Exodus Stations #2

Collecting Practices and Artistic Patronage Strategies of Ulli Beier

November 2017 Iwalewahaus, University of Bayreuth

This is the second project in the larger research and exhibition project Exodus Stations that is inviting contemporary artists to work with museum collections. The project at Iwalewahaus inscribes itself into the general focus of Exodus Stations: following founding histories of museum institutions, their founding figures, questions of display and archiving of historic information – according to their representations in photography and video. The project brings into attention case studies of museums that blend artistic and ethnographic material and the questions that these collections arise. After a residency period in the archives of Iwalewahaus in the summer of 2017, the artists Raphael Denis and Tatiana Macedo elaborated a critical and interpretative view on the collections. Their video installations show new conceptual framings of the archival material by considering the nature of this particular archive, its founding context and its attributed meanings according to collection strategies and ideologies embedded in the institution.

In this current show, we take a collection of images by Ulli Beier (1922 – 2011) – the founder and first director of Iwalewahaus – as a starting point. They have been photographed in the period when Beier lived in Nigeria with the artists Susanne Wenger and Georgina Beier. Ulli Beier was an art patron of local arts and crafts in Nigeria. Iwalewahaus (opened as a department of the University of Bayreuth in 1981 when Ulli Beier returned from Nigeria) was meant to house his private collection of modern art from Africa and beyond. The practice of experimentation – as a repository of personal experience – was an essential idea in Beier’s concept of the foundation of Iwalewahaus. In that sense, it was meant to create a transcontinental exchange platform following the practices developed by him in the Mbari Clubs in Nigeria, which functioned as a meeting point for artists and other intellectuals and a site for creation and not only for display. The fact that Beier tried to avoid the model of the ‘classic’ museum is making a first statement in the direction of new museological practices and de-colonising strategies in the museums – which are intensively being elaborated today. In these terms, we can think of Ulli Beier as both historically and conceptually a post-colonial figure, in a complex relation with the heritage of colonial Nigeria, appropriating and re-staging cultural artefacts and introducing them into a European circuit. The Beiers made through their intercontinental art collecting and trading, African art and culture visible according to European expectation, but they were also following their personal interests and their love for the Yoruba Culture in particular.

Ulli Beier came to Nigeria as an employee of the colonial world, teaching English pronunciation, which is quite ironic as he was a German native speaker. In 1950 him and Susanne Wenger moved to Ibadan. In 1960 Nigeria became independent. In his texts describing his early experiences as part of the colonial program1 he is mocking the colonial apparatus, expressing his distrust to official educational institutions and public administration and programmatically trying to establish a different relation to the local context and to support self-taught cultural producers. He writes: ‘When I first set foot in Nigeria in october 1950, I thought that I was embarking on an interesting adventure (…). I did not know who I was, what I wanted from life, or where I was going. Now, in less than two years I had begun to acquire an identity in Nigeria. My life on the university campus had made it clear to le what I did not want to be. Every encounter in the university had forced me to define myself negatively vis-a vis the colonial posturing’.2

Faced with the task of teaching English drama to his Nigerian students, he felt compelled to get himself familiar with African literature and took even the responsibility to personally introducing around 1950 African poetry to his African students (as the course was missing from the curricular) – translating Senghor from French into English and presenting local myths. In 1953 he conducted a course on West African culture.3 In 1957 Ulli Beier launched the first African literary journal in English, Black Orpheus, which ceased publication in 1975. Black Orpheus figured as a journal for creative and critical writing with a distinctly pan-African approach and an accent on Nigerian writers, but also including the Afro-American diaspora.4 It became a platform for Anglophone African writers, but also for translations into English of francophone authors such as Léopold Sédar Senghor. The covers were designed by Georgina Beier, Susanne Wenger, Jacob Afolabi and other artists featuring vignettes, woodcuts and photographs. Together with Transition Magazine, founded in 1960 in Uganda and still existing, Black Orpheus is considered today an essential cultural platform of the Independence era.

In the search of an African essence, Beier discusses the notion of Négritude, questioning if it is a genuine interior attitude of the writers and poets associated to the movement, or only a ‘cultural manifesto – artificially folkloristic’5. Regarding the poetry of Léopold Sédar Senghor, he positively connotes the ‘African essence’ as genuinely African beliefs on very basic existential questions such as death and the ancestors. In this text, we read between the lines the epoch’s confrontation with quite problematical notions, like for example that of ‘remaining African’ – which means for Beier living ancestral emotions and responses to reality regarded by him as opposed to the European culture. No matter ‘how much he has absorbed of European culture, however much he may be assimilated to it outwardly’, Senghor remains for Beier an African ‘who uses the French language to express his African soul’ – and not to give exotic interest to his French poems.6

For the exercise of dramatic and performative arts, Beier founded the Mbari Clubs where artists and musicians were regularly meeting for practising living art forms, which were supposed to create modern forms of indigenous art, outside of institutional canons.7 Shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1967, Ulli Beier left with his second wife, Georgina for Papua New Guinea and in 1981 he returned in Germany for the founding of Iwalewahaus, as part of the University of Bayreuth. In 1985 they moved back to Papua.

