April 17, 2015
Anastatia Spicer

Attempting to Create a Dialog about German Colonialism through Art

Continually re-examining the past¬†helps us imagine alternative possibilities for the present and future.¬†SAVVY Contemporary‘s art exhibition,‚ÄúWir Sind Alle Berliner 1884-2014‚ÄĚ curated by Simon Njami¬†did just this. The show was¬†open from November 2014 to February 2015, in¬†commemoration of the 130 years since the Berlin-Congo Conference. By bringing together artists from many different locations all working with topics of colonialism, the exhibition showed it is necessary¬†to re-visit our colonial histories through different¬†narratives to understand modern day issues and activism.

Bonaventure Soh Benjeng Ndikung © Claudia Peppel РICI Berlin 2015

There is very little institutional support going towards telling colonial histories which, I found out through SAVVY Co-founder Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung,¬†made it¬†difficult to fund the exhibition. Despite this, thousands of people came through the space over the months it was open, showing that there is great public interest in examining colonial past and presents even if institutions aren’t ready to accept this.

Each weekend members of SAVVY offered tours to the public to explain who the artists were and some history behind the work being shown. These tours were key in bridging a conversation to the public, they were accessible and informative. The variety of art shown gave multiple visual interpretations of breaking down colonial histories and having a guide through this was very helpful. The art provided questions without needing immediate answers or understanding. This made it possible for people coming from any background to take part in the tours, ask questions and learn.

Filipa César, The Embassy (2011), courtesy Christina Guerra Contemporary

Filipa César, The Embassy (2011), courtesy Christina Guerra Contemporary

One of my favorite pieces was¬†Filipa C√©sar‚Äôs video piece, The Embassy (2011), because of it’s simple camera shot mixed with a layered narrative. The film shows a pair of hands flipping through a photo album filled with black and white images from the 1940s – 1950s in Guinea-Bissau. The hands belong to Armando Lona, a Guinean journalist and activist. This piece is especially gripping because we hear Lona’s perspective on these images which represent direct debris of colonialism. Having grown up in Guinea-Bissau, he carefully explains the photographs, and his experience of them. The images show the effects of colonization through monuments, sites and buildings. Lona makes a point to show that what is not documented in the photo album is art from the Guinean culture. What is not represented in the photo album shows how colonialisms erasure of art affects understandings of history today.

At points it seemed the choice of who to include in the show became too wide. Cyrill Lachauer’s piece, Horses, Manillas and the Smallpox Blankets, caught my attention because of the connection to the history and present experiences of colonialism in the United States. The piece referenced the history of Lord Jeffrey Amherst, who gave out blankets with smallpox to Native Americans to kill them. The piece was a woolen blanket set on the ground with some branding marks of horseshoes, it is one in a series of work he has about Native American history and ritual.

I was confused about why this German man is making work about the history and experience of Native Americans. After researching him, his only connection to Native Americans seems to be through ethnographic research. There are certainly Native American artists grappling with their history in their work so it seems strange that they chose to show Lachauer. It seemed like they wanted to include a symbol of colonialism from the United States in the show but this choice fell short.

At the end of February a series of lectures was held at the ICI Berlin, bringing together scholars and artists to talk about work around colonialism happening in academia. The weekend of lectures was very important because the tour and time at the exhibition didn’t provide the space to get into in-depth discussions. For example, why it was very odd to have a white German man represent the genocide of Native Americans.

However, multiple times throughout the weekend the artists on the panels were placed last to speak and barely got a chance to say much. This created a disconnected between the exhibition and the lectures. The pieces included in the show could have been focused on a bit more in the lectures to bridge these two worlds of academia and art.  At times the panel felt exclusive because of the vocabulary used. Despite this, the conference was very powerful because of the many different geographic locations and ideas which were brought together.

Simon Njami © Claudia Peppel - ICI Berlin 2015

Simon Njami © Claudia Peppel РICI Berlin 2015

It seems important to appreciate the two spaces for the different opportunities they provided. The art was accessible and informative to a wide range of people. The lecture series was more exclusive but equally important as it brought together scholars and creators from very disparate geographic locations and gave time to dive very deeply into how people across disciplines are thinking about colonial past and presents.