In 1984, two jubilee exhibitions in West Berlin addressed historical events at the turn of the century under completely different political auspices and thus sparked heated debate about national history-writing and especially, how to deal with Germany’s colonial past.
As part of the Berliner Festwochen, the Berlinische Galerie, in co-operation with the Akademie der Künste, held an exhibition devoted to the turn of the century in the Wilhelminian era, realising the large-scale exhibition project Berlin around 1900.1 At the same time as this celebration of “the feeling of the pulsating metropolis, electrification and the German pioneering spirit […], an ‘anniversary’ was approaching which did not really fit into the ‘1900 concept’”2: the centenary of the Berlin Congo Conference.3 However, there were no plans for an historical-critical treatment of German colonial history in West Berlin’s museums and cultural institutions. Faced with this ignorance, a reviewer asked whether it was mere coincidence “that the aspect of ‘colonialism’ did not pop up at all in the whole fuss about Berlin around 1900?”4.
The nGbK, on the other hand, marked the occasion of the anniversary with a critical revision in the exhibition Afrika – 100 Jahre Einmischung. The central priority of the working group was an appropriate historical treatment.5 In the preface to the exhibition catalogue, organisers stressed that colonialism and its effects remain “part of our present. Like fascism, colonialism is part of our history.”6 However, the plans met with resistance: due to political reservations among the co-operating institutions and the government of Berlin, the exhibition was designated “not worthy” of funding. Reacting to this censorship, the working group said “the [authorities] took offence to the text placards which were intended to facilitate the historical and political evaluation of the exhibits.”7 The exhibition went ahead nonetheless but – for the first time in its history, the art society – the nGbK had to pay for the entire exhibition project from its own funds.

More exhibitions on (post)colonial topics followed8, which shifted the historical perspective towards an artistic or theoretical treatment.
This, in 1991, after the release of Nelson Mandela and the lifting of the ban on the African National Congress (ANC), a photographic inventory of South Africa took place in conjunction with the group exhibition Alltag Schwarz-Weiß. “Reality approaches us in bits and always only in certain sections. There is never more than a part of everyday life, a part of the whole, on view”9, said one commentary in the exhibition. Questions regarding the representation and reproduction of hegemonic power structures in the selection of artistic positions were not convincingly reflected. Of the five photographers documenting the racial segregation and discrimination, only one, Santu Mofokeng, was a black South African.
The exhibition Schwarze Kunst was aimed at creating a space for artists whose works address issues of identity, racism and marginalisation. The exhibition in 1991 adopted an equally controversial approach, by inviting only black artists from the US and Canada. However, the working group could not avoid the danger of using artistic positions in a purely illustrative manner and unwittingly reproducing discrimination. Therefore, one artist refused to take part in the exhibition so that she would not “give fresh impetus to a further ghettoisation.”10
In order to offer postcolonial criticism and theory production a platform outside the context of universities, the event series Postkoloniale Kritik was established in 2001, inviting experts to give talks on feminism and work, critique of capitalism and postcolonial art production.11
In 2009, there followed the debate series Re/positionierung with the goal of “creating a space within the Berlin art world in which racism, critical whiteness and perspectives of Color, especially with regard to the reception of art history and contemporary creative art, could be discussed and reflected upon”.12 The exhibition Making Mirrors (2011) adopted a similar approach, calling on viewers to “question majority perspectives on dominant body images and points of view. The aim was to use artistic works located between the poles of art and activism to involve the viewer in the exhibition and thus “release the experience of art from the realm of pure observation”13.
Even if colonialism seems to over from a historical perspective, its diverse effects remain ubiquitous, in Berlin too, which is why it remains important in the sense of a postcolonial understanding of society and especially cultural work, to deconstruct colonial discourses, images and thought patterns that retain their force to this day: from initiatives to rename those streets in Berlin which bear names and designations from colonial history14, to cultural-political discussions about the reconstruction of the Prussian Stadtschloss and the removal of the ethnological collections to the Humboldt Forum15, to debates about recognising the genocide committed against the Herero and Nama tribes and the return of the remains of Namibian victims which remained in the collection of the Medizinisch-Historisches Museum for more than a hundred years.

Eylem Sengezer, 2015, revised 2019

  1. Berlinische Galerie in Verbindung mit der Akademie der Künste und der Berliner Festspiele zu den Berliner Festwochen 1994, Akademie der Künste, 9.9.-28.10.1984. 

  2. Pit Mischke: „Wer hat Angst vorm Schwarzen Mann“, in: Der Stachel, 1.11.1984. 

  3. On 15 November 1884, at the invitation of Bismarck and the French premier, Fery, an international conference was held in Berlin to determine the colonial partition of Africa. The borders, which were drawn with pencil and ruler, are the subject of conflicts and warlike disputes to this day. 

  4. Mischke (1984) 

  5. Manfred O. Hinz, Helgard Patemann, Arnim Meier: Vorwort, in: Weiss auf Schwarz. 100 Jahre Einmischung in Afrika. Deutscher Kolonialismus und afrikanischer Widerstand, Elefanten Press, Berlin 1984. 

  6. Ebd., S.6. 

  7. Raul Gersson: Zensur in der Urania, in: Zitty, 09.11.1984. 

  8. Postcolonialism, postcolonial theory or postcolonial studies is a theoretical and artistic field of debate, which addresses the continuation of colonial symmetries of power and forms of representation of the Non-Western other in the self-image of the West and aims to deconstruct this. An introduction is provided by Castro Varela, María do Mar; Dhawan, Nikita: Postkoloniale Theorie. Eine kritische Einführung. Transcript Verlag, Bielefeld 2005. 

  9. Elke Melkus: Der bittere schwarze Alltag. Kreuzberg: Fünf Fotografinnen und Fotografen aus Südafrika, in: Berliner Zeitung, 16.4.1991. Das Zitat stammt aus der Ausstellung. 

  10. Sabine Vogel: Jeder ist eine Minderheit. Auf der Suche nach der Schwarzen Kunst. Ausstellung in der NGBK, in: Der Tagesspiegel, 8.1.1992. 

  11. Vgl. Pressemitteilung, Postkoloniale Kritik, NGBK 2001. 

  12. Sandrine Micossé-Aikins: Einleitung, in: Re/Positionierung – Critical Whiteness/Perspectives of Color, NGBK, Berlin 2009, S. 4. 

  13. Einleitung, in: Making Mirrors. Von Körpern und Blicken, NGBK, Berlin 2011, S. 4. 

  14. Vgl. Christian Kopp, Marius Krohn: Blues in Schwarzweiss. Die Black Community im Widerstand gegen kolonialrassistische Straßennamen in Berlin-Mitte, http://berlin-postkolonial.de/publikationen/orte-afrikanisches-viertel, zuletzt aufgerufen am 22.1.2020. 

  15. Vgl. http://www.no-humboldt21.de/