Pertinent reading for the turn of the decade — the turn of any decade in the last few hundred years. Elizabeth Gillespie McRae’s Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy came to me from I have no idea where, early last year. My ‘Want to Buy’ list is mad out of control, and taking 18 months for a book to circulate up to getting ordered is quick. I’m presuming it turned up in my RSS feed, or maybe Twitter shortly before I bailed from there.
I play this game when I’m reading histories of racial segregation. It doesn’t have a name, and it’s quite simple. It’s a ‘What if’ game and goes like this: ‘What if my dad or his parents lived there?’ How would or could their lives be shaped and changed by the laws and regulations at that place and that time? What might they be categorised as? I am reminded every time I play how conditional and tenuous ‘race’ is, how arbitrary the race line is, how those tenuous and arbitrary demarcations of where the line falls determine even if they could have married at all. And if they did, and if then my parents could — for the same reasons — the possibilities for life stop with me. White supremacy is, after all, bound at its root with reproductive heteronormativity and the eugenicist-defined ‘health of the White race’.
Around the time I saw the exhibition, Deutscher Kolonialismus: Fragmente Seiner Geschichte Und Gegenwart, and while Germany was (and is) moving through its unfinished history with Namibia, I noticed the burden of proof that genocide had occurred always rested on the victims. Again, conditional, arbitrary. Namibia (then German South-West Africa): genocide; German East Africa: (now Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania), merely subduing of an uprising. If we accept the fact that the aim of European colonialism was to divide the entire globe amongst itself (clearly seen in its late-19th century form of the Berlin Conference dividing up Africa), we must also agree that two fundamental tools or strategies in that were (and are) race and genocide. Eugen Fischer, who was there in German South-West Africa, later with the Nazis, whose ideology shaped the Nuremberg Laws, said of genocide, “whoever thinks thoroughly the notion of race, can not arrive at a different conclusion”. Wherever colonialism happened, so too did genocide.
And after the Second World War, after anti-colonialist movements, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Iron Curtain, the End of History and all that, we didn’t magically cease to live in a racist, genocidal, white supremacist world. That should have been self-evident before the events of the last few years, and arguing this is again an instance of burden of proof falling on the victims.
While this book deals with a narrow time period and geographical context (primarily 1920s–1960s and the Jim Crow South; broadly the US), nonetheless the role of white, cisgender, heteronormative women in collectively and individually creating, enforcing, and adapting racial segregation is something we’ve seen continuously, around the globe, without pause, right up to the UK election result on Thursday. Whatever racist, colonialist, genocidal (and we’re talking about planetary scale genocide these days) white supremacist fuckery the straight white men who run shit get off on, it’s their women who, in all the little, everyday ways, from home to school to communities to government offices who make it happen.
This wasn’t meant to be a review or compilation of opinions, it’s a Sunday, I haven’t blogged for a while, I have a pile of books that Panda bought (Panda unilaterally does the buying, I get the leftovers, Panda is mad educated), and I’m thinking through a large piece of fiction I’m writing of which books like this are extremely pertinent. It’s the kind of book I say, “Read it if you can, then find and read the comparable books from where you live,” keeping in mind my own global history as a product and result of colonialism.
There’s so much I have on my list of “Shit to Steal from Museums.” So much. And while I applaud the thieves who broke into Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden’sHistorisches Grünes Gewölbe for their commitment to stacking mad cash, their commitment to aesthetics is lacking, and I do not approve. Unless it’s for reparations.
If I was to hit Residenzschloss, I’d go straight to Neues Grünes Gewölbe, having cased out all the museums in mid-2017, and lift the alien madness of Daphne as a Drinking Vessel. And smash Tequila from it (’sup Vass?). And the Basilisk Drinking Vessel. Which would be my German Whip.
Seriously, though? The video of the thieves hacking at the display case with an axe is deeply upsetting both for its relentless violence, and for how fucking incompetent they were.
