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Volunteer of the Month: Leo Karongo

1. October 2020

“I always wanted to do something in the movement and for the movement”

Even if Leo wouldn’t easily admit to it, he truly is a Berlin luminary: with over 30 years of experience in the acting business, he could be seen for the longest time on Berlin’s stages. Now, the actor and singer with an academic training spends a lot of his time with his partner of 25 years. Despite the fact that Leo’s agency-phone isn’t buzzing as frequently as usually, due to Corona, one motto holds true: The show must go on! In this interview you can read about what the 56-year-old has experienced as a native Berliner, how he is staying active right now and what aspiration he holds for the Schwules Museum.


SMU: Leo, you’ve been an actor for decades. Where you fortunate enough to exclusively make a living with this industry?

Yes, I play at theatres a lot and also did some video shootings, but primarily I was in the theater: in Weimar, Dresden, Rostock; at the Salzburger Festspiele and Wiener Festwochen, at the Berlin Ensemble, at Hebbel Theater too. So yeah, all that went pretty smoothly.

Last month we hardly saw you at the Museum, what have you been up to?

Currently I am doing play readings with the Kalliope-Team; the theateres have not been, and partly still aren’t, properly open. That’s why we specialized on readings now, since there aren’t so many people coming – if there are 30 people to see the event, we are content. So, I had a lot on my to-do-list for the month of August.

Do you also have other hobbies?

Oh well… I also do sports but acting really is my passion; I like to be in front of a crowd and do something with them. And the café here, that’s also something I really enjoy doing. That again is a completely different crowd, with a way more contact. I like to get into a conversation with them, in which I can learn about where they are coming from and what they are up to. Just recently we had visitors from Vilnius, Lithuania. When I talked to them, they were planning on opening a Schwules Museum, too, and looked at ours to do so – they were absolutely stunned! And to be honest, I always wanted to do something in the movement and for the movement, and I never really knew what exactly. It had to be reputable and in no way boring, and that’s when I found the SMU and I just think it’s wonderful.

What are you doing in the café?

Preparing beautiful cold drinks, being friendly and ask our guests if they need anything else, like sitting in the sun like we are right now, for example. But I’m here not that often, mostly twice a month.

Do you remember how it all started?

Two years ago, Dr. Theis, one of the founding fathers of the museum, gave a tour I visited and I thought that as so exciting; so I said that, and precisely that, is what I want to do and what I can stand for. It was so funny and entertaining, the old Berlin played a role and Charlotte from Mahlsdorf, as well as a silhouette-exhibition with nudes, so also very demanding things. I mean, that’s what the exhibitions here are always like, demanding and entertaining. That fascinated me so much that I immediately reached out and got told: “Come through on Monday and we will find something for you as a volunteer.”

Are there other things, that make the museum to a special place for you?

I think it’s thrilling, what kind of stuff is being donated to this place, even whole inheritances are being handed over, so the things don’t get lost. I value having a space, where culture can casually meet the scene and then also have the whole scene represented – women, transgender and gays. Also the fact that tourists make their way into our halls is so important for the museum, that such a variety of people come in and go out and get in touch with each other in between. And that we have more foreign and English-speaking guests, I think that’s just amazing for Berlin. It’s such a beautiful institution.

You are also one of the few People of Color in this Institution…

Yes, I’m a Berlin PoC and sometimes I think I am ore Berliner than PoC (laughs). I grew up with my father, me and my two siblings, and he raised us and told us a lot about Africa, I also visited Africa, Malawi to be precise, quite a few times to see family and so on. However, deep down I am a Berliner, who grew up in East Berlin and now, that Berlin is so big, feels damn good here. Through my theatre-tours, I also got to see a lot from West Germany and explored all corners, from small villages to big cities – and Berlin is just very special. Not as uptight as Munich and not so expensive like Vienna! Berlin is a great city, I have to say.

There have been cases of racism at the SMU in the past. Did you have to deal with racist incidents at the Schwules Museum yourself?

Never! Never ever, for real. I feel completely accepted here.

Knock on wood! Then maybe you could talk about your favorite experience here at Schwules Museum?

My nicest experience here would have to be the farewell of Wolfgang Theis. Normally, vernissages are a little bit more official, but this one was a very personal event, where one could tell jokes and talk about life as such – he himself as also a very humorous person. Then, someone sang and, oh man, I really enjoyed that evening. That was just before Corona went wild, so I think in February. Back in the days when the halls could still be full of people.

Then, my last question for you: Is there something you are missing at the Schwules Museum?

It is a little bit hard for me to say that, because the old men here founded this whole thing, but I think this museum is missing a dash of young people, who bring in even crazier ideas. We have amazing and meritorious volunteers and I enjoy working with each and every single one of them. But some dazzling personalities, maybe in high heels, that would bring more flair into the museum and benefit it. Or shake up the place, to say the least.


Image: Leo Karongo (Yasmin Künze)