This three-part essay first introduces Berlin’s anticolonial, Black feminist poetics through the work of May Ayim and Audre Lorde, whose poems “Blues in Black-and-White” and “East Berlin 1989” were written shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in response to racial attacks in a “reunited” Germany. Part I explores how these poetics and politics have influenced ongoing efforts to engage with the memory of German colonialism, xenophobia, and memorialization in public spaces. Part II moves the reader into close studies of two contemporary performance works by Afro-diasporic artists in Berlin who build on the Black feminist poetics explored in Part I. The first, Wayward Dust by Monilola Olayemi Ilupeju, was an invited performance at the Deutsches Technikmuseum in August 2020. The second, untitled performance, by the group Black Art Action Berlin (BAAB), was uninvited, and took place in Berlin’s Humboldt Forum in October 2021. In Part III, the author discusses how these performance artists in Berlin have responded to institutional pledges to “decolonize” museums, by inverting expectations of Black performance and white spectatorship in this space. The author argues that they are important interventions for this contemporary moment of institutional reckoning that challenge expectations of Black labor and white leisure in the museum, and that they should be understood within the context of an ongoing creative struggle developed in transnational Black feminist praxis.
Black Feminist Poetics in Berlin
The Afro-German poet May Ayim wrote her poem “Blues in Schwarz Weiss” (“Blues in Black-and-White,” hereafter referred to as “Blues”) one year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She was thirty years old, a celebrated writer who had already toured her poetry and performed it on three continents. Five years earlier, she had studied with Audre Lorde, who became a mentor and encouraged her to coedit the first Afro-German anthology, Farbe Bekennen (Showing Our Colors), in 1986.1 With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the political reunification of East and West German territories (1989–90), white nationalism rose and people of color were attacked by racist mobs. A few years later, the 1992 English translation of the book Farbe Bekennen was published and included May Ayim’s poem, “Blues in Black-and-White” (translated by Tina Campt). “Blues” begins:
In Germany, the period during which Ayim wrote these lines is referred to as “die Wende” (the turning point), signaling political transitions of governance and claims to a united nation. But rather than adopt this language of change, “Blues” describes racism as a cyclical force in the never-ending battering of a constant war against “othered” Germans. For Ayim, discrimination in Germany is quotidian: “over and over again / the actual others declare themselves / the only real ones again.” Ayim had explored feelings of self-doubt in other sections of Farbe Bekennen (Opitz, Oguntoye, and Shultz 1986: 169–90; 261–70). But in “Blues,” the poet is no longer under the illusion that there is something wrong with her own subjectivity. Rather, she is conscious of her Blackness and has found in it pride and solidarity. In “Blues,” her oppressors are “the actual others” who have mistaken violence against her for a superior expression of humanism.
The Black women authors of Farbe Bekennen recorded their autobiographical experiences of anti-African racism in the book’s pages: how they were treated as outsiders, even if they shared the same language and culture as their white German neighbors. Michelle Wright (2003: 298) studies the particular misrecognition of Afro-Germans as visiting Africans by white people who are “either resistant or incapable of imagining someone who is both Black and German.” Wright (2004: 191) terms this out-casting of Afro-German subjects as “Others-from-Without” (Black Germans must field questions like, “When are you returning to Africa?”) and contrasts it to the anti-Black racism that manifests in the United States, where African Americans are recognized as “Others-from-Within” (or as being born and raised in the United States, even if racists believe they do not belong there). She summarizes the Black German experience with a chilling observation: It is not that Afro-German identity is the antithesis of white German subjectivity, “it is simply nonexistent” (Wright 2003: 298).
Ayim’s “Blues” is a poem about remembrance culture. It studies whose victories are remembered in Germany, “its intimate circle”; the “one-third of the world”—the colonizers— which “dances over the other two-thirds”—the colonized (Opitz, Oguntoye, and Schultz 1986: 232). It mocks the celebration of national and international alliances with lowercase letters, “united germany united europe united states”—all unions predicated on the condition of forgetting violence, united in whitewash. And while “Blues begins” with colonial dismembering—the separating of “sold off” peoples from family trees, “distributed” in diasporic migrations—it ends by dismembering a singular Humanity into thirds; two-thirds in opposition to the status quo. The poem is a damning critique of Europe’s refusal to recognize the colonial extraction and exploitation of Indigenous African, Asian, and American peoples. It demystifies colonial violence (“they want to isolate us; irradiate our history / or mystify it / to the point of / irrecognition”; Opitz, Oguntoye, and Schultz 1986: 232–33), because this violence continues to shape the ongoing geopolitics of knowledge and governance in the wider world. It reminds Europe: we haven’t forgotten and you have not been forgiven for “five hundred years—of slavery, exploitation, and genocide.” What is lost in the published English translation of the poem is the poet’s wordplay through homonyms. As Wright (2003: 256fn26) translates, in German, “white” is Weiß, and the first-person conjugation of “to know” in the present tense is weiß, offering the alternative title of “Blues in Black Knowing.”
This “Black knowing” is a recognition of international struggles against European colonialism. In this sense, “Blues” is also an expression of diasporic solidarity. The word “irrecognition” in this poem, which Campt has translated from the German Unkenntlichkeit, stands alone above the line that connects the Afro-German to that global, Black diasporic expression of struggle: “it’s the blues” (Opitz, Oguntoye, and Schultz 1992: 233). As Wright (2003: 303) has argued, Ayim’s poetry, with its historical references and use of German colloquialisms and language wordplay, works to “locate the white German as a retrograde reactionary whose language and thought locates him or her squarely outside of the contemporary discourse.” That discourse was, through the work of people like Audre Lorde and Paul Gilroy at this time, reflecting more and more an Afro-diasporic consciousness and proud Black subjecthood. So, while “Blues” speaks to the difficulty of navigating Germany’s anti-Black hostility from an Afro-German perspective, Ayim cut a diasporic counter-discourse, linking her own Afro-German struggle to the African American blues tradition with the refrain: “It’s the blues in Black-and-white” (Opitz, Oguntoye, and Schultz 1992: 232–33).
As Angela Davis (1998: 140) traces in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, the blues, “as the most important post-slavery musical genre, encouraged forms of social consciousness that challenged the dominant ideology of racism.” By inserting herself into the legacy of African American blues women, like Bessie Smith, Bessie Jackson, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and Esther Phillips, who—as Michele Russell (1982: 130) reminds us—“are bearers of the self-determination tradition,” Ayim reclaims sisterhood and creative survival with two-thirds of the world’s people, who are made to feel marginalized because their presence triggers fear of relational and historical accountability: “we’re sure of it—we’re sure” (Opitz, Oguntoye, and Schultz 1992: 233) Karein Goertz (2003: 314) argues that “the blues provide a compelling model for the lyrical, empowering and communal expression of both grief and anger.” And, as Russell (1982: 130) notes, blues women “recall the worst aspects of our collective situation and teach us how to wring from that the best transformation consciousness can achieve at precise moments in history.” With the strength of her diasporic consciousness, at this “Wende” or “turning point” in Germany’s history, Ayim uses “Blues” to refuse interest in the national identity suggested by the state, instead identifying with an oppressed, global majority. There will be no celebrating geopolitical changes that do not recognize their lives as mattering, so Ayim ends her poem by declining to “join the party” (Opitz, Oguntoye, and Schultz 1993: 233).
