Dada Afrika in Berlin: Dialogue comes with a price that exhibitions are rarely eager to pay

W: Ich bin die hier-sprichst-du Wand, der du nach dem Besuch der Ausstellung begegnest
B: Ok
W: Hier sprichst du…
B1: Addet mich auf Snapchat
B2: DADADADadadadDADADdadada
W: Was ist das Fremde?
B3: Good question which would have been interesting (if not necessary) to explore in that exhibition
W: Deutscher Kolonialismus:
B4: ♫ Dada Africa, ambiance de la brousse ♪
B5 : würde afrikanische Reaktionen auf Dada interessant gefunden haben

Until 7th November, the Berlinische Galerie features the special exhibition Dada Afrika – Dialog mit dem Fremden, associating early twentieth century artists of the Dada movement with a multitude of non-European artistic and cultural objects that provided artistic inspiration to the Dadaists. In an adjacent room to this exhibition, the Berlinische Galerie has opened up a space for creative engagement with Dada, as well as to encourage visitors to participate in the so-called ‘dialogue’ by expressing their thoughts on the exhibition with post-its on the “Hier-sprichst-du” wall. At the time of my visit, around 60% of the messages could be summed up in “DaDa”, dAdA” or “DAda ist cOOl”. The evident aim of the wall was however to reflect on concepts that, though not addressed by the exhibition, yet remained central to the exhibition of African, Oceanian or North American indigenous artworks, such as the “other” or German colonialism. The gap between the purpose of the wall and the response of visitors is telling. In the myriad of (presumably) pupils and students posting Snapchat pseudonyms and others reacting more or less Dadaistically by providing a non- or contra-reaction to the call for dialogue, few messages actually answered rationally to the questions raised. Among the half-dozen, two voices (B3 and B5 in the prefacing dialogue) clearly ask the exhibition to first make the effort of addressing those issues before throwing them to the unaware faces of the general public.

Promoting “dialogue” with non-European cultural forms has become fashionable in the realm of museum exhibitions. The Foundation Prussian Cultural Heritage has promised a dialogue between world cultures in the forthcoming Humboldt Forum which will house the collections of the former Ethnological Museum. The Musée du Quai Branly in Paris has recently closed a special exhibition dedicated to former president Chirac entitled Jacques Chirac, or Cross-cultural Dialogue. However, in the case of Dada Afrika, because the curators did not fully engage with the issues they suggested on the “Hier-sprichst-du” wall, I fear that one side of the conversation has regrettably remained mute.

In a similar manner to other previous exhibitions – such as Primitivism in 20th Century Art (MOMA, New York) or Picasso and Africa (Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg) – the curators of Dada Afrika have chosen to display cultural artefacts acquired by ethnologists during the colonial era next to Dada artworks by white European artists. Dadaists have been known for incorporating non-European influences into an aesthetic re-adaptation that comments on the futility of Western material culture. Although the analogies are clear and the parallel justified, it remains a construct, a comparison which is unfortunately tainted by power relations in judging artistic value and appropriating cultural material. Adaptation and repetition of aesthetics are part of the essence of human creativity, and this is rightfully celebrated in the exhibition. Yet, bringing ‘together’ a sculpture from the Han Coray collection, which was carved by an Ivorian artist whose name has never seemed important enough to be recorded, and a poster drawn by Marcel Janco, a leading figure from the Dadaist Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich, reminiscent of the aesthetics of the abovementioned statue, does not constitute any form of communication. The object from Ivory Coast has, in the meantime, had to spend decades dusting in an ethnological museum, being taken out to be exhibited to support discourses supporting the colonial notion of the “primitive,” and reducing non-European cultures to a lower level in artistic aesthetics. The new context of exposition proposed by the Berlinische Galerie unfortunately (and rather unintentionally) reproduces this hierarchical relation. If pasting the improper language of Dadaists can be partially forgiven, [1] the problem remains that, unlike African, Native American, Cambodian or Papua New-Guinean sculptures, Dada artworks are celebrated as tokens of a watershed movement in art history.

hannah_hoech_aus_einem_ethnographischen_museum_nr_viii_denkmal_i_2mb

Hannah Höch: Denkmal I, aus einem ethnographischem Museum, Nr. VIII, 1924-1928. Copyright VG BILD-KUNST Bonn, 2016, Reproduktion Kai-Annett Becker