I swear this book will end me. Six months in and some days I read the first sentences of a paragraph and realise it’s the same paragraph I’ve been on the whole week. And it’s a Sunday. I’m having trouble reading books at the moment anyway. Fiction is out, because I’m in fiction-writing mode and the novels I’ve started are either dissatisfying for where I’m at, or feel like they’d influence my own writing. Non-fiction, well, yes, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, we are still shouting, “Fucking yes!” when we do manage to read a new paragraph (usually on the toilet because that seems to be where a balance is currently found), but I have no cash for the pile of non-fiction waiting for me to pick up. Lemme tell you how long-term poverty as a function of even a moderately ok life as a trans woman / trans feminine person / transsexual is a very real life. (I weirdly want to start using that ‘transsexual’ word again to fuck with cis queers and their ‘gender is cultural’ bullshit. Petty is as petty does.)
So, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, or First Class Spivak, because someone said she only flies first class, and even if that’s not true, I admire that image of her, and she is so so very first class. I keep reading and wanting to underline and quote, and as I haven’t blogged this month, here we go, one quote at least. from The Double Bind Starts to Kick In, p.108:
This much is at least clear: to imagine or figure the other as another self, you need to engage the moving edge of culture as it leaves its traces in the idiom. To reduce it to language—to semiotic systems that are organised as language—was a structuralist dream. But at least, whatever the subject-position of the structuralist-investigator there was a rigour in the enterprise. Its tempo was different from the impatience of a universalist feminism re-coding global capital. From existing evidence, it is clear that individual-rights or universalist feminists infiltrate the gendering of the global South to recast it hastily into the individual rights model. They simply take for granted that colonised cultures are inevitably patriarchal. I will not enter into historical speculation. I will take shelter in a figure—the figure or topos, that in postcoloniality the past as the unburied dead calls us. This past has not been appropriately mourned, nor been given the rites of the dead, as the other system brought in by colonialism imposed itself. There was no continuous shedding of a past into unmarked modernity.
Last Thursday at the press conference for Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s new exhibition in the Alte Nationalgalerie, Fighting for Visibility – Women Artists in the Nationalgalerie before 1919. Best thing: free entry and waved through with my fancy ‘Presse’ sticker on my left boob, also leisurely photographing of Art. Not so good thing: real journalists have a ‘Press’ card — like everything in Germany, authenticity through official validation — I have a blog. Much hilarity ensured trying to get to the press table. Not great at all: an exhibition on women artists, and the panel was two men who talked for almost half an hour before letting the sole woman, who was the curator, have a word. She reclaimed her time, was heaps more relevant, and let’s pretend I didn’t notice the menz not paying attention to her.
It’s been a while since I went to a museum. I got burnt out on editing too many images, and from July last year was working 60+ hours a week (which, had I not been getting paid 70% of what men do, could have worked 42 hours for the same euros — actually I was getting paid even less, keeping the narrative simple here), and been in slow time recovery since June, so … art. It’s a thing I remember.
I have a lot of issues with this exhibition. I want to be all cheerleading from the sidelines, buuut … problems. Problems I think are structural in the museum and SMB and Germany, which, had I seen this same exhibition in London or Melbourne or New York, would have been twenty or thirty years ago in its current context and appearance, or a contemporary version that had built on three decades of representation that Germany’s national museums have yet to have. As it was, it felt hella anachronistic and patronisingly “something for the ladies also #MeToo”.