Audre Lorde was engaged in Black feminist activisms with Ayim in Berlin from 1983–92.2 In May 1988, Lorde was invited to speak at the conference “Der Traum von Europa: Schriftsteller laden Schriftsteller ein” (“The Dream of Europe: Authors Invite Authors”), held at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of the Cultures of the World) in Berlin. At the podium, she placed her hopes for Europe’s future in “the hyphenated people, who in concert with other people of the African Diaspora, are increasing forces for international change” (Broek and Bolaki 2015: 25–26). Her address relied on identification with “that two-thirds of the world’s population that are people of color,” which May Ayim would use in “Blues.” Finding strength in this majority perspective, Lorde confronted her white audience: “I do not hear the voice of one Black European writer here, and so I wonder how serious this dreaming can be” (Broek and Bolaki 2015: 25). Her speech ended with the lines, “Our survival means learning to use difference for something other than destruction. So does yours,” and with determination, she warned, “With or without you, we are moving on” (Broek and Bolaki 2015: 26). When her statement elicited no reaction, Lorde left the panel in protest.
Paul Farber (2020: 132) has described Lorde’s time in Berlin as one that “fueled the expansion of a broader diasporic consciousness specifically honed in Germany.” He reads her work from this pre-Mauerfall period as poetry that can be understood in conversation with broader discourses on memory and border politics. Analyzing “Berlin Is Hard on Colored Girls,” “This Urb Contains Earth from German Concentration Camps: Plotzensee Memorial, West Berlin, 1984,” and “Diaspora” (published in Our Dead behind Us in 1986 and A Burst of Light in 1988), Farber (2020: 135) describes Lorde’s treatment of the Berlin Wall in these poems as “both a spatial and temporal divide and poetic manifestation of division to be countered with diffusion.”
But if we turn our attention to another of Lorde’s poems, written shortly after the Berlin Wall’s fall, we read evidence of the enduring violent divisions of the city, still not diffused. The poem “East Berlin 1989,” published posthumously in the 1993 collection The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance, begins: “It feels dangerous now / to be Black in Berlin” (Lorde 1993: 50–51). In “East Berlin 1989,” Lorde remembers walking Berlin streets that were familiar to her with new fear, archiving Black anxieties about moving through public spaces after the lynching of Amadeu Antonio Kiowa, a contract worker from Angola, who was beaten on the street by a gang of neo-Nazis in 1990.3 Describing Germany’s reunification as “many tattered visions intersecting,” the poem ignores American claims of a Cold War triumph and instead records the pressure of a social climate erupting with violence:
The next lines remember an “Afro-German woman stomped to death / by skinheads in Alexanderplatz” and “two-year-old girls / half-cooked in their campcots.” Lorde ends this stanza with the question: “Who pays the price / For their disillusion?” (Lorde 1993: 50).
Like Ayim’s “Blues,” Lorde used the language of sight and perspective to reflect Black diasporic consciousness. Both Ayim and Lorde used their poetry to voice a counterview on Berlin’s self-proclaimed progress and to present questions of relativity that build on a strong century of anticolonial, epistemic critiques of Europe that connected Germany’s colonial and Nazi brutalities, including Aimé Césaire’s (1955: 32) Discourse on Colonialism, which contended that Europe is morally and spiritually “indefensible.”4 We might understand these writers as employing a literary form of what Campt (2021: 17) has recently termed “A Black Gaze,” a creative practice that produces “radical forms of witnessing” and rejects “traditional ways of seeing blackness and ways of seeing that historically depict blackness only in subordinate relation to whiteness.” Parts II and III will continue to reference Campt’s “Black Gaze” analytic, as it is helpful for tracing the continuities between the Black feminist poetics of Ayim and Lorde and contemporary performance work in Berlin.
The poets wrote “Blues” and “East Berlin 1989” in the final years of their lives; Lorde would die by cancer in 1992 and Ayim by suicide in 1996, after a challenging medical diagnosis of her own.5 Ayim’s popularity has grown since her death, with younger generations of Afro-German writers drawing strength and relief from her poetry, which is some of the first literature to express the challenges of performing a hyphenated identity in Germany. The Afro-German activist, artist, author, and editor Natasha A. Kelly (2016, 2021) has published two book tributes to May Ayim. They are anthologies that collect the voices of Black women who continue Ayim’s antiracist work in the German language. A willow-lined street along the River Spree in Berlin, which previously bore the name of a seventeenth-century Prussian colonist associated with the slave trade, was officially renamed in 2010 as May Ayim Ufer. In June 2021, Kreuzberg politicians also voted to rename a nearby street in honor of Audre Lorde (Häußler and Bardow 2021).
Today, Afro-Germans engaged in local political struggles for recognition in Germany have celebrated such renaming ceremonies, which constitute some of the few hard-earned victories in the fight against anti-Blackness in public space. Togo, Cameroon, German East Africa (present-day Tanzania), and German Southwest Africa (present-day Namibia) made up Germany’s colonial possessions in Africa before 1916, and these names are still used for street signage and Kleingarten (allotment gardens) in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany. Berlin’s Postkoloniale association, and the “No Humboldt21!” campaign, as well as activist-led walking tours and appeals by residents themselves have put pressure on Berlin’s local government to change more signage. They argue that renaming is not a means to erase Germany’s colonial past, but rather to strip it of honor and to remember those who have insisted we not forget that there is nothing honorable about war and genocide. This practice of renaming signage is slowly being implemented across the city. In lieu of changing African nomenclature, Mischa Honeck, Martin Klimke, and Anne Kuhlmann (2013: 14) suggest that the city might “at least furnish the street signs with explanatory captions.”
