Dismantling and Reinventing: Building Alliances through the School of Quilombismo

Dismantling and Reinventing: Building Alliances through the School of Quilombismo

Haus der Kulturen der Welt

September 7, 2023
Jamila Moroder
Haus der Kulturen der Welt
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The exhibition project “O Quilombismo: Of Resisting and Insisting. Of Flight as Fight. Of Other Democratic Egalitarian Political Philosophies” inaugurates the reopening of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), in Berlin, with the new director and chief curator Prof. Dr. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, his team, and many collaborators and artists. Quilombismo, a lived and living philosophy “whose pivotal focal point is the human being, as actor and subject,” was developed by the Afro-Brazilian artist, author, Pan-African activist, and politician Abdias Nascimento and is grounded in the myriad histories, cultures, and strategies of resistance by people escaping enslavement in the Americas and their establishing autonomous spaces and communities, called quilombos in Brazil. 1 Unfolding throughout and around HKW, the project aspires “to imagine new forms of cultural and political resistance through diverse emancipation projects, past and present.” 2

A stone’s throw from Berlin’s new government district—of which the state-run HKW is a constituent institution—the project daringly invokes quilombist struggles and African (diasporic) resistances as an ongoing contestation of (neo)colonial systems of domination and the fight for reparative justice. Worth nothing is that only in 2021 did the German government officially acknowledge and apologize for the genocide of OvaHerero, OvaMbanderu, Nama, Damara, and San peoples during its colonial rule of present-day Namibia from 1904 to 1908, and longstanding demands for land restitution and reparations for the descendants of those killed in the “war of resistance” over a century ago remain unanswered, indicating the state’s reluctance to engage in material acts of repair. 3 Walking east from HKW into Mitte, visitors are likely to cross the Wilhelmstrasse, passing the site where the partition of the African continent was engineered by European imperial powers at the notorious Berlin Conference of 1884–85. The reopened HKW thus seeks to openly confront the imperialist, white-supremacist narrative according to which liberation and emancipation are the sole legacies of imperial nation-states and the derived self-entitlement to the geographies of the world that is literally engraved on its walls. 4

Beyond the House

As part of the project, the School of Quilombismo is a free pedagogical program that will run every summer through 2027. By sharing the conceptual framework of quilombismo, the school is in conversation with the exhibition and comprises a part of HKW’s ultradense public program, which takes place at the house. The school, on the other hand, has explicitly sought locations beyond HKW, departing from the institution to host a large part of its activities with (or at) various local organizations. In this respect, it differs significantly from the previous HKW unlearning project New Alphabet School (2019–21), which invited Berlin-based art centers, collectives, and community spaces to the house itself and hosted events in international locations with partners like the Goethe Institute. 5

This first edition of the School of Quilombismo was co-conceptualized by curator Amal Alhaag and researcher André Pitol as three distinct iterations, gradually increasing in depth and duration, beginning with Barby Asante’s participatory workshop “Breathwork: a libation, a blessing,” which was held during the reopening weekend in early June in one of HKW’s gardens. I participated in the second iteration, “What Cannot be Summed Up With a Pen,” which was hosted over the course of a late-July weekend at Each One Teach One (EOTO) e.V., a community-based education and empowerment project by and for Black, African, and Afro-diasporic people. Situated in Berlin’s African Quarter, an appellation that dates to plans from the late nineteenth century to open a large zoo in the area that would exhibit humans and animals from Germany’s African colonies in celebration of the colonial project and its “spoils,” EOTO opened its doors in 2014 as a publicly accessibly neighborhood library with books from Vera Heyer’s archive. 6 The members of EOTO see their positioning in the middle of this neighborhood as a powerful act of reclaiming space. In its programming, the association works on archives of Black German history, proposes a wide range of activities from youth and children’s initiatives to management courses for adults, antidiscrimination work, and social counseling, and hosts the popular an highly anticipated literature and culture festival AFROLUTION.

School of Quilombismo organizers and Haus der Kulturen der Welt curators at Each One Teach One (EOTO), including Amal Alhaag, André Pitol, Serubiri Moses, Daniel Neugebauer, and Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung. Courtesy Each One Teach One (EOTO).

School of Quilombismo at EOTO, by contrast, was sparsely attended. Unlike the organization’s own community events, which are “designed as part of the UN Decade for People of African Descent and as a space for people of African descent,” HKW stated on its website that the program, which revolved around the routing of knowledge in poetry, language, and communal memory, would “primarily address the experiences of Black cultural workers” but remain open to all. 7 Many who had signed up to attend through HKW (which required prospective participants to register by email) didn’t show up. The program was announced only a week before it began and only on HKW’s official channels, instead of also on those of EOTO. “Breathing with the Ancestors,” a separate community workshop organized and promoted by EOTO as part of the School of Quilombismo, was not listed in HKW’s official program. 8 This complication and the ensuing disinterest signals, in my view, the concern of EOTO’s regular audience for the space to remain safe to address subjects related to communal memory and ancestral knowledge and the skepticism of opening these intimate conversations to the larger HKW audience, which has in the past been majority white.