None of that is a criticism of curator Yvette Deseyve, however. What is a criticism though (which may or may not have been covered in the catalogue, but bitch here is poor and isn’t throwing around 30€ right now) is structural intersections of gender, femininity, heteronormativity, class, whiteness, racism, colonialism, imperialism, which were well in play by the time even the youngest artists were born, and shaped all of them across the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s a missed opportunity, and one I continually question whether white, heteronormative feminism is ever going to recognise. This really struck me with the replacement of one of my favourite works in the museum, Osman Hamdi Bey’s Der Wunderbrunnen (Ab-ı Hayat Çeşmesi) with Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Kniende Mutter mit Kind an der Brust. Choosing a painting of a naked white woman nursing a baby as the figurehead of the exhibition in the entrance hall, without critically engaging (again, outside of whatever is in the catalogue) with Germany’s history of motherhood, family, race, and religion reads as a tacit condoning or passive acceptance of this cultural history, as well as one of those, ‘this wouldn’t have happened if there was real, working diversity in the room’ type situations. And seeing how many young women were working around the exhibition … yeah, awkward.
Go and see it? If it’s included in the ticket price for the whole Alte Nationalgalerie, then yeah but don’t expect to be blown away. But if you gotta pay extra to see women artists who should be hanging in the permanent collection since — at the latest — the early ’90s, when the previous two decades’ demands for representation had filtered into these big, old, slow institutions and there was no valid excuse for them not being there besides entrenched misogyny? Fuck that noise. Let’s have 100 years of only women artists in the SMB museums and 100 years of men getting paid 30% of what women get. Also let’s have a conversation about what ‘woman’ denotes in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and now.
When I was in Krakow a few winters ago, I went to Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie and was slapped for pointing a camera at the paintings in the Olga Boznańska exhibition. I was thinking of that when I walked through this one, and the previous large one I saw in the same place, which took up the whole floor instead of what felt like a few side rooms and one main room, Alte Nationalgalerie: Impressionismus – Expressionismus. Kunstwende. The Olga Boznańska exhibition took up about the same space as Impressionismus – Expressionismus. For one woman.
Anyway, art. Art I liked (and some I didn’t but here we are), art I could photograph, art it transpired I’d photographed adequately enough to be able to edit into something passable.
More than Deleuze (with or without Guattari), more than Foucault, somewhat more than Derrida, so different to Butler, but like her someone I returned to again and again, for the quiet care and poetry, for the love of movement, one of that first group of philosophers I got introduced to by the same person at a moment in my life where they resonated, and — like only Butler from those names — continue to, 25 years on. I knew it was coming, likely sooner, but still, I lost my breath for an instant, I stopped.
The more I dance, the more I am naked, absent, a calculation and a number. Dance is to the body proper what exercise of thought is to the subject known as I. The more I dance, the less I am me. If I dance something, I am that something or I signify it. When I dance, I am only the blank body of the sign.
To dance is only to step aside and make room, to think is only to step aside and make room, give up one’s place.
To leave at last the page blank.
Laughter is that little noise, uttered in blank ecstasy.
I started reading this a couple of years ago, which might have already been my second attempt. It’s been giving me disappointed looks from my ‘currently reading’ pile ever since. But, having successfully reminded myself how to read dense theory again, while spending months on Edward Said’s Orientalism earlier this year, I thought it was time to suck it up and get back into Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. The problem is, she’s so fucking brilliant, I’ll read a sentence and spend half an hour just thinking it through.
On that, then, I decided to just quote some of these bangers. Ending the Preface, on page xvi:
Gender is the last word. Figure out the double binds there, simple and forbidding.
Starting the Introduction, page 1:
Globalization takes place only in capital and data. Everything else is damage control.
Next on page 2:
The most pernicious presupposition today is that globalization has happily happened in every aspect of our lives. Globalization can never happen to the sensory equipment of the experiencing being, except insofar as it always was implicit in its vanishing outlines. Only an aesthetic education can continue to prepare us for this […]
Quoting Hanna Arendt on page 3:
“The general future of mankind has nothing to offer individual life, whose only certain future is death.”
We want the public sphere gains and the private sphere constraints of the Enlightenment; yet we must also find something relating to “our own history” to counteract the fact that the Enlightenment came, to colonizer and colonized alike, through colonialism, to support a destructive “free trade,” and that top-down policy breaches of Enlightenment principles are more the rule than exception.
