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Why a German museum is exploring its colonial past

August 7, 2017

For the first time in Germany, a museum is publically digging into the colonial roots of its own collection. Curator Julia Binter tells DW how looking at the past can change how we view "foreigners" today.

Julia Binter with Paula Modersohn-Becker's still life from 1905
Julia Binter with Paula Modersohn-Becker's still life from 1905Image: Christina Kuhaupt

The Kunsthalle Bremen is the first museum in Germany to identify and explore the concealed colonial and racist references among its collection.

Anthropologist Julia Binter curated the exhibition "The Blind Spot" (August 5-November 19), which aims to reflect on the colonial past of the museum and the city of Bremen, a hub of international trade during the 18th and 19th centuries - the peak of European colonialism. The exhibit also seeks to rethink pressing current issues such as globalization, migration and identity. 

DW:  Why is it so important to focus on art from the colonial period in the present day?

Julia Binter: Colonial world views and imagery continue to exist long after the colonial era. We are still surrounded by racist and "exotic" images that influence how we approach people we consider to be "foreign."

The aim of the exhibition "The Blind Spot" is to examine the colonial implications in artworks that were created during the colonial era.

It was also important to us to include individuals in the making of the exhibition who are impacted by racism today. Kunsthalle Bremen is very pleased that the Afrika-Netzwerk Bremen [Eds.: a Bremen-based umbrella organization that focuses on topics related to Africa and of importance to members of the city's African communities] and the Nigerian-German artist Ngozi Schommers collaborated with us.

Self-portrait, Ngozi Schommers, 2017
Nigerian-German artist Ngozi Schommers collaborated on the exhibition; this is her self-portraitImage: Ngozi Schommers

It is significant that this is the first museum in Germany to explore its colonial history. Why is this? Is there a taboo surrounding the topic?

In Germany, the German Historical Museum and the State Museum Hanover explored German colonial history. But the Kunsthalle Bremen is the first art museum in Germany to examine its own collection.

Art museums have been seen and continue to be seen as white institutions that hone our taste for European art and culture.

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My research has shown that both the patronage of the Kunsthalle museum and the collection itself held many colonial connections and had a great deal to do with what was considered "foreign."

What makes Bremen an interesting place to explore the collection through a post-colonial lens?

The city of Bremen had already been involved in the Dutch and British colonial trade system for centuries by the time German colonialism began. [Eds.: The German colonial empire, with territories in Africa and Southeast Asia, existed from 1884 to 1918.] During German colonialism, Bremen became a leading hub for the trade of colonial goods and for people who wanted to emigrate overseas.

Norddeutscher Lloyd, founded in Bremen in 1857, was the second largest shipping company in the world at the turn of the century. All of these colonial connections in the city left their mark on the Kunsthalle Bremen as well.

It was the international merchants who founded the Kunstverein (art organization) in Bremen in 1823, and it was because of their foundation that the Kunsthalle museum received a very valuable collection in 1900.

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"The Blind Spot" exhibition focuses on the role of the "other" and breaking down the construct of the foreigner. How is this done through the items in the collection?  

Modern European artists dealt extensively with art and people they considered to be "foreign." Those artists include Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Fritz Behn, whose works are part of the Bremen collection.

They often consciously integrated stereotypical representations, which were spread by science and the media during the colonial period, into their art.

"Cui Bono" by Hew Locke, 2017
Scottish artist Hew Locke tackles colonialism in his work, like "Cui Bono" from 2017Image: Hew Locke/Hales Gallery/VG Bild-Kunst

In the exhibition, these European perspectives are presented in dialogue with historical and contemporary artistic positions from various global contexts.

Included are works like Amrita Sher-Gil's "Self-Portrait as a Tahitian," in which the Hungarian-Indian artist in 1934 critically questioned the eroticizing and exoticizing view white artists like Paul Gauguin took of women of color.

Do you think this exhibition will open the door for similar exhibitions?

I hope so. Research on Germany's colonial past has been extensive. Now it's time to start a discussion in society and ask what we can learn from it.

Many of the prejudices we have about people we consider "foreign," such as refugees, came into existence during the colonial period. At the same time, little has changed in the global economic and political balance of power.

It isn't until we get to know our own history with all of its dark sides that we can shape the present and the future in a positive way. That is vital in a globalized society.

Julia Binter studied social and cultural anthropology, as well as theater, film and media studies in Vienna and Paris. She is currently completing her doctorate at the University of Oxford on trade, cultural exchange and imperial contact in West Africa. She is a fellow and guest curator at the Kunsthalle Bremen.

The exhibition "The Blind Spot" is being shown at the Kunsthalle Bremen from August 5 through November 19, 2017.

Sarah Hucal
Sarah Hucal Freelance Multimedia Journalist