As a non-Black person who attended the official program and is writing this feature, I am reminded of Afro-German poet, educator, and intellectual May Ayim’s contention that “the anger of Black women should also be the outrage of white women.” 9 At the same time, I am aware that my position as a white listener could be or be perceived as that of a spy. Caution in organizing the struggle and making alliances is an imperative of survival in Nascimento’s A B C of Quilombismo: “Each and every alliance must obey a tactical or strategic imperative, and Black people must be in positions of power and decision making, so as not to allow the Black masses to be manipulated on behalf of causes alien to their own.” 10

“O Quilombismo” and the School of Quilombismo, talk with André Pitol, Marie Helene Pereira, and Carlos Maria Romero (alias Atabey), Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), Berlin, August 26, 2023. Photo: Silke Briel/HKW.

“Outreach” vs. radical quilombist transformation

As Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung writes in his poignant text “Every Straw is a Straw Too Much: On the Psychological Burden of Being Racialized While Doing Art,” since the widespread protests after George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, predominantly white cultural institutions have found themselves under increasing pressure to present themselves in a way that reflects the demographics of their environments and of the world’s majority. But all too often, the interest in white-institutional self-preservation through the mere representation of so-called “diversity” is greater than the actual will to make structural changes and long-term investments in the form of programs that are conceived with or, better yet, by the historically excluded people and communities to which these institutions now want to “reach out” to. Such a dynamic leads to what Ndikung has aptly termed the “outreach-complex.” He denounces that many “outreach” programs are detrimental for the young Black art professionals invited by institutions to attract “diverse communities” because they don’t have the mandate, power, and resources to implement necessary systemic institutional change, thereby perpetuating the power disparity between the institution and the communities.

The new, more “diverse” HKW team has the effective power to make decisions and the resources to redefine “outreach” in the interest of all involved, that is, the institution and the historically marginalized communities. For this reason, it is important to the curatorial team behind the School of Quilombismo not to run it as a classic co-optive “outreach” program and instead aspire to “[pay] respect to the partners we are working with and that are hosting us and the knowledges created there, as well as the communities they are catering [to],” as Daniel Neugebauer, curator of cultural education and strategic partnerships of HKW, affirmed in a conversation with the school organizers and me. 11 The conceptualizers of the school describe the move beyond the house as “humbling experience”: “What does it mean for such an institution to go outside and gain this humble position of being a guest instead of a host?,” asked Amal Alhaag, aware of the power relations at play as well as the baggage of former cooperations that appeared to some partners as co-optations. One proposition to deal concretely with such a power dynamic that Alhaag shared is to scale payments for people with no institutional position, a practice that resonates with the lumbung principle of last year’s Documenta. Sharing resources could be a vital aspect of the school’s extra-institutional work, considering Berlin’s gentrification and rising costs of living, which puts even more pressure on already precarious cultural workers, especially those affected by racism, and generates unhealthy competition for public funding among cultural organizations and community spaces.

In a review of the exhibition, Jesi Khadivi writes that the concept and content of “O Quilombismo” “are entirely entangled with the act of thinking how to ‘institute.’” In this regard, I add that thinking how to relate to and organize with other experimental spaces, organizations, and activists in Berlin defines the school’s operation “beyond HKW.” There is a strong need to engage various important actors who, through their cultural and political education work, research, activism, and commitment to the empowerment of historically unrepresented communities (work done by necessity outside institutional boundaries), have helped pave the way for HKW to no longer be a predominantly white institution. The School of Quilombismo, understood in Sylvia Wynter’s terms as part of “the quest for a free space from where to wage the ongoing process of revolt against the cultural colonization,” can indeed be a helpful tool to think as well how to (re)build and cultivate over time a stronger network of alliances between different emancipatory spaces that share the long-term objectives of radical quilombist transformation of the socioeconomic and cultural structures of society, to paraphrase Nascimento. 12

From “study” to aquilombar

Let us rewind to “What Cannot be Summed Up With a Pen,” in which, in a friendly atmosphere, director Diego Araúja, who had travelled from Salvador de Bahia to Berlin, presented the International Creole Lab to a small but very attentive circle in EOTO’s library. 13 “How to create a language not born from trauma?” is the animating question behind Araúja’s experimental long-term scenic-laboratory, which aims to create a new creole language with “artists of the body” of the “Atlantic world,” thus overcoming trauma and colonial violence through poetics. Tempo crioulo (creole time), a qualitative time to create, only made possible through flight, is, for Araúja, the prerequisite to allow the production of emancipated Afro-diasporic memories that “survival time”—the “afterlife of slavery”—represses. Araúja shared his thoughts and concepts in Portuguese with a translator sensitively rendering his words in English, both colonial languages of which one has the questionable global status of a lingua franca.

