profile: Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro

IMGP1495.JPG

Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro’s art studio is in a typical Berlin space. A 19th-century façade covered with posters and tagging leads into a former industrial yard shared by a vintage clothing store, a small club, and sets of studios divided among three four-story buildings. Bikoro is lucky to have the studio, she says—she was recently awarded it by the Professional Association of Berlin Visual Artists. Most artists in Berlin could never afford this kind of space, let alone find one, but London, she tells me, is worse. “You might as well rent out an actual bathroom,” she jokes. 
  After receiving her PhD studying post-colonial Africa, arts and philosophy in the British capital, Bikoro and her husband left England to spend time in Gabon, where she grew up, and to travel around Eastern Europe, where his family is originally from. Moving to Berlin several years ago was by chance. “We just ended up here,” she says. 
  Bikoro, a curator, educator, and visual and performance artist, now lives and works in Wedding, a district in northern Berlin with a charged history—its streets and squares remain named after African countries and German colonial officers. Around the same time that she moved to Berlin, she found out her great-grandfather had died in a German camp in North Gabon. This anchored her in the city. 
  “I wasn’t so familiar [with] German colonialism, because it’s not talked about, it’s not taught. So I made my own investigation—it was a personal investigation,” she tells me. “It was a very personal decision to stay in Berlin and continue with this.” 
  I first met Bikoro at a workshop called Undoing it with Others, which took place at a dance center just down the street from her studio. I wanted to re-touch on this concept of undoing with her during our conversation. “What is meant by undoing? What needs to be undone?” I ask. Bikoro laughs and says this interview is going to take days. “The question of undoing is a very infinite question,” she explains. She advises that we take it from the angle of education, framing it as “the willingness to take risks, the willingness to fail.” 
  Undoing happens by unlearning, she tells me. “The ability to learn is the ability to constantly unlearn. What I notice, for example, in education is that, at the university level, there is not enough space for unlearning. And unlearning means that you have to ask constant questions and not accept everything as it is given. You have to dismantle the system of expecting that things have to be applied to a certain theory. Then you have to start to undo that expectation.”   
  She looks over at her son, who sits on the floor beside her. He mumbles something in French, and she hands him a jar of wiggly eye buttons from off the table. They’re for his carnival costume, she explains, showing me a T-shirt covered with eye buttons and a pair of airplane wings. He takes an eye button in each palm and covers his eyes with the backs of his hands. 
  Given her emphasis on the act of unlearning, I ask her how she approaches teaching. What is her preferred method? She tells me she has none. “You have to invent all the time,” she says. “You’re always learning from students.” She stresses the need to challenge your own parameters—you shouldn’t get too comfortable, she urges. 
  This is a belief that she’s held since youth. “I always had to question everything, because it didn’t reflect my own life,” she tells me. “If you’re in a classroom where you’re told this is your history, well, what about my history?” Her example is far from abstract—she grew up in Gabon and went through the French and UK education systems. But even discussing these topics proves to be very difficult. “Words are dangerous,” she explains, as we don’t have a shared vocabulary; everything can be re-contextualized. And yet, she admits, “part of the reality is finding a language.” 
  The words hang between us as she gets up to answer her phone. She returns a few minutes later, her husband in tow. Before introducing himself, he asks a common question in Berlin: German or English? With their son, however, he speaks Polish. 
  Bikoro is also a polyglot—she speaks fluent French, Fang, English and German—but more importantly, she is adept at communicating with people. This has allowed her to capture the stories of diverse people for her work. For the photographic series Future Monuments—her first project in Berlin—she worked with descendants of the Herero and Nama, targets of genocide by the German Empire from 1904 to 1907 in the German South West Africa colony (present-day Namibia). Each photograph presents a portrait wherein the subject’s arm bares a Star of David made from Dutch wax print cloth—a textile with a colonial history of its own—that appears to be sewn onto the skin, bleeding at the edges. These gruesome yet stunning images, which reflect upon German genocides both widely and little known, emerged from hours and hours Bikoro spent speaking to descendents of survivors from various diasporic cultures and experiences. She discovered that most descendants “didn’t have a real understanding of their past,” demonstrating incomplete knowledge of their ancestral ties to German genocidal campaigns. With this work, she aimed to “dismount psychological blockage” so that they could “understand their own positions.” 
  Bikoro believes it’s important that local communities be the producers of their own histories and futures. “Each one of us, we know that we have thousands of histories behind us, but there is always going to be a few ancestors that echo your histories—it’s stored in your archive, on your skin, in your body,” she explains. 
  To activate these stored memories, she hosted séances with each participant. Some sessions lasted up to 10 hours. The resulting work, she tells me, was “less artistic and more spiritual.” The photography sessions happened later. 
  “They would confess on camera, in a way” Bikoro says, pointing out one photograph of a couple embracing. The man’s great-great-grandfather, she explains, was a general in Namibia, and the woman, an American, has ancestry in Ghana and South Africa.
  “The energy transverses through you,” she says as we examine the image. “It’s very subtle, but it was important to me.” 

