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Issue 214

Paving the Way for Institutional Changes

A look at Germany’s exhibition landscape shows the importance of identifying blind spots

BY Mahret Ifeoma Kupka in Features | 30 SEP 20

In June, a painting by Georg Herold – on display since May at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt as part of the exhibition ‘Back to the Present’ – caused an uproar. Initial demands on social media to remove the work culminated in protesters gathering at the museum to call for immediate anti-racist action. Titled with a variation of the German N-word, Ziegeln**** (Brickn*****, 1981) depicts an angry mob throwing a brick at a Black man’s head. In several interviews, the museum claimed Herold’s motivations for making the work were well-intentioned: the painting, they alleged, was a comment on growing xenophobia in West Germany at the time. 

There is a discursive space in which such explanations make sense. It’s the same one that considered it appropriate for an exhibition about Afrofuturism, titled after a 1974 album by Sun Ra, to feature no Black artists (‘Space Is the Place’, 2019, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin). In its press release, the gallery instead cited tech billionaire Elon Musk’s space colonization programme as the show’s main inspiration. In 2018, Frankfurt’s Schirn Kunsthalle hosted ‘King of the Animals’, an exhibition of monumental paintings of East African animals by the late-19th- and early-20th-century German artist Wilhelm Kuhnert, which only presented as a scant sub-narrative the German colonialism that had enabled Kuhnert’s artistic career. Yet, any sustained criticism of such exhibitions rarely leads anywhere. Curators, when challenged, often resort to the defence that critics have simply misunderstood, that no offence was intended and no racism was involved. They rarely realize that the criticism is less directed at the art and artists included in such exhibitions, but rather at the parameters according to which they are selected, classified, valued and presented. 

Kapwani Kiwanga, Matières Premières, 2020, installation view, MMK Frankfurt, 2020. Courtesy: the artist and MMK Frankfurt; photograph: Axel Schneider © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

However, two recent exhibitions in Germany have demonstrated how museums can avoid simply affirming traditional notions of Western culture and draw attention, instead, to the fault lines along which new curatorial approaches to historical readings can be explored. In May this year, Frankfurt’s Museum für Moderne Kunst held a retrospective of work by Antiguan artist Frank Walter, who died in 2009. As a descendant of enslaved Africans and white European slave owners, Walter’s life story embodies the trauma of transatlantic human trafficking. Encompassing photographs, paintings and wooden sculptures, his broad practice considers the complex notions of origin, identity and racialization. Here, 400 of his works are put into dialogue with pieces by artists including John Akomfrah, Kader Attia, Marcel Broodthaers, Kapwani Kiwanga, Howardena Pindell and Julia Phillips, setting the framework for debates on racism and decolonization. An exhibition like this reveals the importance of identifying and contextualizing the gaps in Western art history.

Adam Pendleton, Just back from Los Angeles: A Portrait of Yvonne Rainer, 2016–2017, video still. Courtesy: the artist

‘Mapping the Collection’, an exhibition at Cologne’s Museum Ludwig, questions the institution’s own legacy. While the museum is famous for having the largest pop art collection in Europe, there are very few works by artists who belong to marginalized groups. Combining pieces from the museum’s collection of American art of the 1960s and ’70s with works by LGBTQ+ and BIPOC artists of the same period, the show reveals the blind spots in the Ludwig’s collection. On the one hand, it’s an appeal to broaden the prevailing framework for the reception of art from the US; on the other, the museum cross-examines its own acquisitions policy. Which artists aren’t included and what impact does this have on the writing of art history? 

Such exhibitions support the notion that the task of a museum is no longer to consolidate supposed knowledge by reproducing it, but to question the status quo and to point out possibilities for new departures. Once this is universally understood and accepted, then the way can be paved for processual, open concepts for exhibitions and (re)presentation that approach, with care and sensitivity, not only the complexities of our past but the uncertainties of our future.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 214 with the headline 'Following Fault Lines'.

Main image: Julia Phillips, Shake (A Choreography for Flying Hair), 2013, video still. Courtesy: the artist

Mahret Ifeoma Kupka is a curator and writer. Her work explores the representation and decolonization of fashion, art and cultural institutions as well as questions of restitution. She lives in Frankfurt, Germany.