In spring 2014, Theo Eshetu happened to be filming the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin in the southwestern suburb of Dahlem as workers were taking down a banner to ready the facade for the 8th Berlin Biennale. The museum houses collections that will be brought to the center of Berlin upon the completion of the controversial reconstruction of the Stadtschloss—controversial because it required the demolition of the GDR-era Palast der Republik, and because the connection of the Dahlem collections to colonial policy will be heightened by their planned reinstallation within an imperial architectural shell.
The banner in question showed five masks, subtitled with the five regions represented in the museum’s collection: Afrika, Amerika, Ozeanien, Asien, Europa. As the graphic design carved up and named the world, so the workmen made quick cuts to the banner to facilitate the disposal of the printed plastic. Museum became Muse, Eshetu pointed out to me on Filopappou, or the Hill of the Nine Muses, when he visited Athens in April 2016. Before the cut-up banner was discarded, the artist had saved the material and put it aside for the future, which is now.
The personal take on popular images, even clichés of culture, has animated the imagination of Eshetu (who was born in London in 1958) since his earliest video artworks (and later, his work with television). His 2002 documentary Africanized combines well-worn visual and sonic tropes with more intimate documentation of a syncretic religious ceremony on Mount Zuqualla, Ethiopia, and the DanceAfrica Festival in Brooklyn, New York, pondering how disparate images of this most contested continent and its diaspora resonate. There is no attempt to formulate a rationale for relating disparate scenes, rather a guiding rhythm.
At the time of writing, it is not clear how the mask-images from Dahlem will figure in Eshetu’s work for documenta 14, though it is clear that this flattening and thereby masking of the five continents is a point of departure. Pardon the pun—the artist does have a sense of humor in approaching these weighty subjects. Thalia, the Muse of Comedy, has always been a friend. Other friends and casual passersby have been invited to the studio recently. Images—including fragments of the banner—were projected onto their faces and then recorded on video. I wonder what they said about the Stadtschloss, the possibilities of re-presenting, and the communicability of a face.