Heiko-Thandeka Ncube, an artist whose films and essays about racist violence had begun to find acclaim in Berlin, is dead at 32.
The Hub, a Berlin-based art education nonprofit for which Ncube served as a board member, said in an Instagram post that Ncube died by suicide on June 9. “He was an outstanding artist, valued colleague and friend who wore his heart on his sleeve,” the Hub wrote in its post.
Born in 1991 in Harare, Zimbabwe, Ncube produced films, writings, lectures, and more that dealt with how forms of violence have manifested in the West across the centuries. Sometimes explicitly, these works allude to long traditions of racism, colonialism, and brutality against animals.
He aspired to locate “the intersections of political oppression, the Abrahamic religions and Bantu mythology, in particular the lines along his Ndebele ancestry,” as he wrote in a biography on his website.
The 2020 video Rest.in.Pieces, a tour de force that clocks in at under four minutes, addresses the European response to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. While that killing received plenty of attention in Germany, the 2020 shootings by right-wing extremists in Hanau, whose victims included people of Turkish, Afghan, and Cameroonian descent, did not raise quite as much anger. Through a range of appropriated imagery paired with subtitles from across the centuries, including old paintings of Black children and newer footage of racist violence, Ncube addresses a shirking of blame in Europe.
“The US outrage echoing within Europe is inherently good, yet the unwillingness to practice the same in Europe is highly questionable,” Ncube writes in an associated essay under the same name. “In many ways the non-white body rests in pieces.”
Ncube’s films—one of which premiered at this year’s Berlin Film Festival—have a rhythmic editorial style that recalls the work of Hito Steyerl, his teacher. Ncube was about to graduate from Steyerl’s class at the University of Art Berlin at the time of his death.
Prior to entering the University of Art Berlin, Ncube had attended the Free University Berlin as an art history and philosophy student.
At the University of Art Berlin, Ncube was among the students who led a 2020 effort to highlight racism at the famed art school. Under the name #exitracismudk, the protest involved students unfurling banners outside the school that were subsequently pulled down, generating an outcry. They also scrutinized the school’s curriculum and the demographics of its student body and faculty, and demanded long-term changes.
His politics often wound their way into some of his educational endeavors, such as a program led during the 2022 Berlin Biennale called “Slipping Through the Cracks.” A text for that program asks, “Now that politically oppressed artists receive more visibility, where do they stand? Are they here to stay or are they slipping through the cracks? What were significant generational shifts in recent decades? Where is identity politics heading? How is meaning being conveyed in the digital age? How have collective traumas been passed down and how are they resurfacing?”
The Berlin Biennale, for which Ncube worked as an educational “mediator” on more than one edition, said in an Instagram that it was in “deep mourning” for the artist.
In addition to the Berlin Biennale’s Forum Expanded program, Ncube’s work had also been featured at shows at the Kunsthalle Baden Baden and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin.
In a 2020 Monopol interview, he stated that his goal had been to shift people’s thinking using postcolonial analysis. “One often encounters the accusation that nobody will understand their own art because a white mass audience is automatically assumed to be the recipient,” Ncube said. “There is no idea that that maybe that isn’t our primary target group, or that that audience is willing to learn, too.”