Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt currently hosts O Quilombismo, an exhibition based on a research project on emancipatory forms of community and society. The exhibition will conclude mid-September and includes a series of workshops and performances, a publication, a group exhibition featuring text, music, movement, stillness, colors, forms, fauna, flora as well as diverse forms of artistic expression and moments of community. Curator Paz Guevara has assembled artists, activists, and scientists in an intergenerational and multi-sensory experience that is excessive in the best sense of the word. Sascha Ehlert spoke to Guevara about the foundations and precepts of the project, the potential of the assembled positions, and why O Quilombismo had to be put on in Berlin.
SASCHA EHLERT How come O Quilombismo, of all the exhibitions you’ve got planned for next year, is the first to be put on? And perhaps this is also a good occasion to ask you directly about the literary roots of the word and the person who coined it…
PAZ GUEVARA I’m happy to tell you about it. The word can be traced back to the Afro-Brazilian artist, author, activist, and politician Abdias Nascimento. He’s been active since the 1950s and formulated his philosophy of quilombismo at the end of the 1970s. Quilombos are societies that were founded by former slaves in what today is Brazilian territory, but that were started in many other regions of Aba Yala [editor’s note: the indigenous name for the American continent], in places where people shed the bonds of slavery. What makes quilombos special is that they were not organized according to capitalistic principles; unlike colonial societies they were built on values like equality, solidarity, even radical solidarity. Many quilombos co-existed peacefully with indigenous communities, and some also welcomed indigenous people who had been displaced by colonial rulers, for example Jewish refugees that had been fleeing persecution starting in the sixteenth century. It was important to us that the first exhibition would not just deal with the philosophy and history of quilombismo but also current resistance and emancipatory movements. Beyond that we tried to bring a convivial spirit to the Haus der Kulturen der Welt that was more open and communal than had been the case before.
SE Before our interview you jokingly said that you started working on O Quilombismo over ten years ago, the reason being that you met most of the artists involved over the course of the last decade. How did you decide which artists would be part of the project once you settled what the exhibition was actually about?
PG When we started working collectively on the exhibition and the program with all the curators and editors, we looked for artists whose practice included a significant element of resistance, for example by retaining aesthetic practices and maintaining their own languages and traditions in spite of the hegemony of the Western canon. We wanted to construct an exhibition format or a space out of these different voices, a space where we could come together as a community and that united all the different practices and, by doing so, created a pluriverse of its own. Some of the artists we had been familiar with for a long time, such as Bernardo Oyarzún, who, like me, is from Chile, and whose contribution is extremely important to us. The title of his series is Kilombo and engages with the racist usage of the word in Uruguay and Argentina. His first work was exhibited at the Montevideo biennale ten years ago, which I helped curate. Since then we’ve been talking about and working against the racist usage of the word. In the context of O Quilombismo at Haus der Kulturen der Welt we understand quilombo as resistance and emancipation in the affirmative sense of the philosophy of quilombismo as formulated by Nascimento. For him it is a practice of connection, of “radical solidarity,” or, in his words, “radical solidarity with all the peoples of the world that have been subjected to exploitation, oppression, and poverty.” That’s quite different from how the word is used in Uruguay and Argentina, where it stands for “disorder” and “chaos.” The reason is that in these countries the term reproduces the perspective of former plantation owners and continues to be used without critically confronting this history. For former slave owners the word means disorder, for freed slaves it means emancipation.
Oyarzún’s work is meant to challenge the daily use of the word in Uruguay and Argentina. The work in the exhibition, the sculpture “Kilombo: Piwuchen,” refers to the historical shapeshifter figure of the piwuchen of the indigenous Mapuche people, which is being kept alive through stories passed from generation to generation. But before we got the exhibition, we had been talking to the artist for several years. Already in the 1990s did he criticize racism in his home country. At the same time, it was important to us to include many young artists in the exhibition to create an intergenerational communal space. To give just one example, there is Zica Pires, a very young artist and activist from Santa Rosa dos Pretos in Brazil, a present-day quilombo whose water supply is being threatened by privatization.
SE How do you understand the term “pluriverse” – which, if memory serves me well, I first came across in Alexander Kluge – and what meaning does it have in your work here at Haus der Kulturen der Welt?
