A Half Century of Art in a Globalised World

2021 is a year of anniversaries. The ifa Gallery Stuttgart celebrates 50 years, the ifa Gallery Berlin 30. From an ethnographic focus to contemporary art and spaces for experimentation, international artists have always been at the centre of it all. Here with Bettina Korintenberg, Director of the ifa Galleries, a reflection on how it all began, the programme's development and the prospects of what is to come.

You have to keep in mind that in the 1980s and early '90s, we didn't have internet. That meant, for example, I travelled to Ghana to scout for interesting contemporary art. That was incredibly exciting. – Iris Lenz, former Director of the ifa Galleries.

Drawing by Joseph Beuys, exhibition view Notes of a Seeress, ifa Gallery Berlin, © Victoria Tomaschko

Art is deeply rooted in ifa's history. In 2021, the ifa Galleries in Berlin and Stuttgart are looking back on 30 and 50 years of interactions with the people, ideas, artworks and critical discourses that have graced their spaces. The focus lies on contemporary art from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe and the current cultural and socio-political developments faced in those places.

The Beginning

In 1971, exactly 50 years ago, ifa opened its first gallery in Stuttgart. It was created to give a space to contemporary artists and architects from regions where access to European exhibition opportunities were otherwise difficult. After the reunification of Germany, the ifa Gallery Berlin was added, opening its doors 30 years ago in 1991. The Bonn Gallery, founded in 1980, was closed in 2003.

In the beginning, the galleries were predominantly oriented to be receptive, focussing on ethnographic art, and particularly in Bonn, exhibitions offered by foreign embassies were presented. For example, the galleries showed folk art from Macedonia, Romanian woodcarvings and handcrafts from the hill tribes in the Hindu Kush.

In 1990, the programme took a more active approach, and architecture gained increasing importance while contemporary art came to the fore in both Bonn and Stuttgart. For example, in 1993 Alexander Tolnay, then director of the galleries, presented the exhibition 'First Steps, Contemporary Art in Romania'. The exhibition provided West Germany with a glimpse into an art scene previously unknown because of the East-West division of Germany.


The Programme

At a time when the art world was not as well networked as it is today, several of the ifa Gallery projects were ahead of their time. The galleries were a unique space, offering a continuous line up of exhibitions for contemporary art and architecture from Latin America, Africa and Asia. With the globalisation of the art scene and an increasing digital transformation of society as a whole since the 1990s, the galleries began to shift their exhibition practices.

Beginning in 2001, instead of working to exclusively exhibit international art, the ifa Galleries focussed on thematic series, a pursuit that continues to this day. Thematic elements, such as a focus on the Middle East, national identities or currently the environment, shape the titles and messages of the shows as they focus on socio-political and cultural issues of international relevance.

The galleries are linked to a large global network, working with people whose strength lies in discovering emerging, informal and often still unknown scenes beyond the art market. In addition, a background network of contacts from across disciplines work to connect foreign cultural policy and civil society engagement. In bringing together these diverse, interdisciplinary contexts, practices and histories, creative spaces and new forms of knowledge and understanding emerge. Since 2020, the ifa Galleries in Berlin and Stuttgart have been collaborating on a programme that brings artistic positions from ifa's art collection into dialogue with international artists and opens up new perspectives, layers of interpretation and references.

Berlin and Stuttgart as Locations

Created within the context of ifa, the two galleries are closely related and yet significantly different. While the two spaces have similar interests, they are deeply integrated in their respective locations and thereby take different perspectives and approaches.

Since the cultural scene is not as international as in Berlin, the ifa Gallery Stuttgart offers art and art education for a broader audience. At the same time, inspired by the fact that the city has the highest density of architects in Europe, the gallery has taken a deeper architectural approach to its shows.

Panyad School gym, Namprae, Thailand Chiangmai Life Architects, Markus Roselieb and Tosapon Sittiwong, interior view, © Alberto Cosi
Website screenshot 'Untie To Tie', 2017, © ifa

The city of Berlin lives and breathes internationality; artists and cultural workers from all over the world are drawn to the city. This shapes the work of the ifa Gallery Berlin as it operates more strongly in theoretical discourse. In 2017, the transdisciplinary project Untie to Tie emerged under the direction of Alya Sebti, which exhibited a thematic series specifically tailored to Berlin regarding its colonial history, movement, migration and the environment.

Four Questions for Bettina Korintenberg, Director of the ifa Galleries

ifa: In two sentences, how would you describe the ifa Galleries?

Korintenberg: I perceive the galleries as places where encounters are created through art, a place that makes the world in its multiplicity tangible and understandable and thus stands for openness, dialogue and diversity. They are characterised by critical engagement with socially relevant topics and discussions, and they repeatedly demonstrate a good sense for upcoming developments.

What is the role of art and cultural spaces today?

Korintenberg: We live in a time of change and transformation, a time in which basic structures are being questioned. It is about finding new forms of social coexistence in which the local and the global enter into a specific relationship with each other. In these times of profound transformations, art and spaces of art and culture have a particular responsibility. They have the potential to question what is but also to imagine and speculate about what is to come.

ifa: How do the galleries in Berlin and Stuttgart work together?

Korintenberg: The ifa Gallery in Berlin and the gallery in Stuttgart are deeply integrated into their respective locations and thereby have different focusses. Still, or perhaps precisely because of this, they are in exchange, dialogue and cooperation with one another. The world of art and culture and our societies as a whole need to support each other and strengthen a common practice and attitude.

Here's to the next 30 and 50 years! What can visitors expect from the galleries under your management in the future?

Korintenberg: I see the gallery space as a space of experimentation, a space of encounters that develop from meeting each other, from conversations and ideas that arise by being together and that begin to inhabit the space little by little. Especially within our context at ifa, it is highly important to be aware of and above all to foster decolonial sensibilities and practices. First of all, this means listening, accepting and giving space. In turn, processes of learning and unlearning together can then develop out of this. Within these contexts, the exhibitions will not follow a prefabricated choreography, but will vary in duration and allow for different kinds of encounters.

Bettina Korintenberg

is head of the ifa Galleries since 2021. Her curatorial and academic practice focuses on critically interrogating digital and global media ecology and revising the history of ideas of Western influenced modernity against the backdrop of current social and ecological transformations. She is especially interested in exploring alternative space-time configurations and forms of social collectivity through interdisciplinary and collaborative processes.