  Future Monuments  (2015), studio shot. Color photography printed on aluminum.

Future Monuments (2015), studio shot. Color photography printed on aluminum.

According to Bikoro, all bodies are archives—or, rather, moving monuments, a term that is central to her practice. As she explains, “monuments are not just statues or physical objects, but anything that stays in history.” Performances, rituals, and commemorations are all monuments—“Monuments are our whole life, what we believe,” she says, “how we choose to live.” 
  We have to question these things, she explains, because a monument should trigger a multitude of narratives, and not just a single story. She offers the example of the American moon landing, but also speaks of a woman who stood naked in front of the Mandela statue in Johannesburg. “That was the monument! It wasn’t the Mandela statue,” she exclaims. “She activated something in that time, that space.” 
  Bikoro’s practice largely looks at ways of demounting monuments. She points out that demonumenting often takes on a very physical form: “Look at what’s happening with statues in America, in Cameroon and South Africa,” she tells me. But Bikoro’s conception of demounting a monument doesn’t involve its physical destruction; instead, she aims to demount the symbolism around it. In the U.S., for example, she points out that encased in Confederate statues are stories that were changed—stories that were made invisible. 
  “What do you do with all these non-histories?” she asks. “You have to perform them. You have to talk about them. You have to make sure that those stories that people didn’t want you to remember are being retraced, acknowledged, and that you can tell that story. It’s your story!” she exclaims. “This is how you emancipate yourself.”
  Bikoro wants to help others to do this—to trigger the stories that have been explicitly as well as metaphorically erased or unacknowledged, and yet remain “on the skin,” as she explains it. What results are different systems: body exercises, speech development, or séances, like in Future Monuments, which then take an artistic form—video, photography, installation. Her work Trümmerberg Kilimanjaro involved a public intervention at the site of a colonial movie set where imprisoned African actors were shot during film production. The idea was to demount the German Empire machinery—its film industry, which essentially created documentary filmmaking, she interjects—and to acknowledge an event that hardly anyone knows about. Getting people together and having them actively perform at a site,  she  tells me, “changes the politics of the whole site itself and raises questions in the community.” This can lead to a transformation of the space—through commemoration, for example, or a re-working of history.
  History, as Bikoro explains, includes the past, present, and future. “History is not a linear line—it’s more like a circle. The past has everything to do with the way we position ourselves. You find different systems, artistically, to make this clear.” For Bikoro, it’s very important that art “can reflect, demystify, and create different dimensions where you start to create something else. It’s a whole work of monumentizing—to stretch and de-elasticize parameters.” 

 Bikoro's studio

Bikoro's studio

Although much of her work involves critically sourcing information from institutional archives, Bikoro also takes unconventional approaches to empowering subjugated histories. “The work of archiving is my parameters,” she explains. While she seems to be wildly embracing this self-set limitation, it seems more to me like a bold framework for her practice. Her archival work moves beyond a systematic technique of organizing and preserving documents—after all, she reminds me, “the archive is all around you!” 
  She is currently focused on nature as an archive. She tells me about the gray parrots in the rainforests of North Gabon whose descendants can still mimic the German spoken by the settlers in the area during the 1914 war. “Nature is speaking,” she says, raising her voice. “That’s an archive!” 
  Plants can speak much in the same way that parrots can. For past works, Bikoro took vibrations from plant debris. “They transmit a sound,” she tells me, “not from the species, but from the place they are located, so they become a kind of vocal testimony about a place.” The botanic landscape of the city of Berlin, in particular, has a covert history: the lush trees and plants you see today are a 20th-century invention—a colonial project. Seeds exported from Asia, Africa, and Latin America were planted for parks and movie sets. “They designed these mini-paradises for certain literatures and politics to be created,” Bikoro explains. But as she reminds me, “You cannot tame nature—it will always speak.” In the warmer months, you can find Bikoro giving decolonial tours of Wedding, where participants can take part in her botanical interventions, listening to the stories plants emit through their heat and sound.
  As we talk, she reaches over for a stack of papers on the far corner of the table. In her last exhibition, she set up a typewriter within the installation for visitors to share their thoughts. She then collected and read through all of the texts. She shares some of them with me now.
  “I’m learning so much from this,” she tells me with excitement. “It’s very intimate—crazy stuff! It reveals a lot about people.” We consider one visitor’s unsettling remarks: Should we white people disappear to give space to those that are not white and German, or what else should we do? “Forget the Bundesarchiv,” she says, tapping on the papers—“this is the real archive.” 
  She then shows me a book of poetry written by her friend Matilda TheeGreat. The book, she explains, was based on the diary that TheeGreat’s great-grandfather kept as a prisoner of war in Germany. 
  “This is an archive for me. It’s able to tell another story… [one] closer to the truth than if I read his diary,” Bikoro says slowly, turning the book over in her hands. A charcoal-sketched portrait of the author graces the cover. “She is the future monument, you know,” she tells me. Smiling, she passes me the book.


Profile and photography by Katie Lauren Bruton.