Colonial monuments and participative art – cultures of remembrance, myths, anti-theses, inversions
Colonial monuments are entwined with persistent myths. They suggest valid interpretations of history and transport supposed »perennial truths” about »white masters” and »black servants”, »colonial heroes”, »faithful Askari”, »the spirit of sacrifice”, »courage”, »unselfishness” and »the mission of civilization” - they are icons of the colonial-romantic glorification which are still subliminally effective to the present day.
»Perhaps the best weapon against the myth is to mythicize the myth itself, i. e., to create an artificial myth.” (Barthes)1 "The subversive method of the creation of an artificial myth, which Barthes suggests for the debunking of a myth, does without doubt have a certain cultural value because it is assumed that rationality is helpless”- or has at least a reduced effect – »in countering the myth. The exposing of the myth ought to be itself a mythical anti-thesis.« (Feuerstein)2
How can we deconstruct such colonial myths, how can we create »mythical anti-theses?« Do we succeed in reinterpreting the colonial monuments by taking them out of their context and their local and historical environment, in order to change their statement? Is it possible to create new contextualizations and inversions of the old meanings with artistic means and methods?
I have been pursuing these questions with the project afrika-hamburg.de.3 This performance art and research project confronted and analyzed the material and mental aspects of colonial myths. It invited debate on the almost forgotten colonial history of Hamburg in urban space and on the www.afrika-hamburg.de website. Manifold vestiges can still be found in the city of Hamburg – of which the citizens are mostly unaware – in the form of monuments, buildings, street names, the port layout etc.
Wissmann resurrectedThe motivating impulse for this project came from the discovery of the colonial monument for Hermann von Wissmann, which had been stored for almost 40 years in the basement of the Bergedorf Observatory located on the outskirts of Hamburg. I had the monument relocated and installed in an exposed and a representative urban space in the Port of Hamburg for the period from October 2004 to November 2005.4 An information plaque as well as a bronze »monument plaque” indicating the web address www.afrika-hamburg.de were affixed to the monument. A serial sequence of ten historical photos documented the many occasions when the monument had been erected and toppled during the last 100 years.
The bronze monument ensemble shows the German colonial officer, Reichskommissar and colonial governor Hermann von Wissmann and an African Askari soldier looking up to »his white master”. The mythicized Wilhelminian-emotive visual language suggests a strong hierarchy between »Black” and »White”.
Myths also surround Wissmann’s life and deeds. Since his death, numerous legends have circulated in obituaries and biographies about "Germany’s greatest African” with a »character of a Columbus” and a "powerful intellect”, and about his role as »one who freed slaves”, a »protector of animals”, a »meritorious Africa explorer” and as a »friend of the Africans”. Recent research5 by various historians has shown unmistakably that all these glorifying attributes are nothing but colonial-revisionist constructs.
The Wissmann monument was originally erected and dedicated in 1909 in Daressalam, in the then colony of »German East Africa” (today Tanzania). Subsequent to the loss of Germany’s colonies during World War I, the monument was shipped via London to Hamburg and erected in 1922 in front of the University of Hamburg (the former Colonial Institute) where it was elevated to Germany’s most important colonial shrine during the Nazi Period. Protesting students toppled the monument in 1968.
The colonial Wissmann monument stood in front of the Hamburg University (the former Colonial Institute). 1967 the monument was toppled by protesting students. (Photo: Conti Press, Staatsarchiv Hamburg)
Few monuments have had such an eventful and bizarre history. It has not only been shipped from one continent to another but has also traveled through various eras in history, experiencing periods of admiration as well periods of contempt. An exemplary (post)colonial mental history may be read from the damaged statue and its disfigured surface. I re-erected the monument intentionally leaving all traces of societal confrontations visible.
Intervention, inversion, interactionMy intention was not only to exhibit and decipher the Wissmann Monument - the damaged artefact trouvée - as a document, but primarily to decode its myths through deliberate artistic intervention and participative interaction with the viewing public, which in turn could experience in a dynamic process new views and insights. Within the participative project afrika-hamburg.de the Wissmann monument was relocated and installed in an exposed urban space in the Port of Hamburg. There and in the internet the monument was discussed controversially.