I spent most of breakfast on that page 1 Introduction quote, swearing at its magnificence, meme-ing Where is the lie? tru dat, and that’s the T, and realising it’s gonna take me about 2 years to read this at this pace.
Distracting myself from a quartet of books I’ve been struggling with for an age (thanks, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak), I “accidentally” picked up Edward Said’s Orientalism again. It’s been a while since I blearily (and slowly) read an academic book over breakfast; I am well out of practice. I don’t remember how awkwardly his gendered language sat with me in the past as this time around, though he was almost exclusively writing about white European men, nonetheless, Orientalism remains a depressingly relevant and critical read.
Occasionally, writers I love disappoint me so entirely I’ll say “I’m done with them.”
Neal Stephenson did it with Anathem, though I stuck round for Reamde, hoping he’d return to what I loved in The Baroque Trilogy. Maybe I drifted away from him, even while he committed fully to the least interesting facets of his story writing. William Gibson, around Spook Country and Zero History, though made something of a conditional comeback with The Peripheral (I’m not touching his ‘tranny with big hands’ embarrassment though, so that might be the last of him for me). Ada Palmer did it for me with Seven Surrenders.
People seemed to love Too Like the Lightning, enough that Crooked Timber did a whole seminar on it. I thought the beginning was some of the very best sci-fi I’ve read, which petered out mid-way, and ended deeply unsatisfactorily, and required the purchase of Seven Surrenders to (hopefully) get resolution. I’m not going to rehash what I said about Lightning, half-way into the second novel I can say with some certainty it all stands, and confirms my scepticism.
It’s also profoundly boring.
I want to care about these characters, but fucked if after a few hundred pages I even know who they are. I have serious reservations about what Palmer thinks about gender, identity, selfhood. I called her a crypto-conservative last time, and like I said about Lightning, “I also trust my “I smell bollocks” sense, even when I can’t immediately say what those bollocks smell of.”( Also fuck her for using ‘it’ as the personal pronoun for an intersex / non-binary character, whatever her reasons, it just smacks of yet another cis writer trying to be cool.) As for history itself, because she is a historian, there’s something uncritically Amerocentric about it all (and Anglo-Euro- at that), in the same way Gibson’s novels — for all their seductive near-futurism — have an inescapable post-modern Orientalism. And frankly for a historian she does a piss poor job.
A weeks ago I saw Wonder Woman with Dasniya in a small independent cinema up in Schöneberg. The trailers before the film were an insidious and horrifying glorification of war in a language I’d thought had been buried — or at least we had a degree of literacy to see it for what it is — all honour and duty and the noble sacrifice of dying for your mates. I was filled with terror, because I think the point of these films and this language is to prepare us for exactly this all-encompassing war. It’s to make us willing fodder. I don’t trust these stories, and I don’t trust the directors and writers or their reasons for wanting to tell them. I feel the same way about Lightning and Seven Surrenders.
When I saw the exhibition, I felt it was comprehensive, yet reading Showing Our Colour I find again Germany — like all colonial and colonised countries — hides post-war and recent history, as though 1945 marked the moment when the fugue lifted and from that moment on there’s not much to report. Instead, Germany’s history of eugenics and racism continued unbroken. Perhaps not as explicit, but that is a function of systematic oppression, to put the onus on the victims to prove the crime, whereas the truth is it’s fundamental and pervasive.
A dear friend was visiting me this week and we were talking about this. She said, “So there was a Stolen Generation here.” There isn’t a more succinct or accurate way to describe it. While on a much smaller scale than in Australia (and while I don’t want to appropriate a specific term that describes a part of an ongoing genocide), the mechanisms and underlying logic are identical. Children removed from their mothers, families broken, forced sterilisation, cultural ‘whitening’ in orphanages and the adoption/foster home system; a unified, systematic project from the top of the government down to individuals to erase any trace of contamination in the white race.
