The Iwalewahaus:

Displaying Works of African Modernism

Nadine Siegert

In this paper, I will focus on two distinct periods of displaying the collection of modern and contemporary art from Africa at Iwalewahaus, a museum that is part of the University of Bayreuth in southeastern Germany.[1] It was created in 1981 by Ulli Beier (1922–2011) as part of the Africa focus mission of the University of Bayreuth. Beier was a German curator, art patron, collector, and literary critic. He grew up in Pomerania, and later in exile in Palestine as the child of a Jewish father. His family background was an intellectual one; his father collected artworks of German impressionists and he was introduced to art history by visiting museums in Berlin. After having been imprisoned by the British in Palestine towards the end of World War II, Beier went to London to study phonetics. Later, he found a job announcement for the University of Ibadan in Nigeria and went to the place that would become home for him.[2]

In establishing Iwalewahaus, the aim was to introduce non-European arts and culture to a German public. The institution hosts a rich collection of modern art that is reflective of the African Modernisms—a period that can roughly be framed from the early twentieth century until the late 1970s. African Modernisms are diverse and have different peculiarities due to different schools, movements, and temporal contexts. Even so, modern African art is mostly engaged with a critical perspective on colonialism and postcolonialism, as well as a search for the formation of a modern African subjectivity. Its heyday took place in the periods of the national independences—the 1960s in most African countries.[3]

In recent years, some more contemporary works have also been collected by Iwalewahaus, and there are some bits and pieces of popular and material culture in the storage rooms as well. The history of the institution is as detailed and textured as its collections, which are themselves a manifestation of the interests, tastes, and predilections of its former directors. This unique and idiosyncratic collection of cultural production is located far away from where most of these objects were produced, many by artists and artisans living in countries on the African continent. Unlike many of its museum counterparts, the objects in the collection were not taken by force or obtained in dubious circumstances during the colonial period. Nevertheless, there is a whole set of problematics surrounding the practice of European institutions collecting modern and contemporary African art, not least the patronage relationships between the collectors and the artists. Of primary importance today is who can access these collections, and therefore also who can produce knowledge from this material. In the case of the Iwalewahaus, it has largely, although not exclusively, been academics from Europe. Even if a large part of the collection is inventoried and digitized, the digital database feels like a blunt tool.

In view of this context, questions arise that deal with the role and legitimacy of such a collection in the Global North. How can a German collection of modern and contemporary art from Africa be critically interrogated and opened up for a non-Eurocentric exhibition-making without falling into the trap of reproducing dominant narratives on African arts—both modern and contemporary—that are mainly produced in the institutional contexts of the Global North? This is important, in particular, because the discourse of African modern and contemporary art has also been shaped by the imposition of modernity in the African continent that is in turn connected to the colonial experience.[4] Secondly, since histories of private collections often focus on the biography of the collector, how can they be displayed from a different perspective that allows for a stronger autonomy of the artworks as well as a critical investigation of their aesthetic dimension? To approach these questions, this text juxtaposes the very early years of exhibition-making at the institution (1980–1984), with its focus on Modern and Popular African arts, and the recent revisiting of the very same collection in the project Mashup the Archive (2015). By doing so, I aim to show how the focus of displaying works from the Iwalewahaus collection has shifted from an artist-centered perspective, whose artistic expression had to be mediated through a curator’s translation into an exhibition, to a more self-critical form of showcasing objects with history. The latter approach does not claim a curatorial truth, but rather offers a pluri-semantic display that acknowledges the incompleteness and subjectivity of the institutional knowledge about its own collection. In order to compare the two curatorial approaches and their different temporal and conceptual contexts, I performed a close reading of the curatorial statements and press material of the exhibitions, as well as a critical reading of the yearbooks from the first years of Iwalewahaus.

