“It is a kind of a jam!”
On practices of de-canonization and building spaces of unlearning and sharing
Adama Sanneh (CEO of Moleskine Foundation) speaks with Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung — independent curator, author and biotechnologist, founder and artistic director of SAVVY Contemporary in Berlin, artistic director of Sonsbeek20–24 in the Netherlands. From 2023, director at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin.
Adama Sanneh: The first thing I would like to ask you is: How are you doing?
Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung: I would say, I am good. Obviously it has been a tough year and a half. We have lost people, dear ones. We have gone through a very dire time, very precarious time — healthwise, but also economically. But we are good, really, we are looking ahead and we are pushing hard.
AS: Let us talk about the role of the curator and the typical narrative in the Western world that the curator is at the top of the ego pyramid. There, you have somebody who is a curator but technically doesn’t even create anything almost like a conductor. It is interesting to think that the conductor is the guy with the most attention and biggest pay but he produces zero sound. In a similar way, the curator has this aura in the Western world. And yet you, in your role as curator, have brought things to life, you have created communities. And even beyond communities, I would say communion with people that come together to bring their own. How did that come about? What is the thought behind it?
BSBN: Beautiful, you have touched upon a few very important things. I think we cannot do this thing without a community. First of all, as you said, it is about creating one. I would say this has been a core part of our artistic practice especially at SAVVY Contemporary — creating moments of communion, as you say, where we can be together, break bread together, dance together, think together, just be together, for lack of a better way of describing it. So that is a fundamental part. That myth of the lone cowboy, that capitalist idea of the individual has failed us. I have been going to the Venice Biennial for the past 18 years or so, and what you see there most times is the name of one fellow: “curated by”. It always baffled me, they are not honest. There are many other people doing the work! Of course, the media always tries to put one figure out there. But we must work against that because the labor of all the other people has to be commended as well, and these people really put sweat and blood and energy together to make these things happen.
I am interested in the idea of conduction brought up by Butch Morris, the African-American composer and conductor, which unifies the idea of instantaneous composing and conducting. You are creating while instructing others to create with you. It is a kind of a jam! It is an incredible listening capacity, an incredible capacity to do something instantaneously. But for that, you need people to listen to you and you need to listen to others.
It is a collective listening process, and I think that is what actually justifies or accentuates good bands, for example, when they can listen to each other, when they can jam well with each other. Just a long path to say that without the people that make SAVVY, SAVVY would not be possible. It is not about the artistic director, it is the multiplicity of voices, the plurivocality of a space, of experiences, of epistemologies that all these people bring with them, it is a multiplicity of experiences that they bring from the different geographies that they come from. Together we try to imagine a space. It is about creating those spaces, spaces of thought, spaces of reflection, spaces of deliberation, spaces in which we can disagree, in which we can dismantle things, in which we can build things, spaces in which we can commune, spaces in which we can dream, spaces in which we can just look at each other, listen to each other and acknowledge each other’s presence. That is what it is about.
AS: You were born in Cameroon. You have lived there and you have been around the world, you went to Germany to study. With everything that you just described, where did that original impulse came from?
The idea of you being underdeveloped is actually put in place to keep you in that territory and to never permit you to become developed.
BSBN: Recently there have been a few art schools, but there is no school for curating in Cameroon. Still, you have people like Simon Njami, you have people like Koyo Kouoh, you have younger generations like Aude Christel Mgba’s that are coming up and doing incredible work. I don’t know any particular school for publishing, but you have people like Ntone Edjabe with Chimurenga, Dzekashu Macviban and others. I had never heard of a school of music; still, you have people like Manu Dibango, you have Richard Bona, you have all these people, the whole Bikutsi Club and the Makossa. The young generation of people playing Mbole, these guys never went to any kind of a formal school to do what they do now.
