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Rescuing Berlin

Germany’s capital has many old buildings some of which have been abandoned. But some young creative minds have found ways of using arts and culture to rescue these buildings from falling into total ruin

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Appreciating arts on the facade of Stattbad

Not many cities offer the contrast that Germany’s capital does. It is an old city with a proud and often dark history. It is a modern city with a suave and cosmopolitan disposition. It is a business capital. It is also a cultural hub. All this is a precipitate of the city’s 775 years of history.
There is something almost overawing about walking past a house and learning of its history, and this feeling peaked when I visited a place known as the Hotel Pension Funk, an old building inaugurated in 1895 (not that old by Berlin’s standards). It is famous not just for surviving the First and Second World Wars intact, but also for the celebrities that have lived in it. From the walls, covered with flowery wallpapers, photos of Asta Nielsen, the silent movie star of the 1910s line the walls. She had lived there, as well as WWI hero pilot Ernst Udet. The house has remained as it had been from that period, the furniture and fitment, the squeaky floorboards and mechanical elevator that shudders to a halt, with the latch and bolt tinkling. You sit in a chair and become inundated by the fact that it had been in use for over a century.
In the 1950s the Funk sisters bought the house, kept all the old furniture and fitments and converted it to a hotel, where artists visit to walk in the memories of the one known commonly as Die Asta (The Asta).
But elsewhere, in the poorer districts of Berlin, a place called Wedding (pronounced veding), some youths in the area have found a more contemporary use for an old building.
An abandoned state swimming pool designed in 1907 is now a place where young Berliners swim in revelry and art. It is a huge building with two giant swimming pools – one for men and the other for women. The building did suffer from the heavy bombings of Berlin during WWII. And after post-war renovations, Berliners moved on and the idea of a state pool, which had been used as a sort of public bath in th 1920s, particularly in Wedding didn’t seem so relevant anymore. And for many years, the building lay abandoned and efforts by the city authorities to sell it proved futile.
But then Jochen Kupper and his friends moved in. They wanted a hub for youths and Berlin, with a reputation as the world’s graffiti capital, had many youths with fingers itching to paint on something. At Stattbad (which is derived from the words “City Bus”) they found the place to unleash their talents.

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Jochen Kupper, manager of Stattbad

“We are now hotspots for arts and culture,” Kupper, who is the manager of Stattbad,  said.
He seemed pleased with the result of the work they have done at Stattbad, whose reputation has grown via social media and word of mouth. In that huge building, they now have some 60 resident artists and play host to some 15, 000 people every month. Impressive.
And to keep the place functional, they have some 10 employees.
“Right now the pool is empty, as you can see,” Kupper said, gesturing at the giant men’s pool. “But sometimes we have concerts or seminars in here, inside the pool and it is totally amazing. For parties we prefer to use the female pool which is smaller and has greater acoustics.”
Out back, the Stattbad team have got a garden and a bee house. They don’t make much money from it, but it is another demonstration of their resourcefulness and determination to put to use all the space available at this facility. But the same can’t be said about the bar downstairs. Being in the underbelly of an art hub, the bar is fitted with some imaginative furnishing carved by the expert hands that call Stattbad home to their works. It brings in some little change. Obviously not enough for the grand plans Kupper and his team have for the place.
They need about two million Euros to totally renovate the rundown building, money that has been hard to come by since the state abandoned the building eons ago. Now, Kupper is optimistic that what they have done with the place has put them in good stead to get the funds.
But until then, in their own small ways, they will continue to put in their talents and resources into keeping the city bus running and giving the youths and arts lovers of Wedding something to look forward to, be it a good shindig or some cool art works to appreciate and purchase.
Half way across Berlin, in Neukolln, another old building has been appropriated for the purposes of arts, and also by the young. SAVVY Contemporary, described as a laboratory of form and ideas, has just set up office in an old red brick building. This building was built in the mid 1920s by famous German Architech Hans-Heinrich Müller.
And the brain behind SAVVY Contemporary is Cameroon-born Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung. It is a non-profit arts space but Bonaventure is rather passionate about it.
His desire is to create a unique arts interface in Berlin that will accommodate all forms of works from every corner of the world. He is keen on making “world art” really art from all corners of the world.
Like Stattbad, SAVVY is now located in an old abandoned building, only this one is privately owned and has been left to the ravages of time. Bonaventure and his friends moved in to rescue the situation with the arts centre they started two years ago.
From the entrance, just inside the old archaic gates, a Romanian folksong plays from the speaker in the staircase. The song is performed by one of the artists whose works was being showcased at the ongoing exhibition.
It is interesting inside. On every other turn, a remarkable piece of art mesmerizes the visitor as he ascends the old building, seemingly sprouting out of the walls whose paints are peeling off.
Bonaventure explains that since they didn’t have the money to fully renovate the building, they have chosen to make its decay part of its attraction.

