S.J Norman, Carly Sheppard, Naretha Williams. In London. This weekend.
In Take This, For It Is My Body, small groups of 6 audience members are invited to enjoy a traditional afternoon tea. They are seated and served a delightful spread of tea and fresh scones with jam and cream — a homely, nostalgic treat — which they can opt to consume or otherwise in the full knowledge that the scone batter includes a quantity of “aboriginal blood” (the artist’s own).
Take This, For It Is My Body
Performed by: Carly Sheppard, Naretha Williams and S.J Norman.
The artist wishes to the acknowledge that this work was conceived and developed on the lands of the Gadigal and Gundungurra peoples, whose sovereignty has never been ceded.
An introduction. Published in 1988 and here we are, 30 years later, still having to prove the same truths, provide the same evidence, grieve the same death and damage. This is one of those fucking read this books. Fucking read this. You want to know how we got to this place again? We never left it. Fucking read this.
I’ve been trying out this lately, since my last year or so of reading on German Empire Colonialism (Deutsches Historisches Museum Deutscher Kolonialismus exhibition, and Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out in particular): It’s easier to count the number of countries and places that weren’t colonised. If a country was colonised, there was genocide. Countries that weren’t colonised also suffered heavily the effects of colonialism. I do this to shift the burden of evidence or proof: it should not be the task of each country or place in isolation to prove again and again colonialism and genocide happened and continues to happen. I read Peter Fryer’s Black People in the British Empire: An Introduction and it’s unarguable.
What else that’s unarguable: the same philosophical positions informed — and continue to inform — political, social, medical, legal, religious positions which have regional and temporal variations, but are nonetheless identical. These positions were enacted not just on racialised bodies, but on hierarchies of class, sex, gender, ability, and so on: any aspect of a person could be classified and taxonomied, and once classified, denied humanity. This is what we currently call intersectionality, what Peter Fryer and others have written about for decades.
This is a hard book. It will give you nightmares. It is a horror story all the worse because there’s no end, it’s all true, and it’s only an introduction. 30 years old and half that time the colonial nations have been busy at an endless war of colonialism. Nothing’s changed. Remember that. There’s no post-colonialism or neo-colonialism. It never ended. Just like those horror movies where you wake up to find you’re still trapped asleep. All the progress and improvements of the last 30 years rest as a thin film floating atop systematic horror.
I am a child of this. Every country I’ve lived in or had citizenship in exists as it does because of colonialism and genocide: Canada, Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia, China, Germany. My parents travelled in the international wash of it, were born where they were because of empire, British, Ottoman, Dutch. This is what it means to be that thing called Citizen of the World.
And there’s something else colonialism does: it atomises culture and destroys history. Every generation, every year, continuity is lost and it’s like starting again. This is an introduction, it reminds us where we came from and what we live in. It’s not complete or comprehensive, it’s 30 years old, but fucking read this.
The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976 is Frank Dikötter’s final book in the trilogy covering China and Chairman Mao from 1945 until his death in 1976. An earlier, much shorter work covering the Republican era makes it something of a quartet. I haven’t read his work prior to these four — he’s been publishing on China for 25 years, and has been Chair Professor of Humanities at University of Hong Kong since 2006. He’s one of a handful of China historians who I will always read and look forward to whatever they write next.
It’s difficult to say this work has a weakness, when I think the previous two are some of the finest and most meticulously researched in any of the subjects I read (I’m holding the likes or Caroline Walker Bynum and Susan Mann as my exemplars), it might simply be my familiarity with the subject, both from reading and from friends in China. For most readers, especially if they slam the trilogy one after the other it’s a horrifying, relentless work of history, and that has no peer I can think of for 20th century Maoist China.
One thing I am unsure about though, and I’ve found this in other writers on Mao (like Jung Chang) and on the other singular figures of 20th century despotism (like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot) is the ease with which so much power and capability is assigned to them. What I remain unsure on in all my reading on China under Mao is the complicity of others. It’s that question, if he was indeed an individual in all this why didn’t they stop him? If not, why, during those three decades of his rule, did they not see the repeating patterns of behaviour and rule, and not make the same bad decisions over and over. Were they fucking stupid? It’s not that there’s an absence of resistance in this book, in fact there’s plenty of it once we get down to the regional and village levels, but perhaps what I’d like to read is a history of Mao’s China without him in it.
