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Sonsbeek faces up to the legacy of colonialism – with help from Berlin

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“Keti Koti” translated in Sranantongo, a Creole language, means to break chains. In the Netherlands, this is also the name of the anniversary of the abolition of slavery almost 160 years ago. It is committed simultaneously in the Netherlands Antilles and in Suriname, where the Dutch were among the last to abolish the slave trade. They were considered particularly cruel. In 2009 the anniversary was celebrated for the first time with parades, parties and memorial events. Since then it has become more and more important.

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Colonialism is also the big issue in the neighboring country: 250 years of slavery on four continents with millions of victims. Now that the Amsterdam mayor has officially apologized to the descendants, the government also wants to make an official statement, as it has announced.

The golden carriage of the royal house, which is always harnessed on Prinsjesdag at the beginning of September, when the monarch drives to parliament to give his speech, is no longer used: it is adorned with depictions of slaves. It does not work anymore.

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So it is no coincidence that the opening of the Sonsbeek sculpture exhibition in Arnhem, the Netherlands, takes place precisely on “Keti Koti” day. The eleventh edition of the renowned art festival is all about reappraisal and reconciliation.

That fits, because the open-air exhibition in the spacious English park right behind the Arnhem train station was founded in 1949 to give the city, which was badly marked by the war, culturally buoyant again. Art as a means of healing was inscribed in her from the beginning. Even before the Documenta was founded in Kassel, construction work began here with the means of culture on a large scale.

The artistic director comes from Berlin

Sonsbeek was the first open-air exhibition of its kind, and many were to follow, including the Münster sculpture projects. Today the show is overshadowed by both Kassel and Münster, and its budget of 2.5 million euros is downright modest.

But this year Sonsbeek has a star as artistic director: Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, whom the Minister of State for Culture Monika Grütters has just chosen as the new director of the Berlin House of Cultures, one of the most prestigious jobs in Berlin’s cultural life. He is trusted to form the opposite pole to the Humboldt Forum. He campaigned for restitutions and reparations from an early age.

The 44-year-old Cameroonian, who started the small exhibition space “Savvy contemporary” for young art from Africa in Neukölln in 2009, then moved on to the former Silent Green crematorium in Wedding and from there was appointed curator at large of the last Documenta, has a picture-book career in the art world behind. Ndikung is booked again as curator of the Dak’Art Biennale in Senegal, designed the Finnish pavilion at the Venice Biennale, has been teaching “Spatial Strategies” at the Kunsthochschule Weißensee since 2020 and has received the country’s Order of Merit.

He originally came to Germany to study biotechnology. With his salary as a doctor of engineering he financed the beginnings of “Savvy”, the connection between art and science is his credo. That is exactly what made him an attractive candidate for the House of Cultures.

But not only. How Ndikung in Arnhem with his deep green suit, pink shirt, balloon cap and colorful silk scarf walks ahead through the Sonsbeek Park with three horns and six drummers at the “Keti Koti” parade of the nine-member band Ritmo Entertainment and shines all over his face shows his rousing temperament.

“You can’t take the black joy away from us,” cries Bona, as they all call him here, fiercely. Ndikung remains an activist – in spite of his established position. In his statement on the appointment as HKW director, he promised to take all minorities in the city with him. A big word. At his post on the Spree he will have to play the whole keyboard – up to the think tank.

In Arnhem, Ndikung demonstrates how this could work. So he has four excellent curators gathered around him. One after the other, they appear at the opening press conference in St. Eusebius Church and tell about their migrant background: the family from Indonesia and their traditions, the hard-working parents who came to Arnhem from Poland.

In between, a soul choir raps “We’re going on strike, Till they get this shit right”. As the last in the series, Ndikung explains in a thunderous voice that this is not about you and us, but the common history that connects everyone. Also through slavery.

Sonsbeek lives from indignation

On the opening day, the “Keti Koti” parade leads to one of the last large mansions, as many once stood in and around Sonsbeek Park, built by wealthy Arnhemers since the 18th century. The Brantsen family lived in the Zypendaal Huis. They had become prosperous as plantation owners, as has only recently become known. Chance played the persistently investigative curator: inside, who wanted to know who else lived in the house, who the employees were, the medical bill into the hands of a servant brought from overseas.

The anonymous figure now trades for Sonsbeek as “Anna” and embodies the fate of all those who were robbed of their freedom. Your doctor’s bill will be presented in an exhibition in the “Black Archives” in the Witte-Villa im Park. The Iranian artist Farkhondeh Sharoudi, who lives in Berlin, has dedicated an installation with blood-red flags to “Anna”, which she had embroidered in Tehran. The Zypendaal Huis was no longer available for a performance when it became clear which tenor it would have.

Sonsbeek lives from indignation, which is visible in many of the 250 contributions and artistic positions, but poetically sublimated. The Werker Collective has hung cloths printed with pictures on poles in the meadows and in the wooded area of ​​the park to commemorate those slaves who were able to take refuge in the woods, called maroons.

Wendelien van Oldenburgh, who lives in Berlin, has dedicated a film to a three-member women’s band that plays in the Krongcong style, a melancholy Indonesian music genre. Willem de Rooij, another Dutchman in Berlin, presents his archive of the French photographer Pierre Verger, who documented everyday life in Suriname for eight days in 1948. The projection surface is mirrored so that the viewer finds himself in the middle of the action with every new picture of the slide show. We and you merge for a moment.

The exhibition does not stay alone in the park, it is drawn to the Kröller-Müller Museum not far from Arnhem, it plays on a hangar that the Germans built as a farmhouse disguised during the occupation, it goes to school classes, a barbershop, the Eusebius Church , a bookstore. Sonsbeek is everywhere.

“You won’t get rid of us so quickly,” Ndikung calls out to his audience. This time the art festival is to drag on for three more years in order to connect more sustainably with the city, as has increasingly become the practice at many biennials. The traveling circus art has understood that it is important to stay longer, to take responsibility on site. How substantial that is remains to be seen. Ndikung will start his new job in Berlin in 2023.

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