Born in Cameroon in 1977, has a post-doctorate in biophysics, but he never lost sight of his true passion: the arts.
He recently became the director of Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of the World’s Cultures), a national exhibition center for international, pluridisciplinary contemporary arts and a forum for social debates.
For Bonaventure Soj Bejeng Ndikung, art is “the highest form of politics” and, at the same time, a “universal language understood by almost everyone.”
DW’s Dirke Köpp interviewed the art curator as the Haus der Kulturen der Welt reopens on June 2, after months of closure for maintenance work.
DW: You are the first African at the head of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, a cultural institution of great renown. Do you think this is still worth mentioning or has Germany overcome the stereotypes that might have prevented such an appointment in the past?
The truth is that I am the only African who is the director of such an institution in Germany. That means it’s not completely normal yet. Things can still be improved. We have to keep working on that and in a few years, I hope it won’t be a rarity anymore.
Do you think that as an African, as a Cameroonian, your programming you have planned for the Haus der Kulturen der Welt is different from that which would be planned by a German director?
Of course ! Because knowledge is embodied.
As a Cameroonian, as someone who grew up in Bamenda, as an African, I carry with me different knowledge, different philosophies, I speak different languages.
I think that the program we are going to propose will indeed be different.
And above all, it’s not just about me, because I managed to form a team of almost 15 exhibition curators who come from different parts of the world, who will also bring different knowledge. They come from Asia, South America, Africa, the United States and Europe. And that, of course, will influence our program.
You are a specialist in biotechnology by training, but you nevertheless began to take an interest in art and culture at an early age. Did you first avoid becoming an art historian for financial reasons?
I’ve had an interest in art since my childhood. But when I came to Germany, it was clear that I couldn’t study art history — because in my context, in Cameroon, it’s not something that gives you work afterwards.
So how did you get into the arts?
Already in Cameroon, I was very close to the artists. This means that I started my art studies when I was maybe 17 or 18, when I went to Yaoundé to study. But afterwards, in Berlin, after my studies, we had the opportunity to meet artists and it started like that.
My father was an anthropologist and therefore, when I was little, there were quite a few books by writers like Aimé Césaire, Walter Rodney or Jomo Kenyatta, as well as many other publications, and especially the works of . So I have learned the post-colonial critical discourse already from my childhood.
You are sometimes described as an intransigent militant against colonialism. Does this have to do with the fact that your father was an anthropologist?
I wouldn’t call myself a militant for any cause — because I don’t like the word “militant.” I rather see myself as an advocate for the things that I find important in society.
What is your position regarding the return of looted works to Africa?
It is very clear that I would like to see the objects that were taken from Africans, Asians, Native Americans, or other parts of the world, returned to their original context. I would love to see a world where people are reunited with their sacred objects and their history.
What does this mean exactly?
It means that colonial history has really created destruction, all over the world. And that people have lost their history! “Restitution” means to return, but it also means to heal what has been destroyed. I think you can’t do without healing, without restitution and without reparation and without rehabilitation. That’s why I’m getting involved!
I repeat, I’m not a militant. But I’m passionate about it because we have to take our history into our own hands. To move forward in this world that is so destabilized, where there are a lot of imbalances, we have to restore harmony. And my project is a humanistic project to find harmony in the world.
Does the healing process also involve apologies?
Apologies are a starting point, but not the end.
When you give an apology, you look at the wounds you have made. It is an acknowledgment of what has been done. You can admit that you hurt people, that you recognize it and apologize. But that’s not enough because the injury is still there.
What can we do to heal these wounds?
We need to engage in this process of healing, which really means restoring what has been destroyed. And in fact, restitution — I really want to emphasize this — is not only about returning works, but is also about the restitution of knowledge and the restitution of the dignity of human beings.
One of the greatest evils that have been inflicted in the context of colonization is the dehumanization of human beings. And we have to do exercises of re-humanization, of re-establishing this humanity that we have destroyed.
How can we restore this dignity in a very concrete way?
Very concretely, there are several paths that can be taken. We need to accept that there is no gradient between human beings and that all human beings have the right to be what they want to be.
This interview was originally conducted in French.