Why don’t we say global ‚cultures’? | Artist and curator Shaheen Merali and his vision of ‚World Art’ ( de )

The Asia Pacific Times. A monthly newspaper from Germany, 2008-2
Ulrike Münter and Nadine Dinter

He was born in Tanzania to Indian parents, holds a British passport and lives in Berlin. Shaheen Merali’s aim is to dissolve the national barriers we perceive in art and create a subtly differentiated interest in cultures. And he has chosen the right place to work on this: Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt (The House of World Cultures).

There are books stacked up on the floor because the shelves are filled to bursting. This is the office of Shaheen Merali, head of the department of art, film and new media at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. Could there be a more fitting workplace for someone who sees himself as a mediator between cultures in his work as an academic, author and curator, as well as in his artistic work? Meeting him, it is clear from the very first minute Merali has a mission. And Berlin, he thinks, is the right place to accomplish it.

“Berlin was one of the places which stayed with me,” said Merali in British-tinged English. He is visibly enthusiastic about the potential of the German capital. “Berlin is an unfulfilled and unfinished urban city, totally different from others, especially London. It has this incredible specific possibility of recreation, of growth, of development.” He welcomes the current trend toward establishing galleries in peripheral parts of the city and says art draws one into continually rediscovering one’s own city. Merali still has trouble with the German language – but has no problem speaking Swahili or Hindi. Nevertheless, he does not feel in any way alienated from his German-speaking surroundings. In an emergency, there are always translators. Welcome to Berlin, the international metropolis!

Merali was born in Tanzania in 1959, the son of Indian parents. He spent more than 30 years in the United Kingdom and became a British citizen. Asked about the reasons for his family’s odyssey, Merali gives very short answers, with obvious discretion: “The journeys between countries were mediated by political upheavals due to the British administration from India to Africa and political upheavals from Tanzania to Britain.”

He first came to Berlin shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall “as a tourist.” He wanted to see it for himself. British reporting on Germany had made him question British stereotypes of Germany: “It’s a kind of Second World War mode,” he said. “It’s everywhere, in television, in the jokes, everywhere. There is this kind of resistance.”

Nevertheless, Merali was astonished as he traveled by train from Hamburg to Berlin through eastern Germany. What he had imagined had clearly been dominated by media images from the West. The extent of the destruction still visible in the former East Germany after 40 years shocked him. “It was a historical moment for me,” he said, stressing the importance of his first confrontation with the legacy of the two Germanys. In 2003, his work at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt brought him back to Berlin: “I wanted to stay, to understand.”

Merali had already organized more than 20 international exhibitions. Also, he had an academic post at the School of Communications and Creative Industries at the University of Westminster. He is a co-founder of the Panchayat Arts Education Resource Unit in London – an archive focusing above all on non-European artists. In 2006, he was a co-curator of the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea.

When considering Merali’s installations or reading his books and plans for exhibitions, it becomes clear that there is a guiding theme for him that has never lost any of its discoursive necessity: the dialog between art from around the world. For Merali, the important thing is to prevent the Asian and African arts from being pigeonholed under “exotic,” as they often are. “When I hear the terms ‘other cultures’ or ‘foreign cultures,’ it hurts,” he said. “Why don’t we say ‘global cultures,’ without hierarchy, without this big distance?”

The Re-Imagining Asia festival, which begins on March 14, will use examples of how this mission can be communicated to the visitor. Various media – an exhibition, a literature program and a series of films – will each present highly individual images of Asia so that its full sensuality can be envisioned. Working with the Chinese curator Wu Hung, Merali invited 23 artists from various Asian and Western countries. Two of the most spectacular works must surely be that by Indian star artist Subodh Gupta, who shows a life-size model of a dying elephant and a work by Chinese artist Song Dong, who had Waste Not – several tons of materials collected by his mother – brought to Berlin from Beijing.

Merali is enthusiastic about this installation: “It’s a major work and we are proud to show it in the West for the first time.” Song Dong, his mother and his sister were coming from China and would spend two painstaking weeks reconstructing the rooms the mother lives in. The mother – scarred by her experience of the Cultural Revolution – has been squirreling away everything you can imagine for the past 30 years. “We have shown the installation at the Gwangju Biennale in Korea,” Merali explained. “Some people were drawn to tears. You can see it, feel it, smell it, what it means to be afraid of the next shortage of goods.”

The passion with which Merali talks about the Re-Imagining Asia Project makes it clear that this is about his special interest in the fine arts: “This exhibition puts together good art from Asia with good art from the West,” he said. “It’s no longer important where the artists come from.” Five works come from China, three from Japan, three from South Korea, two from India, one from Pakistan and three from Germany. All of them are “individual responses to history, psychology and aesthetics,” added Merali, explaining the criteria by which they were chosen.

Merali has never lost contact with his family’s Indian roots. In fact, he is preparing for a visit to his parents’ homeland even as we speak. He compares the infrastructure of the Indian art scene with that of the West, talks about the presence of Indian novelists on the international book market and about Indian film. He is not really interested in the current hype surrounding Indian art – he says that has nothing to do with its ability to communicate its message.

Merali passes through the exhibition rooms of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, which is preparing for the festival of art and digital culture, transmediale.08. After that comes Re-Imagining Asia. For Merali, that will mark the end of his five-years at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. And his mission? “No, it’s not fulfilled, I’m working on it,” he said. “And I can tell you now, in April, I’ll start a new project in Berlin. And it has a lot to do with Asia.”


First published: Asia Pacific Times