For the School of Quilombismo, which was consciously developed as a conversational format directed toward different Black diasporic communities and other people to whom it could be relevant, questions of language and translation are central. Historically, language pluralism and translation practices have been the paradigm for transnational struggle and circulation of thought in the African diaspora. There is much at stake in translation: whose thoughts are deemed universally relevant to be translated, disseminated, made accessible and audible to a wider audience? A special episode of Rádio Floresta (Forest Radio), an online radio show organized as a means for mutual support together with the residents of Careiro Castanho in Amazonas, Brazil, was recorded as part of the school in Portuguese and subsequently commented on in English by creative listener Jess Oliveira. As much as the plight of the Amazon rainforest is a global rallying cry for environmental action, inhabitants of Amazonia are generally not heard, even within Brazil. Therefore, the “peoples of the forest” see it as important to appropriate technology to spread Indigenous knowledges. “Will we ever be able to learn non-Western languages at school?” and “In which terms are Indigenous people being part of the discussions around global environmental issues?” were just some of the questions Oliveira relayed. Listening to Indigenous and Black Latin American perspectives to decenter institutionalized Anglophone and Eurocentric narratives supports the School of Quilombismo’s work. The educational program is not intended as a “translation,” in the sense of an explanatory gesture of Indigenous and Black cultures. Rather, its conceptualizers understand orality and dialogic practices as a “site of study,” following Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s comprehension of study as “what you do with other people.” 14 Knowledges—plural—and their transmissions also relate to the Somali concepts of ilhan, “that is about the different embodied ways of knowing,” and oqaal, “which represents inner knowledge beyond one’s own selfhood,” as Amal Alhaag explained to me in conversation. The aim of this year’s program is to connect suppressed and ignored epistemologies spanning from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and to draw on Black, African diasporic shared experiences and thus of an understanding and knowledge that goes beyond language.

Numbi Arts, a Somali-originated, African-centered culture and heritage organization based in London, led the study session at EOTO. We watched together The Tree of Life (1988), a poetic short film by Somali filmmaker Abdulkadir Ahmed Said about the catastrophic consequences that befall the environment after a tree that sustains life itself is cut down. Although the film anticipates with great urgency issues of global ecological crisis and exhibits great formal beauty, there are no scholarly texts on Somali cinema, as we were told by the writer and poet Rahma Hassan, who brought the film to Berlin. On the one hand, this lack of interest among scholars is depressing, but on the other, artist and co-director of Numbi Arts Kinsi Abdulleh emphasized that “we have always written in orality,” shifting the focus away from the written word and the university. In the study session, she recalled how during the war in Somalia, cassette tapes were used as a means of communication, a preview of today’s voice notes. Instead of searching in vain “for ourselves” in colonial archives, Abdulleh argued for centering “ways of knowing you don’t even know you know” and “learning in a way we don’t know as learning.” Elmi Original (DJ Elmi) has dedicated himself to Somali musical and poetic archives in the form of records of Somali folk music such as Qaraam, which combines oud and drums, as well as metaphors and allegories, which he sampled into electronic beats and played for attendees of “What Cannot Be Summed Up with a Pen.” A conversation between the artist Julianknxx and Alhaag concluded the second iteration of the school in a small circle at HKW. We listened to excerpts from Julianknxx’s work, in which he wove together sound, poetry, song, voices of his relatives and people that he encountered on his travels in seven port cities around Europe as part of his listening practice driven by the “idea of doing memory work with other Black people.” A central point of reflection revolved around the importance of intergenerational memory work and thinking with one’s ancestors by listening to elders.

Beatriz Nascimento. Courtesy Nos Mulheres da Periferia.

This year’s School of Quilombismo concluded in August with “In Front of the World: Learning Through Beatriz Nascimento,” five days of conversations and lectures in the more accessible “evening school” format—a helpful accommodation for those who work during the day—at Forum Brasil, EOTO, HKW, and workshops realized in dialogue with Spore Initiative. The program paid homage to Beatriz Nascimento, a radical thinker of Black Feminism, historian, poet, filmmaker, and influential voice in Brazil’s radical Black Movement from the 1970s until her untimely death in 1995. She is less known outside Brazil than Abdias Nascimento (to whom she is not related), as her texts have only recently been translated into English due to the still marginal position of Black Latin American women in the Black radical and feminist tradition of the Americas. Beatriz Nascimento herself confronted structural racism from within the university and “problematized the academic schema of knowledge production and the impacts on her own body,” as Juliana M. Streva writes. 15 Beatriz Nascimento’s theorization of quilombo conceives of the Black body as the principle site of self-determination and space of escape: “Each individual holds the power [is the power]. Each person is the quilombo.” 16

