“People preserve stories in objects”

in conversation with Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung

Make it yourself (Issue IV/2021)

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Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung is a biotechnologist, author and freelance curator. From 2023, he will be director of the House of World Cultures in Berlin. Photo: Alexander Steffens


Mr Ndikung, what makes objects so important to humans?

I prefer to think in terms of tools, as humans need tools. Tools to cater for them and care for each other, but also tools in and through which they can keep their stories, their histories; tools to play with and to keep them busy; tools to keep them company; something beyond humans, but which in some way can complement and make the human more whole. That, I think, is why humans need objects.

What's the difference between everyday objects and art objects?

At end of the day, it doesn't really matter if it's a cup or a painting. When we create what I call tools and what you call objects, it's really about facilitating our being in the world. We create objects to make life more agreeable for some, and sometimes disagreeable for others. Design is all about making your presence in this world in relation to others and in relation to the world more conducive — at least for some. This involves both aesthetics and functionality, which go hand in hand. Architects and designers at the turn of the twentieth century used the maxim coined by Louis Sullivan that “form follows functionality.” I think it doesn’t really matter what proceeds the other, but the two are very much connected.

And what happens to these objects when we place them in a museum or a gallery? Does that shift their meaning?

It is primarily about shifting value, then secondarily meaning. A spoon has the function of helping carry food from a plate to your mouth. That is its meaning. Putting the spoon in a museum doesn't really change its meaning but it does give it another value, because the question arises: Why this spoon and not another one? The idea of putting it in a museum is about granting it a particular value because you think it has a story to tell, and people need to know about it. Basically, the museum has the responsibility to carry, to keep and to disseminate knowledge about certain things, both in the present and for the future. That said, we know that in art history, people have played with the meaning of objects. You see that in certain African sculptures, take for example, masks in which a coin is used as the eye. It gives the coin a different meaning. It was meant to be used as currency to buy things, but then somebody takes it and places it as the eye of a mask. It becomes something else. Then there is the famous appropriation of the urinal by Marcel Duchamp in his 1917 art piece ‘Fountain’, something that is considered a revolutionary act within Western art history. In non-Western art history, such things have happened since time immemorial. People have always integrated things into their practices and granted them new meanings.

Does a visitor to a museum contemplate an object in a new way because of its context?

Probably. If you take the throne of Sultan Njoya of Bamum, which is the throne of a King, and you randomly place it in the Museum of ethnography in Berlin, then people approach it in a certain way. It becomes a chair, maybe a functional object, and at best a decorative object rather than a throne and a symbol of a people’s integrity and dignity. It's meaning gets banalised in this context.

As a visitor to an exhibition, how important is that sense of agency, how important is it to touch an object to really understand it?

In most museums in the West, you shouldn't touch anything. The few museums where you can touch something consider themselves revolutionary. Now, in the context I come from, a lot of art is meant to be touched, to be worn, to be used for performances. For example, a mask is basically as significant as the performance within which it is involved or integrated. But as soon as it is placed out of context in a museum it becomes nothing. It is reduced to its aesthetic dimension, while its ritual, phenomenological, epistemological and ontological groundings suffer. Here we're dealing with completely different knowledge systems. But to answer the question in a more simplistic way: Whenever you encounter an object, you build a relation with that object, and there is a constant negotiation. So, as a curator, my job is to create that encounter and mediate what could possibly happen between you, the viewer, and the object. You walk into the museum with a body of knowledge and you encounter another set of knowledge there. And there is a negotiation. We can push it forward, which is something I've written about in the past, to the question between subjecthood and objecthood. So if you look at a Dogon mask in an ethnographic museum for example, is it an object? I think a great deal of systemic violence has been perpetrated by western scholars and museologists who know too little about their collections. There is the violence of making subjects into objects — objectification. Many of these beings abducted from around the world and kept in these museums have subjecthood — having agency, having a voice, having goals. This is a big issue. It is inherent in the history of the West’s othering of the rest of the world: As Aimé Cesaire points out, the making of Europe is very much tied to the unmaking of the other. African women, men and children were abducted from the continent to the so-called New World. That could only happen by objectifying them, by dehumanizing them, by taking their subjecthood. In this conversation about objects, we cannot ignore that part of history in which humans were forced into objects, into tools, for example, working as on plantations. Another example is the Hereros and Namas of Namibia, and people from Tanzania and from Ruanda who were killed by the Germans and their skeletons were brought to Germany - some are still in the Charité in Berlin. They were literally reduced to being objects.

