Exhibition Advertisement with Diana Ejaita’s ‘Tribute to Nsibiri’ (2019)
Visiting the Kunstgewerbemuseum (KGM) on the evening of the Long Night of the Museums on the 31st of August 2019, members of our team were struck by the propositions about pasts, design and futures made by the exhibition Connecting Afro Futures. Fashion x Hair x Design.
Connecting Afro Futures was the result of a collaboration between curators Beatrace Angut Oola, founder of the platform Fashion Africa Now, Cornelia Lund, an academic and curator who initiated the platform fluctuating images, and Claudia Banz. Aiming to profile a different image of the African continent, the exhibition was meant to display a vibrant, stridently independent and richly creative Africa on the cusp of making an impact in the arts and design scenes in the future.
The exhibition showcased the social and cultural significance of hair and design and contemporary African fashion from two hubs in West and East Africa, namely Dakar and Kampala as a kind of synecdoche for the creativity flourishing on the continent. As the exhibition description put it, “What is emerging is a pulsating and dynamic Africa where Africans – in defiance of all (neo)colonial interventions and incursions – are determining their own political, economic and social living conditions by combining traditional and global knowledge”.
Co-curator Claudia Banz & design by Bull Doff
Our tour group gathered in the white space of the entrance and was welcomed by Claudia Banz. The first gallery was filled with a series of black garments, designed by Bull Doff from Dakar/Senegal who uses elements of traditional garment work to interpret contemporary fashion. The work was a striking commentary on the evocation of tradition as coded in textiles upscaled into fashion.
Banz with Perruques d’Architecture by Meschac Gaba
Such interplay between traditional techniques and contemporary art was pronounced in other work on display, such as the downstairs arrangement of braided sculptures by artist Meschac Gaba (Cotonou) that modelled hairstyles according to iconic buildings in Berlin, such as the Alexanderplatz. It was a delicate interweaving of tonsorial and architectural design practises. We were only disappointed that the artist did not interpret the controversial Humboldt Forum.
Upon entering the lower ground floor gallery Beatrace Angut Oola joined the tour. On display were the works of talented designers who were creatively engaging with their immediate social environment, history and culture to produce cutting edge fashion, decorative and artistic works. Showing us around a room filled with garments, arts and decorative design work, Beatrace Angut Oola explained that these exhibits had been produced through collaborative work between the artists and the curators.
Curator Beatrace Angut Oola & design by Tondo Clothing
Following a brief discussion on the political dimensions of fashion-making, the curators led us upstairs, to the last gallery, the Afro Hair District. It took the form of a makeshift hair salon and barber shop with shelves with haircare products, photographs of hairstyles and a video installation. It was a captivating display that connected contemporary hair styling to the long history of hair being both a tool for communication and empowerment and a symbol of resistance and self-care. Our recess here sparked some lively discussion among the tour participants.
Co-Curators Banz and Angut Oola
Discussing the tour immediately after, we realised our expectations had been exceeded. The exhibition was one of the few running at the time that explicitly dealt with the variety of artistic production on the African continent, and, moreover, suggested that it did so in a forward-thinking way by deploying the notion of Afro futures as an explicit descriptive hook. Pivoting the future from Africa, or an African perspective, Afro futures as represented inside the KGM was precisely what caught our attention as touristic-researchers on this night.
What made the exhibition especially unusual was that it was hosted by the Kunstgewerbemuseum. This invited reflexive curatorial thinking, as explicitly addressed in the exhibition description: ‘how can we translate the dynamism of ‘the Afrocultural renaissance’ in the context of a German museum of decorative arts?’ It also arose during the tour. First, Claudia Banz pointed out that it was highly unusual to exhibit African arts in the KGM since the SMB’s museum system was organised according to German, European and ethnographic collections that were traditionally kept separate. The exhibition therefore unsettled the neat, seemingly fixed institutional boundaries that had been drawn around collections in the city.
