Do Objects Speak? / by Edna Bonhomme

“It is not a dead society that we want to revive. We leave that to those who go in for exoticism.”

-Aimé Césaire

Colonialism was capacious for those in power and rapacious for those who were colonized. During the Berlin Congress of 1884-1885, European countries orchestrated the partitioning of the African continent ranging from settler colonialism to protectorate rule. The Congress was not just one meeting but a series of conversations and debates regarding the boundaries and political outline of the African continent. Berlin was not only a site for colonial planning but it was also the locale where African colonial objects remain. The history of museum objects and their circulation is being re-evaluated by activists, artists, and scholars often calling for formal apologies and repatriation of materials.

 

Why this resurgence of interest in understanding German colonialism? How have Berlin based artists and activists engaged with this history?

 

On 19 January, I visited the exhibit, “The Dead, As far as  [ ] Can Remember,” which invited viewers to convene with German colonialism on the African continent. The four-room exhibition was based at the Tieranatomisches Theatre (Animal Anatomy Theater) at the Humboldt University of Berlin. Positioned in the bustling neighbourhood of Mitte, the Tieranatomishces Theatre simultaneously functioned as an eighteenth century relic where laboratory experiments were performed and a place where historical memory was being reimagined. Each room was independently curated to engage with the legacy of European colonialism with a meditation on objects, folklore, testimonies, and expertise.

Photograph from “Chief Meli Remains”

Photograph from “Chief Meli Remains”

 

l“The Dead, As far as  [ ] Can Remember” used politics as an entry point but did not stop there. As I entered one room, the center of the room projected a grandfather’s tale on a broken ceramic, tiptoeing between an archeological and archival artifact. This room focused on an uprising led by Chief Meli, who opposed the German colonial occupation.

 

The exhibit begins with Chief Meli but it does not stop there. Rather, we come to get a glimpse of rural life, migration, and the shifting landscape of Chaggaland. One striking image are the passport pictures of five Chaggaland ambassadors who travelled to Germany in 1889 to meet the Kaiser. They were all male. One of them refused to meet the German leader. We learn about the brutality of Lt. Merker, the circulation of postcards with the marketplace of Tsunduni. It begs asking: Who were taking these photographs? By 1900, the German military forced sentenced Chief Meli and his collaborators to death. Part of what makes the exhibit harrowing is that their skulls were brought to Germany and still remains. The exhibition

Moving beyond these tales, one finds another room, which was concerned with access, digitization, and circulation. For some of the experts, the preservation of foreign objects somehow overshadows the concerns of the living. One researcher inquires: “Who benefits? Who do you do something for? Researchers are always welcome.” For him, experts should always have access yet he does not indicate their biases, their limits, and their positions. What one gathers from the interviews is that there is no consensus on the matter. Another scholar reflects a bit more about the political stakes by asserting: “We have a duty to be open and honest about things that are difficult.”

 

These tensions are precisely what give the “Just Listen” room such power. Repatriation and restructuring were taken up in the “Just Listen” segment that included the perspectives of people of colour and former colonial subjects. As Abdel Amine remarked, “We have to recognize that the bones come from humans.” This is precisely the humanity that is missing from the  Yet, even beyond that, these activists pointed out that the Humboldt Forum and the ethics concerning these objects. Yet, morality is not where it ends. A major element of the exhibition was restitution and the political elements of this. The people want reparations and the redistribution of wealth—from the former colonial power to the formerly colonized. These objects and their reception are part of an ongoing debate about history, memory, and retribution.

 

“The Dead, As far as  [ ] Can Remember”  exhibit will not solely live in Berlin, Germany, but it will find a home in Dar Es Salaam and Old Moshi in present-day Tanzania. Its circulation speaks volume to what is possible in shifting our understanding of history. For those concerned about the violent past, we do not only want to harp over the dead but to make space for the humanity of the living.