Several years before Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung began collaborating with Yinka Ilori, the Cameroon-born biotechnology scientist turned curator and writer began collecting Ilori’s tableware for his own family home. “I had an Aami Aami mug and an incredible tablecloth,” Ndikung recalls, referring to Ilori’s enamel cup decorated with bright yellow sun-like circles and orange and green stripes. “If you look at them,” he continues, “they remind you to be joyful. There is no reason why a plate has to be white.” 

He smiles and leans back in his chair at his office in Berlin’s House of World Cultures, a 35-year-old cultural institution known as HKW. The office is housed within a midcentury-modern congress hall dubbed the “pregnant oyster” that was gifted to West Berlin by the Americans during the Cold War. The institution’s first non-white, non-European director, Ndikung has been shaking up the place since accepting the role in 2023. He doesn’t believe museum walls have to be white either: his office is painted hot pink and royal blue. Soon after he took over HKW, he had several of its exhibition rooms painted with a wildly colourful Picto Sonic mural by the Berlin-based Cameroonian artist and composer Tanka Fonta. Many entrances and rooms have been renamed after women writers, artists and thinkers too.

A mural by Tanka Fonta in the Sylvia Wynter foyer
A mural by Tanka Fonta in the Sylvia Wynter foyer © Daniel Feistenauer
Ilori and Ndikung photographed at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin
Ilori and Ndikung photographed at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin © Daniel Feistenauer

But it’s not just the joyful aesthetics of Ilori’s work that appealed to Ndikung. It was also the designer’s way of seeing the world that impressed him. “From an early project upcycling chairs in 2015,” says Ndikung, “I could see that he was looking at design and trying to rethink what it actually means and what it does.”

Ilori, who is sitting across the table from Ndikung, is appreciative of the compliment. “I really want every object I design to offer a sense of hope, belonging and joy. I want people to feel something from my work,” he says. “My background was furniture design, but my first love was chairs. We take chairs for granted but they hold our emotions and our stories. We sing on them. We throw them. We argue on them. They also define how we sit, although outside the western world people sit in many ways.” 

The curator first asked Ilori to collaborate with him in 2021 when he was artistic director of the international art festival Sonsbeek 20-24, staged in Arnhem in the Netherlands (a country with a hidden past of colonial enslavement of the people of Suriname, Indonesia and other countries). He was looking for new ways to approach the Black Archives, which document the history of Black emancipation and individuals in the Netherlands. Ilori’s response was an immersive experience to show this oppression but also the resistance to it, through archives of sound, paper and pictures.

DDR: Decarbonize, Decolonize, Rehabilitate, 2023, by Olu Oguibe
DDR: Decarbonize, Decolonize, Rehabilitate, 2023, by Olu Oguibe © Daniel Feistenauer
Ndikung wears rings by Senegalese Boutique Bijoux Touareg Corniche Ouest
Ndikung wears rings by Senegalese Boutique Bijoux Touareg Corniche Ouest © Daniel Feistenauer

For their next, much anticipated collaboration, Ndikung asked Ilori to design a pavilion to coincide with the upcoming HKW exhibition Ballet of the Masses, a series of performances, films and installations that debuts on 7 June. The project, which is funded by the Euro 2024 Football & Culture Foundation and the German federal government, focuses on the role football plays in society. Ndikung and Ilori have embraced the idea of using the game as a frame to examine human nature, even though, they admit, neither of them play.

Both acknowledge the near-religious fervour of being in a stadium. “There’s music, chanting, celebration and people crying tears of anger and joy,” Ilori says. In football, there exist the same sublime moments – a profound connection with community – and those of conflict and abuse. For Ilori, it was important to embed the space with a message of self-reflection. “I was thinking about accountability,” he says of his desire to shine a light on the racist behaviours that can happen in the stadium – and the frequent ineptitude of the FA when it comes to disciplining fans. 

Calabashes are prepared for the pavilion
Calabashes are prepared for the pavilion © Daniel Feistenauer
Ilori’s Reflection in Numbers pavilion
Ilori’s Reflection in Numbers pavilion

Unlike the pavilions Ilori has created in the past – including his first permanent installation in Berlin, a kaleidoscopic canopy on the banks of the Spree entitled Filtered Rays – this design, called Reflection in Numbers, is relatively monochrome and insular: a covered space that is 10m in diameter by 5m high, with two entry points. Painted in royal blue and sunflower yellow, its interior is lined with amphitheatre-style seating. But, most dramatically, the walls are constructed of round mirrors made from more than a thousand calabashes imported from Senegal that have been cut in half. “Essentially your reflection is everywhere,” Ilori says of his concept. Ndikung adds: “You’re basically forced to look at yourself or at each other and realise that you are not alone in this space.” 

An Amazigh carpet from Morocco
An Amazigh carpet from Morocco © Daniel Feistenauer
Artwork by Tanka Fonta in the designer’s office
Artwork by Tanka Fonta in the designer’s office © Daniel Feistenauer
The friends and collaborators on the steps of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt
The friends and collaborators on the steps of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt © Daniel Feistenauer

The structure also hosts two koras – west African string instruments made from calabashes, which are placed on each side of the pavilion so visitors can spontaneously play them should they feel inclined. It’s an idea that has captivated German-Cameroonian Emilienne Fernande Bodo, HKW’s curatorial assistant for Architectural and Spatial Practices: “The idea is to transform those racist chants one might hear in a stadium into a calming, more spiritual sound.” She says that the purpose of the pavilion series at HKW “is to hold out a hand to the city – to beckon people in and to create a human-scale space for discourse and events”. 

For Ndikung, temporary outdoor structures such as Ilori’s HKW pavilion not only break down the walls of a museum but are a way to “speak to people passing by, serving as a magnifying glass or amplifier of the museum”. 

Both, at times, have felt unwelcome in public spaces, which is why Ndikung sees it as his task “to make these institutions more accessible”. Adds Ilori: “Growing up in London, I never felt I could go to museums – that I didn’t have a licence to go into those spaces. What Bonaventure and his team are doing is such important work: inspiring future curators and directors, and deconstructing those narratives that we don’t belong here.”

Ndikung nods in agreement, accompanying Ilori’s observation with a “yes, yes” reply. “Design can do the same,” he says in conclusion. “Designers bridge that gap between us and the world. The good ones have always found ways to make environments more comfortable and beautiful.” 

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