ARMA Alliance at the Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Arts

Together with the Goethe-Institut Finland, I represented the Anti-Racism Media Activist Alliance (ARMA) at the opening of the 2018, 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Arts in the first weekend of June.

As a researcher, I have constantly looked for ways to develop methodologies combining arts, poetry, activism and research. For this reason, being at the Berlin Biennale was a very intense and at times emotional learning experience.

Göethe-Institut Finland Director Isabel Hölzl and I arrived on Thursday morning and went straight to the “art space, discursive platform, eating and drinking spot, njangi house, space for conviviality” SAVVY Contemporary: The Laboratory of Form Ideas.

Fortunately, we were right on time for the guided tour to their exhibit Whose Land Have We Lit Now? Contemplations on the Notions of Hospitality. Artistic co-director Dr. Elena Agudio was our guide.

Click on the flyer for more details about the exhibit.

As she described the works, I reflected on how very simple ideas can have such powerful impact.

The work that most struck me in this sense was Deanna Bowen’s “1911 Anti Creek-Negro Petition”. The work displays photocopied sheets of the petition symmetrically distributed on a wall. However, as I read the sheets, my mind was instantly taken on a back-and-forth time travel between public hate speech then and now.

Later the day, I went to the KW Institute for Contemporary Arts for the guest-only preview of the exhibition. This year’s biennale is historical because it is the first in Europe curated by an all-black curating team. So, it felt great to be at KW and see the works and the presence of so many black and brown artists and performers from Europe, Africa and Latin America.

My personal highlight was meeting and chatting with Grada Kilomba, the Berlin-based Portuguese interdisciplinary artist and writer. She is one of my role models because of the ways she combines different forms of art, media and knowledge to approach and raise issues concerning black heritage, blackness and racism (her book, Plantation Memories, is available here).

Her installation ILLUSIONS, Vol. II, OEDIPUS was mind-blowing in terms of narrative, aesthetics and format. South African cultural worker Thulile Gamedze makes the best description of Kilomba’s ILLUSIONS series:

“In her ILLUSIONS series (2016–ongoing), Grada Kilomba combines Greek myths with video, text, and storytelling, in order to explore symbolism and allegory as carriers of oppression. With each live performance, shown here in video format, she retells a story, gradually turning its metaphors upside down and unpacking a deep analysis of the oppressive, racialized, and gendered social relations that form its structure. The work exposes the exploiter dynamic that centers and marginalizes as an unnatural, disruptive, and unhealthy pattern for society as a whole.” (Read it fully here)

Watching Kilomba’s work helped me decide what kind of works on which I would focus while visiting the other venues.

Martha Fessehatzion (right) watchesGrada Kilomba’s Illusions vol. II – Oedipus (2018), in which she performs, at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art.

At the ZK/U Center for Art and Urbanistics, I watched the gut-wrenching film unknown at the time of publication (2018), by Dineo Seshee Bopape. Loosely based on court transcripts of a high profile rape trial in South Africa, the film is a deep portrail of both (a) how many men twistedly convince themselves that their unwanted sexual advances do not characterize rape and (b) how anguishing it can be for women to deal with those men, especially when they occupy positions of power.

Screening of “unknown at the time of publication” at ZK/U.

At the Akademie der Künste, Mario Pfeifer’s Again / Noch einmal (2018) impressed me a lot. The 45-minute documentary, two-channel video installation is a re-examination of the beating of a Iraqui refugee in a supermarket leading to a trial where the agressors were acquited. The installation felt to me as a very inspiring way of using audiovisual resources as an instrument to promote human rights and seek justice.

Screening of “Again/Noch Einmal” at the Akademie der Künste.

All in all, it felt like a great privilege to be in Berlin for the opening of the black-curated Biennale. I returned to Finland with lots of new ideas both for the ARMA project, which I co-coordinate, and my own efforts to make academic knowledge available across sectors and platforms. Thank you Goethe-Institut Finland for facilitating this visit and Kone Foundation for funding ARMA.

The Berlin Biennale is on until September 9th, 2018. More information on their website.