What The Cultural Revolution illustrates, in a way I think no other work on the subject has done so clearly, is that this period was essentially a continuation, or a reinvigoration of the Great Leap Forward. Certainly it was a total war against culture and history, and it demonstrates just how rapidly a culture can be erased (a couple of weeks if you’re curious as to how fast your world can vanish), but the preparations for nuclear war, the inland industrialisation, the return of collectivisation and all that went with this, were all methods of that genocidal period a decade earlier.
Maybe I throw around the term genocide too freely. It seems to me it’s not used enough. I think with Mao and his mob it rests on whether the deaths of tens of millions and the destruction of culture were intentional. Is ‘I don’t care how many die as long as I achieve my goals’ intentional, or merely indifference? What about engineering chaos for the same ends which as a side-effect result in what we currently call collateral damage? What about if you say, “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” If that half die because you ‘let’ them, is that genocide, or something else? If we have to ascribe intentionality to genocide, then the most recognition of culpability we can expect from a perpetrator is “Oops, my bad.” Which is approximately as much as the current ruling party of China says — the same party of all these three books, ruling in unbroken succession. Or maybe, “30% my bad.” Because the final ruling by the party on itself for all these atrocities was “70% good, 30% bad.”
I would like to think that in the next decade or so Dikötter’s works become less remarkable as more historians write ever more fine and detailed works on 20th century China. I do think some of the criticisms of his work are valid, in particular that it’s “more like a catalogue of anecdotes about atrocities than a sustained analytic argument”. But against that is the fact there are sod all historians writing on 20th century China compared to say 20th century Germany or Russia. Guangdong history alone could and should occupy entire departments, yet here we are, still treating China as a monolith. Worth reading all three at once, not just for history, but as a lesson in how easily a dictatorship can grow and devour continents.
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.
Sadly the exhibition was one of those “No Cameras Allowed”. I did sneak one of Edoardo Di Muro’s Freiheit für Namibia. Solidarität mit der SWAPO (from the Antiimperialistisches Solidaritätskomitee für Afrika, Asien und Lateinamerika, Frankfurt am Main, 1976) because SWAPO. I don’t know they were something my father mentioned, or just because he was South African I would see them mentioned in the news and pay attention, but SWAPO is definitely a name I remember from Apartheid.
There’s a couple of other special exhibitions on right now that are likely Kameras verboten! so now’s a good time for me to start pestering the museums for special privileges, which might mean a future proper blogging of both these exhibitions.
Sarah-Jane, or Satan-Jam, my meeting of whom last year I’ve described in eloquent, sweary detail (it’s all true, I swear! It’s why I blog, external memory storage an’ all), is in Melbourne. Right now! How privileged are you, Melbz? Get over your smug selves and get to Dancehouse this weekend, or Friday if you’re down with premières, before 17h — that’s 5pm to youse — for 2 hours of harrowment.
To be honest, I’m not sure if it’s 17h for the installation and 19h for the performance, and if both works are on each day, or … mainly because Dancehouse and Melb Fest websites are making my brain bleed. Probably best to camp out on Princes St from Thursday, just to be safe.
In all non-hyperbolic seriousness, I can’t speak highly enough of them. For the past year — when they’ve been in Berlin — I’ve had crucial, on-going discussions with them around identity, selfhood, making performance, representation (as well as epic slamming of telly series), racism, colonialism, diaspora (geographical and within one’s own body), Australia in all its ambivalence; also “What’s the best music for Mad Gainz, Frances?” “That’d be ’80s speed and death metal, crossover and thrash.” type conversations about training and physicality. Really some of the best convos I’ve had in years. (They also stepped up and were on the sharp pointy rivet of the Marina Abramovic racism a couple of months ago.)