The question of where this comes from, we might not be able to answer, but what we know is that not only in Cameroon, but also in other parts of the African world, we have been so mightily blessed by incredible knowledge and capacities of doing what we do. Even in the direst of conditions, we are blessed. What I know is that in the spirit of collectivity we see each other, we support each other — sometimes in not so very clear, direct, linear ways, but it is there, to build supporting structures. I remember visiting Okwui Enwezor a few weeks before he passed, and he said something that stayed with me: “I have contributed my part. I’ve put my own share in this fund.” All we are doing is just contributing our own small part to this larger fund, and some other people will pick up later and continue. Fact is, I cannot do what I am doing today without the work that somebody like Simon Njami has done. I cannot do what we do today without the work of people like Koyo Kouoh, like N’Goné Fall, and many people from different parts of the continent. We come from a tradition that acknowledges those who came before us, so we are building upon something. Where does it actually come from? It was placed there before we ever came.
AS: So in a way you feel that you are part of something bigger.
BSBN: Definitely, we are all part of something much larger than we are. Fred Moten once said in an interview that it felt ridiculous for him to put his name as an author of his books — I am paraphrasing here — because a lot of the things that he writes about are what the Art Ensemble of Chicago was playing in their music, what poets before him have been talking about. This is similar to a lot of the things I am working on. Look at the project we are working on for next year to commemorate 50 years of Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, this seminal book written in 1972. It is a groundbreaking critique of the concept of development or underdevelopment, in which Walter Rodney lays bare how these demarcations of development and underdevelopment are a continuation of the colonial enterprise, and how the idea of you being underdeveloped is actually put in place to keep you in that territory and to never permit you to become developed. My father gave me this book when I was 14 years old, and I have his notes inside acknowledging some of the things, questioning others. We are building on a lot. We are a small part of a larger thing.
AS: The way you describe it, it feels almost like a spiritual journey. There is a magical dimension in it. And, at the same time, you are a scientist, you are a son of the Enlightenment. How do these two things coexist? How can you interpret them in a language that allows you to have those two thoughts and approaches coexisting?
BSBN: Well, that is a good question. I don’t think there is anything magical about it. Spiritual, definitely, because we exist in spiritual spaces. It is not this kind of spirituality that should be called certain names. It is the belief in unions, in interchanges between bodies, it is about energies. And if it is about energies then it is not so far away from the sciences.
We can say — and now I am talking about things that I don’t really know — we can say that within the spiritual realm, when you interchange energies, when you pass, the physical body goes, but the rest transforms into something else. This is not very different from the laws of thermodynamics, which state that energy never dies: it transforms from one state to another. If you rub your hand, this mechanical energy transforms into thermal energy. So, it doesn’t really get lost. It transforms and something is happening there in that transformation. I think it is actually these kinds of separations that people want to put in place.
Just a few hundreds of years back, everywhere in the world, you would understand a healer, a scientist as a spiritual being as well. I am thinking now of Maya Deren’s film Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, which was shot from 1947 to 1954, and where we have another example that these things always go hand in hand, they are not so far away from each other. It is true, I was trained as a scientist and I do think as one, but we acknowledge the presences that are there. Georges Adéagbo once told me that whenever he gets into space, he says “Hello!” to acknowledge the presence of those that came before him, that still inhabit the space. It is actually very close to sciences. Your presence is felt somewhere; you leave something behind.
AS: Recently, I attended a concert by the Italian Jazz performer Gianni Gebbia. Before the performance, he gave an interview where he said that he comes from a pre-pedagogical era. He didn’t have a school to go to and study how to be a jazzman, how to be a musician, how to play the trumpet. He had no clue. There was this idea of just being out there, be moved by something like passion, being part of something bigger than you, and then start solving problems in this idea of performativity and in this idea of expression is self-expression. And, this was a bit of a shock for me or a rather a point of reflection. I run a foundation that is about education, that is about the next generation and he was referring to the fact that now, when we look at the internet, everything is there: there is a toolkit for everything, there is a course for everything, there is a how to for everything. No matter what you need to do in your life, you have to go online and you just check how to do things. And his provocation was that this might have created a generation of mediocre musicians.
