German artist explores colonial history in Cameroon | Arts | DW | 22.08.2016
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Arts

German artist explores colonial history in Cameroon

Germany's colonial reign ended with World War I, but left traces in countries like Cameroon. The German government sent artist Andréas Lang there to explore this painful part of Germany's history - and his own family's.

The studio of the Berlin-based photo and video artist Andréas Lang is currently located in an unusual place - under the roof of Germany's Federal Foreign Office. The ministry regularly awards artistic grants and sponsored Andréas Lang's trip to Cameroon to study German colonial history.

For Lang, it was a trip back into his own family's history, as his great-grandfather had once served as a soldier in Germany's colonial military.

Cameroon was once the fourth largest colony in Germany's colonial empire. Germany's rule lasted for three decades and ended with its loss in World War I.

The genocide against the Herero and Nama peoples in present-day Namibia, which was also a German-run colony, is considered the worst crime committed during that era. But also in Cameroon, unrest was violently suppressed.

Andréas Lang told DW about his experience in Cameroon and how he worked through it in his art.

DW: Mr. Lang, you visited Cameroon twice, and you also visited the border between Cameroon and DR Congo. Did you come across traces of German colonial history?

Andréas Lang: Yes, there is still quite a lot there. When you start looking, you come across quite a few relics and ruins. You can find entire colonial cemeteries that are now serving as vegetable gardens in backyards. Or a safe that was forgotten in the jungle, surrounded by legends about where the key could have ended up.

German colonial history is also present among the people - in their songs and in women's dresses, which I filmed during a World Women's Day parade in the capital Yaoundé.

I also met an old man who could still tell me stories about colonial times. He told me about friendships - but also about whippings. This man came from the village of Banana, which the German colonial powers had named.

How have you worked through your experience in your art?

I came across a historic photograph taken by my great-grandfather. I was able to find the place where he had taken it. It's now very overgrown. To me, it's important to visit these locations in person, where different levels have become interwoven, my inner images, my projections onto that place, as well as its present reality here and now. I'm particularly interested in images that reflect this kind of layering and interaction between the various layers.

However, I don't consciously look for that - it happens coincidentally. The image was already there; the image and I simply had to find each other.

How do the Cameroonians see Germany nowadays?

Strangely enough, people seem to view German colonialism in a positive light. But that probably has to do with the fact it's a long time ago and the horrible memories have faded. People point out that a bridge once built by the Germans is still standing and still functioning, and that the Germans built up their country. But I think that this was all part of imperialism, and that the Germans were no less cruel than other colonial powers.

That's why it is important nowadays, that we don't view these events from a European, paternalistic perspective, but at eye level with the people. And we should ask ourselves where colonial structures exist nowadays, and where political decisions are made above the heads of the people.

Andréas Lang presents his works in the exhibition "Cameroon and Congo - In Search of Traces and Phantom Geography," which runs from September 16, 2016, to February 26, 2017, in the German Historical Museum in Berlin.

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