May Ayim’s graduate research explored the presence of Africans in Europe in literature from the Middle Ages. While there are various African individuals known to have lived in (what would become) “Germany” at this time, she noted that there are no numbers available to suggest just how many there were (Opitz, Oguntoye, and Schultz 1986: 27).6 Ayim wrote critically about how inclusion of the African in German culture too often relied on offensive portrayals (Opitz, Oguntoye, and Schultz 1986: 27–92). The term Mohr (pl. Mohren)—like the English word Moor (derived from the Latin Maurus)—was the common word for African persons with Black skin in the early modern era in Berlin (and the wider region that is today Germany), but the use of Mohr today holds derogatory associations with slaves and German colonialism for many people. As Honeck, Klimke, and Kuhlmann (2013: 3) note in their introduction to Germany and the Black Diaspora: Points of Contact, “African ‘court Moors,’ many of them shipped in from distant slave markets and subsequently baptized, became ever more visible in aristocratic Europe during the early modern period and were an integral part of courtly representation.” The authors argue that this term, which was traditionally used to address Africans and “always bore a certain fascination and kindled visions of brave warriors, Christian saints, and the riches of Africa, was replaced by that of the ‘Negro,’ which alluded instead to trading commodity; a childish, cheap and unskilled hand” (3).7
Mohrenstrasse (which activists now call M*Strasse, finding the term Mohren offensive) is a street in central Berlin that runs from west to east. It is one of the oldest streets in the city, with a train station that bears the same name. The reason for this nomenclature is unknown, but Mohrenstrasse appeared on maps as early as 1707 (Schneider 1983: 149), reminding us that African people were present in Berlin well before Germany’s colonization of Africa. The Berlin West Africa Conference (November 1884–February 1885), when European powers met to lay claim to the Congo River basin, was hosted just a few blocks away from M*strasse on Wilhelmstrasse. After the abolition of slavery in Europe and the advent of guns and medicine that allowed European colonial invasion, the final decades of the nineteenth century saw a proliferation of Black bodies grafted onto commodities and signage in servile positions, like the Mammy and Sambo figures in the U.S. context. The images of Africans on German goods and brands in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries referenced the wealth that Germany was amassing through colonial extraction. Many of Berlin’s central streets and plazas are named for colonizers of this era, who, after the Berlin West Africa Conference, entered Africa with weapons and committed atrocities in the name of German imperialism. Black activists have asked: Why, in the twenty-first century, is there no remembrance culture for colonial wars and genocide in Germany that includes the African perspective?
The recent renaming of M*Strasse to Anton Wilhelm Amo Strasse in August 2020 is one example that links investments in renaming city streets to larger anticolonial critique.8 Anton Wilhelm Amo (ca. 1703–59) was a Nzema man (born to Akan people) who was abducted to Germany from the region known today as Ghana as a child slave by the Dutch West India Company (Opitz, Oguntoye, and Schultz 1992: 3). He was given as a gift to the dukes August Wilhelm and Ludwig Rudolf von Wolfenbuettel, who paid for his European education. Amo became the first African to receive a doctorate from a German University; he studied philosophy and law in Halle, positioning himself as an early thinker of the Enlightenment.9 Amo was the first African to become a professor of philosophy in Germany. However, he left Europe in 1743, “no longer able to withstand the increasing attacks by racial theorists,” and returned to the Gold Coast (Ghana), where—as Ayim suggests—he may have been captured again by slave traders (Opitz, Oguntoye, and Schultz 1992: 4).
In Berlin, the celebration ceremony for the naming of Anton Wilhelm Amo Strasse began as a rally in front of the Humboldt Forum site, a former Prussian palace and new museum that consolidates Germany’s ethnological collections. The equivalent of over $800 million has been dedicated to the renovations and preparations for the display of twenty thousand stolen sacred objects and arts in the Humboldt Forum’s halls (Grenier and Hucal 2021). The expensive restoration of the former royal palace to host these materials is read by critics as a glorification of Germany’s violent colonial era, when wealth was drawn from resource extraction in Africa, Asia, and Oceana. On the day of the M*Strasse renaming celebration, several hundred protestors gathered outside the Humboldt building, riding the energy of spring protests with banners that read “TEAR IT DOWN,” alongside “Black Lives Matter.” There were flags with Black power fists, signs with the names of Black people who have been killed by police in Germany and elsewhere, as well as quotes by Amo and a large banner painted like his street sign. There were speeches by activists and performances by African artists before the crowd marched from the Humboldt Forum to the renaming ceremony close by, linking anticolonial protest to the activist victory at Anton Wilhelm Amo Strasse with this procession.
The collections of the Humboldt Forum, which include over a million objects and specimens, including African human remains, were previously held at the Free University in Dahlem, Berlin, from 1967–2017 (DocFilm 2021). Meanwhile, the Free University’s leadership has been involved in a scandal involving a cover-up of the discovery of human remains buried on the Berlin campus. They are the bones of both adult and child bodies, believed to have been used for scientific experiments during Germany’s Nazi (National Socialist) era (Aly 2021). Forensic experts explained that “the plastic tags found are reminiscent of markings for biological/medical preparations, so that they could be remains of such due to the position of the bones in the soil and the incompleteness of the skeletons” (Aly 2021). The presence of bones in the schoolyard ask us to make sense of this dismemberment: this violence enacted against the bodies, as well as local suggestions that for half a century, nobody knew.10 As Aly (2021) reports, the university quietly and unceremoniously cremated the bones in 2014 and continues to resist additional excavations that may turn up more bodies. Meanwhile, activists demand public recognition that the killing of these people matters, that their lives mattered, and that accountability for this harm matters.
Despite years of protests that have linked the harms of Germany’s colonial past to the country’s Nazi atrocities, with human bone matter in the collections as proof, the Humboldt Forum opened its doors in September 2021. Meanwhile, conservatives continue to demand their right to M*strasse, which they see as a matter of national heritage. The struggle over signage continues, but the offensive term remains at the train station where May Ayim filmed herself in the late 1980s enjoying a German candy named Negerkuss (Negro Kiss) in a blatant display of Black pride.
Leading up to the Humboldt Forum opening ceremony, many activists, including Nigerian government officials, demanded the restitution of objects looted from Africa, with the 440 Benin bronzes in the collection becoming a central organizing point; the museum has agreed not to show them, and is in negotiations about their return (Brown 2021). This pressure was felt by institutions across the city. Even the most conservative museums have pledged to address gaps in their provenance research—or, better said, their role in colonial looting. In January 2020, a state-funded project was founded and placed under direction of some of Berlin’s Black leadership from EOTO (Each One Teach One) and ISD (Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland Bund e.V / The Initiative of Black Germans). The project, titled “Decolonize Berlin,” and the accompanying office, Dekoloniale: Erinnerungskulture in der Stadt (Decolonial: Culture of Remembrance in the City) will be funded for three years. As various museums have announced their intentions to “decolonize” their collections, they have partnered with Dekoloniale to do so.
Like Ayim’s act of filming herself eating the Negerküss candy on M*Strasse, many Black artists in Berlin who are making anticolonial work today have turned to performance in public spaces to expose the hypocrisy and brutality of the gaps in Germany’s memory culture. In the following sections I explore the resonances of Ayim and Lorde’s Black feminist poetics in two examples of contemporary performance in Berlin and offer my own analysis of this museum-based activism for the development of antiracist and anticolonial discourse in Germany.
Monilola Olayemi Ilupeju’s Wayward Dust at the Deutsches Technikmuseum, Berlin
On August 23, 2020, the international day for the remembrance of the slave trade, the Nigerian American artist Monilola Olayemi Ilupeju donned a white plastic protective suit, a mask, and a headlamp and entered the Brandenburg-Prussian slave trade installation in the Deutsches Technikmuseum, Berlin (Berlin Museum of Technology). Her forty-five-minute performance, Wayward Dust, would mark the last day of the installation’s controversial existence and the beginning of its dismantling.