BSBN: OK, I hear where he is coming from and he is right to a certain degree, but we need to open that space of pedagogy. It is not as if we didn’t have such spaces, we obviously had such places, spaces of learning on different kinds. Somebody who talks brilliantly about these things is Amadou Hampâté Bâ when he writes about the different groups in which people grow up, about the seven-year cycle, about the people of your age group with whom you are initiated together, you are circumcised together, you get into different initiations of life and those spaces of initiation become incredible spaces of learning or schooling of all different kinds. We have always had these spaces. The problem is rather an incredible rupture in our understanding of what education is, which has to do with an imposition of a certain format of education, therefore a certain kind of curriculum that emphasizes certain things and de-emphasizes others. The things that are relevant for you to become a clerk within a system of the colonial enterprise are emphasized, or to become a medical doctor, etc. But being a medical doctor not in the way that you cure people, the way people have been cured in your geography since time immemorial, but to cure people within a Western knowledge system. That is where the rupture actually happens. I don’t really think the issue is toolkits. The question is toolkits for what? I am all for toolkits, but for what?
We need to question the whole educational system, because we have to ask people what do you actually want to do and why?
Another thing is the why: why do we do certain things? Why do we go to school? Why do you actually want to become an engineer and a lawyer? In most cases people will tell you because their parents told them so. So, where is the passion? Where is your own agency? We need to question the whole educational system, because we have to ask people what do you actually want to do and why. Those are the things that, in my opinion, really matter. If we look carefully, we notice that there is a lot of knowledge out there. We can find it in music and in the way and why of playing music goes beyond just entertainment. This means that music also has a responsibility: 1. to document, to archive something; 2. to disseminate knowledge, to pass on information; 3. to serve as a catalyst or a lubricant or an accompaniment within a performative gesture, therefore rituals; 4. of course, entertainment, joy, which is very important. Those are things that we need to take into consideration. I hear what he was saying, but I think it is multifaceted.
AS: Let’s take a concept like pedagogy that is, by definition, connected to structures of power, and start to deconstruct it, not for the sake of deconstructing it, but for the sake of a practical understanding of the why behind something. You proposed a way to rethink institutions and the roles institutions play. With this in mind, I have a provocation here and a question: You moved from being a young curator creating an independent space in Berlin, creating a niche situation where everything was upon you and your people, to now become part of institutions — from documenta to your upcoming role as Artistic Director of Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. So, the question is: Is the canon a matter of methodology, a matter of approach, or is the canon intrinsically connected with power and institutionalization?
BSBN: OK Adama, you have touched on so many things. Let’s take one by one. I hope I don’t forget anything. The essay you are referring to is about de-canonization in which I was thinking about processes of making canons and the canon as a power tool through which we are made to think that we need to get into the canon, while the canon in itself is an exclusive and a violent space for certain people. The proposal of de-canonization is a proposal for porosity or for the dismantling of that canon as a whole. Why do we need a canon? Who does it benefit? It was a process of thinking about canons which play a very important role in pedagogy. In the etymology of pedagogy, we have paidos, the child, and agōg.s, the leader. So it is about leading somebody, leading a young person. In terms of pedagogy, a certain canon is imposed. This kind of universalist idea of knowledge. Lewis Gordon talks about the fact that we use the word “knowledge” as a singular term. It is wrong to say “knowledges” because the English language doesn’t accept the fact there is a multiplicity of knowledges. That in itself is the problem. How do we start by acknowledging the fact that there are many knowledges, even if the language we are speaking does not accept it? Thinking of pedagogy, what do we study in school, what do the kids read in school? Are we still reading William Shakespeare? Nothing against Shakespeare, but are we also reading Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o? Chinua Achebe? Ama Ata Aidoo? Not because we want to put Ama Ata Aidoo into any form of canon. But are we saying that we need to create a porous space in which we can bring in people and take some others out? Or we are we saying that we don’t need to create a canon, we just need to create spaces in which we put a spotlight on this person now, tomorrow we will put a spotlight on another person, depending on what is at stake? De-canonization is that effort. I do not think that one cannot work within different spaces. Simon Njami says he is a sniper. When he is called somewhere, he goes and does what he has to do. It is not my thing. Sure, I go to do what I have to do. But those spaces are as much mine. The fact that we create an independent space doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t accommodate other spaces. I don’t think we need to create notions of ghettos. We should be, and we are, multiple beings. The subject for this upcoming Bamako Biennial, which we are doing, is on multiplicity of beings and becomings, because we are multiple beings and we are constantly in the process of becoming. That means we can accommodate the independent space and we can accommodate other spaces.
