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How 'O Quilombismo: Of Resisting and Insisting. Of Flight as Fight. Of Other Democratic Egalitarian Political Philosophies', the exhibition to inaugurate the new Haus der Kulturen der Welt, shows forms of emancipation as a mosaic of fugitive existences.

  • Review
  • Jun 23 2023
  • Dalia Maini
    is a writer, editor and urban mermaid.

As imperial institutions, museums are still primarily structurally racist. At least when it comes to the profiling of their employees and curating programs, which often exclude, appropriate, and exploit non-Western cultural traditions for their own representational purposes. However, to stand at the entrance of the new Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin is to witness a process; one of transformation of the epistemologies generated by HKW to host all cultures of the world. Benjamin Franklin’s universalist thought carved in the marble walls of its entrance greets everyone:

God grants that not only the love of liberty but a thorough knowledge of the rights of man may pervade all the nations of the earth, so that a philosopher may set his foot anywhere on its surface and say: ‘This is my country.’

This foundation of Eurocentrist ideology is deconstructed and turned upside down through a juxtaposition of narratives that, instead of reinforcing white cultural supremacy, open a breach, inviting everyone whose world had been deprived of its own representation to approach HKW as a possibility of a home. To address the relationship between the world’s knowledges and the corresponding power imbalances, its new director, Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, and the curatorial team composed of Paz Guevara, Cosmin Costinaș, Edna Martinez, Daniel Neugebauer, Dr. Alexandra Ortiz-Wallner, Marie Helene Pereira, and Dr. Rosa Cordillera Castillo, operate a historic-linguistic revision of the function of the Haus.


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One act of this revision was renaming HKW’s various spaces after diaspora-descending womxn who, throughout history needed to double fight, under the patriarchal-colonial regime, to affirm their existence. The people, honored by the invitation of remaking a space accessible to everyone, are comprised of a tradition of theorists and practitioners who unravel the fundamental role of intersectional thinking, material knowledge, poetics, and sociality, coming from the Pan-African diaspora, including Anna Seghers & Semra Ertan, Sylvia Wynter, Mrinali Mukherjee, Forough Farrokzhad, Bessie Head, Magnus Hirschfeld, Gunta Stölzl, Beatriz Nascimento, Paulette Nardal, Les Nana Benz, Ceija Stojka, Miriam Makeba, and Lili Elbe. The historical and cultural context embodied by their works carries the quest and the tools to approach the revolution against cultural colonization, by intruding the curtain of colonial regimes and dissolving into a pluriverse of practices.

Every corner of the Haus invites the public to familiarize themselves with a symbolic system that celebrates a world that, although oppressed, exists in its richness of relations. This symbolic system, made of forms of spirituality, textures, materials, words, and sounds, manifests in the reciprocal celebration between publics, artworks, and value production within the public institution. This system, or counter-system perhaps, is called Quilombismo, and HKW pays homage to the eponymous philosophy developed by Brazilian artist, writer, and politician Abdias Nascimento (1914-2011), who defines quilombos—communities created by escaped and emancipated slaves—as societies in which freedom is inseparable from the existential communion between individuals and territories. The existence of the Brazilian Quilombos, and the communities of maroons that emerged in America as an act of rebellion against the settlers, was implemented through emancipation from the inhumanity of forced labor. Their freedom was shaped, as founding principles, in forms of labor in solidarity with and for the community.


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At HKW, this legacy is a reason for celebrations. The press preview felt already like one: the space was presented in the communion of builders, art handlers, artists, curators, and journalists. A legacy of reciprocal respect, is still carried on by Savvy Contemporary, the laboratory of Form-Ideas initiated by Ndikung in 2010 in Berlin, brings all art workers on the same level, recognizing their part in an intricate balance; a world composed of many elements, which do not pre-exist with one another but are interwoven without hierarchy when present to one another.

The opening weekend program at HKW, Acts of Reopening Again, centered on ritualistic and sonic cultures, activated the space by centering the corporeal as a site of discourse and social transformation. The newly renamed Paulette Nardal Terrace hosted the Sonic Pluriverse Festival: Congorama, which brought together sonorities from three separated locations united by “Congo” in their name, being blessed with sonic excellence, and cultural commonalities which derive from their violent colonial past. Poetry, chants, food offerings, and guided tours invited the public not to attend, but to participate: to be embraced by a convivial atmosphere as a curatorial premise, made legible to the body and not the mind first. This event was the prelude to a series of acts, through which the new Haus will be built, and which will re-train the culture of conviviality like a muscle atrophied by alienating colonial relations.