The slave installation was commissioned in the 1990s, when the job was given to Hans-Juergen Buchert, a white German set designer and sculptor who lives near Berlin. He describes the installation on his website as “Slave Project / The human being as an object of trading / From 1685–1715 the principality of Brandenburg (the area around Berlin) took part in the international slave trade” (Buchert n.d.). The installation, which was in the “shipping” section of the museum, contained eighty-two life-size Styrofoam statues of enslaved people. However, as Ilupeju (n.d.) describes it, the enslaved were represented “in humiliating, casual and inaccurate ways.” As the artist described in an interview for Edna Bonhomme’s Dekolonization in Action podcast, “They were smiling, lounging with tons of space around them” (Ilupeju 2020).
The staging of these bodies on warehouse shelves, inside a rusty cube that resembles a freight container, was perhaps meant to symbolize the commodification of enslaved people, but the decision felt anachronistic and laundered; the bodies were clothed, they wore decorative jewelry, they were not chained to one another, but rather were lounging as if in the sauna. This is not what a slave ship looked like. The museum’s educational context, it being one of the few places in the city to learn about slavery, made the inaccurate portrayals even more harmful. Ilupeju (n.d.) condemned it for “violently inserting a false, visual narrative of history into Germany’s public consciousness.”
Exhibited in the Deutsches Technikmuseum for seventeen years, the installation was met with demands for removal by many Black cultural groups and artists. Critics condemned the display, not only because the slave scene triggered painful emotions for Black people who encountered it (often as the sole Black person in groups of white people), but also because it inaccurately portrayed African enslaved people as passive victims without attending to their own stories of resistance. Black people in Berlin had voiced these concerns for the seventeen years it was on view, but as Ilupeju (n.d.) states on her website, the installation closed in the summer of 2019, “after I successfully demanded its immediate closure upon the initiation of the project.”
Wayward Dust was available to watch via livestream and now lives as a recording on the artist’s website. In the first five minutes of the film, Ilupeju sets up her scene, pushing a bench toward the entrance of a cubed space in the museum, and sits down. Next to her is a white pedestal and a bright lamp shining on its empty surface. She sits, takes a sip of water, unlaces her shoes, pulls a plastic suit out of her bag and steps into it, already sighing her exhaustion. She zips up the hooded protective suit, stretches goggles to her face, and slips into a mask and gloves, then adjusts a headlamp on her forehead so that only the skin of her flying cheekbones is exposed.
Next, she tentatively enters the doorway and the camera follows behind. Upon her entry, she sounds, “ouuhgh,” but the viewers cannot see what she sees yet. She crouches in the dark between large iron grates and shelves. Her headlamp shines on dusty black feet and outstretched limbs. She wipes around the base of each figure. She is collecting dust in her hands. She makes noises expressing her discomfort, breathing heavily. She shifts and slides her knees across wooden floorboards, reaching around for more dust matter, attending to each inch of the space diligently. The silver grate on the ceiling and the one she must push through to enter the installation give the appearance that she is in a cage. Finally, she’s collected a handful of dust. She stands and walks out of the exhibition, placing the dust on the pedestal outside. Then she returns through the doorway. This goes on, over and over again, the artist returning into the installation to care for these statues, as the dust pile grows. Her movements become faster, more frantic, especially when she is in closer proximity to the bodies, which are faded like corpses. She grabs an especially large handful of gray dust from a corner: “Whoa! Jesus!” She holds the pile up to her headlamp to inspect it. She finds other matter: chewing gum. A silver bolt. A yellow rag. “What the fuck is this?” she asks as she throws it down from the shelf she’s reached with a ladder. “It’s fucking hot.” As she returns to the pedestal with another handful, she exclaims, “Disgusting,” with release. She sneezes.
The lights shining on the pedestal illuminate each particle that flies away as she adds to the pile, reminding us of the impossibility of containing this matter. Toward the end of the performance, she crouches behind the pedestal, facing the camera so that it shows a close-up of her eyes, watching the dust as it swirls in the air. She plays with it between her fingers, blowing into it to make it fly. Inspecting it for twigs and toothpicks, she wipes the dust from her hands. She takes breaks for water, and we hear her gulp, thirsty. She tells us her hands are sweaty. She is uncomfortable. It becomes harder for her to reenter; she takes deep breaths at the door before she does. Finally, she stops and turns back, takes off her protective suit, wipes her arms, and redresses. In the background we hear the sounds of German children elsewhere in the museum shrieking with joy. Placing a glass case around the collected dust, the work is presented to us: one last shot for the camera.
Probably nobody, besides the original artist of the installation himself, has been in such close proximity to the Black bodies on display at the Deutsches Technikmuseum. As one watches the recording of Wayward Dust, one notices the grunts, huffs, and sighs of discomfort, which get more and more pronounced throughout the duration of the piece. As Ilupeju moves nearer to the bodies, she shakes her head, each ball of dust she collects the proof of abandonment. The unsettling quality of the light flashing across outstretched, still limbs is horrific. And the scenes where Ilupeju emerges from the dark into the bright light of the museum and sets the matter on the pedestal provide moments of—not relief—but recognition.
Ilupeju (n.d.) describes Wayward Dust as “a meditation on decay and regeneration.” She notes: “The main goal of Wayward Dust was to make visible the physical and intangible particles and processes within the work of building and deconstructing reality.” Dust consists of sloughed-off dead skin cells, hair, clothing fibers, bacteria, dust mites, bits of dead bugs, soil particles, pollen, and microscopic specks of plastic. It covers the Styrofoam figurines. This dust, she recognizes, is made of the hair and skin flakes of those workers and visitors who have entered the installation since its debut in 2003. “Every time someone stepped into the installation, they left a piece of themselves behind,” Ilupeju (n.d.) explains. The artist continues to use the dust she gathered that day in her own installations. In presenting this matter in new contexts, Ilupeju asks her audience: Who gets to collect whom? How do institutions lay claim to certain bodies in order for others to know themselves? How is evidence of these practices gathered?
Wayward Dust was an invited performance and its announcement came with a statement by the museum (Technikmuseum Berlin 2020) declaring an ongoing project of “making space for new perspectives” and “deconstructing colonial histories.” For Ilupeju, the performance was a physically uncomfortable and emotional labor. Her audible discomfort provokes attention to the work of “decolonializing.” Who must attend to the harm that centuries of inaccuracies and infantilizing stories about Africans has caused? And what about the emotional labor of attending to the memory of this antiracist work? How is it compensated? Who cleans the world? “Who pays the price / For their disillusion?” (Lorde 1993: 50). Is she OK? Here is a woman who is reconciled to cleaning up this crime scene. If not her, perhaps nobody would.