So, as if it’s not obvious enough, Frances “Hostile To Everything” d’Ath (seriously, that’s what another awesome Australian said about me, “… in a good way though …”) is a huge fan of SJ. Go see them, say hi from me.
Saturday. Magdeburg, after the quite incredible Dom zu Magdeburg St. Mauritius und Katharina, about 3pm, so I could have spent more time in the church before wandering up to the Kulturhistorisches Museum Magdeburg about a block westwards. I didn’t, expecting proliferation in the latter, especially after the excess of the former. Somewhat disappointed then. It wasn’t the unbelievable overabundance of Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes with its acres of Rubens. It was kinda average, to be frank (hawhaw) (the Museum für Naturkunde in the same building was by far the better of the two, I just wasn’t there for that stuff).
I was expecting medæval art. Probably because I interpreted Kulturhistorisches as Kunsthistorisches, wishful thinking or something. Possibly also because some of the rooms containing this stuff were either closed or empty. Who knows? Museums can be really crap at communicating, particularly when it comes to the not so cool collections. Blahblah context, etc.
It did get off to a good start with the Tiroler Weihnachtskrippe, a joyous diorama of a town with fancy houses, sheep and farmers, porticos and mad baroque architecture, and omg! it’s Joseph and Mary in a crappy lean-to and a bunch of angels and everyone’s lining up to I dunno, give them a goat or something (complete aside here, why does Joseph never figure in mediæval (or otherwise) Christian religious imagery the way Mary does? Besides the Nativity Scene / Heiligen drei Könige, he doesn’t figure at all, and even there he’s all awkward in the background), and there’s Balthazar looking his usual young and innocent self, in a much-embroidered light maroon tunic and golden jacket showing plenty of torso, and a turban with golden ornaments. He looks a bit lost and on his own, but one of the quintet of angels is keeping him company. It’s all rather sweet in that late-Baroque / Rococo way.
A few notes: it came from Ursulinenkloster Innsbruck, transferred to Posthalterhaus in Schönberg bei Innsbruck before arriving in the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum in 1908. It was restored by the Fachochschule Erfurt between 2007 and 2011. The museum describes it as a perfect example of nativity scenes in the 17th and 18th centuries created in Tirol, and contains 68 figures 8-30cm in height and 28 animals. Plus a score of houses and buildings, and carefully placed mirrors at the ends of the porticos making it look much larger than it is—and it’s the size of a small room.
Next to that is the life-size Der Magdeburger Ritter from Magdeburg in the 13th century Gothic stone sculpture style. It probably depicts Otto the Great (the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I), with two unknown women bearing his shield and banner (I’ll pretend they are the sisters Eagdyth and Eadgifu). As with the Saints Mauritius and Katharina sculptures, its creation dates from 1240-50, concurrent with when Mechtild of Magdeburg resided in the city, and the place was pretty much the centre of mediæval Germanic awesomeness. It still has the stiff, narrow, vertical and symmetrical aesthetic of early Gothic art, but there’s already some movement, naturalism, and asymmetry entering, particularly in the two women.
Off into the Magdeburg – Die Geschichte der Stadt collection. I really was expecting to see more of St. Maurice. Besides Gepanzerte Krieger (the bronze lower-left panel of a door wing) of which the caption says, “Die Mittelfigur nimmt Bezug auf den Hl. Mauritius, der den Märtyrertod erlitt, weil er es ablehnte, Christen zu verfolgen und den Kaiser als gottgleich anzuerkennen. Otto der Große weihte dem Heiligen den Dom und das Erzbistum Magdeburg.” (“The central figure refers to Saint Mauritius, who was martyred because he refused to persecute Christians and to recognise the emperor as godlike. Otto the Great consecrated the Holy cathedral and the archbishopric of Magdeburg.”) It’s a little ambiguous to me whether by ‘nimmt Bezug’ the museum is saying this is St. Mauritius or whether translating as ‘refers to’ loses some meaning, or if there’s just a whole pile of ambiguity. Anyway, it’s a rather splendid piece of bronze-work that sat next to an even more splendid one which sadly was unphotographable.
