Documenta, Decolonycities and German Southwest Africa

Documenta, Decolonycities & Deutsch-Südwest-Afrika
"Decolonycities" at Baakenhafen, Hamburg

Janto Djassi

A shadow hangs over Namibia–– and not just because of the low-hanging sun over the picturesque Etosha salt pan. Despite all the romanticism surrounding the desert, peace remains elusive even in the wake of the return of the looted artworks to the former German colony. The relationship with those who erected the first German concentration camps is anything but resolved.

One topic dominated every summer party in 2022: documenta’s fifteenth iteration in Kassel, the fiasco at the world’s highest-profile non-commercial art exhibition. The fact that anti-Semitically interpretable artworks went on public display there right in the middle of Germany provoked quite a mediatic fracas. Consequently, the artworks thus designated were dismantled or, as in the case of Hito Steyerl, the artist herself removed her exhibits. Obviously, it was about anti-Semitism. Notwithstanding, the party chatter was unanimous: art, or rather the freedom of art, is in for a rocky ride.

Because too often, the intelligentsia have failed to reflect on why two Jewish grotesque faces were able to find their way into the banner of an Indonesian art collective exhibited worldwide. If one adapted an Indonesian perspective, perhaps with a certain empathy, one might grasp the fact that Hitler’s assault on the Netherlands in May 1940 constituted the beginning of this vast nation’s road to independence from its Dutch occupiers. Nine years and countless victims later, Indonesia was mutate into a military dictatorship–– thanks to the war. No one could or should expect that prior to 1998–– Indonesia’s actual date of independence– any educational system would entertain the slightest intention to challenge such autocratic powers. To this very day in Jakarta, Germans are greeted with a joyful Heil Hitler! Such phenomena, too, are another vestige of colonialism, of a war waged against human freedom that once erupted in Germany.

Hence, decolonization does not just involve apologetic gestures or repatriating plundered artworks, but rather an act of learning to understand the multitudinous consequences of colonialism on a global scale, without exception, instead of a knee-jerk reaction, taking sides in intersecting discourses on victimisation –– Jewish versus Indonesian culture ––as transpired in Kassel.

This is also the case in Namibia, where descendants of the erstwhile German colonialists and the majority of the descendants of genocide live side by side. Peacefully, I dare to say. Because here, too, according to Zorena Jantze, author of the following account on Namibia, they know nothing about each other: “Water is the last thing a fish notices,” she observes.

Jantze lives side by side with those descendants of the German colonial masters in the midst of Namibia’s ethnic diversity of over thirteen indigenous languages, with unique dances and cultural practices: “Much of Namibia’s identity remains intact,” she says, And yet: “Archival documentation and abandoned buildings with overgrown grass and eerie sculptures continue to call attention to those torturous colonial years.” Incidentally, Hamburg’s Bismarck Monument in the Alter Elbpark or the listed Afrikahaus in the city centre bear a similar stigma.

Bismarckdenkmal

Justina Andreas and West Uarije in front of the Hamburg Bismarck Monument

Munimum

West Uarije, Justina Andreas, Vitjitua Ndjiharine, Faizel Browny

Munimum

The Hamburg-based choreographer Yolanda Gutiérrez re-explores these “monuments” in her long-term project Decolonycities. In what follows, Jantze sets out to accompany Gutiérrez and her group of Namibian dancers in order to understand for herself what colonial shadow looms over Namibia. Is it not the the same as that over documenta fifteen ? And finally, while on the subject, how come artists from the German ex-colonies were conspicuously absent from this showcase meant to highlight the “global South”?

Windhoek’s Shadows

3,15

Thousands flock to Namibia every year, in search of desert, wide-open spaces, wilderness. Invariably, Windhoek is their first port of call. German is still spoken here. Yet its colonial history, visible everywhere, remains the issue for the local dance scene. Here comes a multi-layered post-colonial portrait in five profiles.