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Bonaventure Ndikung explaining an installation by one of the artists exhibiting at SAVVY Contemporary

“We could wait for someone to come do it and make the place far more presentable, but it is not about that. It is about doing,” he said.
Inside, there are art works from artist as far afield as Colombia, Nigeria and elsewhere. There is a small bar by the reception that Bonaventure hopes will rake in some money to keep the place going.
And they will need a lot of that. When I visited, Autumn was just kicking in and the building, without central heating, was already cold inside.
“I don’t know what we are going to do about heating in winter. I hope we figure something out before then,” Bonaventure said.
Apart from the challenge of heating and renovations, which are very much needed, SAVVY Contemporary, because of the way it is set up is losing some of its arts works.
“Sometimes people come in here and when they appreciate some of the work they just put it in their jackets and walk out. We have to do something about securing the art works here as well,” he said.
This challenges notwithstanding, SAVVY Contemporary is determined to stay.
Berlin has many old buildings, some of them abandoned. Now some of them have been taken over by these young, creative minds who have found other uses for them other than were originally intended. In a way it could be said that they are rescuing Berlin, too much in a hurry to move on, from falling into ruins.

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Believe it or not, this shindig is going down inside a swimming pool at Stattbad

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Ake: A Festival to Remember

Wole Soyinka being interviewed by 4 young students while Olaokun Soyinka moderates

Wole Soyinka being interviewed by 4 young students while Olaokun Soyinka moderates