Exhibition-making at Iwalewahaus 1981–1990

The following section is a kind of retrospective of the early years of exhibiting the Iwalewahaus collection, based on a first inspection of the archival documents of the institution’s history. It should also contribute to a better understanding of the years before the seminal exhibition Magiciens de la Terre (Paris, 1989), which was the first major show of global modern and contemporary art. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that Magiciens de la Terre also has a prehistory, and that the curatorial discourse of the “othering” of non-Western artists in which the show was embedded must also be related to a broader context of displaying arts from the African continent and other regions of the former periphery of the global art world. It is important to point out that the ethnographic proclivity that often dictated encounters between Western scholars or curators with African art and artists was not absent in the attitude and approach of Iwalewahaus’s founder, Ulli Beier. Indeed, his intellectual curiosity rested on this premise. He created or reflected interesting classificatory schemas for what was being described as “New African Art.”[5] For Beier, “new” was synonymous with “modern,” and he even used the term “contemporary” without distinguishing them conceptually.[6] These categories, which ranged from sacred and popular art to intellectual art, would reach a certain apogee in the groundbreaking but heavily maligned exhibition Africa Explores (1991) at the Museum for African Art, New York, curated by Susan Vogel. It is quite interesting to note how forward-thinking Iwalewahaus was in the 1980s, not only in terms of the interdisciplinary approach to showing African expressive cultures, but also in being proactive in their focus on modern and contemporary African art in a decade that was marked by a return of the salvage anthropology paradigm, with its focus on vanishing art forms. Exhibitions such as Art/Artifact: African Art in Anthropology Collections[7] had an ethnographic perspective, and there was a general lack of rigorous and sustained interest by art historians to engage with histories of modern and contemporary art in Africa.[8]

In order reconstruct the exhibition history of this institution, some other exhibitions of African modern and contemporary art from the 1960s onwards in Europe should be mentioned. There were a few shows in the 1960s and ’70s, in venues such as the Transcription Centre (1967) and Camden Art Centre (1969) (both in London), the Kunstverein Darmstadt (1962), and the Berliner Festspiele (1964). The first show that brought together a wide range of African artists took place in the context of the Horizonte Festival in Berlin (1979) and included some artworks loaned from Beier’s collection.

The history of Iwalewahaus should be regarded within this trajectory. In the 1980s it was the only institution in Europe that clearly defined itself by a non-ethnographic approach, focusing on modern and contemporary culture instead. Nevertheless, the relationship between the audience and the African artists and their works was strongly mediated by Beier. He assumed the role of cultural translator, building on his close relationships with artistic circles. The visibility and reception of African Modernism was therefore influenced and limited by his very subjective perspective. A certain form of “othering” of the African artists and their artistic practice was part of that mediation. For a largely uninformed provincial audience, Beier, the Iwalewahaus, and the invited artists might have had a rather exotic charisma.

Fig. 1. Entrance to exhibition venue (1980), DEVA.

In the 1980s, when Beier came to Bayreuth, a small provincial town in northern Bavaria, he was already a noted connoisseur of Nigeria’s arts and culture. The exhibition Neue Kunst in Afrika (New Art in Africa) (Fig. 1) presaged the formal opening of Iwalewahaus and was what convinced Bayreuth as well as the university that Beier should come to the town and support the university’s African Studies focus with the creation of a cultural center. Beier opened the Iwalewahaus in the following year, in a historical building in the town’s center. He also lived there with his family, the artist Georgina Beier and their two sons. Iwalewahaus was modeled after the defunct Mbari Clubs, which he founded in Nigeria in the 1960s in both Oshogbo and Ibadan, spaces where the different forms of art—visual arts, music, theatre, performance, and literature—commingled.[9] He never intended to create a museum, but rather a space for encounters and exchange—today we would probably say a “contact zone”[10]—that combines museum, gallery, music archive, and residencies, as well as organizes concerts in a form of cultural encounters. Beier also wanted to show that African and European art were not separated, even if he preferred working with the so-called autodidacts, unspoiled by academic European art history. He also saw similarities in the positioning of artists in the African postcolonial context with other art scenes in former colonies such as India, or those in the Pacific and the Caribbean. Since German audiences lacked awareness of modern and contemporary art by artists of African descent, the arts represented at the Iwalewahaus must have been perceived as representative, and the institution can be regarded as a precursor for a discourse on non-Western art practices, at least in Germany.

