A colorful suit, usually with a pocket kerchief, is Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung's trademark. His bulging address book is likewise legendary: Ndikung is considered well-connected. His reputation as a politically-minded curator precedes him.
It's no wonder that Monika Grütters, the German Minister of State for Culture and the Media, calls him a "stroke of luck" — as Ndikung is to succeed Bernd Scherer as director of Berlin's Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Cultures), starting on January 1, 2023.
So there is some time then to get acquainted with the role. Ndikung is 44 and has a strong presence. He can assert himself well — also in the field of art, which for him is an arena of social debate. For him, art is "the highest form of politics," but at the same time, it is a "universal language that is understood by almost everyone."
Tapping into art's potential
Art also has the potential to reconcile, Ndikung pointed out in an interview with DW. He mentioned, for instance, the biennial arts festival in Sonsbeek, the Netherlands, which he is currently curating, as well as the Documenta 14 show, which he co-curated. Both originally emerged from the rubble of World War II, with art meant to reconnect people. Likewise, the African Biennial of Photography in Bamako, Mali; exhibitions in Algiers and Dakar; and the Finnish pavilion at the Venice Art Bienniale, all bear Ndikung's curatorial signature.
He knows his way around a political field where reconciliation is needed — in Germany's dealings with its colonial past. Savvy Contemporary, an event space founded by Ndikung in Berlin's Wedding district in 2009, has just opened the exhibition "For the Phoenix To Find Its Form In Us" — as a commentary on the current restitution debate."
The show is about restitution as rehabilitation, also as reparation," says Ndikung. A contentious statement: After years of hesitation, German museums only recently announced that they would hand over the so-called Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, which were once taken to Europe as looted art.
Expanding the perspective
Ndikung clearly dislikes much of the restitution debate. He sees it as a dead-end — and at the same time, he would like to "complicate" it. "A lot has gone wrong and a lot is still being done wrong in terms of colonial history," says the son of an anthropologist, who was born in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, in 1977.
"We have to see these wounds and try to heal some of them — if not all!," said Ndikung in the DW interview. As the Savvy Contemporary website for the Berlin exhibition states: "We cannot reduce restitution to the return of objects while the people who are to receive these objects neither have the luxury of breathing, nor the lands on which to plant their seeds, or are deprived of the abode in which they shelter."
Ndikung said that Germany has already done a lot in terms of restitution. "But, of course, that's not enough," he said. Our view of Africa must also be broadened, as the example of Anton Wilhelm Amo shows.
From what is now Ghana, Amo was abducted to Germany as a child slave at the beginning of the 18th century and arrived, presumably as a "human gift" from the West India Company, at the court of the Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. The court allowed him to study and train as a professor of philosophy and law.
Amo's thesis defense was devoted to the legal status of Black people in Europe. "Amo was an important scholar of his time, but he was just erased from history," says Ndikung, who recently commemorated Amo with an exhibition. "Anyone who talks about Black Lives Matter today can't get past Amo's theses."
Is there an equity gap between the Global North and South? "Yes, of course," says Ndikung. As an example, he cites the WHO's call for coronavirus vaccinations worldwide to combat the pandemic. Many countries helped, he says.
"But nine or 10 countries have secured vaccines only for themselves," Ndikung punctuated. "If we fail to vaccinate the whole world, there will be mutations, and the mutated virus will come back to us." It's time to think outside the national box, he says. "The world has gotten smaller, and that's a reality."
A shift from biochemistry to art
Ndikung left his African homeland as a young man. He studied biochemistry in Kiel, Germany and earned his doctorate in Berlin. While still a student, he became acquainted with artists and began writing about art, and took his first steps as an exhibition organizer
At the age of 25, he was amazed when Okwui Enwezor, born in Nigeria, became the first African to head the venerable Documenta in 2002. It was an experience that had a profound impact on young Ndikung — and spurred him on.
20 years later, the German Foreign Office and the State Ministry for Culture and the Media have appointed him as the future director of the House of World Cultures. Scherer leaves behind a well-ordered house: He brought together voices from art, science and politics to create an inspiring forum.
Will it remain a platform for discussion under Ndikung? "Of course," says Ndikung, "the world is changing dramatically: our understanding of the world is changing. That's why we need a place like this to discuss it."
This article was adapted from German by Louisa Schaefer