As for documenta, I go there, I sting and I go back out. As for Haus der Kulturen der Welt, I go, I will have a five-year contract, I do what I have to do there. I go back out. Sometimes it is very, very easy to create a kind of a niche, and you are making noise within that niche. I am not interested in changing institutions, the institutions can continue the way they are when I leave, let them do whatever they want. But for the time I am there, I am inviting my people. If you invited me and you think you are inviting an individual, you are actually inviting a whole tribe. So, when we come, we come large. We take up the space. We do what we have to do. We put in place the notions of pedagogy so that when we want to read Zadie Smith, we read Zadie Smith When we want to read Bernard Fonlon, we read Bernard Fonlon. We want to read the poetry of Lee Maracle? We read the poetry of Lee Maracle. We want to invite musicians from here, there, wherever, and we invite them, right? Where we do that, we finally have the space and the money to do what we have to do. And then the time comes, we go back into our independent spaces. It is very important that we don’t romanticize precarity. There is nothing beautiful about being poor. Forget that. We have the possibility, we step into spaces, we claim the spaces to do what we have to do, but we are always cognizant of the guerrilla tactics. Not being too comfortable anywhere. Never.
We are made to think that we need to get into the canon, while the canon in itself is an exclusive and a violent space for certain people. The proposal of de-canonization is a proposal for porosity or for the dismantling of that canon as a whole.
AS: Is there an endgame here? Because you say: we come, we go, there is this element of occupying spaces…
BSBN: The endgame is when our children don’t have to learn in school that Christopher Columbus discovered America. The endgame is also that we don’t have to learn that before colonialism we were nobody. I am interested in the process, not in the endgame. But the endgame might be that the next generation will not have to deal with those kinds of things, in which we are told that it is bad to do a coup d’.tat in Mali, but then when Idriss Déby is killed, his son is installed. It doesn’t work that way. You cannot say that Gaddafi was the most terrible person while he was giving money to Berlusconi and Sarkozy for their campaigns, and so on and so forth. Maybe the idea is getting to a space where we are making people understand that we see them. You cannot tell us that 20 years ago when you got into Afghanistan, you were really going to take care of people. Now you are leaving Afghanistan in a situation which is worse than 20 years ago. As Bob Marley said, you can’t fool all the people all the time. We have to stand up for something. So maybe that is it, standing up and walking upright, and making them understand that we are seeing them, and we are putting them on check.
AS: You are in touch with a lot of young people. How do you translate some of the conversation that we had today, that you have shared with us, into everyday practice?
BSBN: Billy, a young guy from Cameroon and a poet studying art history, was just coming in and out while we are having this conversation. Just like many others here at SAVVY from where I am talking. It is about sustaining the conversations with them, engaging in debates, listening to everybody, not saying “your opinion doesn’t count,” engaging in debate, reading together, conversing, doing, engaging in storytelling. Tanka Fonta, a
Cameroonian composer who is based in Berlin, also pops in just any time, he plays music, we listen, and we talk, talk, talk. It is a place of exchange. I’m really interested in that space of the fireside, that space in which you say “Nkwa le’euh!” and everybody replies “Le’euh Nkwa.” Where you call everybody’s attention to listen to you. It is creating those spaces for storytelling. We get caught up by the quotidian so much that we forget these spaces, and how important they are. But these are spaces of knowledge. The question is: where do we find our knowledges, where do we find our philosophies? I mean, we can all read Foucault, fair enough. But there are other spaces of knowledge, there are other people we have to read. We have to explore the Abbia magazines, we have to explore Pr.sence Africaine, we have to explore all these things that have been written before, but we also have to engage in those spaces of deep storytelling. We have to listen to music deeply. Those are spaces of knowledge, where sounds tell beyond the languages.