Beier also brought his private collection to Bayreuth, which then formed the basis of the Iwalewahaus collection. Today the collection con­sists of a variety of artworks and documents on modern and contemporary art, as well as popular culture and ethnographic objects from Africa, Australia, and Papua New Guinea. It numbers about two thousand artworks and is continuously digitized, accessible online, and physically accessible on request.[11] From the African continent, the oldest pieces are from the 1930s, but there is a focus on modern art from Nigeria from 1950 onwards, mainly from the so-called Oshogbo Art School. Artists such as Twins Seven Seven and Muraina Oyelami are highlighted here. Because of the collector’s taste, the collection is certainly very biased and not able to represent Nigerian modern arts of the period of decolonization in their entirety. Nevertheless, it provides insights into collecting strategies that have been influential not only for the Iwalewahaus collection, but also for the practice of collecting African modern art in institutions of the Global North in general. Ulli and Georgina Beier started their collection in Nigeria with non-academic artworks, primarily with so-called autodidacts. Thus, the collection neglects ostensibly academic artists from different African art schools, such as Kinshasa (DR Congo) or the Makerere School of Arts (Uganda). Fortunately, the Beiers also found interest in works by the artists from the Zaria Art Society (Nigeria) and the Nsukka School (University of Nigeria), so the collection also includes a good number of works from artists such as Obiora Udechukwu, Uche Okeke, and Demas Nwoko.

Ulli and Georgina Beier’s personal relationships with the artists played an important role in the formation of the program during these years. In particular, it was the group of artists from Oshogbo that was strongly supported by the Beiers. Right from the beginning, popular art such as posters and especially music was part of exhibitions at Iwalewahaus—another distinctive aspect in comparison to the ethnographic museums. In the first year alone, the Iwalewahaus program consisted of about ten exhibitions, in addition to a program of concerts, workshops, readings, lectures, and seminars, as well as a fashion show. This concept of having short-term parallel shows of either single artists or group shows with a regional focus was the core exhibition strategy at that time. Most of the time the shows were just titled with the artist’s name, such as Valente Malaganta / Mozambique: Paintings and Drawings, or Ibrahim el Salahi / Sudan. This approach is also reflected in the accompanying catalogs that were produced: cheap, copied and stapled texts, mostly interviews by Ulli Beier with the artists, or texts he wrote about their works. In the conversations, Beier focused on the artist’s life and career, trying to contextualize the works in a social and cultural background.

In attempting to evaluate Beier’s practice in these first years, one might wonder how, even if he was well connected internationally on different continents and managed to bring a large number of artists and their works to Bayreuth, the outreach of the exhibitions as such was rather limited. This could hint at the fact that the discourses on modern and contemporary African arts within Europe were rather separated in the 1980s. France and the United Kingdom had their own few early exhibitions, and the Iwalewahaus shows of the 1980s are not very well-known internationally. The early publications were also mostly in German, the target group was a local, perhaps regional German audience. We can assume that Beier considered himself rather as a mediator (and he was certainly also a patron and friend) and not as a curator. This latter role, which would also include the formation of conceptual approaches towards the exhibition of artworks and the creation of a meta-narrative that translated a show—as many exhibitions (also of collections) do today—was absent in the first years of the institution’s existence. Yet still, it must be stated that, for the German art world and beyond, the institution played a major role due to its originality, refusing to be a “sleeping museum” and instead creating a loving space with residencies, which at that time were still a new thing.