This is a history of Germany throughout the 20th century that is barely mentioned, let alone recognised. It’s a history I would expect to find variations of in earlier history also, such as with the African-American soldiers who returned with the Hessian soldiers after the American Revolution. Post-World War I, Rhineland was occupied by French forces using soldiers from the colonies, just as after World War II, US African-American soldiers were in the American Sector. In both periods, male soldiers and local women got together and thousands of ‘Brown Babies’, or ‘Mischlingskinder’ (the derogatory Nazi-era term) were born. It was these children and their mothers (and fathers if they happened to be immigrants from the colonies) who were subject to medical, jurisprudential, social, and religious abuse and control. The children and grandchildren of these children are women like May Ayim, Katharina Oguntoye, coming of age in the ’80s, writing a history that remains contemporary.
Sometimes I’m reminded that it was published thirty years ago. These days I more or less expect if I’m reading a black or brown woman on racism and oppression in the Anglo-Euro-American-Australasian worlds, she’ll — or they’ll be queer and/or a trans woman. In Showing Our Colours, none of the women explicitly identify as lesbian (as far as I’ve read, though May Ayim was), and often describe their heterosexual lives. As for Afro-deutsch trans women, it’s a different world now. ADEFRA has a monthly get-together where trans and inter sisters are explicitly welcome, and ISD has a Black LGBTIQ* group.
I want to stop here, say something like, this is a critical history of Afro-Germans, it’s an unfinished history because colonialism still defines us, because Germany and Europe’s ability to critically regard its history is so inadequate; things have got better but they’re still same old shit, thirty years on Germany needs another book like this translated into English. Read it if you can.
It’s not an easy exhibition to see — I went twice and both times felt well deeply disturbed at humanity during and after — and not an easy exhibition to blog about. I took around 350 photos, half of those of the lengthy captions, and cutting the 175 potentially bloggable images down to a feasible 87 meant diverging from the coherent narrative of the exhibition. So there are gaps; only seeing the exhibition or buying the hefty catalogue can give a proper account. And giving an account, firstly I need to thank Boris Nitzsche in the press department who arranged my visit and for me to take photos, as DHM special exhibitions are camera-free zones.
Secondly: a content warning. The exhibition contains images and documentation of genocide. Some of my photos are of this and of people who were murdered. I back-and-forthed with myself constantly over whether to include these images at all, but it felt like an erasing to only write of this and not include them. Yet these people who were murdered have no say in how they are represented, indeed for many if not all the only photographs and documentation of them ever made is of their suffering and death. And unlike the Jewish holocaust, it was only in 2015 that Germany officially called their extermination of the Herero and Namaqua in German South-West Africa (Namibia) genocide, yet still refuse reparations. Besides that genocide, massacres and atrocities were commonplace in all of Germany’s colonies.
Besides the difficulty in choosing which images to blog, there was the issue of context. This exhibition has it. All of the pieces require context, and it’s a first for me to say an exhibition was not lacking in this regard. Most of the images or image sets had at least a paragraph accompanying the caption giving the work a frame of reference. Additionally, exhibition sections and sub-sections all had long introductory texts and frequently booklets. And then there was the audio guide, which would turn a three-hour visit into a full day endeavour. There was a massive amount of work put into preparing and translating this. And with this need for context here also, I’ve been struggling with what to write, to explain what these images are showing.
While there are plenty of works of art, this exhibition primarily functions as a documentation of history, and in this art is turned to further the purposes of propaganda and imperialism. There are very few paintings, but coinciding with the arrival of film photography gives an abundance of photographs throughout the colonial period. The central piece for me is not art. It’s nothing much to look at. A large, hardcover parchment with a mess of red wax seals pinning down a red, black and white thread forming columns on the left sides of the facing pages; to their right, a scrawl of signatures. This is the General Record of the Berlin Africa Conference (image 33, below) on February 26th, 1885, signed by the state representatives of the 13 European nations (and the United States) formalising the dividing up the continent of Africa into colonies.