A public-participative presentation of anachronistic figures, combined with means, methods and media of contemporary art, evokes reflection on symbols and representations of power. Their gestalt raises questions in need of answers: With what »sign« language do these figures speak to us today? Which points of view do they represent from which pedestals? What do they rest on and what do they fail to see? How do the Wissmann ensemble’s simultaneous colonial visual content and the damage traces of the postcolonial confrontations affect the viewer? Which unconscious layers of mental traces push their way to the surface? Is it possible to invert the memorial to an »anti-monument«, to a »mythical anti-thesis«? Art performances accompanied the project. At the end a spatial installation of paper works of all the participants¹ contributions, ideas and opinions, documents and artifacts was exhibited in Kunsthaus Hamburg (http://www.afrika-hamburg.de/vorort8.html). An estimated 300.000 citizens have been confronted with the Wissmann monument at the Port of Hamburg. The memorial and the provided information were studied intensively. The passers-by often stopped and formed groups passionately discussing the monument. The urban space gained back its original function, and the project was extensively reported in the media.
The web debateThe project not only created an urban »post-monument space« but – as a second central objective of the project – a virtual space for participation, debate and public discussion in the internet. The website www.afrika-hamburg.de provided extensive information and documentation on the colonial history of Hamburg and invited citizens to debate in an open forum and to vote for suggestions and ideas on the fate of the monument.
More than 35.000 citizens visited the website during the 14 months of the project’s duration; 5.669 persons voted on various ideas for the fate of the Wissmann ensemble. The more than 800 often quite long text postings and 300 further ideas presented on the website indicate how emotionally and highly controversially the topic was and is being discussed even to the present day.
Not only critical and postcolonial positions appear in the text postings, but also stereotypes and heroic myths. It is often argued for example that the colonial history of violence should be understood - and thereby excused - in the context of its epoch and not only from the present day point of view. Furthermore, the old myths of »the colonial guilt of the English«, of Wissmann as »the greatest abolitionist in the antislavery movement« and of »faithful Askaris« etc. as well as references to old colonial literature are often quoted. Some participants attempt to be more convincing by copying and pasting their text passages over and over again. All this is an indication of the state of the discussion about the colonial history today and also of subjects suppressed and concealed. All contributions are documented and will remain on the website (www.afrika-hamburg.de/debatte.php; in German language).
The analysis of the forum texts raises questions about mentality-historical continuities which have now become visible through the work in this project. Which post-colonial and even still existing colonial recollections do we discern and expose here? How can the experience gained during this project be interpreted for further discussions about colonial history?
In any case, the web debate has produced one definite result: 95 % of the participants share the opinion that the Wissmann monument should not be removed again but should remain in public view in order to keep the discussion alive. Most people welcome a confrontation with and »chafing« on even unpopular monuments so as to remember and reflect on the past.
From harbor to art space - and back to basementafrika-hamburg.de was accompanied by other events and art performances as well as happenings organized by school classes. The project terminated with an exhibition at the Kunsthaus Hamburg where I presented the enormous amount of the participants’ contributions, ideas and opinions, documents and artifacts in a spatial »post-colonial jungle« installation of paper works.
After the 14 project months I offered the Wissmann monument to the museums in Hamburg but unfortunately they showed no interest. It has now found its way back to the basement of the Observatory from whence it came, but the debate on an adequate culture of remembrance and this and other cast-off colonial monuments in Hamburg will be continued. The monument’s removal left a gap in an urban space and in many minds, and is still being debated in public and the media.
How shall we deal with all the statues, banished or not, in Hamburg – supposedly created for all eternity - which represent and transport myths and legends of colonial practice? How shall we deal with all these symbols which to the present day are celebrated by veterans associations, for example, in the so-called »Tansania Park« in Hamburg-Jenfeld? Or how shall we confront the monument for the slave trader Heinrich Carl Schimmelmann which was erected by the district government in September 2006 in Hamburg-Wandsbek? Park postkolonial As an adjunct project, I propose that a park postkolonial (see www.afrika-hamburg.de/parkd.k.html for further information; only in German) be created, a space for critical learning, where all the Hamburg based colonial monuments would be assembled. The monuments would be arranged through artistic intervention and in such a way that they would make visual contact with each other, commenting on each other and thus making their imperial attitudes identifiable. The traditionalized, historically multilayered memorials would be decoded and de-mysticized in this park postkolonial with the aim of providing a modern day context. When the gestalt and perception of monuments change in the course of history, new avenues of thought become possible. This park postkolonial can provide a space for open discussion and a transcultural discourse. This would divest the monuments of their original for all eternity cast messages. The monuments - originally regarded as super-human and overpowering - can thus become an integral part of a historical process. Alternate points of view become possible through an interaction of the bodies of the statues and the living bodies of the viewers, and through confrontations as well as constantly new artistic inversions and »mythographic« interventions.
afrika-hamburg.de gave impulse to an adjunct project, a park postkolonial (see www.afrika-hamburg.de/parkd.k.html for further information; only in German), a space for critical learning where all the Hamburg based colonial monuments would be assembled and where the colonial history of our city would be researched. The park postkolonial was suggested to be established in Hamburg-Harburg which was one of the regional centers of the colonial trade. The »New-York Hamburger Gummi Waaren Compagnie« is still producing caoutchouc ebonite combs in traditional handicraft.