Sprinting through the centuries like no one’s business, a couple of paintings from the early 19th century of the Magdeburger Dom which show off its very attractive (and completely absent of flying buttresses) Gothic form. A stack of early 20th century Expressionist works (by women!) most of which I did a shit job of photographing, so only one appears here, and then it’s into fun time.
By which I mean, “Heh … we have to talk about this stuff, but it’s kinda embarrassing” Nazi-land. Both the Nazi and DDR periods are in a single room, which is fitting, as I’ve been considering lately that the Soviet occupation of East Europe really was a 45 year prolongation of the war, and as the Second World War was fundamentally a continuation of the First, the 20th century takes on a very specific coherency when the first 90 years are war and only the last ten years (nominally) not.
Up first, Fibel für den Gau Magdeburg Anhalt (Primer for the District Magdeburg Anhalt, from 1942) with its adorable children playing with lanterns at night on one page and the “Heil Heil!” Nazi-fuckery on the next. Nearby are the photos of Das so genannte Zigeunerlager in Magdeburg (The So-called Gypsy Camp in Magdeburg), to which the caption concludes: “In 1943 the camp was abolished and all occupants deported to Auschwitz.” Beside that is a large diorama of Magdeburg in 1945, Magdeburg Zerstörte Innenstadt, the destroyed inner city. What I find curious in both is the passivity of the language, “the occupants were deported” by whom and to what fate, is left unsaid; the “inner city was destroyed” again by whom and why hangs overhead in its absence.
When I arrived in Magdeburg, I was struck by the absence of people. It’s a city of around 230, 000 so not small, and a university town. Outside of the main station it was as if aliens had vacuumed the town clean. And besides the absence of people, the absence of buildings. It was comprehensively bombed by allied forces towards the end of WW2 (the argument about how much of a war crime intentional fire-bombing was is not for here), but the Soviet occupiers left tracts of the inner city abandoned and they remain so to this day—where they didn’t fill it with high, frothy Soviet architecture, the kind that lines Karl-Marx-Alle in Friedrichshain (except in Berlin the rent is impossibly high for these places; Magdeburg it’s—at least part—subsidised housing).
So you have this city, the capital of the state of Sachsen-Anhalt, in beautiful countryside, sitting on a river, a thousand years of history, obviously underpopulated and with plenty of available accommodation and land in the city center, and rather than go, “Fuck yeah, we need shitloads of new people here, yo!” a full quarter of them voted for the anti-immigration, crypto-fascist, nationalist Alternativ für Deutschland, the place is rife with Neo-Nazi anti-immigrant and -refugee attacks (despite it having a reasonable number of both), and the general sentiment (which I’ve encountered elsewhere in former East Germany—and West) is they’d far sooner sink together as ‘Germans’ in their own misery than do anything meaningful to better their situation. And by meaningful, I mean make the place attractive to artists, immigrants, refugees, young people, small businesses, people fleeing increasingly expensive Berlin. The place could be awesome.
Last piece then: a wall tapestry from Tournai. The caption says:
Der Bildteppich stellt eine Geschichte dar, in der geraubte Heidenkinder verkauft werden. Von einem Schiff werden die meist dunkelhäutigen Kinder an Land gebracht. Ein Seeräuber oder Zigeuner erhält von einem prächtig gekleideten Mann im Vordergrund Goldmünzen und die Kinder werden an Edelleute in spätgotischen Gewänder übergeben.
Im Inventarbuch eines Teppichhändlers des 16. Jahrhunderts aus Tournai gibt es die Aufzeichnung über 17 Teppiche einer so genannten “Carrabarra-Geschichte”, wozu dieser Wandbehang gehört. Trotz eingeschränkter Farbskala und relativ geringer Fadendichte verstanden es die Weber der Bildwirkereien in Tournai, technisch und künstlerisch hochwertig Teppich herzustellen.