Black Art Action in the Afrika Wing at the Humboldt Forum
On October 3, 2021, on the Tag der Deutschen Einheit (Day of German Unity), a German holiday that is meant to celebrate the end of the Soviet hold on the former East Germany and the “reunification” of the nation, the Black Art Action Berlin (BAAB)11 performance group entered the Humbolt Forum and made a scene in the Africa wing of the building. It was exactly thirty-one years to the day of the Mauerfall, after which the rise of white nationalism inspired poets like Ayim and Lorde to write the poems that served as antiracist and anticolonial confrontations. At the Humboldt Forum’s opening ceremony two weeks prior, members of BAAB had arrived on the steps of the building with binoculars, but, like Ayim, they “didn’t join the party” (Opitz, Oguntoye, and Schultz 1992: 233). They came to witness the ongoing colonial spectacle. The group’s presence that day foreshadowed a larger coordinated action three weeks later. I have no photographs of this performance; instead I offer you an account from my memory as a participant-observer:
Six Black artists came together to perform the action at the Humboldt Forum. Some others came to witness and support. We met outside the building and used the time we waited to coordinate our tickets, which were free to reserve, but released to limited capacity because of the COVID-19 pandemic. There was that frenzied feeling you get in your body before you know you’re going to cause a scene. The plan was basic: we would get into the African Art Wing on the second floor and then we would study the visitors.
We entered the museum through the arch of a grand courtyard. My eyes wandered up the tall palace walls, which stretched to meet blue sky. We were flowing together like hot lava in the canyon of the ornate, imperial colossus. We found the entrance to the ethnology collections and slowed to a single line, pushing through the revolving door, spilling out onto the smooth marbled halls of the museum’s foyer. The foyer opened to another interior courtyard of the palace restored from the nineteenth century, but we didn’t look around. We rode the escalators to the first floor, where we packed our jackets into lockers in the Garderobe. Some women had already buried the speakers we’d play into the front pocket of a hoodie and a fanny pack on their bodies.
We all wore black clothing and some wore black T-shirts with white lettering that spelled BAAB on their backs. We might have been assumed to be a school group or some other unthreatening ensemble. Still, we were attracting attention. None of us had been inside the building before and nobody knew how strict the guards would be about the fifteen-minute time slot to enter which was printed on our tickets. When the whole group was ready, we rode the escalator to the second floor. Gliding past large glass windows we could see construction continuing on the parallel wing of the building and we better understood its monumental scale.
As our view rolled over the top of the escalator there emerged a hanging sign which read Afrika in large letters, and then again in slightly smaller letters underneath, Afrika.
The first room we entered was mostly empty, with wall text that attempted to answer some choice questions. Q: “When were these objects brought to Berlin, and where were they put?” A: “More than two-thirds of the ethnographic holdings were brought to the Berlin Museum during the colonial era.” Q: “What are the important issues?” A: “Provenance research.”
In the next room, large white text on a floating black background overwhelmed me as we entered. It read, “I have a white frame of reference and a white world view,” a quote from Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, which signaled to me exactly who the museum expected the audience to be. This room announced an exhibition’s title: Ansichts-sache(n): Ein Auftakt / Matter(s) of Perspective: An Overture.
Wall text claimed it showed “traces of colonialism in German colonial territories of Cameroon, Namibia, and Oceana.” But that the room did not hold “things” or tangible objects from the collection, only “reproductions,” in order to “shift the focus back to the act of seeing itself and in the interest of the current discussion on restitution—that is the repatriation of objects.” I read the text quickly and took a photo to study before moving on, ignoring the installation as we continued toward the main hall, where the looted art was concentrated.
The guards anchored their eyes on us as soon as we entered. Instead of following us, they took long studied looks and then huddled closer together, gossiping quietly. They wore dark blue collared T-shirts and masks. Their museum badges were clipped to the front of matching blue slacks, which sat loose under the round of their bellies. They seemed comfortable in their uniforms, not like the low-wage guards, stuffed into stiff suits in New York whom I was familiar with.
We walked around the space filled with African masks, carvings, beaded and woven textiles, and gathered in the left corner where a curving blue couch and plush stools were designed to seat many people, perhaps to give tour groups a rest. The room was full of people peering at the art that hovered behind glass cases. At first, we deliberated: Where would we start? For how long would we look before we shift our focus? What is the word we would shout if anyone was assaulted? Everything else was intuitively improvised in real time.
At last, we sauntered toward the center of the room and formed a circle around a bright blue, pearl-embroidered royal throne taken from the Kingdom of Bamum. We faced outward, backs to each other and against the throne, en garde. Then we lifted our binoculars. Mine were made out of my curled thumbs and pointer fingers. Others had metal and plastic and glass versions they peered through for a macro view. Although our feet were planted and only our heads and torsos were moving to follow visitors who entered the room, after ten minutes of my arms in this pose, I realized the physical strength this performance demanded.
More and more guards gathered, speaking quietly into their walkie-talkies, calling for backup. They tried to get our attention while the visitors ignored us. It was a phenomenon I didn’t anticipate: they simply refused to meet our gaze. It felt more rehearsed than our own performance. Irrecognition. When I met a visitor’s eyes through the arm bend of sculpture or the glass of a protective case, they shifted their focus. As time went on, more and more eyes looked right through us.
A correction: there was, from the beginning, one woman, the oldest in the room, who noticed our formation around the throne and immediately stopped moving, watching us with wide eyes. When we broke the circle, I moved slowly toward her and she did not stop looking until I passed her. Somehow her acknowledgment allowed me to shift my gaze to the others, who gathered behind the glass islands and walked, leisurely, through the space, unaffected. The women who had the speakers turned them on and voices reading May Ayim’s (1990) poem, “Grenzenlos und unverschämt” (“Borderless and Brazen”), blasted through the room:
The guards were confused. They tried to follow the sound but could not identify which of us had the speakers. For ten minutes this went on. More guards arrived. Negotiations began in earnest: “Please turn it down,” they begged. But we continued to move, ignoring all requests until I turned to see the person with the speaker stopped. They paused the recording. We returned to the couch and deliberated. We decided to make a formation that moved through the room, snaking again like a stream—and we would use our own voices.
We moved, feeling through the exhibition with our arms outstretched. We took up space, bending and dipping, then rising to new levels. Someone from our group sounded a groan and the rest of us echoed in chorus. Someone else asked, “Was machen sie hier?” (“What are they doing here?”) and we echoed the question in canon. Someone exclaimed, “So many!” and we answered, “So many!” Someone began laughing, and it caught. We doubled over shaking, our ha-ha-has rolling us along in procession. This was the moment that visitors could not withhold their attention any longer! They recoiled from the power with which the air left our lungs and pushed us along into shakes and shimmies. And then we returned to study. Calls echoed: “Raubkunst!” (“Looted art!”)12 One elderly white man became angry, screaming, “Was machst du?” (“What are you doing?”) A middle-aged white woman with a dark combover squinted at us with hate as she complained to the guards.
The performance lasted about an hour. The police never did arrive, but some from our group were afraid the staff would not tolerate us much longer. I did not want to leave just yet, as there was still more audio to play and I felt it was too soon after the man shouted at us. But the safeword was called, and we did leave, as we had agreed to do if anyone began to feel in danger. We returned to the Garderobe for our jackets, followed by a crowd of guards, shifting, whispering into their walkie-talkies as they waited to see what we’d do next. I never took my eyes off them. When we left the building, they did not follow. We left through the same arch in the courtyard, walked to the front of the building, where we started, sat in a circle, and began to discuss our experience.