A research and exhibition center and an internet forum are essential project components of the park postkolonial. Remembrance and reconciliation - these two major aspects can only be achieved with an intensive exchange in art, scientific, transcultural and participative projects with the countries of the former German colonies. Of equal importance are the problems of globalized trade and the prospects for Fair Trade, especially for goods arriving in the Port of Hamburg.
The idea for a park postkolonial has been supported by GAL, the »Green Alternative List« (Green Party) in Hamburg since January 2006. They suggested that the park be established on the grounds of the former baroque »Castle Park Island« in the Harburg section of Hamburg. The Elbe Port of Harburg was at one time the regional center of the colonial trade with rubber, ivory and palm oil, traces of which are still discernable in the form of old rubber factories, storehouses for palm oil or villas of the merchants and ship owners. At present, the City Government is incorporating plans for Harburg in their »Growing City Hamburg - Leap across the Elbe« political program. The International Garden Exhibition 2013 will encompass urban planning for new building sites and cultural spaces in the old port area.
The GAL paper also proposed to rename streets with colonial backgrounds and to develop a school program called »Hamburg learns about colonial history«.
All political parties in the Harburg district parliament, including the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD) voted for the proposal. The Hamburg Minister of Culture was also in favor of the idea of a Park Postkolonial in Harburg. However, in February 2006 the Hamburg Bürgerschaft (Parliament of Hamburg) voted against this project on the basis of a majority vote of the ruling party CDU.
Nevertheless, the debate and discussion on the colonial history of Hamburg and how to deal with it continues. In 2007/2008 we – a group of artists and historians - are planning the project »wandsbektransformance«, a work-in-progress researching colonial vestiges in the northeastern part of Hamburg.
Translation: Philipp Lange
Translation help: Christiane Unland-Schlebes
1) Roland Barthes: Mythen des Alltags. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1964
2) Thomas Feuerstein: comments on PERSONENRUFE - EINE MEDIALE GEDENKTAFEL by ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. www.kunstradio.at/PROJECTS/PERS_RUFE/feuerstein.html
3) The project afrika-hamburg.de was part of a large scale cultural program due to two memorial years 2004 and 2005, set up by the group hamburg postkolonial (www.hamburg-postkolonial.de), consisting of NGOs such as Eine Welt Netzwerk and CulturCooperation e.V. Within this program called Vom Togokai zum Tansania-Park lectures, conferences, exhibitions, a film event and city tours were presented. In the project afrika-hamburg.de I organized several happenings, readings and art interventions in urban space in front of the Wissmann memorial. School kids made projects with the monument and worked with it creatively and literally speaking, physically.
4) It took two years to realize the project. The Hamburger Kulturstiftung set up a competition for art projects for the new part of the town Hafencity (Harbor City). The concept afrika-hamburg.dewon a first prize. In this way the project succeeded in becoming more public and was presented in the media. Then numerous negotiations with the administration, scientists, promoters and also opponents became useful and necessary. Relevant decision makers were the Ministry of Culture, the Department of Protection of Historical Monuments, the Art Commission, the Harbor Art Commission, the Ministry of Construction as well as the Department of Construction in the district Hamburg-Mitte. Then there was a change in the City Government: the CDU Party and the rightwing Schill Party separated in 2003. The new Minister for Culture finally gave the go-ahead for the project’s realisation. The project became a part of the cultural program hamburg postcolonial.
Participative art projects in urban spaces do not only invite citizens to work together but also influence decision processes in the City Administration and give impulses for reflection on art, history as well citizen participation. Such processes are an important part of my artistic work.
5) See also Thomas Morlang: »Finde ich keinen Weg, so bahne ich mir einen.«; Der umstrittene »Kolonialheld« Hermann von Wissmann, in: Ulrich van der Heyden and Joachim Zeller (ed.): »Macht und Anteil an der Weltherrschaft...»;, Berlin und der deutsche Kolonialismus, Münster: UNRAST-publishing house, 2005, www.unrast-verlag.de/unrast,2,219,13.html
See also Winfried Speitkamp: Der Totenkult um die Kolonialheroen des Deutschen Kaiserreichs. in: zeitenblicke 3, 2004, Nr. 1, www.historicum.net/zeitenblicke/2004/01/speitkamp/
See also Joachim Zeller: »Deutschlands größter Afrikaner»- Zur Geschichte der Denkmäler für Hermann von Wißmann. In: Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaft 12/1996