"I came to Germany in 1997 when I was 20 years old, with 300 Deutsche marks in my pocket and one suitcase," says the curator Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, who recently took the helm of Berlin's Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW, House of World Cultures). "I entered a society that was very racialised, and in which people like me experienced a lot of racism."
Speaking in person to The Art Newspaper, Ndikung points out that he is sitting a stone's throw away from where the African continent was partitioned by Western imperial powers in 1884 at the Berlin Conference held at the former Reichskanzlerpalais building: “If I didn't have this in mind, I might not be able to do the work the way I'm doing it. I believe in curatorial justice”. Outside Ndikung's office, a recent exhibition by the investigative artist collective Forensic Architecture on the far-right murders in Hanau in 2020 is being dismantled.
Ndikung succeeds the German curator Bernd Scherer, who retired at the end of December after 17 years in office. It is significant for Germany, at least symbolically, that he has been appointed to lead the HKW, one of the most prominent cultural institutions in the country, whose curvilinear structure Berliners refer to playfully as the "pregnant oyster". Built deliberately high so it could be seen from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) over the Berlin Wall, the building was originally a congress hall gifted by the US to Western Germany. 66 years later, the wall no longer stands, but Germany faces new divisions.
Since 1987, the HKW has served as a national forum for contemporary art and critical debate. As its first African-born and Black director—one of a small handful of such institutional leaders in Germany—his appointment suggests that national institutions are beginning to diversify.
Born in the Cameroonian capital of Yaoundé in 1977, Ndikung left the former German colony to study biochemistry (in which he has a doctorate) in Berlin. He eventually left science to found the Berlin exhibition space Savvy Contemporary in 2008. Over time, he has become a prominent voice in the German discussion about looted art and restitution, having contributed or curated for some of the world’s most prestigious international art exhibitions, including Documenta 14 in Kassel and Athens in 2015, as well as presiding as a jury member of the 2022 Venice Biennale. Last year, Ndikung walked out of his role as artistic director of the Sonksbeek 20-24 biennial in the Netherlands over the “precarious and ultimately unbearable” working conditions faced by him and his team, writing in an open letter to the organising foundation that they had been "victims of sexism and institutional racism".
He now finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place with his newest post, which is also his most important within a state framework. On the one hand, he must work around stifling bureaucracy to bring to the fore voices that have been historically overlooked for decades, if not centuries. He must also address mounting frustrations by artists from the Global South and their diasporas—who lack agency over their representation in the art world—without being accused of vetting, silencing or censorship. In short, he finds himself at the centre of a culture war that repeatedly flares up within Germany, whether at last year's Documenta or at the Berlin Biennale.
“When I wake up in the morning and look at myself in the mirror while brushing my teeth, I'm not concerned with matters of diversity,” Ndikung says, punctuating his sentences with pregnant pauses. “Because the world I live in is diverse. Whereas these predominantly white institutions want to just have a drop of colour and fetishise diversity, we actually practice not only the diversity of peoples, but of epistemologies”.
Last month, Ndikung's 17-person curatorial team was announced at a press conference in HKW’s wood-panelled auditorium. It includes the Senegalese curator Marie Helene Pereira, the Colombian artist Carlos Maria Romero (aka Atabey), the Filipina activist Rosa Cordillera A. Castillo, and the Cameroonian curator Dzekashu MacViban, as well as Can Sungu, the Istanbul-born artistic director of the Berlin cultural centre Sinema Transtopia. Ndikung called them on stage one by one while the local band The Swag played covers of Toni Braxton, The Roots, and Burna Boy. “What I know is that if this house wants to be the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, it must do better. It must be reflected in the team, in the programme and the visitors” Nidkung tells The Art Newspaper.
The team’s aim, Ndikung said at the time, is to contribute to the understanding of a world "that is pregnant with many other worlds”. A world "confident enough to detach itself from the universe and call itself the 'pluriverse'". In the coming years, the HKW programme will focus on dance workshops, cultures of remembrance, and the consequences of colonial history.
Yet Ndikung's appointment also draws fears among concerned parties that he will become a lightning rod for charged political debates in Germany. The Tamil writer and researcher Sinthujan Varatharajah worries that the HKW will now face an onus to compensate for a nationwide dearth of diversity in the arts. They see a general trend in Germany, where many international diversity hires are pitted by German stakeholders against interests of local ethnic minority communities. “German institutions seem more at ease with hiring cultural elites from abroad than locally-socialised (racialised) working classes, who make up the majority of non-whites in the country and who continue to suffer from institutional erasure,” they say. “Nonetheless,” they continue, “this cannot be reduced just to race, but needs also to be understood through questions of class, cultural capital and social reproduction.”
Varatharajah addresses this issue in their book English in Berlin: Exclusions in a Cosmopolitan Society (2022, co-written with Afghan-German academic Moshtari Hilal), in which they argue that many German art institutions are "diversifying their programming by inviting people from other countries and other places, while wilfully sidelining racialised communities that exist and work locally".
My focus is on trying to build bridges rather than destroy them. And for that, we must be in dialogue
Barely six weeks after Ndikung was announced as the next HKW director in 2021, the daily newspaper Die Welt published an article in which he was accused of sympathising with efforts to boycott Israel with the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. This came after a Facebook post he made about Palestine in 2014 in which he wrote: “They will pay a millionfold for every drop of blood in GAZA! Palestine shall be free… come rain or shine!”. Following the controversy, Ndikung issued a statement distancing himself from BDS. Claudia Roth, the German Commissioner for Culture and Media, publicly defended him saying he should be judged on his artistic achievement.
Though expressing support for BDS is not illegal in Germany, affiliation with the movement, whether founded or not, can result in social and professional reprisals. When asked to explain his standpoint on the topic, Ndikung appears more measured than before: “Coming from the world of culture and science, I am against cultural boycotts. In creative processes and artistic work, exclusions per se are not my modus operandi. I firmly advocate for seizing any opportunity to speak to each other even in the most difficult situations! My focus is on trying to build bridges rather than destroy them. And for that, we must be in dialogue. It's about understanding and reconciliation, and that's always been my focus."
Ndikung's appointment presents the thorny question of how one should reconcile wider discussions around decolonisation with that of Palestine. "I'm also in a learning process, right? With all humility, it's a step-by-step process. We should learn not to rush to conclusions…There is no one way, nobody has a monopoly over the truth," he says. With the HKW's first events set for early June, expectations are high, and Ndikung is in fighting spirits: “I do think art can shake the foundation on which the world is built."