Belinda Kazeem and Ekaterina Shapiro-Obermair

by Astrid Peterle

In their installations, Belinda Kazeem and Ekaterina Shapiro-Obermair reflect on the power of images and their visual representations—themes, whose controversial aspects must figure more prominently into the debate, especially in view of current political events. On one hand, both artists share an interest in the critical scrutiny of mechanisms of representation by means of objects, which in this case are museum exhibitions. On the other, they both venture to make social discrimination, hegemonic exclusion and denial more visible.

Naming what was once Unnameable offers insight into an ongoing project by Belinda Kazeem which deals with specific experiences of Black women and women of color who grew up in a German-speaking country. Kazeem traces the experience of being-made-Other by having women tell their stories, processing parallel experiences, and showing the diversity of diasporic life. By way of articulation and identification, this examination of painful childhood memories becomes an act of self-empowerment. Arranged according to different categories of experience, the reports deliberately remain anonymous and break with the narrative structure as the artist eliminates all temporal and geographic references. In this way, the emphasis is less on the individual and more on the socially normative structures and their discriminating effects.
Kazeem’s two-part work, to the man, who became known as Angelo Soliman, (ante mortem) I and (post mortem) II (2015), is part of her new series exhibited/in rememberance, in which the artist examines the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century practice of exhibiting black people in museums and other venues. Angelo Soliman is a historical figure of eighteenth-century Vienna—he was abducted from Africa and enslaved as a child, and ended up serving at the Viennese Court. After his death, his body was flayed, stuffed and exhibited at the Hofnaturalienkabinett of the Imperial and Royal Court, where a number of props added to the presentation of Soliman as “Other.” Kazeem reflects this museological process of reducing human beings to objects under the pretense of objective exhibition. In fact, representation in museums is always subjective, which, as in Soliman’s case, is prone to generating racist stereotypes. In Kazeem’s installation, the accurate arrangement of objects on an archival drawer and the anonymity of the white-gloved person presenting the drawer reinforce the artist’s critical reflection on museological gaze and viewing.

Ekaterina Shapiro-Obermair’s video Schaukasten (Display Case) was produced in spring 2014 at the Central Armed Forces Museum in Moscow, Russia, during a stint of patriotic Russian euphoria on the occasion of the annexation of Crimea. The camera is pointed at the museum visitors viewing a display case about concentration camps. The patriotic-ideological staging of the museum is visible here, as the case displays predominantly Soviet prisoners of war and the use of human bodies for industrial purposes, but fails to mention the Jewish victims of the Shoah. The reactions of the viewers, most of whom are students, indicate contemporary political ideologies as well as a rudimentary grasp of history and recognition of blank spaces in museological representations.
Moscow, You Are Not Our Capital from 2010 refers to a migration in the 1990s out of the former Soviet Union, to which Shapiro-Obermair herself is biographically connected. The photographs show places in Germany that are—subjectively—linked to émigrés, such as, for instance, the Bavarian Reception Facility in the Grunding Building at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg, or a Russian grocery store in Berlin. All elements, the added abstract patterns, the depicted containers, the larger-format photographs, and the title are related to one another and refer both to memory and the present. The temporal level of migration is linked to a formal interplay of Same and Sundry.

Translation: Georg Bauer