Is making an object a way of projecting ourselves, leaving our imprint on the world?

Thats obviously a possibility and the most banal example would be Christianity's way of making things in its own image: the image of the white, blue-eyed Jesus. Across the world, from Guatemala, to Brazil to South Africa to Cameron, there's this image of what Jesus looks like. That whiteness is a supremacist meaning that is inscribed in this object. But, of course, some objects refuse to comply.

Many writers and artists have described working with materials as letting them speak to us, revealing their inner life. 

The Ivorian artist Jems Koko B says when he makes a sculpture, he goes into the forest and a tree tells him, 'you can cut me'. It's nothing overly spiritual, it's just what it is. The question is: does the artist or the maker make an object, or is it the object that chooses you to deliver it? Are you the mother that gives birth to a child or the child who chooses you as the channel to bring it into the world? When you use your hands to craft something, you might just be the channel.

Making things by hand is often laborious process and not economically sensible. Is it also a form of rebellion against the mainstream?

Craftmanship can be a labour of love. Look at this piece of beading (he indicates a work hanging on the wall behind him on the zoom screen), it takes months to create. Maybe the person who made the object spends a lot of time creating it but earns nothing. But as soon as it gets into the economy of museums, its value changes: One museum sells it to another for exorbitant sums. And while some art is laborious, other artworks involve sending a drawing to China, where it gets made in a factory and sells for several millions of dollars. Again, it raises the question of what value we ascribe to certain objects. 

There is a long history in the west of people making things as a way of rebelling against consumerist mainstream, from 1968ers to ecologically minded people who are into upcycling. Do you see these counterculture trends in the art world?

Personally, I appreciate every sort of resistance to consumerism but I hope the resistance really happens. In my opinion, there's a lot of superficial discourse. Of course, the art world shows this counterculture rebellion: the Nigerian artist called the Junkman, for example, repurposes a lot of things he finds and makes installations with them. He says it is through looking at people's waste that you actually understand them. I find that interesting and I also follow the upcycling movements around the world. But at the same time, there are many contradictions. We take an old shirt, donate it to an institution, which bundles it up and sends it to Africa or to the Americas. This is nothing new: The former president of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara, described in the 1980s how the ecology of fabric production was destroyed by the arrival of second-hand items. This well-intentioned trend actually shut down economies, destroyed livelihoods: What does the person that makes wool live from? What about the tailors, the people dyeing fabrics, the weavers and so on? New notions of sustainability fall within this discourse. It is great to make things more sustainable, we must applaud that. But when we talk about sustainability, are we talking about sustainability in the whole world or are we talking about sustainability for certain geographies limited within certain spaces? This is something I'm sceptical about. At the end of the day, we don't want to cut down trees in Germany or in the rest of Europe, but we don't save in the Equatorial rainforest and in the Amazon. A localized, simple regional counterculture doesn't help anybody. Just look at how a virus from Wuhan has spread worldwide. We need to think beyond our horizons.

Has there been a resurgence of making things by hand during the Corona era, not least as an antidote to screens?

On the one hand, yes, on the other, we have seen such dependence on machines. Some people spend all day swiping smart phones or watching Netflix, so we shouldn't romanticize things. But in essence, craftmanship or craftwomanship, takes us back to the human need to make things. It’s like extending our own bodies. People want to express a particular sound, so they make a guitar and play it. During the pandemic, so many people I know started baking – for a while it looked like everybody would become a baker! The more alienated we become, the more we look for other ways to express ourselves. That's why, in my opinion, we make objects: to facilitate our being in the world.

Interview by Jess Smee



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