Postcolonial art discourse: trauma plagued in postapartheid

In the exhibition "Dynamic Spaces" at Museum Ludwig in Cologne, the blind spots of art history are addressed.

Film still from "Streetkid" by the collective CUSS Photo: CUSS & Vukani Ndebele

Would our thinking change if our libraries were structured differently; if a web of references and commentary immediately emerged for each book, (re)contextualizing the book’s content and revealing veiled connections?

This question is the focus of the C& Center of Unfinished Business, which is currently a guest at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. This center comes across as a simple library, but the books on the approximately seven-meter-long reading table and accompanying shelf are by no means monothematic; in fact, some of them don’t even want to fit together: Ernst Gombrich’s standard work on art history, "History of Art," stands next to the novel by the Afro-British author Zadie Smith, "Swing Time," a monograph on Baselitz ("Ecstasies of the Figure") next to the civil rights activist James Baldwin and the work of the Russian national poet Pushkin.

In between are yellow post-its, as visitors to this alternative library are encouraged to leave comments and references. Some have already accumulated, and many express their sympathy for the project, but one inscription in particular stands out: George Floyd – 25.05.2020. A museum guest pasted it into the installation, drawing the line from the contexts in place and the death of Floyd, an African American citizen in Minneapolis.

In the "package" with capitalism and colonialism.

It is pure contingency that brings the exhibition "Dynamic Spaces" and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. and Europe so closely together in time. Yet, on the face of it, they belong together. The C& Center of Unfinished Business is a journalistic-artistic intervention that uses minimalist means to reveal the depths and shallows, the pain and trauma-producing quality of racism. And at the same time reveals that racism is not a single phenomenon, but has always occurred – and continues to occur – "in a package" with capitalism and colonialism.

"Dynamic Spaces." Museum Ludwig, Cologne, through August 30. A short film about the exhibition can be seen at

The initiators of the space are the two art historians Julia Grosse and Yvette Mutumba. They are also the founders of the internet culture platform "Contemporary And" (C&), which since 2013 has been providing much-appreciated insights into the art scenes off the rough axis of "Berlin-Los Angeles" and other traditional locations. The open network of cultural actors cultivates postcolonial discourse, offers reviews of exhibitions and scenes from Kampala to MedellIn, and also publishes video works.

Grosse and Mutumba’s approach is based on a constructive counter-discourse that specifically targets the blind spots of the art scene, while at the same time always thinking about and addressing the conditions (colonialism and capitalism, but also sexism).

In addition to the reading room, the exhibition features works by the Kenyan Nest Collective, the South African artist group CUSS, and works by Nkiruka Oparah and Frida Orupabo. The collective CUSS produced the video work "Streetkid" as a commission in 2017 for the platform Contemporary And.

A divided country

Together with B-movie director Vukani Ndebele, the collective realized a horror film. The deeply divided society of the African country, torn between European-influenced bourgeoisie and the still slum-like townships, is deconstructed here as a trauma-ridden post-apartheid state.

Frida Orupabo from Oslo works away from grand narration. Her works, all of which remain untitled, are based on found footage from photo and video archives. Four medium-format photographs on cotton paper each show a mouth in considerable enlargement. One is missing teeth, another sticks out his tongue; what unites them all is that they seem to be in motion. Involved in communication or even in the act of speaking, the images remind us that there is a bond between language and power: Whose voices are heard, who has interpretive authority? Who can be heard and when?

The pictures remind us of the covenant that exists between language and power.

Next to them hang two collage works showing black female figures. Their bodies are pieced together from individual parts. Fragile and held together only by thumbtacks, the figures almost threaten to fall apart; at the same time, they refer to media exploitation and the white mainstream’s fixation on the black body as exoticized beauty.

"Dynamic Spaces" is not an exhibition that builds on answers. Rather, questions are raised here that will occupy us for some time to come, both socially and in the context of museums: Who is allowed to speak and when? And who is listened to and how?

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