E-Werk contemporary art centre launched a fortnightly conversation series in July, exploring the ways in which artists’ ideas can contribute to a more equal arts industry, against the backdrop of a pandemic and global racial injustices.

The programme includes contributions from artists including Harold Offeh and Peles Empire and confronts the urgent need to restructure the ‘top-down art world system’, placing artists front and centre of debates pertinent to 2020.

For its latest episode, E-Werk gives the floor to French, London-based artist Paul Maheke and London-based writer and Wallpaper* contributor, Benoît Loiseau to unpick ‘Coexistence in the Age of Collapsing Ecosystems’.

Artist Paul Maheke in his studio. © Paul Maheke

Paul Maheke’s work explores the ‘body as an archive’, examining identity and memory through dance, collective performance, film, installation, sound and video. The conversation centres on an open letter Maheke wrote after his planned performances and exhibitions were put on hold due to Covid-19. Titled, ‘The Year I Stopped Making Art’, and published on activist art platform Documentations, the letter travels through time, addressing disparity, inequality and institutional hierarchy in the art world.

‘It was something I wrote in a bit of a rush,’ Maheke explains to Loiseau. ‘All my performances and exhibitions were cancelled. This moment made me realise how much of a precarious position my practice occupied and how some of my friends, artists, or people who were artists and had to stop were rendered invisible, completely erased from this.’

The letter is written in the first person, but Maheke is quick to note that this is not his own voice, but that of collective voices. He also observes the shortcomings of using first-person plural ‘we’, acknowledging that not everyone will share the same experience. ‘We are talking about “we” like the community or the audience as this kind of homogeneous group of people,’ says Maheke. ‘It invisibilises the existence of any potential power dynamic in terms of class, gender, race, sexuality. I find it troubling because it’s often a way for people to hide behind something that prevents us from addressing the real issue, the deeper stuff, the thing that lurks in the shadow image.’

Paul Maheke, Ooloi, 2019, Triangle France-Astérides. Photography: Aurélien Mole. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Sultana

An extract from the letter reads:

‘So when in the last months of 2020, I was home, still bed-bound and the museum didn’t pay me, I knew this was the year I would have to stop art. How was I to pay for my living expenses otherwise? This was going to last for a while, they said. “I am sorry to hear you’re experiencing difficulties. It’s a tough time for us all”, you said. I wondered who you meant when you were saying “us” because I didn’t feel like a part of your we.’

The conversation then turned to the complex and divisive subject of public monuments with problematic histories, specifically the toppling of 17th-century merchant and slave trader Edward Colston’s statue, thrown into Bristol Harbour by protesters in June. ‘In terms of the monuments, they definitely speak very directly to the idea of erasure because they live on,’ says Maheke. ‘Especially in situations of oppression, we tend to forget that if something is invisible, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and that’s something that, for me, is almost the perfect definition of privilege, which is this blind spot.’ 

On 10 September, the open letter will form the focal point for the show, ‘YESN’T’ at Galerie Sultana in Paris, co-curated by Maheke. The group exhibition aims to redistribute funds to artists in France whose work was impacted by Covid-19 and are ineligible for government aid.

E-Werk Luckenwalde will reopen to the public on 12 September (coinciding with Berlin Art Week) with a ‘Utopian’, climate change focussed sculptural programme. §

Episode 4 of E-Werk’s The Artist As Consultant series, which sees Paul Maheke and Benoît Loiseau discuss ‘Coexistence in the Age of Collapsing Ecosystems’
Paul Maheke, Sènsa, performed at Völksbuhne as part of Assemble Performance Programme, Berlin. Photography: Frank Sperling, 2019