Activists Mock a Berlin Art Center for Staging a Show Linking Elon Musk and Afrofuturism—With No Black Artists

An activist group has written an open letter to the Künstlerhaus Bethanien criticizing its embrace of "white muskulinity."

Image circulated by Soap du Jour in conjunction with the letter.

An activist group has written an open letter to the Berlin-based Künstlerhaus Bethanien criticizing the art center for mounting a group exhibition about space exploration that is inspired by both Afrofuturism and Elon Musk, but lacks diversity on its artist list.

The letter, signed by the group Soap du Jour, calls out curator Christoph Tannert for considering “the South African megalomaniac” alongside 1970s afrofuturistic science fiction, the activism of experimental jazz composer Sun Ra, and the legacy of the Black Panthers. Concerning the mention of the South African billionaire who is seeking to colonize new frontiers, they ask, “Haven’t we seen that movie before?”

The letter also points out the lack of diversity in the artist list for the show, Space is the Place,” which takes its title from a Sun Ra song. “Which 22 artists have you selected to negotiate the slippery slope between Elon Musk and Sun Ra?” the letter prompts. “Which 22 artists could capably and competently reflect on what it means to dream of colonizing the universe (à la entrepreneurial oligarchic capital) AND simultaneously manage to compellingly take on the great and visionary legacy not only of Sun Ra and his Arkestra, but also of Afrofuturism in general?” 

The letter, which is circulating on Facebook, goes on to break down what it purports are the racial backgrounds of the participating artists selected for the exhibition: 18 white men, three white women, and one artist of color (Song Ming Ang).

“It would appear that not a single black artist could be meaningfully accommodated within your group show of 22 artists,” the group writes. “Indeed, we must be fair in acknowledging that almost completely avoiding artists who happen to identify as anything other than white men, takes deep and focused effort in the increasingly diverse ecosystem that is contemporary Berlin,” the group jibes, before giving a sarcastic hats off to the curator on his unwavering commitment to “white muskulinity!” 

A representative for the Künstlerhaus Bethanien tells artnet News that the institution is taking the criticism “seriously” and will organize a public discussion around the issue in early September. It will also make the open letter available in the space throughout the exhibition.

“Every year Künstlerhaus Bethanien hosts at least 50 percent female artists, many of them people of color,” Tennant said in an email to artnet News. The current show’s artist list was chosen partly to avoid replicating those of similarly themed shows at other institutions. “We were interested in a themed exhibition with very specific artworks, including historical works and works with references to socialist modernity,” he added. “Curatorial freedom is as valuable as artistic freedom.”

The South African artist Candice Breitz commented to a post about the letter on Facebook saying: “Oh dear, another ‘politically correct’ initiative,” adding, sarcastically, “Why can’t these SOUP DU JOUR folks just accept that white men produce the best ‘quality’ and therefore deserve the majority of all the funding and support from our public institutions. Honestly, when will they stop with these tedious ‘identity politics’?”

Read the full letter here:

WHITEY ON THE MOON

Dear Künstlerhaus Bethanien,

Are you serious?

You’re about to open a group exhibition that features 22 artists, an exhibition that you describe as being peopled by ‘German and international artists,’ an exhibition that is curated by your director, Christoph Tannert. For those who want to know more, you’ve made the curatorial framing of the exhibition available via your website and elsewhere:

https://www.bethanien.de/…/ex…/milchstrassenverkehrsordnung/

https://www.facebook.com/events/309405916610011/

Your press release starts by offering a friendly fist bump to the South African megalomaniac Elon Musk [who those of us who read the news know as the entrepreneur behind companies that manufacture luxury cars and space vehicles, Elon Musk who presides over production lines that are contaminated by racist discrimination (https://tinyurl.com/yyzaoe4z), Elon Musk who casually dismisses those trying to save lives as paedophiles (when they get in the way of his tireless self-promotion / https://tinyurl.com/yxjzowvt), Elon Musk who (perhaps not incidentally), happens to be the 40th wealthiest person on the planet earth]. The vision of this very Elon Musk is credited, in your press release, as the primary inspiration for your upcoming exhibition:

Why in particular are you crediting Elon Musk, dear Christoph Tannert, as curator of this exhibition? Here, we must quote your press release directly, because we are simply too flabbergasted to artfully paraphrase the rather musky concept of your exhibition:

“The theme of the exhibition is linked to the hope, recently expressed by Elon Musk, that we are currently at the beginning of a new chapter in the history of mankind […]. The idea of [Musk’s] experiments is as follows: The colonisation [sic] of space, the moon, Mars and possibly other planets, promises an advanced utopia for Homo sapiens.”