During the opening of Sonsbeek, we had a listening session, Aude Christel Mgba, Leo Asemota and myself. And Leo played a piece by Ben Simmons that was composed in 1927. Ben Simmons was a Ghanaian artist based in the UK in the 1920s, and he produced this piece which only a few people know. I didn’t know it until recently. This guy is making some strange sounds in the form of music. I am really interested in that: What is he telling beyond language, beyond the conventional languages that we use? How do we explore these spaces together? So that is what we do with not only younger people, but people of different generations when we get together. There is a kind of a ritual whenever I come to Paris. I go to Simon [Njami], he calls Bili [Bidjocka] and we just listen deeply to music, and you see how these guys glow, they glow! It doesn’t matter if the music is coming from Cameroon or from Jamaica or from wherever. Sometimes they read out poetry, then they stand up and dance. You don’t see them acting like that in other spaces, but there is that deep space, a space of intimacy, in which knowledge is passed, and I tell you, my brother, there is so much I have learned by being in those spaces.
AS: I am very moved by what you said, because this is part of my life. Almost everything I know comes from there, and also everything that I know that I don’t know comes from there too. I think you raise an important point which at times is being taken for granted, that it is really about being present, listening, putting yourself in a situation, allowing yourself to be in that space, understanding the importance of being in that space and seeing knowledge beyond the spaces where it is canonized, or where they force you to think that this is the moment you learn. I’m very glad that we have this moment in our conversation to acknowledge them, our brothers and sisters.
BSBN: Yes, exactly. Let me just add that the multiple forms of presence, that this is the presence of those that are alive with the presence of those that are also not alive. I remember being in Brazil just after they had killed Marielle Franco. There were demonstrations in the streets, and whenever they called her name, everybody responded “Presente!” There was something incredibly powerful about her presence, her omnipresence because everybody could feel her. We acknowledge such presences that we cannot see or touch.
AS: You have shared with us the importance of those spaces and people with whom you have moments of communion and moments of knowledge. I know that this is what you do at SAVVY where you are hosting people as well and creating moments of nurture and learning. Can you tell us something about the younger voices, the younger movements around the world now that you are in conversation with?
BSBN: There are many people doing incredible work! I am thinking of Tandazani Dhlakama, who is at the Zeitz MOCAA. I’m thinking of Marie-Hélène Pereira in Dakar, Aude Christel Mgba, and also of Chantal Edie and Zacharie Ngnogue of The Forest in Douala. I am thinking of people in Brazil, in Hong Kong and different places. So, there are many people we have been fortunate to call co-travelers on this journey. I don’t really know if we are the hosts. We do things together, maybe in the conventional sense we host them, but they are co-travelers with us. And it is very important that we acknowledge their presence, even though they are younger, because we need them by our side. It is important for you to turn left and right and know that you have your people with you. Those are a few I can mention, but there are many in different parts of the world.
AS: What role did your capacity, your creative process, the way you think about yourself and about knowledge have in going through this past year?
BSBN: James Baldwin wrote a powerful paper in 1962 called “On the Creative Process” from which I would like to read you an excerpt: “The artist is distinguished from all other responsible actors in society — the politicians, legislators, educators and scientists — by the fact that he is his own test-tube, his own laboratory, working according to very rigorous rules, however unstated this may be, and cannot allow any consideration to supersede responsibility to reveal all that he can possibly discover concerning the mystery of the human being. Society must accept some things as real, but we must always know that visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our action and achievement rests on things unseen.” In this year and a half of the pandemic, of being in a very dire time, it has been about thinking about those things that we do not see, thinking of the several realities out there, thinking about the things that politicians might not be able to afford to think of, while scientists are actually thinking of just getting rid of a virus. We must think of all the things, of ways of caring besides just going out on the balcony and applauding care workers, thinking about much deeper things in life, but also taking the time to create. In this year and a half, I’ve spent time writing, spent time being with the children, spent time, unfortunately, mourning, so much has happened in this short time and it would be a lie if I said it was an easy time, it wasn’t, but we don’t have the luxury to sit there and lament. So, we stand up and move on and we continue to do the things that we have to do, as my dear friend Leo Asemota says, “to do the things we are tasked with,” the things we have the responsibility to do. It is a larger task, so we have to do those things that are bigger than us, sometimes, most of the times.
AS: Brother, thank you very much for sharing this.
BSBN: As we say in Cameroon: On est ensemble.
AS: Siamo insieme.
Conversation recorded for Creativity Pioneers, a podcast by the Moleskine Foundation. For the printed version, it has been edited for length and clarity.
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