This BAAB action was planned for Tag der Deutschen Einheit (the Day of German Unity), bringing May Ayim’s critique of Germany’s claims of unification from “Blues in Schwarz Weiss” and “Grenzenlos und unverschämt” into the galleries. The use of Ayim’s poetry was a tribute to her life and work twenty-five years after her death. Returning to my memory of the performance, I am struck by its improvisation, its achoreographic nature, our maroon choreography (Ife 2021: 82), “a way of moving out and beyond and into.” A process of collective negotiation was what moved us in and out of the Humboldt Forum. BAAB had performed a similar action a few months prior, which began in Görlitzer Park and ended at May Ayim Ufer. That time, the gaze of the performers was met with harassment, sexualized comments, and profanities from white men who felt threatened by Black people with binoculars. The museum was a new context for the performance, but ultimately it, too, was a hostile site for our presence.
There were the menacing aesthetics we had to navigate: the materials of a state building, the incessant beeping of an alarm system triggered, security guards following. But their hands were tied, we reasoned; activists had applied pressure so that the media was watching to see how the institution would respond to anticolonial critique. Their own wall text described exactly what we were there to do. It was an overture! Meant to “shift the focus back to the act of seeing itself, in the interest of the current discussion on restitution.” If the museum were to respond to Black artists with police force, it would have caused a public relations nightmare, we told each other. The museum’s name, the Humboldt Forum, suggests that the building serves as a “forum” for discourse about its collections, and the BAAB action can be interpreted as contributing to that “ongoing conversation” and participating in the “open dialogue” (Dorgerloh et al. 2021).
The Humboldt Forum displays a looted collection, the missing provenance of which describes war and genocide (“we’re sure of it / we’re sure”). The absence of a written record of this theft does not absolve the truth of the matter. In observing the white gaze of the museum visitor, our performance was provocative. Rather than demand recognition (we assume neither the ignorance nor innocence of the white world), we reframed the subjects of the show through the lens of our binoculars: we focused on the “actual others,” consumers of stolen art. Inverting the politics of display, our gaze suggested that visitors were implicated in the ongoing exploitation of African and other colonized peoples through the hoarding of wealth. It challenged traditional spectatorship of Blackness by mirroring white entitlement body language.13 In reality, it was absurd. We did it because we’re mad.
But how to interpret the response of our audience? There were the men who got angry and shouted. They showed indignance, rage at being looked at. How dare we? Study them, unaware of themselves, in a room of looted objects, cell phones pointed at sacred art, taking shots for their personal collections. The people who felt aggression: they came here to see African art, not Black people. And what about those who pretended they could not see us at all? The actual others with their game of Unkenntlichkeit (irrecognition). I had to think of Wright’s (2003: 298) summary: It is not that Afro-German identity is the antithesis of white German subjectivity; “it is simply nonexistent.” Only the oldest woman watched. What else had she seen?
I was the only one of the group members who had not been a part of the group’s past performance actions and, as a Jamaican-U.S.-American, I was the only performer and the only one (to my knowledge) who could trace a family history of enslavement. As Black activists in Berlin, our heritages are heterogeneous, but in Germany, we share a creative struggle developed in transnational Black feminist praxis. We share the burden of irrecognition under hostile stares. We share expectations from “the actual others” that we are exotic visitors. We share the ire of German museum visitors when we look back. To return a gaze is to enter into a relation of seeing one another, and to be accountable for what happens within this line of vision. It means to possibly enter conflict. Perhaps the visitors had never experienced being stared at the way every Black person in Germany must tolerate daily. Perhaps they had never been made to feel “othered.” What was evident was that the German entitlement to look at the African was not reciprocated.
After witnessing the BAAB performance at the Humboldt Forum, Dior Thiam, an artist doing a yearlong residency with Dekoloniale, invited the group to perform the following weekend in the context of a show titled Zurückgeschaut (Looking Back). The show is a collaboration with the Treptow-Köpenick museums to mark the site of the first German Colonial Exhibition in which 106 people taken from German colonies were put on display in front of a European audience (see Aitken and Rosenhaft 2013: 54–55). Its wall text reminds us that in 1896, Kwelle Ndumbe from Cameroon resisted his role as “the other” by purchasing an opera glass to look back at the audience in Berlin.
Matter and Memory with a Black Gaze
A series of material questions about power have risen to meet the street signs, the looted artifacts, the bones in the schoolyard, the Styrofoam slaves, and the dust that collects in the museum viewing room: who has power of decision for how to treat this matter? How can memorialization processes be more accountable to diverse publics? What might justice feel like? The uprisings in spring 2020 taught us that memory culture can mobilize a global political movement, but what are the material gains of Black Lives Matter? How will we remember this racial reckoning, this wave of institutional adoption of decolonial language? How long will it last (surely it will take more than three years to “decolonize” Berlin)? Meanwhile, how do we resist co-option of our gains? Those gains that were not given to us, but forced by people power, by the riotous, by generations who came after a whole lot of other generations, who have been doing the unglamorous work of accountability for a long while.
The city of Berlin has a reputation for its Erinnerungskultur (culture of remembrance), policies and pledges to confront Nazi-era crimes through frank discussion and acknowledgment of responsibility for the Holocaust. More than twenty Holocaust Denkmäler (memorials) offer physical sites to mourn this violence of the Shoah throughout Berlin. While they do draw millions of visitors every year, some activists have critiqued Berlin’s memorialization process as one that is too satisfied to tuck this brutal memory neatly away and move on, rather than commit to a discussion of the continued presence of anti-Semitism and xenophobia in everyday life in Germany.14 Karen Till’s (2005: 3) The New Berlin describes how Jewish activists have critiqued the Memorial to the Murdered Jews as “symptomatic of contemporary Germans’ desire to put an end to discussions about their social responsibility for the past.”
The new Decolonize Berlin initiative comes after decades of activists’ observations that earlier victims of German colonialism have not been given space in the city of Berlin’s memory culture. There are no official memorials in Berlin to address the killing of Indigenous peoples and the exploitation of ecologies in Africa, Asia, and Oceana. I expect we will have them soon. But, as Jewish activists have rightly noted, the memory and the imaginative work that must be done for restitution must take place at a larger social scale; our expectations and commitments to resolution must extend beyond the matter of the Denkmal (memorial) alone.
In Other Germans, Campt (2004: 86) described her method of working with memory carefully, not to deny its objectivity, but to call attention to its importance as a “mediated representation of the past.” For Campt (2004: 86), memory is
a deeply social process through which individuals construct and articulate their relationship to the world and the events transpiring around them, both now and then. . . . Memory is neither a question of storage nor of recall; rather memory is about the continual process of attributing meaning to events of the past and present. In this way, memory is most certainly a social process.