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The abundance of artistic practices, soundscapes, and performative gestures inhabiting the spaces of HKW, creates a choir of meanings that refer back to the cultural and natural background that nurtures and shapes them. Braiding, a practice that appears several times within the exhibition project, resembles this intention. The braid as an African technology, a symbol of pride and beauty, is used in its graphic quality in the work Kubatana (togetherness/unity/connecting/touching/holding) (2023) by Nontsikelelo Mutiti, which adorns the floor of the Mrinalini Mukherjee Hall, creating a labyrinth that leads hopefully to a symbolic home. This resonates metaphorically in the Beatriz Nascimento Hall, where Lizette Nin’s series of drawings Trails (2021-2023) represents other paths of dissemination, in which the braid conceals the seed from which a new world can germinate.


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From one braid, many threads are weaved together in the different textile expressions presented in the exhibition, that dialogue softly with the smooth marble walls of the HKW. The textiles, often referred to in Mayan tradition as “the book the colonizers failed to burn,” are a homage to a matriarchal tradition that brings together resistance movements from around the world. In this fashion, the columns welcoming the public at the entrance of the building, in the renamed Anna Seghers & Semra Ertan Gardens, are texturized by Georgina Maxim’s work Borrowed books and underlined statements I (2023): a patchwork of textiles and garments, in this case, military uniforms, from Zimbabwe that, as Maxim confesses, permanently stitch together the scattered stories of those who wore them. The weaves of the 40 meter long lace that cover the wardrobe counter of the Gunta Stölzl Foyer, a work by Brazilian artist Carol Barreto Omi [Oma] (2021–23), tells another kind of narrative, that of the different generations of women affiliated with the artist and quilombos, who through their participatory and community-based ways of embroidering, deconstruct the colonial lineage of garment making. The lace, woven by human craftsmanship, is inspired by compositions that celebrate the uncanny fractal beauty of nature. Expressing a similar admiration, Truong Cong Tung’s work, Blind Map (2013), explores non-human forms of existence through the spiritual quest of the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition. His work employs a colony of termites to create an intricate interplay of shapes carved into the canvas, a geography that speaks a non-human creative language.


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A sharp entanglement of geometric shapes and vibrant colors also summons spirituality in the series of diagrams Emblema V (1973) by artist Rubem Valentin. The canvases are a homage to the spiritual practice Candomblé, which originated in Central Africa and was criminalized for decades in Brazil, and which is now conceptually and formally central in this show. The series depicts archetypal symbologies layered in a complexity of dimensions, always in a dialogue between the human and the divine. To reach the infinite breath of the universe, the spirits of South Africa meet in Aotearoa/New Zealand on the kites Manu Aute: Rere Renga Rawa: Ascend to the Higher Realms (2022-23) by Nikau Hindin. The kites, dangling from the ceiling of the Sylvia Winter foyer, evoke the Maori divination tradition of seeking propitiatory signs for new lands but also resemble notes from a musical score. The vault of the foyer, not surprisingly, represents a lost musicality, that of a language outside the vocal spectrum inscribed in Tanka Fonta’s wall signs. These were activated sonorously during the Acts by the artist himself. The artist from Cameroon invites the observer to immerse herself in the mysterious murmur of the universe, which unfolds in a deep time, alien to the cadences of the white man. 


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On the notes of a pop rhythm, Yankunytjatjara/Australian artist Kaylene Whiskey moves the protagonists of her video Ngura Pukulpa - Happy Place (2021). Women from the same indigenous lineage as the artist, provocatively recount how the invader has replaced indigenous rituals with his vulgar consumer culture. Through the aesthetic overlap of camp symbols and indigenous gestures, the characters narrate a story of empowerment and resistance in the face of the invader. In a similar intent of community empowerment and historical revision through creating a semi-participatory space, Barby Asante plays with speculation and creates a forum where the public can witness a declaration of independence negotiated entirely by women of color. Declaration of Independence (2017-ongoing), projects into a space where women’s rights result from communal renegotiation, reframing, and giving agency and dignity back in retrospect.

Often when attending to the claims of decoloniality in exhibitions, I, as a white person from the Mediterranean area, wonder, perhaps naively, for who they are put in place. And my intuition always leads to the same answer: for white people and white institutions, in an attempt to open the door of redemption without systemic deconstruction. And although institutions are often moved by noble intentions, they still stem from a proximity to whiteness and its ways of socialization, similarly suggested by Assaf Gruber’s work Never Come Back (2022), a tour of the Graz’s Neue, where the unconscious imperialist European mind emerges from the very artworks on show. However the oppressed participate in the catharsis of the perpetrator by exposing themselves to the historical revision of colonialism. In every aspect of O Quilombismo, the colonial dispossessed exceed their exploiter in the finesse of practice, and in understanding of the world as a confluence of energies that honor freedom as an act of reciprocity. By shifting the museum to a house open to everyone, HKW practices Quilombismo itself, breaching this polarization of roles between oppressor and oppressed forming a territory of co-responsibility to embrace and be embraced by the world. 