Let’s parse the above for a moment, if you don’t mind, dear Christoph Tannert:

So, you’re saying that this exhibition aligns itself with the vision of a South African billionaire who wishes to colonise as much territory as possible for the sake of immense personal and corporate enrichment? Don’t we know that plot from somewhere? Haven’t we seen that movie before? (If only it were science fiction.) Moreover, Christoph Tannert, you want us to swallow this particular vision as an ‘advanced utopia’? Hang on just a second….

But then, at the speed of light, you shift your curatorial claims in an entirely different direction, dear Christoph Tannert, as your press release gathers pace. You want us to know that your exhibition is also inspired by “afrofuturistic science fiction concepts of the 1970s, as initiated by the American free jazz activist group Sun Ra and his Arkestra.” Here, you go to quite some lengths to demonstrate the degree to which Afrofuturist visions inform your exhibition, explaining to us that Sun Ra’s legendary ‘Space is the Place,’ “can be interpreted as his artistic response to the revolutionary socialist strategies of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (founded in 1966), with which Sun Ra, under the conditions of the growing tensions between black and white in the USA, had entered into a persistent controversy rejecting violence with regard to the question of possible future perspectives of people who, because of their dark skin colour, were not represented, excluded and suppressed.”

Holy Asteroids! That’s quite some heady material to be pushing into the foreground of your curatorial statement, dear Christoph Tannert, in the wake of your celebratory platforming of Elon Musk just a short paragraph earlier! That is quite some connecting of the dots!

As interested occupants of planet earth (and keen supporters of contemporary art), we can only wonder which artists you might deem to be up to the challenge that your press release outlines? Which 22 artists have you selected to negotiate the slippery slope between Elon Musk and Sun Ra? Which 22 artists could capably and competently reflect on what it means to dream of colonising the universe (à la entrepreneurial oligarchic capital) AND simultaneously manage to compellingly take on the great and visionary legacy not only of Sun Ra and his Arkestra, but also of Afrofuturism in general?

According to the curator of your exhibition, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, the best artist crew for this mission is:

18 white men

3 white women

1 artist of colour (Song Ming Ang)

Whoa, Christoph Tannert! Despite the fact that you want us to view this curatorial endeavour as ‘international’ in scope, it would appear that not a single black artist could be meaningfully accommodated within your group show of 22 artists, an exhibition that (do forgive our repetition here) seeks to pay homage (via Sun Ra) to a movement (the Black Panthers) that sought “to reject violence with regard to the question of possible future perspectives of people who, because of their dark skin colour, were not represented, excluded and suppressed.”

In light of the content of your press release, Christoph Tannert, we can only congratulate you heartily on managing to successfully man your mission to outer space with a list of artists that deftly marginalises all artists other than white men. Succeeding in avoiding the inclusion of even a single woman of colour in an exhibition of this scale requires particularly advanced curatorial skills in this day and age! Indeed, we must be fair in acknowledging that almost completely avoiding artists who happen to identify as anything other than white men, takes deep and focused effort in the increasingly diverse ecosystem that is contemporary Berlin: Chapeau, dear Christoph Tannert, on your unwavering commitment to white muskulinity!

That said… far be it from us to rush to judgment, dear Christoph Tannert…. You surely have good reasons for choosing to endorse and perpetuate the effective exclusion of artists of colour and artists who are not male-identified from your exhibition: Perhaps you want to emphasise the fact that interplanetary colonial missions are best conducted by white men? We must admit that, at least historically speaking, this assumption resonates as accurate.