Already in 1984 the second director of Iwalewahaus arrived: Ronald Ruprecht, a former director of the Goethe Institute in Lagos (Nigeria). Even if he continued with a strong focus on Nigerian artists, he introduced some changes in both the curatorial and collection practices at Iwalewahaus. Quite unlike Beier, who was mostly concerned with Nigeria, Ruprecht was also interested in artists from Senegal, what was then Zaire, and East African countries. The improvisation that was the basis of most of Beier’s decisions was replaced by more planning, and Ruprecht was the first to start cataloguing the art collection. He also had a completely different, less personal approach, which was reflected both in his exhibitions and texts. His publications were more factual and enriched with information about the artists’ home countries and cultures. Also in the way the two first directors exhibited the collection some different approaches can be observed. Beier believed in a certain idea of cultural continuum, in that precolonial aesthetic heritage did not suffer eternal rupture as a result of colonialism. He also believed in an essential African artistic—or rather aesthetic—spirit, which was clearly manifested in his choice of artists or art movements. It can be argued that Beier was interested in crafting the idea of African Modernisms in certain ways to reflect what he described as a “decolonization of the mind,” and Iwalewahaus exhibitions of the collection during his time reflected some of these conclusions.[12] In his exhibitions, Beier always avoided any art historical contextualization. Thus, he contributed to a discourse of African Modernism that focused on the artist and his or her cultural background, but did not reflect the development of African Modernisms from the early twentieth century and the entanglements with the modernisms of the Global North. As a result, he completely neglected the colonial period and early Nigerian modernists such as Aina Onabulu and Ben Enwonwu in his exhibitions and publications. In particular, Beier focused on the period of the 1960s onwards, thus clearly centering his curatorial engagement in the period of decolonization. This was perhaps also his main interest—art in the context of cultural change and the role of indigenous aesthetics.

Fig. 2. Ulli Beier and Léopold Senghor looking at Agony (1963) by Colette Omogbai in the exhibition “Neue Kunst in Afrika“ 1980, Archive Iwalewahaus.

On the other hand, Ruprecht was more open-minded. His record at the Goethe Institute in Lagos showed someone who was interested in showcasing the crop of emerging artists as well as the fairly established ones and the different genres of practice, though he was biased towards the academically trained. Beyond the fact that Ruprecht invited other, more competent experts from around Germany to introduce exhibitions at Iwalewahaus, he showed a variety of exhibitions ranging from group to individual shows, and by artists from Nigeria, Africa, and the then so-called Third World (which was indeed the mandate of Iwalewahaus), including them in the collection. Ruprecht believed in the institutionally trained artists driving the emergent modernist art on the African continent.

To summarize, it is insightful for the purposes of research on African Modernisms in this German collection today, and also the connected exhibiting practices, to examine these very early curatorial logics. It helps to understand how the artworks were communicated towards an as yet largely uninformed audience, and how certain perspectives of “othering” can still be traced today. This became very clear when the recent research, residency, and exhibition project, Mashup the Archive, also focused on the collection and how the public was concerned about the legitimate form of representing the artworks. It seems that, in particular, those loyal long-term visitors who are able compare the early curatorial practices with those of today are convinced that Beier represented the works in the right way. His mediation between the artist/artwork and audience was accepted and appreciated, whereas the self-reflexive, deconstructive and partly ironic approach of Sam Hopkins, the British-Kenyan curator of the Mashup exhibition, along with the invited artists in the Mashup exhibition, was criticized as a “hipster exhibition.”[13]


  • Fig. 3. Mashup Exhibition Shot, 2015, Curator: Sam Hopkins.

  • Fig. 4. Kevo Stero, Mashup Exhibition Shot, 2015. Curator: Sam Hopkins.

  • Fig. 5. Kevo Stero, Mashup Exhibition Shot, 2015, Detail, Curator: Sam Hopkins.

Mashup the Archive

Mashup the Archive is part of an ongoing approach by the institution to critically engage with the appropriation, possession, and collecting of art from “elsewhere.” In 2013 Iwalewahaus invited curator Sam Hopkins for a two-year research project on the collection that finally led to the reopening exhibition of the institution in 2015. In the intermediate period (1990–2010), the collection was out of focus and in a state of hibernation, since the exhibition strategy was directed towards cultural historical thematic exhibitions and displays of contemporary artists from Africa and its diaspora. The recent relocation of the institution made it possible to install better storage rooms, opening the space for the neglected collection. Together with an intensified awareness of the history of the institution itself and a kind of postcolonial institutional critique from within, the collection and new strategies for its display are the focus of practices today.