A view of the ‘Afro Hair District’
Secondly, she pointed out that the exhibition challenged the museum to think about what design was, and how fashion, and African fashion especially, could be included under this loaded category. By pushing the museum, and by default its public, to rethink what constituted legitimate design, the exhibition contributed to the unsettling of epistemic categories that separate art, craft and design, categories that also sustain the work of institutions like the KGM itself. We recognised this reflexivity, to reflect on the situation of the exhibition and the possibilities of African design to push epistemological boundaries, to be indicators of a purposefully disruptive curatorial practise.
Disturbing fixed categories and testing institutional boundaries – we recognise these ideas as circulating in debates about the decolonising of museums. Inferring at once the acts of critically addressing colonial histories of museums (particularly ethnographic museums), the return of objects collected under dubious circumstances, the repatriation of human remains, and the transformation of entrenched systems of thought that energise forms of expertise and authority over ideas of keeping, classification and display, decolonisation has grown in urgency and prominence in Germany in the last five years as a critical term for transformation. The term is also gaining increasing public traction in Germany as a language of critical reflection, action and change inside and outside the museum walls.[i]
At CARMAH we have tried to think about decolonisation, talking among ourselves and with our guests about what it may mean, and particularly, what it means in practice. How does one actually do decolonisation? And so, considering the interesting curatorial strategies adopted by the curators of the Connecting Afro Futures exhibition, we thought it was a good case study for interrogating how one goes about shaking things up, and shaking up museum practices in ways that are decolonial or otherwise.
Tour participants Tal Adler, Christine Gerbich and Harriet Merrow
What processes propelled the curators to create the final product? What were their perspectives on the concept of decolonising, and did they think of their exhibition as having contributed to such processes? What kinds of practices did they think were particularly useful for unsettling orthodox ways of thinking and doing in the museum, for changing how African creativity was understood and accepted? And finally, had they perceived the exhibition as having made a difference, and what would they recommend to teams who are planning similar exhibitions – in terms of feasible processes, structures, and modes of communication?
These questions were addressed during a Museum Lab/ Research Meeting in November 2019 at CARMAH in which two of the exhibition’s curators, Beatrace Angut Oola and Cornelia Lund participated to reflect on the process from their perspective as curators who initiated the project that led to a cooperation with Claudia Banz and the KGM; on short notice, Claudia Banz (KGM) was unfortunately unable to join our Research Meeting.[ii]
Gerbich with curators Cornelia Lund & Beatrace Angut Oola
We learned that doing such a project in the context of the Berlin State Museums was new to KGM and meant renegotiating institutional work routines and administrative processes. From Cornelia’s perspective, colonial histories and post-colonial approaches to museums have been received and addressed at a different pace in the German context. To her, the discourse around decolonisation and collaboration ‘felt like the institution was stuck in another century’.
Possible explanations for this delayed engagement with colonial and decolonial topics could be, as she pointed out, the lack of teaching on the German colonial past in combination with the widespread notion that the German ‘official’ colonial era was supposedly far shorter than that of Belgium, Britain or France.[iii] Some theories also put forward the fact that Germany’s memory landscape has focused on National Socialist and GDR pasts as the possible reason behind this long overdue reappraisal of the German colonial past.[iv]
From Beatrace’s point of view, German institutions needed to understand that decolonisation is as necessary for their workplaces and exhibition halls as it is for institutions in the rest of Europe. Moreover, she emphasised, it cannot be achieved without the inclusion of members of the African diaspora at every step of the exhibition making process, nor without a concrete dedication of the smooth flow of funds to these artists, activists, curators, scholars, and others.
She added that an exhibition like Connecting Afro Futures links different cultures, and this leads to a better understanding of the vibrant creative scene in African countries. The exhibition provided access to contemporary fashion from Africa, for Europeans, including those of African origin, and also for African public in Europe.
As Beatrace put it to us later, “For me, the main target group of the exhibition are people of African origin living in Germany. In the past, exhibitions of white institutions were designed for a white audience and this exhibition made a difference. Thanks to the cooperation, the museum reached a diverse audience that they would never have reached otherwise. It is about the African perspective in an art historical context and the visibility of designers of African origin from Africa and the Diaspora in a state institution”.
She emphasized that it had been important to her to show artistic work from African fashion designers in the KGM rather than in an Ethnological Museum: rather than emphasizing this art as ‘other’, this would mean to expand a canon of cultural fashion production that has been constructed mainly though a Western perspective. In so far, the exhibition must be considered a first step towards a longer process of decolonising museums.