The object-biographies of those African, North American, Papua New-Guinean and Maori artworks have been time and again ignored. In ethnological museums and elsewhere, their artistic significance has been fixed to a remote traditional past. Of course, Dada Afrika reminds us that Dadaists, in fact, wanted to break from such stereotypical and hierarchical relation between Western and non-Western art by giving another space of expression to these masks and sculptures. We can now regrettably assert that they have failed. First, because the realm of Western art criticism still generally hardly engages with these power relations. Secondly, because the exhibition supports this status-quo by, once again, fixating non-European art forms, maybe not to a remote past, but to the margins of art history, presenting them only as sources of inspiration, as aesthetic tools used by Dadaists against a European moral and rational consciousness in crisis. In the subtitle and in the midst of the exhibition, these objects remain Fremde: they are foreign to the continuum of artistic evolution, detached from the timeline of artistic production. Only a more courageous curatorial work could have helped them to break free from their shackling colonial entanglements, to speak, to be real, to be granted back their actual ritualistic and artistic values. In the narrative proposed by the exhibition, only the mediated gaze provided by Dadaists is granted a space in the canon. The irony is that the Dadaists’ experience of non-European art was not first-hand, but itself mediated, emerging from the collecting and exhibitory craze of ethnological museums made possible by colonial rule, as the collages by Hannah Höch remind us. Dadaists also “met” forms of non-European artistic expression in scientific publications of that time fraught with colonial thinking, as exemplified by the Aboriginal poems recited by another leading Dada artist, Hugo Ball, which he found in a scientific text by Lutheran missionary Cark Strehlow. [2]

Hannah_Hoech_Aus_einem_ethnographischen_Museum_Nr_X_5MB.jpg

Hannah Höch: Aus einem ethnographischem Museum Nr. X, 1924-1925. Copyright VG BILD_KUNST, Reproduktion Anja Elisabeth Witte

A genuine dialogue with the “other” should have included a third level of interaction. For example, a contemporary comment of current non-European artists on Dada, or pieces of a re-adaptation of Dadaist archetypes in African art would have been welcome in a dialogical framework. The exhibition Dada South? has pioneered such a perspective on Dada, featuring works by South African artists such as Lucas Seage or Robin Rhode. Moreover, the legacies, or perhaps rather the echoes of Dada phonetic poetry could also be sought in scat and mouth singing performances. What about Amiri Baraka’s spoken poem “Black Dada Nihilismus”? There is enough material to inscribe Dada and its non-European influences in a flow of adaptation and borrowing in order to flatten, or at least challenge, the hierarchies in art criticism.

In May 2016, while exhibiting Dada Afrika in the museum Rietberg in Zürich, an event lead by Senam Okudzeto explored how “artists of African descent have used the frameworks of Dada and Surrealism”. [3] The discussion will unfortunately not be followed up in Berlin. Three days (in the three months of exhibit) have been allocated for critical thinking with guest speakers guiding visitors. [4] Yet, all those events, taking place punctually, separated from the exhibition, also show once again how vivid perspectives on Indigenous art – and more particularly African art – rarely find their way inside the exhibiting space, but remain on the margins, as part of an alternative academic view on art history.

Die Ausstellung Dada Afrika – Dialog mit dem Fremden ist bis zum 7.11.2016 in der Berlinischen Galerie (Berlin Kreuzberg) zu sehen.

Anmerkungen:
[1] The exhibition has commented on the Dadaist language with an introductory remark to the exhibition: „Die Ausstellung nimmt Bezug auf eine historische Situation. Die damals gebräuchlichen Termini ‚primitiv‘, ‚Art nègre‘, ‚Poèmes nègres‘, ‚Chants nègres‘ sowie ihre deutsche Entsprechungen entsprangen einer rassistischen und kolonialistischen Denkart, von der wir uns ausdrücklich distanzieren.“ Other museums have recently stirred a debate on such matter by boldly renaming artworks in their custody: see for instance “National Gallery of Denmark removes ‚Negro‘ from art titles” and “Rijksmuseum Removing Racially Charged Terms From Artworks’ Titles and Descriptions.”
[2] Kaufmann, Christian, “Dada Reads Ethnological Sources: From Knowledge of Foreign Art Worlds to Poetic Understanding,” Dada Afrika: Dialogue with the Other, edited by Ralf Burmeister, Michaela Oberhofer and Esther Tisa Francini, Scheidegger and Spies, 2016.
[3] See AFRO DADA.
[4] “Gemeinsam mit dem Kurator und verschiedenen Gastrednern wird die Ausstellung unter bildkünstlerischen, kolonialgeschichtlichen sowie ethnologischen Blickwinkeln besichtigt.“ Diese Tandemführungen fanden/finden am 25.09.2016 mit Dr. Natasha A. Kelly, Kommunikationswissenschaftlerin und Soziologin mit den Forschungsschwerpunkten race und gender, am 16.10.2016 mit Esther Tisa Francini, Kuratorin der Ausstellung sowie Historikerin und Provenienzforscherin im Museum Rietberg Zürich, und am 06.11.2016, 14 Uhr mit Jonathan Fine, Kurator für Westafrika, Kamerun und Gabun im Ethnologischen Museum Berlin statt.

Credits // Author: Yann Le Gall
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