When Hopkins arrived, the collections had increased, and now also included a variety of different objects that clearly reflected the academic perspectives but also the understanding of art and aesthetic practice of the different directors that followed Beier and Ruprecht in the 1990s and 2000s. Besides the modernist and contemporary artworks by artists such El Anatsui and Ibrahim El-Salahi that still form the core of the collection today, the institution has accumulated a quite incoherent mass of objects, such as the biggest museum collection of 1990s Nollywood VHS tapes, or a vast slide collection of camels from the German ethnographer Gerd Spittler, to name but a few.

The core idea of Mashup the Archive was a curatorial intervention into the collection. Both curator and artists, most of them based on the African continent, perused the collection, motivated by intrigue and curiosity about the institution’s history. The idea was to kind of circuit-bend Iwalewahaus, to wire it up in ways in which it had not been experimented with before; to connect artists, artists’ research strategies, artists’ approaches to knowledge, and knowledge production with the works in the collection. “Mashup” became the central method and metaphor for this process. It is a term that derives from digital culture and is often used to describe a practice of combining disparate elements from different sources, usually music, software, or moving images, to create a new entity. It was translated into the idea to recombine elements of the collection, establish new connections between the objects, disturb the relationship between the object and its objectified semantical index that fixes meaning through the process of inventorizing, and thus produce the archive anew. The index became the central point for a critical reflection, since it became clear that the thesaurus used for the indexing of the artworks is limited in its Eurocentric features. It simply does not allow the inclusion of any artistic perspectives that go beyond the museological logic of the Western museum.[14] In the end, ten artist residencies over two years provided a small window of access to the collection. However, the works that emerged from this process reveal depths, perspectives, and dimensions to the archive that would otherwise have remained invisible.What kind of new knowledge has this new approach introduced, and how did the artists use their power to redefine and intervene in the collection’s logic? How did they relate to the archive and the objects in the collection, and what was the aim of the artistic interventions?

The following examples of projects developed by the artists show the diversity of approaches to the art collection and the archive at Iwalewahaus. They also show that the artists were given a certain amount of autonomy and that the curator deliberately withdrew from the process of finding form and meaning for the individual artistic explorations. There was a real formal diversity among the works produced, and a whole constellation of practices, but there was also a palpable shared concern with narrative.[15] From obsessive shredding and overly playful animations to hypnagogic visuals, the collection became a site of multiple new combinations; it suddenly seemed willing and able to enable new semantic readings. There are artists who explore ideas of custodianship or investigated “forgotten (his)stories,” and others who reimagined objects as agents, recasting their role and relationship in the collection’s ecosystem. The concern with narrative is perhaps most deliberately articulated in the experiential environments of Kevo Stero and Otieno Gomba, both from the Nairobi-based Maasai Mbili collective. When the artists first arrived and began to discuss approaches to the archive, they straight away decided to work with masks in order to interrogate the cliché of the African artist. Stero extracted stills from old ethnographic films, painted over them, and then reimported them into the film to make a kind of animated painting. Gomba photocopied masks, gluing them to Styrofoam, then cut them out and painted them, creating the so-called “contemporary masks” that consist of a chipboard he covered with kangas, an East African fabric, on top of which he mounted mask reliefs. In doing this, he not only releases the mask from its function as a ritual object, but also from its function as an archival object within an art collection. The accompanying video work, Aerobics made in Africa (2013), shows Gomba dancing with a Senufo Poro mask from the Ivory Coast on his head and white archive gloves on his hands.[16] The artists thus transformed a ritual object into a contemporary artwork, confronting the viewer with his/her stereotypical imagination of an African artist and throwing it back with a huge dose of irony. The white gloves also mimic the archivists’ protectionist and conservatory motivations, which are subverted by the fact that Gomba wears and dances with the mask. He is reactivating the object in a deliberately “wrong” way, and thus creates new possibilities for meaning in a “dead” museum object.

