The interview was first published in Mousse to coincide with Gabi Ngcobo curating the 2018 edition of the Berlin Biennial.
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George Vasey: The title, We Don’t Need Another Hero, is lifted from the famous song by Tina Turner, and provides a framework for the Biennale. When did it come into your thinking?
Gabi Ngcobo: I used it in an essay that I wrote before I was appointed as a curator for the Berlin Biennale. I was interested in the statement. It came from the moment after I’d worked on the Bienal de São Paulo and had gone back into teaching in Johannesburg. In South Africa there was a campaign to remove historically problematic statues that represented colonialism and white supremacism, and I was involved with the students in grappling with some of these ideas. In movements such as Rhodes Must Fall, I was interested in the idea that a statue may disappear, yet the pedestal remains, and the space left behind provides a place to contemplate what might come instead. The title responds to the empty pedestal. It’s a question, a provocation, and a message to history.
GV: It was written as an antiwar song in 1985 against the backdrop of the Cold War. We seem to be heading into a new Cold War with tensions between the United States, North Korea, and Iran on the rise. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about these historical overlaps, between 1985 and 2018.
GN: The song seems very relevant to current discussions, it still resonates. The curatorial team had different relationships to the song. For instance, Thiago de Paula Souza told me that in Brazil the song became an anthem for anarchist groups and self-organization. We may not need more heroes, but what do we need? I have a feeling we know what we don’t need, but the question of what we do, I’m not so sure. Each and every context can answer this gap in different ways.
GV: The song feels very hopeful to me in some ways. Hope, in these dark times, can feel quite radical and offer a way of moving forward.
GN: Yes, certainly.
GV: It’s a kind of love song and an affirmation of family. Would you say this is a topic the Biennale addresses?
GN: The notion of family and home is certainly something that runs through much of the Biennale, as many of the artists grapple with this and problematize it also. Increasingly, the notion of a chosen rather than a given family becomes so much more sustainable. Grada Kilomba or Joanna Piotrowska both grapple with the iconography of the family in different ways. Kilomba is interested in how a certain violence that can be produced in the family unit can start to become enacted in public. While we published our annotated lyrics to the song, we don’t agree with every aspect of it, of course, and it’s something we’re trying to unpack through the Biennale and our conversations.
GV: How did you set up the curatorial team?
GN: I wanted to work in conversation with others, and people who had a relationship to the city. I bought in Thiago de Paula Souza, Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, Yvette Mutumba, and Serubiri Moses—people who I had worked with previously. I take the collaborative approach very seriously, so I was looking for conversations that were in progress that we could pursue through this opportunity.
GV: Were you thinking about previous iterations of the Biennale as part of the curatorial conversation?
GN: It’s the 10th edition, so a milestone year, although I’m skeptical of commemoration. I’m more interested in looking at history from a sideways gaze. I do think it’s important to look back and see how the Biennale has been shaped and how it has shaped Berlin. It’s a very different city than the one I first encountered.
GV: The Biennale has been very good at capturing a particular conversation in the art world at a particular moment, for instance the Arab Spring and post-internet discourses.
GN: Certainly. A project that articulates our aims well would be Cinthia Marcelle’s project Legendary, which will be presented at KW Institute for Contemporary Art. This work is an instructional piece, carried out by our team. We research an institution and document fourteen people who are very important to that space. It’s not about documenting directors and curators but focusing on people behind the scenes. It could be a visitor or a technician, for instance. The exhibition starts with this image of fourteen people. There are obvious omissions, but then, if you’re looking for someone who isn’t there, that figure is already there, in a sense. The work enables us to learn about a location and tell a different story about a place, which is very important.
GV: How do you see the exhibitions operating in the distinct venues, for instance the Akademie der Künste and Volksbühne Pavilion?
GN: Each show is arranged around a starting point, then moves in different directions. It was really important to have no clear, concise narrative. At the Akademie der Künste, for instance, there is a work by Firelei Báez that explores the Haitian revolution and its relationship to thinkers such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. It’s something Susan Buck-Morss has written about, in that philosophers from so-called enlightened countries were not in conversation with or thinking about enslaved people of African descent. Báez’s work confronts these legacies in relationship to the building and its archive, which is itself wrapped up in these narratives. One aspect of this work will be a freestanding sculpture outside the venue that people walk through. These arcs reference the Sans-Souci palace in Haiti as well as Potsdam and figures from the Haitian revolution, in an attempt to call into question ideas of monument building and heritage.
GV: The artist list for this Biennale is much smaller than in previous years.
GN: It was a conscious decision. Coming after Documenta, Venice, and Münster last year there was a feeling of fatigue. We wanted to scale down slightly and focus our attention. It’s important to note that there is an extensive public program and catalogue; it’s just that these elements are less visible in some ways.
GV: How have you conceived the public program, “I’m Not Who You Think I’m Not,” alongside the exhibition?
GN: The public program is foundational. We initiated it in collaboration with Each One Teach One, an organization that takes the form of a library and space of knowledge transfer. It isn’t a typical art space. The program offers a place that is about questioning the ways in which knowledge is produced. I’m interested in how self-organizing becomes a moment of un-teaching. It’s important not to be didactic or for the curator to be in service to others as a teacher. Rather, we see the program as a space where everybody takes responsibility for their own learning and people don’t become trapped in a particular subjectivity.
GV: The sense of affirming complex subjectivities and working against essentialized political characteristics seems like a motif throughout the Biennale.
GN: Yes. It’s not one subject who is responsible for postcolonial discourse; every individual is responsible for these questions.
GV: What do you want people to take away from this year’s Biennale?
GN: Honestly, I’m happy not knowing the answer to that question, because I don’t yet know it for myself. This idea of working with the unknown is the most interesting thing for me.