Loosely translated first paragraph: The tapestry depicts the story of the selling of the stolen heathen (pagan or perhaps Gentiles is best) children. From a ship, the dark-skinned children are brought ashore. A pirate or Gypsy (Zigeuner, i.e. Roma, Sinti, a Romani person) receives gold coins from a splendidly dressed man, and the children are handed over to noblemen in late-Gothic dress.
Again this passivity of language, as if the nobility are being coerced into handing over their coinage by the wily gypsy, or saving these children out of their own altruistic goodness, when by the 16th century the European slave trade was already underway, and for nobility across Europe, buying children (and dwarfs) from Africa was common. Or perhaps that’s how the nobility wished to imagine what they were doing, altruism and saving the dark continent from itself.
As the second paragraph says, it’s not a great work, limited colour palette, low fibre density, but still technically and artistically proficient—and one of seventeen, though the museum only has this one.
After that, I barged through the Museum für Naturkunde, was pretty much museumed and arted out by this point—and you can probably tell I was a little underwhelmed by the museum. Unfortunately then stuck in Magdeburg with nothing to do for a couple of hours. The busses to the city are plentiful, but leaving … and as for trains, Deutsche Bahn have a monopoly and they love squeezing passengers for every euro they can. Not the greatest for tourists. (I can really see a sideline job for me photographing mediæval art in small towns and obnoxiously telling them how to be better at tourism.)
This was on Sunday, my regular weekly journey to one of Berlin’s hundreds of museums and art galleries. Alas, my webhost decided to trash one of their servers, and between recovering from that and all the rest of the week, it’s now Friday and my memory is crystallised; the immediate thoughts and emotions running over the same paths until ruts form and possibilities for other considerations become faint.
This is a troubling museum. I was angry at someone, and wanted to take that anger out on them. Anyone, preferably German, though Jewish would also suffice. Someone responsible for this; responsible also for forgetting and repeating.
My first visit to it when I was newly arrived in Berlin was an act of encompassing: I didn’t go in because of the queue. When I was a student, I’d bought a large monograph on Daniel Libeskind and the architecture of this Jüdisches Museum, so I found wandering outside was a thing in itself. Having now been inside, it seems two different things. In places the exterior breaks forth into the interior, but never as stark or clear. Often it feels too busy and demanding: there are arrows on the floor determining the correct path to take, as usual, I missed them and saw everything counter-clockwise.
People are very solemn at first. The stairs lead down to underground. The way forward is both uphill and tilted, or warped. The architecture is banal here, it reminds me of Hanna Arendt writing on Eichmann and how utterly mediocre his thinking was, his acts were, the blandness of an office from where murder was issued. I’m not sure this is intentional here, and despite what Libeskind says about his work being open to interpretation, there is much that is very deliberate yet also in other places unfulfilled.
This is a Jewish museum, a German Jewish museum. It is not a history of Jews or Jewishness in its entirety, it is centered on land that became Germany as well as neighbouring countries, and as time passes the focus narrows onto Germany and Berlin.
I was reading a letter that had been smuggled out of Auschwitz when a school group broke into laughter as one of them said something. I only caught, “… transvestites … ” and the laughter. Here is one I wanted to take my anger out on. The idiocy of not understanding; of not caring to understand. It is precisely and only because we begin by laughing at those who are different that we can later murder them. This the museum does not teach the visitor, perhaps because the stating the conceptual leap is too troubling for a country (Germany) that regards certain members in the same language (Turkish, Roma), or for another country (Israel) that treats people in the same way (Palestinian, Bedouin).
I went to the Holocaust place. The dead end. After the confined, low-ceiling blandness of the paths before, the cold, dark void I found peaceful. Once I was alone in there and my eyes adjusted, I could see the play of weak light from high above shape the space. Standing beneath it and looking back, small holes in the facing wall looked out to the garden, too high for eyes to see through. The sound was sharp and precise. I clapped my hands and like a gun firing the strike echoed for half a minute. A sound to meditate by.
Again, a simple reading is possible, yet I am not so grim a nihilist to think that there is not some peace intended to be experienced here, also in the garden outside. The bleakness suits winter.