The residency took place in the context of the moving institution and the artists supported Iwalewahaus by wrapping objects in silk paper and bubble wrap and packing the boxes with the ethnographic collection. This practice, which later became a video work with the artists commenting on the process, metaphorically inverted the archival logic. It triggered a series of poetic musings about objects and possession, presence and absence, and its seemingly irreverent interventions into the collection can be seen as an act of veneration, intended to reactivate and revitalize the ritual objects.

Délio Jasse, an Angolan photographer, has found a similar method to transform existing material into something new. Jasse describes the archive like a “secret box,” as old images that he overlaps and layers, and therefore tells new stories with his palimpsests. His singular technique of analog and digital photo manipulation opens up a series of questions on representation, truth, and memory that orbit his practice. He frequently uses archives that embed traces of the colonial past, often found in personal archives and at flea markets. During the Mashup residency, Jasse worked with the black-and-white photographs of the Ulli Beier estate, reworking the pictures with his unique methodological approach. By doing so, he deconstructs the semantic truthfulness of the original and adds several layers of new meaning, thereby constructing a new subjective perspective. By combining formerly semantically unrelated images, he uses the powerful subversive method of the collage to question fixed ascription and allow new narrative combinations.[17]

Particularly interesting for the engagement of the archival logic were also the productions of the residencies of the two DJs and musicians: the meta-beats of Batida and the visceral dance music of DJ Raph. The desire to know the “backstory” of the music in the archive is echoed by DJ Raph; not knowing it, he is compelled to work with what he describes as the “aesthetics” of the music. He worked closely with field recordings from the region of Burkina Faso and, with the help of sampling, this traditional dance music was transformed into something that is enshrined in the now. Batida, by contrast, investigates the physical space of the archive and the materiality of the objects, exploring the contemporary life of the archive through its “literal interactions” with visitors. He worked with the materiality of tapes, drums, tape recorders, record players, drumsticks, and film reel cases as percussion instruments, sampling the form, not the content.[18]

The Nigerian artist Uche Uzorka developed perhaps the most radical approach, which directly focused on the archive as a meta-structure. For his work Full and Empty (2015) he addressed the (in)visibility of the archive as such. He filled more than a hundred empty glass jars with shreds from the archive: Iwalewahaus books, exhibition catalogs, and postcards. These were metaphorically used instead of the artworks as such, but led to the question of whether the physical collections could also be transformed into something more approachable, such as jars resembling consumer culture goods.[19]

Fig. 6. Uche Uzorka, Mashup Exhibibition View, 2015. Photo: Sabine Linn.

In all these projects, the dominant interpretative narrations of the curator and the institution are unsettled. Whereas Ulli Beier still acted as the mediator between the artworks in the collection and the audience, the recent approach in Mashup opened up the possibility of a creative misreading of the objects on display. In the works, there is a strong sense of an emotional and sensual approach to the material in the collections. Narrative plays various roles here, in order to counter established meanings and knowledge, rewrite a story, nuance the scientific information of the archive, or supplement a one-sided epistemology. Seen as a group, there is no consensual refusal to translate either the archive or a comprehensive veto to act as interlocutors. Yet instead of the dominant role of Beier, who did this work in the early 1980s, in the Mashup the Archive project it was the artists themselves who mediated their own perspective through their works—as distorted or imaginative as the meaning might have become during this process of translation.

Some of the works, such as the digital 3D-print copies of a number of objects from the various parts of the collection, have entered the collection themselves and today serve as reminders of the subjectivity and perhaps randomness of the accumulated objects, but are also able to destabilize the myth of the auratic artwork and its translation by the curator. Through the Mashup the Archive project, which attempted to exhibit the collection in a different way by highlighting the logic behind collecting strategies, the legitimacy of the collecting institution itself was interrogated. Artistic strategies of irony and irreverence started a process, a critical reflection of the logic of collecting and its display.