The German colonial empire: German West Africa, now Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, Guinea, Central African Republic, Ghana, and Togo; German East Africa, now Burundi, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda; German South-West Africa, now Namibia; German New Guinea, now Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Northern Mariana Islands, Marshall Islands, and Samoa. Prior to the German Empire, there were Brandenburg-Prussian colonies from the late-1600s til early-1700s; Habsburg colonies of the 1700s in Ghana, Mauritania, Bénin, the Caribbean and Americas, Nicobar islands; and concessions in China in Tianjin, Jiaozhou, and Yantai. By the standards of France or Britain, Germany was a minor player, coming late to the party and lasting barely thirty years (excluding merchant companies prior to the conference, which began in the 1850s). I listed all the colonies and current nations, some of which became colonies of other empires before achieving independence so it would be clear what is meant by German colonialism. It is a daunting list. But it helps to be reminded the extent of European colonisation: All or nearly all of the Americas, Africa, Asia, the Pacific. It requires less space to simply list the few countries and regions never colonised.
January 26th was Invasion Day, what the National Day of Australia is properly called, marking as it does the arrival of the First Fleet. In the discussion of colonies, whether German, British, or other, I noticed the onus was on providing evidence genocide or systematic massacre occurred; lesser-known colonies with comparatively lesser-known histories seemed to get the benefit of the doubt in wavering between did it or didn’t it happen. So German South-West Africa is now unequivocally, officially the site of genocide. Yet the same practices occurred in all of Germany’s colonies to some degree — as if genocide has degrees. Rather than have to prove this in each individual case, it seems more honest to say the fundamental aim and purpose of all colonies wherever they were was and is extermination.
I don’t have a transition into the less grim aspects of the exhibition, so I’ll bash on.
Photographs and biographies of multiethnic marriages, and of couples and families living in Germany back to the mid-late-19th century; Portraits of figures as far back as the early 1700s who came to Europe often as slaves yet went on to study and have careers and lives in Europe — even when they remain morally unadmirable, like Jacobus Capitein who defended slavery. Post-World War II, it’s notable how involved East Germany was in anti-imperialism and solidarity with what was then called the Third World. Afro-deutsche in West-Berlin, and Black History Month in reunified Berlin.
I’m not sure I’m doing this justice. It’s an extremely relevant exhibition, one that the museum have done a careful job of preparing and presenting, and one that both times I visited was packed. It’s a little too massive for me to be able to make coherent thoughts or criticisms about. Perhaps my primary criticism or question is of what value it has. Germany is adept at regarding its past and admitting guilt. Yet Germany’s awareness in specific instances does not seem to easily translate into understanding the repetition of behaviour or thinking in others. The ongoing struggle for recognition and compensation in Namibia is the most obvious example, but similar valid claims in other former colonies are far less likely to make even that progress. Indeed, would likely provoke a racket in Germany of the “Just how much do we have to be guilty for?” kind. Which is the point: The inability to see the unbroken line between the racist ideology of Kant and other still esteemed German philosophers, 19th century imperialism leading to genocide in the 20th century in colonies and then across Europe, the current failure to accept Germany is already multicultural, and the increasingly pervasive anti-Muslim / anti-brown people rhetoric.
While the exhibition is about Germany’s own colonial history, and I’ve been talking specifically about Germany, as that signed and sealed document demonstrates, all of Europe was involved, and Europe along with all the former colonies remain infected with this ideology. Each country in Europe has its own unique variation on this identical form of white supremacism. I would like to hope for an exhibition in a hundred years where this 500 year chapter of European history and its effect on the rest of us is forever closed, but I suspect we’re not going to make it.
An addendum: I bought and read Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out a couple of months after seeing this. In part it documents the inter- and post-war eugenics, sterilisations, and removal of children from their mothers in Germany, something the exhibition didn’t cover, which made me question what I wrote above about the ‘careful job’ done in presenting Germany’s colonial history. It seems even now, some history is less amenable to museum exhibitions and curators than others.