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Changing ideology, changing architecture

"Devour: Social Cannibalism, Political Redefinition and Architecture" is a vast multimedia exhibition exploring post-communist and postcolonial architecture from Brazil to South Africa to Romania. See it at the Freies Museum before it closes Apr 12.

Image for Changing ideology, changing architecture
Installation by Francisco Vidal and film by Jordi Colomer. Photo by Ismael Ogando

Curated by Marta Jecu, in collaboration with SAVVY Contemporary, the Freies Museum exhibition Devour: Social Cannibalism, Political Redefinition and Architecture is a multifaceted exploration of architecture after communism and colonialism. It ends April 12, so don’t miss it!

Coming from a background in anthropology, Devour’s curator Marta Jecu put together a diverse group of artists and architects for a range of perspectives on “mutated and dysfunctional” architecture in post-communist and postcolonial societies – such as Brazil, a big focus of the show. The concept of “social cannibalism” is rooted in Brazilian writer Oswald de Andrade’s surreal 1928 Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibal Manifesto). For de Andrade, cannibalism represents a metaphorical devouring of European culture by Brazilian nationalism. De Andrade’s conception of a native Brazilian culture that would assimilate Brazil’s European influences was a radical reaction to Brazilian colonialism, which had ended only a century earlier. German-French artist Edouard Baribeaud and Spanish artist Jordi Colomer both focus on Brazil for their contributions to Devour: drawings combined with archival photographs of 19th-century explorers in Brazil (Baribeaud) and Anarchitekton Brasilia, a dreamlike video work which deals with modernist architecture in the country (Colomer).

Many other countries are also featured in Devour, ranging from South Africa to Argentina. The choice of regions might seem disconnected, but there is a common history here: they’ve all come from colonial or communist pasts. Moving on from authoritarian systems like these presents architectural challenges as well as social ones, and it’s those problems that Jecu wants to explore.

In four films by the Lisbon film archive AfrikPlay, buildings in Tanzania, Mozambique, Capo Verde and South Africa are featured. “All these buildings are like superpowers that use the local situation to impose a certain authority,” Jecu says. The message here is that architecture imparts ideology. This should come as no surprise to anyone living in Berlin (think Plattenbauten). Contemporary architects and developers often seek to modernise communist and colonial architecture in ways that can be destructive, disfiguring outdated (yet historically important) buildings with insensitive renovations.   

Jecu, who comes from Romania, was inspired by the problems surrounding historic architecture in Eastern Europe. “Due to censorship and corruption in these post-communist countries, a lot of this information doesn’t come out,” she says. “For example, the fact that buildings are being sold to people who have no right to buy them, and they make interventions on the façade because they just buy permits. These new developers disfigure buildings; they change the face of houses when they shouldn’t have the right to do so.” Jecu explains that while there is legislation in place to protect Romania’s historic buildings, it’s often ignored.

“The most important thing is to come out and protest against this situation,” Jecu says. As a show of dissent against the degradation of architecture, Devour offers a compelling argument. Though it’s worth noting that for the average viewer – who might not be familiar with the circumstances surrounding much of the architecture here – the explanatory pieces, like AfrikPlay’s short documentaries, will probably be easier to connect with than the edgier work, like Portuguese duo Pedro Paiva and Joao Maria Gusmao’s unsettling video projections.

Image for Changing ideology, changing architecture
Photo by Ismael Ogando

In terms of accessibility, and also of emotion, Matias Machado’s work offers one of the strongest voices of protest in the exhibition. From Cordoba, Argentina but living in Berlin, Machado combines conceptual art with documentary work for Devour. In a certain quarter of Cordoba, in the late 1990s, people began getting sick: babies born deformed, adults developing cancer (among them Machado’s mother). Agricultural giant Monsanto eventually emerged as the culprit, having been spraying toxic pesticides as little as 50 metres away from Cordoba homes. Thanks to tireless campaigning over a decade by several mothers in the community, the government eventually began an investigation, and ultimately changed pesticide regulations.

Although Machado’s mother recovered, the story of Cordoba’s activists stuck with the artist. He interviewed some of them, incorporating this research into the works which are now on display at Devour. Machado’s interviews and reconstructed views of the affected Cordoba quarter form the emotional backbone of a show that otherwise skews more towards theory than feeling.

“I’ve already worked for a long time with colonial politics,” Machado explains, regarding the motivation behind his work at Devour. “And this is an example of a colonial relationship. I really wanted to document what happened there, because it’s an example of what’s happening in all of Latin America. Not only in Argentina.” As Jecu puts it in the show’s concept statement, Machado’s work about Cordoba “reflects a continuous process of marginalisation, dissolvation and loss.” This sense of loss, of buildings and communities ruined by changing ideologies and the passage of time, pervades the entire show.

DEVOUR! SOCIAL CANNIBALISM, POLITICAL REDEFINITION AND ARCHITECTURE Through Apr 12 Tues-Sat 12-19, Sun 15-18 | Freies Museum, Bülowstr. 90, Schöneberg, U-Bhf Bülowstraße