The idea of occupation of space inside historically white institutions is powerful; the challenge, as many have already said, lies in being in the institution while not becoming part of it and being able to maintain the space. 17 It is obviously a challenge to build lasting, transformative, pluralistic, and shared solidarities. Ongoing programs, such as the School of Quilombismo, to cultivate relationships and build trust among Berlin’s multiple organizations and community spaces will be crucial for HKW and the city’s cultural environment in the coming years. In doing so, efforts to address the power disparity that exists due to an imbalance of funding between the institution and community organizations will be important, and sharing resources, as well as working more closely together on common issues, could be very beneficial for everyone. The vitality of smaller spaces is decisive for sustaining a plurality of voices, nurturing discussions, and supporting disruptive practices both within and beyond HKW. “We want to dismantle this institution and rebuild it, using the same bricks. We find the bricks important, but the institution needs to be rethought,” Ndikung said. 18 This double movement of dismantling and rebuilding of the institution echoes Beatriz Nascimento’s invitation to rethink the quilombo legacy as aquilombar as a verb, to conduct a living practice and knowledge “for dismantling and reinventing another regime of coexistence not based on antiblackness genocide, white supremacy, racial dispossession, and sexist colonial enslavement.” 19 It is an invitation extended to each one of us to take a counterhegemonic position and do our part for a fundamental institutional and sociopolitical transformation that goes far beyond HKW: the “[h]istory of Quilombo as an actually existing breach in the system of oppression of Black people offers hope that similar institutions can have a similar effect today[.]” 20


Abdias Nascimento, “Quilombismo: An Afro-Brazilian Political Alternative,” Journal of Black Studies 11, no. 2 (December 1980): 155, quoted in Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, “O Quilombismo: Of Resisting and Insisting. Of Flight as Fight. Of Other Democratic Egalitarian Political Philosophies,” O Quilombismo Reader (Berlin: Haus der Kulturen der Welt and Archive Books, 2023), 15.


See .


See , , and .


Built as a Congress Hall in 1957, a gift from the United States to West Berlin intended to symbolize democracy, liberal values, and freedom for onlookers from East Berlin, the building was converted after the fall of the Berlin Wall into a forum for contemporary international arts and cultures with a focus on Africa, Asia, and Latin America and renamed Haus der Kulturen der Welt. See Annette Bhagwati, “Representation of Culture(s): Articulations of the De/Post-Colonial at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin“ in Across Anthropology: Troubling Colonial Legacies, Museums, and the Curatorial (Leuven, the Netherlands: Leuven University Press, 2020), 337–340. Studio Yukiko’s installation For the Love of Liberty? (En)Countering Franklin interferes with a quote by Benjamin Franklin that visitors encounter in HKW’s main lobby, .


See .


See . Today, Germany’s often ignored imperial history in Africa is reflected in the numerous streets named after African countries and German colonial war criminals. In 2022 after year-long activist engagements, Lüderitzstrasse and Nachtigalplatz two street names in the “African Quarter” honoring colonial war criminals were renamed and given the names of resistance fighters against colonialism: Manga-Bell-Platz and Cornelius-Fredericks-Strasse. Beginning in the 1970s, Afro-German activist Vera Heyer (1949–1995) began building a collection of books by Black, African, and Afro-diasporic authors.


The UN General Assembly proclaimed 2015–24 “The International Decade for People of African Descent” to recognize and promote the human rights of people of African descent.


See .


Original in German. See May Ayim, “Die Wut der Schwarzen Frauen sollte auch die Empörung der weißen Frauen sein,” in Grenzenlos und unverschämt (Berlin: Orlanda Frauenverlag, 1997), 104.


Abdias Nascimento, O Quilombismo Reader, 65.


This quote and others with School of Quilombismo organizers and HKW staff come from an online conversation with the author on July 27, 2023.


See and Abdias Nascimento, O Quilombismo Reader, 66.


See .


Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013).


Juliana M. Streva, Decolonial Coalitions: Afro-Brazilian Feminisms and the Poetic-Politics of Quilombo, Femina Politica – Zeitschrift für feministische Politikwissenschaft 2 (2021), 95.


Beatriz Nascimento, quoted in Christen Smith, “Towards a Black Feminist Model of Black Atlantic Liberation: Remembering Beatriz Nascimento,” Meridians 14, no. 2 (September 2016), 82.


Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, O Quilombismo Reader, 28.


See .


Streva, “Decolonial Coalitions,” 95.


Beatriz Nascimento, quoted in O Quilombismo Reader, 57.

Education, Museums, Latin America, Indigenous Issues & Indigeneity
Black Feminism, Black Studies, Decolonization, Environment, Sound Art

Jamila Moroder is an art historian and artist intrigued by the interconnectedness of art, clothing, colors, and politics.


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