PG For a long time European culture was regarded as the universal culture and was accordingly exported to Europe’s colonies, including Chile, a former Spanish colony. Colonial rule came with the violent attempt to eradicate local culture and to replace it with a culture supposedly there “for everyone,” but which inscribed significant power asymmetries into local societies. We use the term “pluriverse” to emphasize how the exhibition brings together vastly different artistic languages; a team of curators assembled different conceptions of what an exhibition is, of what performance, film, discourse, science, written literature and oral literature, music, publications, architecture, and education is to activate Haus der Kulturen der Welt in a pluriversal fashion. Western art history always begins in ancient Greece, then moves through to the European avantgarde movements to the Cold War, then abstract expressionism in the US, minimalism, and pop art. We want to showcase diverse art histories. For example, there are many histories of abstraction in art if one does not consider it exclusively from a Western perspective, which understands abstraction as pure form that does not engage with political events and is self-sufficient. In our exhibitions visitors encounter abstract works that refer to histories and forms of spirituality. The Nigerian-Italian artist Diana Ejaita painted a mural with symbols that are meant to establish a connection between her and West-African communities and the ancestral spirit. As a result, it is not simply a visual work of art but one that is connected to history and spirituality.
SE Obviously the exhibition is global in scope; yet it was it important to hold it in Berlin. Why? What’s the connection to the city?
PG At first glance it might seem like the exhibition has little to do with Berlin, but that’s actually not true at all. Many histories flow through Haus der Kulturen der Welt: the building was once a congress center and given to West Berlin by the US; then it became a space to promote “Western” culture and modernist, pure forms of art – the traces of this are still visible in its architecture. It was advertised as a place of freedom while racial segregation was the norm in the US. We celebrate the anti-racist and pluriversal philosophy of quilombismo in this space to directly engage with the unjust idea of freedom on which it was founded. And we offer an alternative: the practice of quilombismo includes radical solidarity and equality. In the same vein Bonaventure keeps reminding us that not far from where we are sitting right now the so-called Congo Conference took place, where chancellor Otto von Bismarck and other European leaders divided Africa among the colonial powers. This violent, divisive history connects Berlin and Europe with Africa and the African diaspora, including South America. It’s important to be conscious of this. As a philosophy quilombismo combines a cultural practice with political, social, and economic alternatives to colonial oppression. As an exhibition O Quilombismo confronts the history and violence of colonialism and imperialism but also highlights affirmative practices of resistance, celebration, and enjoyment. To answer your question directly: realizing the exhibition in Berlin, we wanted to work with many other local institutions and cultural practitioners.
SE The exhibition includes, among many others, works that have a connection to the world of animals. One, for example, was co-created with the help of termites. Does radical solidarity as you understand it extend to animals? In which ways can you as a cultural institution test other ways of living alongside nature?
PG Thank you for the question, and yes, of course radical solidarity means that we don’t just look at the world from the perspective of the Anthropocene, that is, favorably to humans. Other animals and beings must have the same rights as humans. Our exhibition does not only take place in conventional exhibition spaces but also surrounding areas. Many works can be found in the garden or close to the Tiergarten, for example the flags by María Magdalena Campos-Pons and Adama Delphine Fawundu that welcome visitors at the entrance, or Alberto Pitta’s mural, which tells a story on the building’s façade, or the political posters of Lisa Hilli in one of the gardens. This way we break with the distinction between inside and outside and try to create a living culture. The door of the main room will remain open for the entirety of the exhibition so that visitors can go outside at any point and sit on the grass or have a picnic and build a connection with other beings, be it trees, bunnies, or the river, while looking at the artworks of Temitayo Ogunbiyi or Ibrahim Mahama under the open sky.
SE In other words, an exhibition in direct opposition to the Western invention of capitalism and its mode of consuming culture and art? How can an institution like Haus der Kulturen der Welt, which is financed by the German state and inevitably participates in the global art market, change the latter “from the inside”?
PG Given my experience as a person born in Chile, where the culture scene has heavily opposed capitalism, I have always admired how artists resisted violence and how they were capable, against all odds, to imagine a different world. Take the Mapuche-Chilean poet and author Elicura Chihuailaf, who follows the Mapuche philosophy, which is based on respect and care for all beings of the earth: “Know the world as a whole, without exclusion, without fragmentation of life/the living: the earth: a wonderful, manyfold garden.” Or think of Abdias Nascimento, who considered art an act of love and who connects the practices of individual artists with community. In the philosophy of quilombismo culture is an offering of love that is more than an object or a good: “Love is a dynamic value. So, artists have an obligation, in this trance of love, to express their real, palpable relations with the life and culture of their people. Relations on all levels, in all forms, with all their meanings, implications, and connotations. The exercise of pure abstraction, the untainted formal game, reduces itself to nothing – to the artifice of art for art’s sake.” This generous practice of the pluriverse, this practice of a living culture and of love, could lead us onto new paths.