The Ake Arts and Book Festival was aptly themed: The Shadow of Memory. Little did participants know that in truth, they would leave Abeokuta with lingering memories of what is shaping up to be the biggest literary festival in Nigeria.
This is only the first, and like all tottering establishments, it had its missteps. But in the grand picture, those missteps have been easily swept aside by the participants, who are busy focusing on the positives.
Festival director Lola Shoneyin brought her organisational skills to the fore to put together such an event. Almost 100 writers, local and international, not to forget the Nigerian diaspora literati visited the rock city for the fiesta.
Highlight of the festival was Kongi himself. Nigeria’s Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka was quizzed by four under 21 students who wanted to know how winning the Nobel Prize had affected his writing, his hair regimen, his first love and the place intoxicants hold in inspiring his great works.
Cornered? Soyinka, mindful of the age of his interviewers, skilfully dodged some of the questions. On love, with his son, Olaokun, compeering the event, Soyinka segued from recounting how he wooed his first love to giving very fatherly dating advice to the young girl who had asked the question.
He does nothing to his hair, other than wash it and comb it occasionally, he said. And apart from the constant travelling he had to embark on on the heels of his 1986 Nobel Prize win, the laureate said winning the prize had absolutely no effect on his writing.
It was Soyinka as most had never seen him. Witty and paternal.
Another highlight of the festival, and one that has got many people talking is the amazing stage adaptation of Lola Shoneyin’s bestselling novel, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. Written by Caine Prize winner Rotimi Babatunde and directed by Femi Elufowoju, this performance was by far the most impressive play one has seen in years.
While taking artistic liberties, the play retained the elements of the novel. Yes, it was amusing, grave and above all sensual with Martins Iwuagwu in the role of the cuckold Baba Segi and sterling performances from Uzor Osimkpa as Bolanle, Adesuwa Etomi as Segi and Priye Goerge as the scheming Iya Segi.
The director’s decision to run the play as a one act play without costume breaks or scene changes was nothing short of genius and despite the length of the play, there was not a moan of despair from the audience. Even the sensual scenes, of which there were many, were earnestly delivered and the five-minute long self pleasing scene with Baba Segi, which seemed to have gone on forever, had the audience roaring with laughter. It is a scene the director would do well to trim should they choose to go on tour with this play. And it would be criminal if they don’t go on tour with it.
But who says sex doesn’t sell? One needs only to look at the Achebe tent venue of the panel discussion “Body of mine: Sex and Sensuality in African fiction”. It was packed and the panellists, Toni Kan, Aita Ighadaro, Mamle Kabu, Monica Arac de Nyako moderated by the impressive Ayodele Morocco-Clarke tried to define the place of sex and sensuality in African fiction. If anything, it wasn’t as explosive as what many in the audience had expected it to be.
One session that did not disappoint was “Holding Back the Years: The Consequence of Corruption in 21st Century Africa. It featured the Canada-based academic and writer Pius Adesanmi, journalist and writer Tolu Ogunlesi, Muthoni Garland, convener of the StoryMoja Hay Festival, Michaela Wrong who has made a career writing about corruption in African countries and Teju Cole.
Things got really exciting when Ogunlesi advocated a system where corrupt officials should invest their loot in building societies, a position that Prof. Adesanmi supported. The moderator Wale Adebanwi found it challenging reigning in all the impassioned voices that fought to burst free, including from the audience, some of whom said there should be no quarter given to corruption and the corrupt.
In all, there were about a dozen panels. All exciting and lively. And several book chats. From the two panels yours truly was on, one on new Nigerian writing and the other on Post Colonial narrative, it was clear African writers have had enough of labelling. What is post-colonial literature? Why is it necessary to tag this bothersome label on African writers? Fellow panellist Igoni Barret, Abraham Ashoko and Ifeanyi Ajaegbo and Tope Folarin agreed it was a nuisance.
Strangely, the panel on new Nigerian writing kept revolving, and annoyingly so, around Taiye Selasie’s new label, “Afropolitanism”. It was unanimously rejected by fellow panellists Molara Wood, Richard Ali, Eghosa Imasuen, and Yewande Omotosho.
If Ikhide Ikheloa, the moderator, and an open admirer of Selasie’s work was disappointed about this, he handled it well.
The one thing wrong with Ake, and this is also good in some sense, is that there were too many interesting events all going on at the same time, with some of the most amazing writers from within and outside the continent on showcase.
If one had expected, by mere looking at the guest list, that this festival would be about serious minded, hard faced writers mumbling inanities that will confound others, they couldn’t be more wrong.
Lola Shoneyin did well to throw in some great evening entertainments, apart from the spectacular festival play, the fascinating art exhibition and book fair that ran throughout the festival, there was a poetry evening with drinks, some partying with live bands where many writers demonstrated that their bodies could be as dexterous with music as their handling of words.
And so for those lucky enough to witness the birth of this literary festival, Ake, which had hitherto been synonymous with Soyinka’s memoir, will now be synonymous with the gathering of great minds.
Take this to the bank: at this rate, Ake will be the definitive literary event of the continent in the next few years.

