Safia Dickersbach has shaken up the art publishing scene with Prōtocollum, an annual publication that includes artists from all around the world – from Kyrgyzstan to the Congo – and empowers them to become their own curators.
After coming of age in communist Tanzania, Dickersbach dropped out of finance school in London and moved to Berlin in the 1990s, where she’s worked in the arts ever since. Her Berlin-based Dickersbach Kunstverlag publishes books, monographs and catalogues by artists from countries outside traditional Western art history. Released in October, Prōtocollum’s third issue includes 76 artists and collectives from 50 countries, including Vesna Bukovec and Ala Younis and collectives like Foundland and AES+F.
What was your goal in creating this magazine?
I would go to exhibitions and think, how does a German, French or Swiss curator have the audacity to write up a curatorial concept based on a Western idea or philosophy, claiming the topic is “identity”, and invite 20 artists whose works were made for completely different reasons? A classic example would be: they invite Pussy Riot because of their political and women’s identity issues. And then they also maybe include Ai Weiwei, who’s flipping off China, and then a female Saudi artist, or an artist from Zimbabwe or South Africa who deals with homosexuality. It’s very forced and it does not relate to what the artists were actually thinking about when they created their artworks! When you go to Berghain, the DJs play progressive techno. That same DJ won’t just start playing Wagner’s Die Walküre all of a sudden just because it also contains beats! So at Prōtocollum, we refrain from curatorial intervention and let the artists decide the content.
Was there a trigger moment?
At the Frankfurt Book Fair I was once introduced to a German woman who was an expert in African literature, and I asked her, “So do you speak Swahili, Yoruba, or Amharic?” She looked at me like, how dare you even ask me that! And then I asked, “So what makes you an African literature expert? I couldn’t say I’m a German literature expert even though I don’t speak a word of German!” Across Europe you’ll still find universities training Westerners in African anthropology and culture from a Western point of view. That leads to the West still insisting on writing the narratives for Africa, or even Asia and Russia – I’ve never liked that. The international art scene doesn’t specify itself as a Western or European scene. So I asked, how global is global? That’s where it began for me.
Where does the money come from?
The first, second and third issues, I financed myself. If I had pitched the idea for funding before it was started, everyone would have interrupted us, stating what they wanted in return. I tried that in the beginning and two institutions actually told me I should look into their collections for whom I should invite. Also, I don’t want to be an African begging for money from the West, when we’re saying we’re all about the non-West. Now that the third issue of Prōtocollum has been published, the structure and the concept of our project are firm enough that third-party funding will not influence the direction in which we want to continue.
How do you choose the artists who get featured?
With the first issue, I invited all of the artists, but in the second and third issues, the artists from the previous issues did a peer review and brought us deeper into their regions. Some artists based in very remote places have told us that they were happy, but also surprised to be contacted.
Are there any criteria for artist contributions?
Artists are free to do whatever they want. They decide what they contribute. I’ve been accused as an editor of not having my own opinion. The fact that I give people freedom, respect and space is already an opinion. Personally, I’m waiting for the day that an artist says, “I want 10 pages and I’m inviting 10 German artists, even though the concept is non-Western.” I’m waiting for the day that the artists who tell me how horrible their galleries have treated them decide that they want to publish five of their email exchanges with those galleries.
So does this openness clash with the art establishment?
Once an artist here in Berlin argued with me, saying, “You can’t give artists that much freedom!” And I said, if an artist does not want freedom, then they should try to get an article in [German contemporary art magazine] Texte zur Kunst. But first they would have to exhibit in a gallery or museum that Texte zur Kunst acknowledges, and where most of them are currently based that won’t happen, because the so-called “international” art magazines in 10 cities and six countries determine the global discourse. So don’t block me! More of these projects need to happen, and not only through me.
Don’t artists based outside of the art world’s centres have to worry about going unnoticed?
You don’t have to be in New York! Use the internet, you can position yourself. And artists need to do some maths: how many artists exist? How many galleries exist? If there are one million artists in an area, there are usually just 3000 galleries and 100 institutions. Imagine now that each artist produces 10 artworks per year – that’s 10 million artworks every year that need to be sold, distributed, and presented. But there are literally millions of living rooms, offices, public spaces, etc. So artists shouldn’t be fixed only on the mainstream distribution system and expect MoMA and Documenta to come and knock on their door. My advice would be that artists first conquer their suburb, their districts and develop new forms of distribution where they are based. An artist’s success, for me, starts where they are and gradually develops from there step by step.