The exhibition "RESIST! The Art of Resistance" at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne pursues the ongoing debate surrounding the restitution of looted colonial art in the collections of European museums.
But this show gives a voice to victims of colonization, aiming to offer "a change of perspective," explains museum director Nanette Snoep, by "letting the descendants of those who were directly affected speak and tell unheard stories."
The exhibition, adds Snoep, also looks into the question: What does resistance mean today?
A change of perspective on colonialism
To find answers to this question, the exhibition features 40 international artists from over 30 countries. Most of them come from the Global South or are diaspora activists.
A striking number of women are among the featured artists. Among them are the group of activists surrounding the Namibian Esther Utjiua Muinjangue, who is the chairwoman of the Ovaherero Genocide Foundation.
For years, the foundation has been calling for reparations from the German state for the injustices that the former colonial power did to the Herero and Nama in the colony known as German South Africa.
Between 1904 and 1908, Herero and Nama uprisings were brutally suppressed and more than 90,000 people were killed. The slaughter is seen as the first genocide in the history of the 20th century.
The exhibition features panels designed by a Namibian graphic artist, together with Esther Muinjangue and her colleague Ida Hoffmann. Additionally, photographs and three screens with film clips from demonstrations and speeches refer to the events of that time. Above the installation is the slogan "It Cannot Be About Us Without Us," which can also be viewed as the entire exhibition's guiding principle.
Retelling colonial history
The Namibia activists' hall is one of four "It's Yours" rooms of the exhibition, whose display was planned by guest curators invited to tell their story.
All four were designed by women.
The Nigerian artist and professor of art history at Lagos University, Peju Layiwola, was also a guest curator. Her room features bronzes from the former Kingdom of Benin, with some of them draped as a reminder of the art that was looted in colonial times.
The Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum itself owns 95 Benin bronzes. They were acquired by the collector Rautenstrauch in London — a few years after the British had bloodily suppressed an anti-colonial uprising in 1897, taking the bronzes with them as trophies.
Giving a voice to the marginalized
Born in the Netherlands to Surinamese parents, visual artist and activist Patricia Kaersenhout also deals with colonial history in her works, examining how colonialism still has an impact today.
On flags hanging from the ceiling, she presents three now forgotten Caribbean pioneers of the pan-African liberation movement from the 20th century. "Objects of Love and Desire" is the name of her installation about the courageous women who "have completely distanced themselves from the idea of how a woman, especially a Black woman, should behave," says Kaersenhout, who aims to give a voice to those who have been excluded and forgotten.
Kaersenhout's work also deals with the African diaspora and their relationship to feminism, sexuality, racism and the history of slavery. "Especially for young people of color it is very important that they know their story and that their past is not only filled with oppression and suffering, but also filled with resistance."
The paradox of the football star
Senegalese fashion photographer Omar Victor Diop's project "Diaspora" is a series of portraits of himself in which he elaborately dresses up and reproduces images of historical personalities who were once highly respected as diplomats, thinkers or former slaves. These people were at the center of important episodes of Black resistance, yet their story has been largely forgotten.
Diop's self-portraits link the past to the present as he poses in each picture with a soccer ball under his arm. It's a reference to the often stereotypical portrayal of Black football stars, who despite their achievements are still too often greeted with episodes of racism.
The exhibition also includes a platform for critical discussions, networking and expressions of solidarity through writing workshops or discussions with speakers, many of them affected by intergenerational colonial trauma or racism. "You can just speak to them and ask questions," says Nanette Snoep.
Due to the pandemic, this is of course all happening online — allowing the entire world to take part in the discussion.
"RESIST! The Art of Resistance" was a 2021 exhibition at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne.
Adapted from German by Elizabeth Grenier.