The Ake Arts and Book Festival was aptly themed: The Shadow of Memory. Little did participants know that in truth, they would leave Abeokuta with lingering memories of what is shaping up to be the biggest literary festival in Nigeria.
This is only the first, and like all tottering establishments, it had its missteps. But in the grand picture, those missteps have been easily swept aside by the participants, who are busy focusing on the positives.
Festival director Lola Shoneyin brought her organisational skills to the fore to put together such an event. Almost 100 writers, local and international, not to forget the Nigerian diaspora literati visited the rock city for the fiesta.
Highlight of the festival was Kongi himself. Nigeria’s Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka was quizzed by four under 21 students who wanted to know how winning the Nobel Prize had affected his writing, his hair regimen, his first love and the place intoxicants hold in inspiring his great works.
Cornered? Soyinka, mindful of the age of his interviewers, skilfully dodged some of the questions. On love, with his son, Olaokun, compeering the event, Soyinka segued from recounting how he wooed his first love to giving very fatherly dating advice to the young girl who had asked the question.
He does nothing to his hair, other than wash it and comb it occasionally, he said. And apart from the constant travelling he had to embark on on the heels of his 1986 Nobel Prize win, the laureate said winning the prize had absolutely no effect on his writing.
It was Soyinka as most had never seen him. Witty and paternal.
Another highlight of the festival, and one that has got many people talking is the amazing stage adaptation of Lola Shoneyin’s bestselling novel, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. Written by Caine Prize winner Rotimi Babatunde and directed by Femi Elufowoju, this performance was by far the most impressive play one has seen in years.
While taking artistic liberties, the play retained the elements of the novel. Yes, it was amusing, grave and above all sensual with Martins Iwuagwu in the role of the cuckold Baba Segi and sterling performances from Uzor Osimkpa as Bolanle, Adesuwa Etomi as Segi and Priye Goerge as the scheming Iya Segi.
The director’s decision to run the play as a one act play without costume breaks or scene changes was nothing short of genius and despite the length of the play, there was not a moan of despair from the audience. Even the sensual scenes, of which there were many, were earnestly delivered and the five-minute long self pleasing scene with Baba Segi, which seemed to have gone on forever, had the audience roaring with laughter. It is a scene the director would do well to trim should they choose to go on tour with this play. And it would be criminal if they don’t go on tour with it.
But who says sex doesn’t sell? One needs only to look at the Achebe tent venue of the panel discussion “Body of mine: Sex and Sensuality in African fiction”. It was packed and the panellists, Toni Kan, Aita Ighadaro, Mamle Kabu, Monica Arac de Nyako moderated by the impressive Ayodele Morocco-Clarke tried to define the place of sex and sensuality in African fiction. If anything, it wasn’t as explosive as what many in the audience had expected it to be.
One session that did not disappoint was “Holding Back the Years: The Consequence of Corruption in 21st Century Africa. It featured the Canada-based academic and writer Pius Adesanmi, journalist and writer Tolu Ogunlesi, Muthoni Garland, convener of the StoryMoja Hay Festival, Michaela Wrong who has made a career writing about corruption in African countries and Teju Cole.
Things got really exciting when Ogunlesi advocated a system where corrupt officials should invest their loot in building societies, a position that Prof. Adesanmi supported. The moderator Wale Adebanwi found it challenging reigning in all the impassioned voices that fought to burst free, including from the audience, some of whom said there should be no quarter given to corruption and the corrupt.
In all, there were about a dozen panels. All exciting and lively. And several book chats. From the two panels yours truly was on, one on new Nigerian writing and the other on Post Colonial narrative, it was clear African writers have had enough of labelling. What is post-colonial literature? Why is it necessary to tag this bothersome label on African writers? Fellow panellist Igoni Barret, Abraham Ashoko and Ifeanyi Ajaegbo and Tope Folarin agreed it was a nuisance.
Strangely, the panel on new Nigerian writing kept revolving, and annoyingly so, around Taiye Selasie’s new label, “Afropolitanism”. It was unanimously rejected by fellow panellists Molara Wood, Richard Ali, Eghosa Imasuen, and Yewande Omotosho.
If Ikhide Ikheloa, the moderator, and an open admirer of Selasie’s work was disappointed about this, he handled it well.
The one thing wrong with Ake, and this is also good in some sense, is that there were too many interesting events all going on at the same time, with some of the most amazing writers from within and outside the continent on showcase.
If one had expected, by mere looking at the guest list, that this festival would be about serious minded, hard faced writers mumbling inanities that will confound others, they couldn’t be more wrong.
Lola Shoneyin did well to throw in some great evening entertainments, apart from the spectacular festival play, the fascinating art exhibition and book fair that ran throughout the festival, there was a poetry evening with drinks, some partying with live bands where many writers demonstrated that their bodies could be as dexterous with music as their handling of words.
And so for those lucky enough to witness the birth of this literary festival, Ake, which had hitherto been synonymous with Soyinka’s memoir, will now be synonymous with the gathering of great minds.
Take this to the bank: at this rate, Ake will be the definitive literary event of the continent in the next few years.

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