This articulation of memory as a social process that has influence over our futures is one that scholars across cultures and academic disciplines have made in their own ways. The Stó꞉lō author Lee Maracle (2015: 31) writes in Memory Serves that we remember from the point of our social milieu, that memory is both personal and connected to ancestral knowledge, but that “memory is always connected to the individual and their specific path.” She argues, “We know memory has direction. What we remember and how we remember is dependent on the direction we are traveling” (Maracle 2015: 23). Maracle offers “lineage memory” as an analytic to connect intergenerational and collective knowledge (88). Similarly, Michael Rothberg (2009: 5) advocates for the potential of intercultural, collective remembrance, which he names “multidirectional memory,” to create new forms of solidarity and new visions of justice. A multidirectional approach to memory culture might understand the looted artifacts, the bones in the schoolyards, the Styrofoam slaves, and the dust that collects in the museum viewing room as connected—all parts of the same story of xenophobic violence and the conspiracy of silence in Germany. Multidirectional memory explains why BAAB activists yelled “Raubkunst” (a term that usually refers to Nazi plunder) in the Afrika art galleries at the Humboldt Forum. As Rothberg’s (2009: 18) book demonstrates, “there is no shortage of cross-referencing between the legacies of the Holocaust and colonialism.”
I am interested in how we might think of Black feminist poetics, performance, and memory work in Berlin as a critical mode of what Christina Sharpe (2016) terms “wake work,” not only in the sense of making space and time to mourn the brutality of anti-Blackness and other racisms, but also to foster a diasporic consciousness (a “blues in Black knowing”) that liberates us from the colonial infrastructures of our present and connects our struggles internationally. I also see Black feminist poetics in Berlin as a mode of attending to what Ann Stoler (2011) names “colonial aphasia.” Stoler uses the word aphasia because it “emphasizes both loss of access and active dissociation” with colonial violence. “In aphasia,” she writes, “an occlusion of knowledge is the issue. It is not a matter of ignorance or absence, rather aphasia is a dismembering, a difficulty speaking, a difficulty generating a vocabulary that associates appropriate words and concepts with appropriate things” (Stoler 2011: 125).
There is much work to do to integrate intersectional perspectives into the memory culture of Berlin, but Black feminist poets in Berlin have been creators of language for “seeking and forging connections” and “challenging silence and invisibility” for some time (Broek and Bolaki 2015: 1). Tiffany Florvil’s (2020) Mobilizing Black Germany: Afro-German Women and the Making of a Transnational Movement traces the evolution of activist groups like ISD (Initiative of Black Germans) and ADEFRA (Afro-German Women) and details how organizing in Germany developed through transnational antiracist networks in the 1980s and 1990s. She writes about the importance of intercultural dialogue for Afro-German feminisms—about how, with Farbe Bekennen (Showing our Colors), the anthology published with the support and encouragement of Lorde, “Afro-German women relied on and engendered diasporic resources to write themselves into overlapping public cultures” (Florvil 2020: 23). Since then, more generations of Black activists have picked up this baton, and several have turned to poetry and performance. Natasha A. Kelly’s books, exhibitions, films, “M(a)y Sister” empowerment theater, and I Am Milli project, as well as the programs at Ballhaus Naunynstrasse, the annual Afrolution literary festival at Each One Teach One, and the performance art of Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro offer more examples of this intercultural, Black feminist work in Berlin (this list is, of course, far from comprehensive).
To return to the performances of Ilupeju and Black Art Action Berlin and the question of museum memory once more: it has been helpful to think through the poetics of memory and performance because the common residue of these performances that I have described are memories. Each person who has experienced a performance has also crafted their own narrative through which to understand its meaning. If, as Campt (2004: 82) describes, “memory work engages memory as a process of knowledge production or ‘meaning making,’” then the Black performances in Berlin’s public spaces are invested in a kind of memory work that provokes meaning making from their audiences. And if we think of memory as a mediator of our individual relationship to history, we have to admit that our memories are made of matter (who, what, where?). These performances ask the viewer to make sense of and orient oneself to this matter.
The slowness of both pieces, the mundane acts of cleaning and looking, are threatening only in how these acts reveal true relations between peoples and things. If the “Black Gaze” is one “that sets in motion a choreography of practices that are constantly up for grabs” (Campt 2021: 22), we notice it in the unchoreographed nature of both pieces, in expressions of visceral impulses and feelings, and in the creative employment of Black feminist poetics to respond to white institutional claims of decolonizing. They are experiments in a form of engagement that resists the neoliberal hijacking of social justice language to reproduce old patterns of cultural consumption. These are nonviolent responses to violent museum histories that bridge the experiences of the living and the dead.
Just as Ayim’s “Blues in Black-and-White” and Lorde’s “East Berlin 1989” poems challenged the resistance of Germans to recognize the realities of Black people, so too do these contemporary performances in Berlin. In A Black Gaze, Campt (2021: 17) describes a “contemporary renaissance” of Black Artists: “What defines and unites their divergent practices is their ability to make audiences work,” she explains. “They refuse to create spectators, as it is neither easy nor possible to passively consume their art” (Campt 2021: 17). To watch Wayward Dust, both as the original livestream, and in its current form as a film, requires what Campt (2021: 17) describes as “the labor of discomfort, feeling positioning and repositioning.” The footage of Monilola Ilupeju doing the uncomfortable labor of cleaning the slave trade installation is at the same time uncomfortable proof of the labor that contemporary Black artists are being asked to do to clean the museum’s image. Her expressions of exhaustion throughout her performance visualize and make audible the mental conditions of this work and solicit a visceral response, a lasting memory.
BAAB’s performance, too, required “a labor of discomfort, feeling positioning and repositioning” of the visitors/spectators who had to grapple with their new positionality as “the actual others,” the observed. It provoked an emotional whiplash that asked them to read the room. Campt (2021: 104) describes how work that employs a Black gaze might solicit hapticity—recognition of disparity and a willingness to feel across difference, triggering recognition of one’s “implication in the circumstances of others and choosing not to be complicit.” I do not think that recognition is the inevitable reaction to these works, but as interventions, these performances do open the possibility for viewers to confront their own relations with Black folks and Black histories. As Campt (2021: 39) explains, a Black gaze “transforms viewers into witnesses and demands a confrontation.” However, it is ultimately up to the viewer whether or not to recognize and transform that confrontation into future actions or imaginings. Germany will remain stuck in colonial aphasia if Germans continue to look away from Black history, resisting remembrance, transiting through halls of looted art as passive museum “visitors.” Maracle (2015: 32) explains:
Memory depends on the rememberer to deploy imagined being, to take it into future and render the remembered new thing significant and appealing. Each aspect of a remembered event—teaching, story—becomes a teacher, a motivator. If we imagine emotions related to an event, hold them close and play with them long enough to become conscious, then memory cannot threaten, paralyze or overwhelm.
