turkish-Germans – came together at a key moment in German history, when people burned Vietnamese asylum homes in Rostock while the police watched silently. Their coming-together is an example of diasporic citizenship. 

 This is how I also imagine the Miracle Workers Collective. We are people that happen to live in a particular nation-state framework, but come together beyond it. That’s diasporic citizenship. Giovanna Esposito was born in Mexico but not just from there, Christopher Wessels was born in South Africa but lives in Finland, I was born in Cameroon but live in Germany, and so on. We are diasporic citizens, and that’s what brings us together. This is in the spirit of Okwui.

The Miracle Workers Collective also engages the reheated debate on restitution through the rematriation of objects. You closely followed and contributed to the emergence of the restitution report presented by Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr in late 2018, which has since caused reverberations in many different countries and institutions. Besides proposing legal steps for the restitution of looted African cultural heritage in European colonial collections, most notably in France, their proposal principally concerns what they describe as a new relational ethic between Europe and Africa. What has this done to how the relation between Africa and Europe is negotiated in contemporary art? I don’t think it has done a lot at all. I actually don’t even want to talk about these things any more. The notion of restitution is talked about in a very superficial way by politicians but also within the art world. It has become a sensation. Especially in Germany, when you open the newspapers, you realize that it’s not about the people who are claiming for objects to be sent back; it’s about the worry of the West. “What about us?” It’s more sophisticated than that. Regarding the impact of this debate on the art world, we need to wait for the ripple-effects in the years to come. 

For documenta 14, we investigated these issues. And I wish someone would draw a line between what is happening now and what was happening then. We engaged in this debate not only in the context of Afro-European relations. One of the first things that Adam Szymczyk talked about when planning the documenta was to present the Gurlitt collection. It was about initiating a debate on restitution, or what I call “rehabilitation” – which is really what it’s about. The work we showed by Maria Eichhorn was composed of books found in public libraries today that had been seized from Jews, and still not returned. We face the same issue with the Benin bronzes, which we also showed in Kassel for D14. There is a certain degree of laziness that underpins the discourse on restitution and the unwillingness to connect obvious dots. Let me turn the question back to you. Apart from a debate here or there, who has really taken this debate further? Very few people like Theo Eshetu, Antje Majewski and Olivier Guesselé-Garai address intelligently in their work in the current exhibition at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius Bau larger issues of restitution. But the debate has not been carried on at a larger scale in the art world! 

Let me reframe the take on this. Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of the Angelus Novus by Paul Klee, with which Enwezor opens his curatorial statement for the 2015 Venice biennale, offers a way to do that. Benjamin writes that “the angel of history has his face turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees a single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.” The debate on restitution is one such event that keeps hurling this wreckage in front of our feet. The objects at the heart of this debate embody the wreckage of the past. There are other events that do this. The rise of the new, or alt-right, and the coalitions between the AfD in Germany and Lega Nord in Italy hurls the wreckage of the past in front of our feet. We are looking at it with our faces turned backwards. We are not only looking at it with our faces backwards, but we also look at the debate only at the level of objects. We are debating the place of objects, but not what these so-called objects are. We have to take into account the entire context that enabled the seizing, stealing, and violence of those moments that allowed their looting. We are talking about restitution – sending them back – but not the repercussions of the past. I wrote an essay for South as a state of mind later published by Archive Books as a pamphlet Those Who Are Dead Are Not Ever Gone, which reflected on the impact that this violence has had on societies. Even so, what are the repercussion of restitution? What does it mean to talk about the healing of societies? This entire debate takes place without those that need to heal. Of course, we hear Achille Mbembe and Felwine Sarr, but there are more to be heard and much more to be discussed. That’s lacking. 

The Angelus Novus. I like the idea of looking back at what is hurled in front of us. Let me bring it in relation to Gylan Kain, one of the founders of the Last Poets. He talks of the moment of the holy ghost taking over your body. For him, metaphorically, this is the moment at which a fight in you takes place. Demons fighting against something holy. That’s when the performative gesture of possession begins and you start speaking in tongues, and tremble. I am interested in that moment of conflict, even within the individual. We are now in that moment of possession. Something is taking over us, and we are conflicted. The past and the present come together with a possible good for the future. 

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung © Alexander Mercutio

It takes a conscious recalibration of our position in the present to recognize both, the legacies of the wreckage of the past but doesn’t forget to construct proposals forward. Being possessed, but remaining conscious enough to the ways and directions in which we act. Being in and yet slightly removed from the contemporary is what it takes to reflect and act upon it. 
Opening later this year on 30 November, you will be director the 12th edition of the Bamako Encounters Photography Biennale, leading a curatorial team around the idea of “Streams of Consciousness”. How can we think through streams of consciousness with the medium of photography? I decided to take up the invitation, first, because the biennale is in a moment of transition and a generational shift. This is it’s 25th edition, and it has been directed by Samuel Sidibe, since its beginning. A new generation is taking over with Igo Diarra, as General Director and myself as artistic director, and Aziza Harmel, Astrid Lepoultier and Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh as co-curators. There is also a second transition happening, namely the slow stepping out of the French. This is important insofar as we are taking things into our own hand. The biennial is done in West Africa, and now the state of Mali has to assume the responsibility. 

The notion ‘streams of consciousness’ comes from psychology, but has been developed as a technique in literature and writing. It’s the moment when something strikes you, and you let the flow happen from that moment. Flowing onto the paper, and if it has to, even without comma and full stop. I would like us to see how that takes place in the field of photography. The moment of the capture – the shot – when you decide that something strikes you as a photographer is far from random. It also flows onto paper and into the image. But the flow doesn’t stop there. The viewer also may get struck by this, this continuing the flow. I am interested in that idea of a stream. I am also interested in the distortions of flow. It is not necessarily linear or without asynchronies. Many photographers describe this moment of shooting an image, getting into the darkroom, developing it and seeing something entirely else. In that moment of revelation, something else happens.

To break it down even more, the point of departure for the concept is a sonic piece by Max Roach and Abdullah Ibrahim called “Streams of Consciousness”. That takes us into another level of a sonic stream of consciousness. What excites me in this moment is what happens in the conversation between the African continent and its diaspora as embodied in the two persons, Roach and Ibrahim. There is a stream of consciousness across the Atlantic, or the Indian Ocean. That’s why I talk about planetary Africa. It is impossible of limiting Africa to a geographical space. 

 Lastly, I am playing with the notion of civilisations around streams, water – around the Niger river that flows through West Africa, or the Nile. These facilitate flows of cultures around real streams. 

Photography, much like other forms of art witnessed through a material medium, is frequently contemplated as the materialization of a thought or an observation and regarded as a kind of object. But photography is part of a much larger field of visual perception that begins before, and ends much later than the moment of capture, or its print and distribution. The mistake that many people make is to say ‘film is moving image, and photography is still image’. No! There is a constant flux, even when you cut out and frame a particular singular moment, there is a constant flux. The flux doesn’t happen in the relation between what has been shot and the eventual image, but it happens cognitively in that flow of consciousness. Photography is not taking place in the x-axis or the y-axis, but in the z-axis. Photography is never a still. 

In SWAG high profiles, inaugural issue
Jonas Tinius
April 2019