On a related note, dear Christoph Tannert, we appreciate that you’ve titled your exhibition ‘Milchstraßenverkehrsordnung: Space is the Place.’ We certainly recognise the nod to Stanislaw Lem in your choice of title (right before the citation of Sun Ra). In light of how you’ve constructed and framed this exhibition, however, we can’t help but wonder whether the exhibition might not have benefitted from precisely the medicine that its title prescribes. To put it politely, an effort to regulate the privilege that is trafficked via milky white highways is precisely what your exhibition seems to be lacking.

We really do hate to point it out, dear Christoph Tannert [we wouldn’t want you to think that we’re Killjoys or Spaßbremse—we honestly do like to dance and dream too, even though many of us, somewhat inconveniently, are not white men], but we honestly couldn’t help noticing that, parallel to your exhibition, you’ve succeeded in putting together a programme of events that—other than star DJ, Juan Atkins—features a line-up of nothing but white men. Bonus points here, for utter consistency! If we were feeling ungenerous, we might be tempted to say, “WHAT THE FUCK,” dear Christoph Tannert, because all of this just can’t be true in 2019 (let alone in an exhibition that claims to dream of utopian futures)—but rather, we’d like to suggest a late addition to your soundtrack for the exhibition….

It’s not that we want to interfere with your curatorial vision, dear Christoph Tannert… We can imagine that you were preoccupied with questions of ‘quality’ as you worked out the list of artists for your intergalactic endeavour, and we do understand that ‘quality’ can be blinding. But would it be terribly presumptuous to ask you to squeeze just one extra voice into your curatorial framework? It seems to us that Gil Scott-Heron would be the perfect narrator for the mission that you are about to launch:

+

WHITEY ON THE MOON

A rat done bit my sister Nell. 

(with Whitey on the moon) 

Her face and arms began to swell. 

(and Whitey’s on the moon)

I can’t pay no doctor bill. 

(but Whitey’s on the moon) 

Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still. 

(while Whitey’s on the moon)

The man jus’ upped my rent las’ night. 

(’cause Whitey’s on the moon) 

No hot water, no toilets, no lights. 

(but Whitey’s on the moon)

I wonder why he’s uppi’ me? 

(’cause Whitey’s on the moon?) 

I was already payin’ ‘im fifty a week. 

(with Whitey on the moon)

Taxes takin’ my whole damn check, 

Junkies makin’ me a nervous wreck, 

The price of food is goin’ up, 

An’ as if all that shit wasn’t enough

A rat done bit my sister Nell. 

(with Whitey on the moon) 

Her face an’ arm began to swell. 

(but Whitey’s on the moon)

Was all that money I made las’ year 

(for Whitey on the moon?) 

How come there ain’t no money here? 

(Hm! Whitey’s on the moon) 

Y’know I jus’ ’bout had my fill 

(of Whitey on the moon) 

I think I’ll sen’ these doctor bills, 

Airmail special 

(to Whitey on the moon)

GIL SCOTT-HERON, 1970

+

We care about Künstlerhaus Bethanien, dear Christoph Tannert. It is a gem of the Berlin contemporary art community, one that has been responsible for giving an endless list of artists unforgettable experiences and opportunities in Berlin. Please receive this open letter as a gesture of our solidarity. We very much want the Künstlerhaus Bethanien to remain relevant as an institution. We’re sorry to say that exhibitions that are built as this one is, just don’t convince us anymore. The thing is, running a public institution these days means having to rethink some of those old curatorial habits. We, your public—for some reason—feel an increasing need to see ourselves represented in and by our public institutions, in our diversity. As painful a transformation as this might imply, we feel that it is only fair to let you know that we’re finding it increasingly difficult to continue supporting (or maintaining an active interest in) institutions that insist on disproportionately platforming and offering visibility to the same small demographic.

If you’re serious about imagining ‘advanced utopias,’ dear Christoph Tannert, may we suggest that you start by reflecting on the realities of the planet that we currently inhabit? We invite you to consider broadening your earthly horizons before expanding your vision to the universe at large.

Yours sincerely,

SOAP DU JOUR

28 July 2019, Planet Earth


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