Out and up the stairs. The architecture of this progression is also exclusive. For those without legs to walk the stairs, it is not possible to follow the axis of continuation, nor to experience the museum as it expects.
Arriving at the top it is a relief. There are spices, colours, smells. I find a reproduction of a 14th century illumination, teaching children the alphabet by baking each letter into a biscuit, because knowledge is sweet and beyond all else important. This is something I can feel an affinity for. Later there is an etching of darling, dear Spinoza, not a minor philosopher at all. Also a Torah for children, as drawn by a renaissance xkcd. There are messages on the wall though, creeping into vision. Kant says, “They are nowaday vampires of society” …
The language again. It is language I hear now from people I would assume understand words and what they are saying. Of course, because they utter them against immigrants, asylum seekers, Roma, Turkish, Muslims, it is ok. The police standing on guard at every Jewish building in Berlin remind us that Berlin, Germany, Europe does not understand what it will never forget.
The 20th century, then. Almost a return trip to the Deutsches Technikmuseum, and what was perhaps not clearly mentioned there is certainly here: that Jews were at the front of industrialisation, modernisation, innovation, art, culture. And I am angry again. That they let this happen. They, Germans, Jews, Europeans. Sometimes I want to punch the city of Berlin itself, but I have also seen photographs of Berlin from above in 1945 to know the city did that task to itself. And I am angry at that too.
China. Shanghai. When I said this is a German Jewish museum, it is what is absent that frames what is here. The persecution for hundreds of years pushed them into travelling. There are Jews in China, converted hundreds of years ago who follow a memory of Jewishness. There were tens of thousands of refugees in Shanghai and Chongqing. I photographed some of the illustrations of this, an entire story in itself. There is also land in northern China that for a small moment in time could have become Israel.
The word ambivalent is perhaps the closest I can find to this pull of contradictions, to also the presentation of a single narrative of Jewishness. What is missing? Where are the wealthy Jews who signed away the lives of the poorer, who were absolutely complicit in murder? Where are the heterosexual Jews who persecuted the gay, lesbian, transgender ones? Certainly the latter have “their own” museum, as if there were no cock-sucking, pussy-licking, cross-dressing Jews. Them and us.
There is a photograph of Heinz Joachim and Marianne Prager, Jewish Communist resistance fighters. They are in a clearing in a forest, he is kneeling on a blanket, she standing. His arms are around her waist, she has one on her shoulder. He looks up into her eyes, they are smiling, laughing. He is wearing a short-sleeved gingham dress, and she a man’s dark suit, jacket and trousers. They were murdered in 1942, both 23 years old, two years after this photo. There is no remark made on their clothing or why they were wearing it, their identities are both present and erased.
The museum winds back on itself. After the dead-end of the holocaust, it becomes a green room, dressed in artificial grass, warm golden light. The people after. There are cubes lit from within on poles, like saplings, each has a photograph of a person and a short biography. One says, “ … and when my father in Palestinian exile, witnessed how the expelled began doing the expelling, he wrote: ‘The swastika is twining around the Star of David …’”
I can’t say anymore. Like the museum going back on itself – to exit I have to go back down the stairs, through the basement, glance at the path to the holocaust once more – my thoughts go back on themselves, worrying and pulling at themselves. I want to say this is pathetic, hundreds of years of culture and all that is shown is religion and death. One exhibit is the Brit milah, circumcising the baby boy. Ritual genital mutilation is another way of putting it. There is no commentary on how some secular and religious Jews find this act disturbing. There is scant room for discussion of this in Germany because any criticism becomes itself criticised for anti-semiticism. It’s possible what I write now, what I think now would be defined as anti-semetic.
At last there is a separate exhibition of a photographer. The first image is that of a woman. I haven’t written of how frequently and how clearly conscious and matter-of-fact the place of the women who appear in this exhibition, from the ceramic artists who are the first exhibits encountered, to the long biography of a Jewish merchant woman, to this last image, Hannah Arendt.