Bettina Steinbrügge (2020)

German has two distinct words for memory: Erinnerung and Gedächtnis. In regards to culture and history, the first means reflection and exchanging personal experiences that can be shared with others, while the latter encompasses self-commitment to a larger “we”, including the various rituals that nations use to keep their past alive. Christophe Ndabananiye’s show forces us to reconsider these interpretative models.

As Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung fittingly describes Christophe Ndabananiye not only burrows deep into history, but into his own soul as well. Ndikung describes how Ndabananiye looks back in order to consider the past and find his own place in something that could probably be described as the present. In formally diverse works, he deals with themes of traumatic experience relating to escape, family and native language, connecting them to his current life in Europe. The situation is complex and the artistic form he has found is appropriate for it. The title of this solo show at the Kunstverein in Hamburg, 11°40′S 27°29′O, shows the coordinates of his birthplace in Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This is the starting point for physical and mental reflection, where individual stories begin that metaphorically record the spatial process of life.

Abstraction plays a decisive role in Ndabananiye’s paintings. In the series Selbstportrait III (2012-18), he connects portrait painting to abstraction. These were made using a mix of tar, enamel, and oil applied in thick strokes to the canvas. The title of this series suggests that portraits or silhouettes can be recognized in the dark green forms. We could take this thought a step further and say that it could also be about outlines and therefore, where a portrait ends. The uncertainty and vulnerability of identity may also be at issue here. This inevitably recalls the beginnings of (political) abstraction and the work of Kazimir Malevich. One of the collective goals of his Suprematism was to let go of the past in order to propose a Socialist future. In Russia, this occurred by radically negating the past while looking back to it at the same time, as Marc Chagall did, or as Walter Benjamin saw in his famous description of the Angelus Novus by Paul Klee. This is also the path Ndabananiye has taken in order to approach the complexities of the present conceptually, whereby his work is very much informed by political and philosophical thinking. For Malevich, abstraction was meant to free the artist from figurative (i.e. reactionary) representation. For Ndabananiye, abstraction proceeds from ways of living related to migration and uprootedness in order to provide space for reflection without precisely defining its limits. Here the self-portrait seems to infer a freedom from outside representation, an unfixed and “free” identity formation.

In the series Kucheza (2015), which means “to play” in Swahili, he paints dark green and ochre colors on fragile Styrofoam board. These 4 assemblages do not bear figurative lines, but bring together different everyday materials which are embedded into the Styrofoam, peering out of it, and overpainted again. If we’re tempted to read how identity is defined in this work, it is different to his “self-portraits”. The material choice in these works infers a clear tie to reality. Developed at BASF in 1951, Styrofoam is commonly used as a container for liquid and food while being relatively porous—permeable to oxygen and steam. Although easily fragmented, it takes centuries to decompose. It is because of these qualities that we can read it as an apt metaphor for national borders, and the play between spaces—of one side or another—that Ndabananiye is interested in.

Milango (2018) consists of 11 doors which Ndabananiye found during his stay in Florence and which are now lying and leaning against the gallery walls. These doors, like any door, mark a border between inside and outside, between private and public, between that which does not belong and that which does. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung draws attention to how this is not an African concept. These doors are present in the room without any purpose. What does it mean when a border disappears? Does it evoke uncertainty or does it bring freedom? This remains necessarily undecided and poses essential questions that could not be more topical. We find coordinates written on these doors, indexing them to specific locations. In all of Ndabananiye’s works, there is this psychogeography of places like Kigali, Gisakura, Detmold and Bayreuth, that reference stories of exclusion and identity for the artist.

In Mon point de vue I et II [My point of view I and II] (wood varnish on two canvases, 2012), the varnish seems to run upwards into heaven, forming a landscape on the yellowish background where culture and nature enter into symbiosis. An abstract landscape from the artist’s personal perspective, clearly expressing the subjective view of landscape and its representation in art.

Exhibited for the first time at the Kunstverein in Hamburg, his new painting series consisting of 18 canvases Ohne Titel (2019) develops from themes present in the other works—abstraction, landscape, and coordination systems. Ndabananiye has worked over these canvases with a mixture of oil paint and clear varnish. The varnish has made the canvases contract and shrivel, making them look unfinished, partly wrong… and yet exactly right. These works are intended to be open in their meaning, continually able to invite new perspectives. 

Text for the solo exhibition by Christophe Ndabananiye “# UNFINISHED-TRACES – Christophe Ndabananiye – 11 °40′S 27 °29′O” at the Kunstverein in Hamburg
By Bettina Steinbrügge