“We were looking for an elemental art to cure people from the madness of the age.”–Hans Arp
Founded at Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, Dada quickly spread to Berlin with the aim to “negate the meaning of life to which Europe has so far subscribed”. The list of influences on the Dada movement, which the Dadaists both engaged and appropriated from, is a long and allusive one. ‘DADA Africa: Dialogue with the Other’, a new exhibition at Berlinische Galerie—the state’s museum for modern art, photography and sculpture—looks at some of the lesser-explored relationships between the Dadaists and Africa.
Marking 100 years since the inception of Dada, ‘DADA Africa: Dialogue with the Other’ brings together painting, drawing, sculpture, collage, props and performance from some the of principal Dadaists Hans Arp, Johannes Baader, George Grosz, Man Ray, Hans Richter, Tristan Tzara and some of the lesser-known counterparts and cultural influences that helped shape and bring the ionic movement to being.
In the midst of the First World War, as Europe was hurled into a new era, the Dadaists came together to resist a bourgeois Western culture and rational expression. They looked beyond Europe, to what they described as the ‘new world’, as a tool to erode and undermine the changing social construction of European society. Dada became a major influence on the course of 20th-century art, and contemporary thought.
“There’s no such thing as primitive art, just like there’s no such thing as civilised art, because art is always a perfectly hermetic creation, complete in itself, and does not lend itself to any historical classification.”–Marcel Janco
‘DADA Africa: Dialogue with the Other’ is presented in five sections: Dada Gallery, Ante Dada, Dada Performance, Dada Magic, and Dada Rebellion. This highly systematic and chronological classification of Dadaism seems to only further solidify the Eurocentric approach to art and contemporary thought that Dadaism had so intensely fought.
Continuing the trend of exhibiting African art in a European context at the Berlinische Galerie, a dominant Berlin institution, plays into the problematic intercultural relationship the Dadaists held with Africa; namely that it consisted of one-way traffic. This is further highlighted in the subtitle ‘Dialogue with the Other’, rekindling primitivist narratives and Western stereotypes. The interplay between the Dadaist works and African artefacts feels somewhat constrained by the linearity of the exhibition, yet despite this, the intent to present these works alongside the Dadaists, and duly consider the influence that African art held on fuelling one of Europe’s most significant art movements, is sincere and original.
The politics of appropriation and primitivist discourses cannot be separated from a movement renowned for traversing difficult cultural terrain; both re-enacting roles of Western domination (perhaps a form of critical mimicry?) while equally disrupting the dominant cultural and social structures of Europe. Nevertheless, the show is an impressive collection of Dadaist works and African art, that will likely evoke much post-exhibition discussion.