Our project discusses the methodology of collecting and promoting practiced by the Beiers. Ulli Beier built up a personal position from which he was encouraging both ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ art. His documenting of the quotidian life, rituals and architecture through photography and video, his efforts of saving ‘traditions’ in poetry and performative arts but also his and his wife’s interventions in the local art scene which shaped the local production according to their vision and re-invented ritual objects and practices – turn him into a complex figure. As we read in a text by E. Breitinger8, Beier not only promoted the African art in Europe, but also brought German Expressionism in the Mbari clubs – which forcefully determined a certain adoption of European shaped ‘modernism’/ ‘avant-agardism’ in the Nigerian context and by the artists close to him. The film New Images (1964) by Ulli Beier and Francis Speed shot in Oshogbo, Nigeria draws an overview of the cultural life in the region, while the voice off commentary sets value not only on the perpetuation of traditions, but also on the capacity of these cultures to integrate innovation and therefore stay alive. Beier’s own role in mediating these innovations and those of Georgina Beier and Susanne Wenger are promoted in this film as cultural catalysts. Their interest for cultural and religious ‘traditions’ manifested in interventions such as the creations of new costumes for ancient rituals designed by Georgina Beier and new sculpture ensembles for shrines and portable statues for rituals introduced by Susanne Wenger into the daily life in Nigeria.

This is how Ulli Beier describes this work in his article ‘Transformations. Georgina’s Cooperation With Yoruba Masqueraders’9

‘One of the last dancers struggling to keep the tradition alive (n.b. Alarinjo tradition) was Baba Lèbè, the leader of the Lèbè Alarinjo group in Erin-Osun a few kilometers from Oshogbo. (…) Georgina made two Ipada costumes for the group. She deviated from the usual scarlet cotton, using different designs and colours on each side of the cloth. Therefore the dancer’s skill became more apparent when he turned the cloth inside out.’10 (see images of these costumes in the archive section)

‘Georgina’s collaboration with the Alarinjo group and the excitement generated by her innovations stimulated Baba Lèbè to design more costumes; For a few years, at least, the Alarinjo dance was fully rehabilitated in the community.’11

Beier’s collections in Nigeria included not only contemporary creation, but also Nigerian folk art (Ulli Beier’s collection was housed in the palace of Oshogbo, see image University of Ife Museum. Ulli Beier Collections in the ‘archive’ section of this booklet): Yoruba sculpture and Yoruba pottery which he showed for example in an exhibition in 1972 at the University of Ife. Nevertheless, these ‘ethnological’ items were left in Nigeria when Beier moved away. Iwalewahaus was meant to house only recent artistic production and represent a new museological model which was not perpetuating the colonial ethnographic institution built on ‘storage’ and appropriation of cultural capital. On the contrary, Beier envisioned an institution based on the immediacy of the experience and on inter-cultural exchange connected to the current political epoch. It had to function interdisciplinary, as a space where where art, music, theatre, performance, and literature would come together in an area both public and private (as the Beier family was also living in this building).

The collections of ethnological material that are currently at Iwalewahaus were acquired at a later point. The original Beier estate is nevertheless diverse, as his initial collections of art objects from Nigeria were augmented by items added in his later stages of life, when he lived, travelled and collected in geographical areas like India, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. Here he implemented similar practices to those tested out in Nigeria (for example tin plates relief carving), which had as a result the emergence of formally similar objects in these different cultural areas.

As a result of his various collections and those of succesive directors, the collection, the archives and the Beier estate of Iwalewahaus are manifold and contain painting, graphic and textile collections, ethnographical objects, a music archive and documentary material.

The questions that this collection arises are relevant beyond the singular and often extra-ordinary images and stories that it contains, which disclose a space of both exotization and approximation. It reflects a time when the formulation of modernism in extra-European cultural spaces after their Independence was negociated by complex factors, interests and encounters. These questions are still relevant today when pondering practices of cultural intervention, archive work, history writing, translation and appropriation between the Global South and the Global North.