Yet there were also challenges. The team of outside curators for Connecting Afro Futures realised that inclusion and creativity was made difficult due to systemic, administrative obstructions. They also highlighted the absence of non-white members on committees crucial to the further development of similar exhibitions and educational pursuits. These were indicators that ideas like ‘decolonisation’ and ‘collaboration’ had not yet been fully grasped in this institutional setting.
It seemed to external curators that the bureaucratic edifice of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation was not yet capable of interfacing with other ways of doing curatorial work, especially processual, generative curatorial projects, despite the very best intentions of their most eager and progressive employees. This criticism is not to say that exhibitions on and about Africa are especially affected. It refers to all exhibitions, German, African and beyond. What it does mean to say is that bureaucratic systems come under a different kind of pressure when asked to respond to curatorial needs that do not conform to a paper heavy, hierarchical administrative system.
There were situations in which, for example, the flow of sometimes vital funds to Dakar and Kampala (designated for the designers’ exhibition contributions) was restricted due to administrative protocols that take European systems of banking and workflow as a given. Obstructions like these can cause frustration and fray relations on the ground, ultimately impeding real curatorial change. In that sense, decolonisation, part of which is achieved through curating inclusively, stalls at the point at which hard-to-read forms have to be filled out, transfers of funds have to be executed, and approval has to be sought for even small changes.
But there was hope. Generally, Beatrace circled back to her confidence in future generations, not only in young designers from Dakar and Kampala, but in those with an African background in Germany already working to create exciting cultural fusion of various ‘generically African’ cultural exports like music genres, hairstyles and fashion. This sort of appropriation in a sense pays homage to the depth and breadth of influence that members of the African diaspora have had on German society – an influence otherwise made invisible and disregarded as un-German. [v]
We are very grateful to the curators for taking the time to visit CARMAH and engage with us and our audience about their work. The exhibition Connecting Afro Futures closed on the 1st of December 2019. Find the ‘magalogue’, documenting its process and perspectives on the Prussian Culture Heritage Foundation website, here.
Claudia Banz is exhibition curator of innovative formats such as Fast Fashion: The Dark Side of Fashion and Food Revolution 5.0. She was project manager of the exhibition Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent and, together with the Beninese artist Meschac Gaba, curated the exhibition Glück: Welches Glück. She has been working at the Kunstgewerbemuseum of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation since 2017 and is responsible for the development of a new program there.
Cornelia Lund is an art, film and media theorist and curator living in Berlin; since 2004, she has been co-director of fluctuating images, a platform for media art and design. Her research and teaching are mainly centred around audiovisual artistic productions, design theory, documentary practices as well as post- und decolonial theories. See the fluctuating images website for more information.
Beatrace Angut Oola studied film and TV business in Germany. She has worked in the art departments of several film and TV production companies. In 2012, she founded the first high-end fashion platform ( Africa Fashion Day Berlin) for designers of African heritage in Germany. In 2016 she relaunched the brand in Fashion Africa Now, a creative agency, network, and online information platform for creatives of African descent.
[i] This is evidenced by the series of talks on Decolonisation run by the Green Party; through the activist work of organisations such as Berlin Postkolonial for the renaming of street and place names; and the Decolonisation in Action podcast series run by Dr Edna Bonhomme and her colleagues at the Max Planck Institute, Berlin.
[ii] She participated in a previous conversation in preparation for CARMAH’s session, and we are very grateful for her generous input.
[iii] cf. Brandstetter, Anna-Maria (2019): Dinge und Theorien in der Ethnologie: Zusammenhänge und Berührungspunkte. In: Edenheiser, Iris and Larissa Förster (eds.): Museumsethnologie. Eine Einführung. Theorien – Debatten – Praktiken. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag GmbH: 58.
[iv] cf. Bach, Jonathan (2019): Colonial Pasts in Germany’s Present. In: German Politics and Society, Issue 133, 37(4): 59.
[v] cf. Kelly, Natasha A. (2016): Afrokultur. »der raum zwischen gestern und morgen«. Münster: Unrast Verlag: 122-4.