Maracle’s treatment of memory as an imaginative pursuit connects back to the power of art and performance to move through difficult (even haunted) knowings. It is not so common to see a group of young Black people moving together through whitespace in Berlin. Each member of BAAB entered the Humboldt Forum with the embodied knowledge of how to move so as to avoid attention, of how to make oneself small to accommodate others—and then we collectively worked to do the opposite. We used binoculars as a means of redirecting attention, disinviting traditional spectatorship of Black performance. Still, the work involved the Humboldt Forum museum visitors, whether they liked it or not. Similarly, in the Deutsches Technikmuseum, Wayward Dust quite literally displayed the material proof of visitors, those who left something of their white gaze in the display of Black bare life. Encased on a pedestal, this dust, made of the sloughed-off skin cells, hair, and dirt of visitors, is the matter for attention. It is proof of seventeen years of that installation, of irresponsible depictions of slavery that made millions of memories.
The fact that museums do not know the provenance of their holdings speaks to the effectiveness of a dismembering society to lose their place in history. In her book Lose Your Mother, Saidiya Hartman (2008: 169–70) suggests that “the enslaved are our contemporaries” and writes of the intimacy between our age and theirs, asking, “To what end does one conjure the ghosts of slavery?” She urges attention to the enslaved knowledge of freedom: “The enslaved knew that freedom had to be taken; it was not the kind of thing that could be given to you. The kind of freedom that could be given to you could just as easily be taken away” (Hartman 2008: 169). I return to the different contexts and authorizations for each performance, not to compare them, but to engage the question of permission. Wayward Dust was commissioned to commemorate the closing of the installation’s presence. The performance was planned, given resources and promotion. The BAAB action was imposed on the Humboldt Forum. There were efforts to contain our performance by security guards. Where do institutions draw the line for engagement with the artists who critique them? Perhaps you are wondering whether BAAB would have been given permission to perform in the museum if the group had asked or had been invited by Dekoloniale.15 In fact, the improvisation of the piece, its collective mediation in real time, would make it impossible to describe in advance—which is to say, it may be unattractive to commission by a conservative museum. The achoreographic form is rebellious, in that it cannot be collected or contained. This way of moving tests the limits of institutional tolerance for counter perspectives.
Both performances, regardless of their means of entry, posed a challenge to institutional efforts to placate the past with decolonizing gestures reliant on white leisure and Black labor. The horrors of histories relayed by the material presence of stolen objects, collected dust, and bone matter require us to deal with the presence of harm; to recognize what happened there, what is happening here; and to understand the enslaved, the colonized, and the exploited as our contemporaries, with whom we share an unfinished struggle. These performances in Berlin build on a tradition of Black feminist, anticolonial poetics and employ a “Black gaze” to demand not only the restitution of objects and the eviction of racist museum installations, but the reconstruction of historical narratives that are consumed in museums and metabolized as memories, which orient each visitor to the past and our future. To make good on the promise of abolition, the goal of this work is to prompt social transformation through conscious memory making, and to move through the inevitable conflicts of this work with care.
Farbe Bekennen threads the childhood memories and poetry of six intergenerational Afro-German women with historical research drawn from Ayim’s master’s research (the first historical study of Black experience in Germany). The book was published under Ayim’s former name, Opitz, with coeditors Katherina Oguntoye and Dagmar Schultz.
The lynching of Amadeu Antonio Kiowa, a contract worker from Angola, by neo-Nazis in Berlin, mobilized antiracist organizing and the creation of a foundation, Amadeu Antonio Stifftung, to oppose Far Right parties, racism, and anti-Semitism in Germany. Kiowa’s killing is also archived in May Ayim’s poem “Deutschland im herbst” (“Autumn in Germany”), which compares the violence to Nazi attacks on Kristallnacht, November 1938.
Robin Kelley argues for a reading of Discourse that treats it as a surrealist text and poetic knowledge that expresses a poetics of anticolonialism: “Discourse was never intended to be a road map or a blue print for revolution. It is poetry and therefore revolt” (Césaire 1972: 7–28).
May Ayim was diagnosed with psychosis when forcibly hospitalized in a psychiatric ward following her organization of Black History Month in Berlin in 1995. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1996. See her obituary (Konuk and Jancovich 1997).
Honeck, Klimke, and Kuhlmann (2013: 15fn2) argue that “unlike ‘Negro,’ the term ‘Moor,’ as defined by an eighteenth-century German encyclopedia, was a much more ambiguous and unstable signifier for racial difference as it was applied to people of different religious affiliation, geographical origin, and with various degrees of blackness.”
There has been an increase of public efforts in Germany to build a memory culture around Amo’s influence. In 2020, the Kunstverein Braunschweig worked in close cooperation with curator Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung to develop a project in honor of the philosopher, an exhibition titled The Faculty of Sensing—Thinking with, through, and by Anton Wilhelm Amo, as well as an accompanying publication by the same title. Another public-facing academic project on Amo is led by Andrea-Vicky Amankwaa-Birago, whose website offers an online portal connecting the philosopher to influences in the German language; see antonwilhelmamoerbschaft.org/.
Amo’s master’s thesis was titled “De iure Maurorum in Europa” (“On the Rights of Moors in Europe”) and argued against the legality of slavery in Europe. The thesis has since been lost, but we know of its existence because it has been referenced by Johann Peter von Ludewig and Johann Heinrich Zedler, both of whom refer to Amo as a “Moor” (Bowersox n.d.).
I write this essay from the unceded territory of the Musqueam Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples, otherwise known as British Columbia, Canada. This year (2021), the country has had to answer for the discoveries of thousands of unmarked graves that held the bones of children, victims of the residential schools that separated Indigenous children from their families between 1894 and 1947. The discovery of bones in the schoolyard in Canada, like those found at the university in Berlin, is a mattered reminder of the impossibility of colonial erasure, though the proof may be buried.
Black Art Action Berlin is an intergenerational group of Black artists who use art as a form of activism to build community and spark conversations about the Black experience in Berlin. BAAB formed in summer 2020. See www.blackartactionberlin.de/.
While it literally translates as “stolen art,” Raubkunst is a German term associated with Nazi plunder.
There was also the fact that, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were all wearing masks over our faces, which added another level of cloaked presence and anonymity, as much as it intensified what we did with our eyes.
There is still aversion to discussing one’s Nazihintergrund (Nazi family background) and Nazierbe (Nazi inheritance) in Germany, as Moshtari Hilal and Sinthujan Varatharajah’s (2021) online discussion and the cascade of responding opinion pieces in German newspapers proved. Rather than seriously engage with their call for more transparency about the origin of funds in the cultural scene, much the national discourse, which played out mostly online during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, seemed to be about whether or not these critics of color (who used their online platforms to discuss the everyday “othering” they experience as children of refugees in Germany) had the right to critique Germany’s memory culture (see Hilal and Varatharajah 2021; Rothberg 2021).
Dekoloniale did partner with the Humboldt Forum to show a work by the artist Philip Kojo Metz in 2020. It was called Sorry for Nothing and delivered an empty box to the exhibition space, an “invisible sculpture” that symbolized the gap in public awareness of colonial wars (see Schönberner 2020).