by Serubiri Moses
Three weeks ago, I delivered a lecture on the 10th Berlin Biennale and the School of Anxiety, an affiliated project of the biennale, in the context of the lecture series at the School of Art at Kent State University. I had given the same talk in Uganda during the summer. The talk was structured around key artworks and key concerns of the exhibition. I discussed artworks by Bélkis Ayón, Emma Wolukau Wananmbwa, Mimi Cherono Ng’Ok, Firelei Baez, and Sondra Perry among others. I discussed the design identity of the biennale conceived by Maziyar Pahlevan and the ‘X’ as a function signalling Trans identity, Malcolm X or El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, and Latinx identity. I also discussed the idea of refusal in relation to the creation of new heroes, and thus, in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s passing and in light of the RhodesMustFall movement to depose of Cecil Rhodes statues at South African universities, We Don’t Need Another Hero aimed to dismantle assumptions about complex subjectivities in a post-Apartheid era that claimed the “coherence” of these histories and subjectivities. During the talk, I spoke about the reception of the 10th Berlin Biennale. The confusion of critics about what we were “dismantling”. The counteraction of local Afro-German artists who criticised our working for a white institution that did not represent them, and who put up a banner for the Black Berlin Biennale on Auguststraße, the street of the biennale’s main venue; or those who attributed wrong sources to one of our curatorial phrases: “I’m Not Who You Think I’m Not.”
By disavowing assumptions of coherent identities, in favour of complex subjectivity – arguably a strategy that lead curator Gabi Ngcobo borrowed from a Deleuzian reading of postcolonial and Black studies – we, thus, actively confronted those who’s idea of Blackness was one-dimensional and by so doing unsettled expectations. In discussing the particular reception of the biennale, I mentioned how we, the curatorial team, had undergone strict press training, with instruction in answering press questions, and yet we still found ourselves in a difficult position answering questions about our identities (the curatorial team hailed from Germany, Brazil, Uganda, South Africa, and the United States). One of the most illuminating responses to the 10th Berlin Biennial though wasn’t the press, but rather in academia. Art historian and photography theorist Tina Campt provided a powerful reading of Luke Willis Thompson’s artwork Autoportrait (2017) on Diamond Reynolds in the exhibition describing it as part of a “broader chorus of black visuality.” When I met with Campt this summer during an exhibition opening at CCS Bard where I teach, I made sure to remind her of our first meeting in Berlin. She recalled our meeting with delight, and told me that the show was the starting point of her most recent book A Black Gaze: Artists Changing How We See (2021).
During the talk, I spoke about Binyavanga Wainaina. The lecture favoured thematic aspects of the show while occasionally discussing logistical issues. I mentioned Wainaina in the context of the exhibition catalog where we had republished his memoir “The Lost Chapter: I am a homosexual, Mum.” We included essays in the catalog that spoke beyond art, and Wainaina was republished in the catalog alongside Maryse Condé. The decision to publish Wainaina was simple: he complicated the notion of identity to the point that many rejected his/her/their standpoint. I can recall the academic and popular debates surrounding him. This tendency to generate dialogue was crucial. We needed it. Was he heir apparent to Ngugi wa Thiong’o? It was quite unlikely. Was he a Pan-Africanist? Yes, of course. Was he leading the emergent group of Kenyan writers? Yes, absolutely. Wainaina did not always fit neatly into neat identities. He often revised his positions making it challenging for scholars and writers alike to define him/her/them. Teju Cole once said that even he could not fulfil the writing program that Wainaina had laid out in his essay “How to Write About Africa.” In short, his criticism had created impossible standards. But at least he had created new standards. In the chapter “I’m a homosexual, Mum” published in Chimurenga and Africa is a Country, he plays out two scenarios. In the first he comes out to his mother on her deathbed. In the second she dies before he can do so. This chapter is frightening full of suspense, and shows a tender moment between mother and son. Yet it also reflects his struggle to come out of the closet. In thinking with Wainaina, we chose a version of the 20th and 21st century that had been messier and more complicated than other curators had allowed for.
On a Berlin Biennale X research trip to Johannesburg in 2017, where the School of Anxiety (Awuor Onyango, Nyakallo Maleke, Aganza Kisaka) and the curatorial team staged a conversation during the art fair, I had my last extended conversation with Wainaina. It took place at a dinner after the fair. He was experiencing speech problems, but we spoke for two hours, as we did since meeting in Nairobi four years earlier. We talked a great deal that evening about spirituality. He often evoked Neo Musangi and his embrace of African spirituality in that long conversation. He spoke elaborately about his consultations with sangomas and his specific role as an intellectual in Kenya. I couldn’t help but see this as the main motif of the first short story in Wainaina’s latest book How to Write About Africa, released in Sep 2023 by Hamish Hamilton, and edited by Achal Prabhala. On the topic of ancestral worship Wainaina wrote, “What if one descended from a long line of arseholes?” Again, the tendency of this writer to trouble assumptions was unmatched. In that regard his writing bore a critical apparatus that was as sharp as it was disarming.
In his 2006 essay “Senegal of the Mind” included in the book, and first published in Bidoun, he parodies Belgian artist Zap Mama’s theoretic continent, as this region’s highest point is “Youssou N’Dour.” While the essay shows Wainaina discovering America through its rising Soulquarian movement (he moved to the United States in the late 2000s and served as director of the Chinua Achebe Center at Bard College), the essay also reflects his own journey as a Pan-Africanist, and unconsciously his own spiritual journey. Music, it would seem, would be one of the main campuses leading him towards spiritual maturity. As we read in “Discovering Home” (in this book) the story that won the Caine Prize, it is when dancing to Congolese Soukous in a small village in rural Kenya that he finally has the great realisation about being at home. The real fear of descending from a “long line of arseholes” dissipated once in Senegal. His residency there supported by curator Koyo Kouoh, and the Raw Material Company in Dakar, allowed him to meet Youssou N’Dour, and it seemed that he himself like Zap Mama “had embarked on a Pan-African search for some quality me-time, a quest that could end only in Senegal.” With his encounter with Serer cosmology and its intersection with griot practice, Wainaina would concede to the fact that Serer culture was “still intact.” In the trajectory of this spiritual and Pan-African journey, Wainaina’s many discoveries provide the basis for his own political and spiritual awareness. He dismissed Zap Mama’s brand of Afropolitanism, only to embrace her Pan-Africanism. While it may seem kitsch, this complexity is what drew us as a curatorial team to him/her/them, and what we admired about his/her/their voice.