O Quilombismo is thus not an exhibition of objects from the world, but an experience of existences, in which the past colonial failures cannot be redeemed by the colonizer. As African lineages forced into diaspora reunite in new lands, the memory of home materializes in the gesture of the other, belonging is denied and therefore needs to be built together. However, the colonial tragedy, hence European imperialism displayed in its absence, is not essentialized in its unequal mesh of power relations but evoked in its systemic implication, as displayed by the Portuguese artist Grada Kilomba in Table of Goods (2017). The artwork, an earth pyramid on which small bags of coffee, sugar, cocoa and are deposited, creates an altar where the lives sacrificed to accommodate modern pleasure find temporary rest and are commemorated. The tomb can also serve as an altar where the immeasurable colonial trauma can find a moment of relief, by becoming a womb of new rituals.


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Moved between flights and fights, the practices informed by the strenuous wishful thinking of quilombos and comrades worldwide do not ask the colonizers to make amends for their violence, but expose them to the enduring vitality of what they have tried to degrade and destroy. In O Quilombismo emancipation is not an allowance given by the oppressors, because the oppressors do not speak a universal language of freedom. The risk taken by the cultural operation of Ndikung is confronting the all-encompassing colonial epistemologies by reclaiming and holding space for a lineage of practice. However, while naming and showcasing some forms of emancipation, neglects others, very little space has been held for Islamic communities and their stories of resistance and unrest. This suggests that the agenda of political and social liberation needs to be addressed by unraveling the layered multi-state consequences of colonial conflicts. Perhaps, emancipation, for now, is the acceptance that not everything can find a plane of communion, nor complete understanding, but that everything can coexist, convivial, decentralized, and as Sylwia Wynter would say “in black metamorphosis.” [1]


O Quilombismo:Of Resisting and Insisting. Of Flight as Fight. Of Other Democratic Egalitarian Political Philosophies, the HKW’s inaugural exhibition is on view until September 17, 2023.


This review was edited by María Inés Plaza Lazo and proofread by Kari Leigh Rosenfeld.



    Cover: Houngan Jean-Daniel Lafontant with Claude Saturne, Invoking Papa Legba. Ceremonial opening in the course of Acts of Opening Again: A Choreography of Conviviality, Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), 2.6.2023. Courtesy the artists. Photo: Marvin Systermans/HKW.

    fig. 1: Acts of Opening Again: A Choreography of Conviviality, Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), 4.6.2023. Photo: Mathias Völzke/HKW.

    fig. 2: Acts of Opening Again: A Choreography of Conviviality, Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), Mrinalili Mukherjee Hall, 2.6.2023. Photo: Mathias Völzke/HKW.

    fig. 3: Concert by Oumou Sangaré,Sonic Pluriverse FestivalCongorama, Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), 3.6.2023. Photo: Sonia Hamad/HKW.

    fig. 4: Truong Cong Tung, Blind Map (2013), canvas roll eaten by termites, 600 × 150 cm. Courtesy of Post Vidai Collection, Saigon and Geneva, Installation view of the exhibition O Quilombismo: Of Resisting and Insisting. Of Flight as Fight. Of Other Democratic Egalitarian Political Philosophies, Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), 2023. Photo: Laura Fiori/HKW.

    fig. 5: Installation view of the exhibition O Quilombismo: Of Resisting and Insisting. Of Flight as Fight. Of Other Democratic Egalitarian Political Philosophies, Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), 2023. Photo: Laura Fiorio/HKW.

    fig. 6: Tanka Fonta, The Cosmogenic Interconnectedness ‘How Did We Talk Before the Roman Alphabet?’ The Picto-Sonic Dialogues I, mural (2023), dimensions vary, comprised of 9 elements: The Cosmogenic Interconnectedness ‘How Did We Talk Before the Roman Alphabet?’ The Picto-Sonic Dialogues I; Epistemic Interrelatedness I: ‘I Have Eaten of the Sun II’; To This Earth We All Belong: ‘Di Kontri Meeting II’; There Never Was a Beginning Nor an Ending; Dictionary of Non-Time, Time Transcoders & Transformers; Vibrations of Memory & Deep Time: ‘The Meditative Movements of Perception & Understanding’; The Thought Transformers I: Do I Need to Look Like You to Be Considered a Living Being; Has the Stream Flowed?; The Dawn Incantations I. Courtesy of the artist, Installation view of the exhibition O Quilombismo: Of Resisting and Insisting. Of Flight as Fight. Of Other Democratic Egalitarian Political Philosophies, Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), 2023. Photo: Laura Fiori/HKW.

    fit. 7: Grada Kilomba, Table of Goods (2017), installation, soil, coffee beans, ground coffee, cocoa, dark chocolate, sugar, white candles, dimensions vary. Courtesy of the artist, Installation view of the exhibition O Quilombismo: Of Resisting and Insisting. Of Flight as Fight. Of Other Democratic Egalitarian Political Philosophies, Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), 2023. Photo: Laura Fiori/HKW.


    [1] Sylvia Wynter, Black Metamorphosis: New Natives in a New World, 1970.



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