Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung on Hope and Humanity

What is hope to you?

This question makes me think of a very good friend, the artist Leo Asemota. Every time he writes an email, it doesn’t say “I hope you are doing well”, but “I trust you are doing well”. This shift from hope to trust is very powerful.

What’s the difference between trust and hope?

Trust is stronger, it’s more affirmative than hope. It feels closer to turning something into reality. I do believe in hope though. But it’s a complex concept. Who has the right to hope? Where lies the possibility of hoping? Overall, I’d say hope is a commodified concept: religion sells hope. Governments sell hope. But hope is also a personal condition. It’s a state of mind. The impression of hope is different from the possession of hope.

When you say commodification, is hope something you can own?

I don’t know if you can own it, but you can sell it. Let me tell you a joke: a man visits the church, praying to God to make him win the lottery. He goes there one time, two times, three times. Finally, God says: if you really want me to help you win the lottery, you at least have to play the lottery. That’s what the laws of the market are all about: supply and demand. You sell something because there’s a buyer on the other side, right? Hope is on the market because people are asking for hope.

In times of worldwide crises – who can even hope?

Those who have the privilege to anticipate, those who have the privilege to see beyond the threshold can hope. Those who can’t might hope as well, but then religion steps in and helps them see beyond the horizon.

The process of rehumanisation is a combination of fate, faith, love and an incredible desire to survive.

You once said that it’s a privilege to resign or to be pessimistic about the future.

I think I was talking about a conversation between Noam Chomsky and Harry Belafonte in the context of the election of Donald Trump. After more than an hour of lamentation, Harry Belafonte said—he doesn’t have the privilege to be pessimistic. At over 90, he would go out there and fight. This went far beyond hope. It was about taking things into your hands. You cannot hope that people who have dehumanised you for more than 500 years will suddenly perceive you as a person through another, more human lens. The only thing you have to do is to actively work towards that change.

How do we get there?

The process of rehumanisation goes far beyond hope, it’s a combination of four things: fate, faith, love and an incredible desire to survive. It’s fate that you happen to be here. It’s the faith in something higher than just your own power, that you can call upon something to support you. It’s the love for yourself and the other, it’s the will to create better conditions for yourself and others. And it’s the incredible desire to survive.

It seems like a long way to go for humanity to internalise these values.

There’s a gospel song that goes like this: “This is not my home. I’m just a passer-by." So, we need to save this earth for the next generation. In Cameroon, when somebody is born, they plant a tree. When somebody dies, they also plant a tree. Nature is deeply incorporated in their way of being.

What can we learn from the past?

One thing is important to understand: we haven’t left colonialism behind, even though many people perceive it as a thing of the past. Let me give you an example: to pay its civil servants, the government of Cameroon needs to ask for money from France. Although France uses the Euro, the former colonies of France still use the Franc. They have to use a currency that is made in France, stored and controlled by French banks. In the future, we need to detach ourselves from this colonial structure. Otherwise, no progress can be made. The process of rehumanisation is a combination of fate, faith, love and an incredible desire to survive.

It boils down to economic imbalances.

The way our human condition is tied to economics is something we can perceive from different angles. The whole notion of modernity is closely tied to the creation of capital. And the creation of capital is all about dehumanisation. The moment people are taken from one side of the Atlantic Ocean to the other to work on plantations, human beings become a tool, an instrument of labor. They are no longer considered human.

What can art contribute to rehumanise us?

I think artists can play a role like every other person. But there’s something special about artists: they are familiar with the “business of imagination”. The possibility of imagining something, of creating utopias, creating fiction is at the core of artists’ work. In his book Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said said that it’s not the nation that creates a novel, but a novel that creates the nation. There’s something very powerful about imagination or fabulation, I really believe in the power of Einbildungskraft.

You studied biochemistry and also worked in a laboratory before becoming a curator. What can the arts and sciences learn from each other?

I think they need to learn that they are not so far away from each other. Their separation is an outcome of Adam Smith’s division of labor. In his book The Wealth of Nations, he laid the groundwork for the huge project of industrialisation: you cut down work into smaller parts, distribute the tasks and instead of someone overseeing the whole thing, everyone is responsible for one part of the process. In the capitalist system, that’s very helpful, because you produce faster and you can exploit resources effectively. However, this also implies a division of disciplines. We have gotten to a point where we have to think more holistically and work together again.

Can knowledge be a foundation for hope?

If you have control over your own knowledge, you have better tools at your disposal to craft your future, to shape your destiny. When you’re in the last wagon of a train and there’s somebody in the first wagon, there’s a very low probability that you will reach the train station before that person. Which means: when you are struggling to catch up with someone else’s knowledge, you’re left behind.

What kind of knowledge are you talking about?

Good question. The sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos wrote about epistemicide, meaning the destruction of knowledge systems. There is a place in Cameroon called Korup National Park with a diversity of medical plants that have been named after some German guy. But people have lost the knowledge about it. So, what is the common ground between that which has been imposed on us and that which we are supposed to know?

A dissemination of knowledge, a plurality of knowledge could help us to look more hopefully into the future.

Indeed. There is a need for a multiplicity of voices because the singularity has failed us. It’s like fog, it’s like a unilateral monochromatic structure. People have seen through that smoke screen for a long time. It’s what they call “Leitkultur” in Germany. We need to replace this monolithic culture, it’s an artificial concept that has never really existed.

Could you please complete this sentence: for me, this is personal because –

The question of hope is not personal to me because I personally don’t know what hope is. Let me put this differently: it is a personal concern for me because it is about the future of my fellow human beings.

BONAVENTURE SOH BEJENG NDIKUNG is an independent curator, author and biotechnologist. He is the founder and artistic director of SAVVY Contemporary in Berlin, a discursive platform that seeks to negotiate notions of the West and Non-West. At the centre of his work lies a deep concern for epistemological diversity. For his service to the city, Ndikung also received the Order of Merit of the State of Berlin. He is a professor in the Spatial Strategies MA program at the Weißensee Academy of Art in Berlin. In 2023, he will take on the role of Director at Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin.

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