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'Anti-colonial interventions' in Cologne

Annabelle Steffes-Halmer
October 13, 2022

Artists from Latin America are combing through Cologne's Museum Ludwig for traces of colonialism. Their goal: to comment on the collection with their "anti-colonial interventions."

A woman wearing a golden COVID mask stands in front of a sculpted metal face
Paula Baeza Pailamilla : Dissecting Museum Ludwig's colonial historyImage: José Cáceres

A soft murmur fills the exhibition rooms in the first floor of Cologne's Museum Ludwig. The sounds somehow recall waves rhythmically washing over a sandy beach. The murmur becomes louder and turns into a penetrating, albeit warm, sound. Uncommon sounds in a museum, a place where people usually avoid talking too loudly. 

Also uncommon is the instrument that Pavel Aguilar uses to produce these sounds. "Even as a child, I learned how to create these kinds of conch trumpets," the Honduran musician and conceptual artist says. "You need a precise technique, otherwise you could ruin the conch. And the sound that one hears symbolizes the soul of the ocean."

A man blows into a conch at a beach
Pavel Aguilar with one of his conch trumpetsImage: Claudia Sevilla

Aguilar is one of the four artists from Latin America who have together created the exhibition "Here and Now: Dynamic Spaces" at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne.

"When a society becomes more diverse, the museum must also become more diverse," co-curator Joanne Rodriguez tells DW. "And in this manner, we engage with anti-colonial interventions in different areas of the museum."

Art or blissful exoticism?

Individual "interventions" are distributed as QR codes, leading to video statements. 

Creating a dialogue between different exhibits, Aguilar placed for example a guira, a percussion instrument from South America, next to the 1924 sculpture "The Sleepers" by artist Hermann Scherer.

The wooden sculpture was made in the so-called primitivist style, an art movement which has become controversial. In the early 20th century, Western artists found inspiration from art in the Global South and tried to adapt their style. The underlying suggestion was that the supposedly uneducated artists from, for example, Africa and Oceania, were following their instincts and not their rational minds.

A wooden sculpture of a man and woman sleeping next to a guira with the name Hermann Scherer.
Hermann Scherer's "The Sleepers" next to a guira with the name of the artistImage: Benita Ruster/Rheinisches Bildarchiv

Not only do the exhibited works show traces of colonialism, the history of the museum is also steeped in it. Paula Baeza Pailamilla (top picture) makes it clear in a video performance dealing with chocolate production.

The performance is closely connected with Museum Ludwig's history: In 1976, the institution was founded by Peter and Irene Ludwig, who made a fortune out of manufacturing and selling chocolate.

"I always try to question the structure of things and institutions," the Chilean artist says. In her three-part video, Pailamilla dons the role of a servile chocolate mascot like the ones you see in advertisements. Through her work, she wants to draw attention to challenges like child labor in chocolate production.

From left: Paula Baeza Pailamilla, Paloma Ayala, Joanne Rodriguez, Pavel Aguilar
The curators at the Museum LudwigImage: Annabelle Steffes-Halmer

Making power structures visible

Daniela Ortiz is even more clear in her anti-colonialist interventions: The Peruvian artist's installation is set in contrast with a painting by Germany's pioneer of dadaism and surrealism, Max Ernst's "The Blessed Virgin Chastising the Christ Child in Front of Three Witnesses: Andre Breton, Paul Eluard and the Painter."

Ortiz places the picture of a 9-year-old Colombian boy, Jesus Ander, who died in a Spanish refugee camp after his parents were deported. "Jesus' death was officially declared to be suicide and his organs were donated without his parents' consent," reads Ortiz's comment next to the picture.

There are other cases like the one with Jesus Ander. Ortiz has researched other incidents, in which children were separated from their parents and abused in state-run shelters in Europe.

All four curators consider themselves not only artists, but also activists. And that is what the title of the exhibition, "Here and Now: Dynamic Spaces" also suggests.

"Anti-colonial is always brought into connection with anti-colonial resistance," says Joanne Rodriguez. "Decolonial" as a term was too weak, she explains during the inaugural press conference, adding that they needed to emphasize the pro-activeness of the initiative.

What really matters

In this manner, Paloma Ayala invites viewers to contribute to her installation, which has 650 clay sculptures with continuous references to works in the permanent installations. The sculptures are placed on 1-meter-high walls and can be taken out and reworked by visitors.

Blocks of clay on a wooden shelf
Paloma Ayala's blocks of clay waiting to be sculpted by visitorsImage: Annabelle Steffes-Halmer

"I am challenging them [the visitors] to rethink what really matters in this exhibition, what it means and what it has to do with colonial history. And why is it important, to preserve collections like the one presented here?" Ayala tells DW.

The installation will thereby turn into an exhibition of its own. After the end of the show, the works will not be thrown away, but recycled and used anew. 


This article was originally written in German.

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