Colonialism explored

This is an edited version of an essay written by Dierk Schmidt in collaboration with Malte Jaguttis. The two visited Johannesburg for last week’s Art in Troubled Times conference.

The project The Division of the Earth began six years ago with research work I conducted in collaboration with others about the Berlin Africa Conference held in 1884/1885, often called the Congo Conference. This historical event served as a starting point to deepen the artistic-critical approach I had already been pursuing in earlier research-based works examining historical and present-day processes of political representation.

The Berlin Africa Conference is barely present in the collective memory of its host country. But it was a pivotal moment in the history of modern colonialism and gave me the opportunity to tread new paths of reflection by connecting aesthetic and political issues.

In the face of the epochal ruthlessness with which an entire continent was made the object of the territorial ambitions of the participating European states and the United States, I intended The Division of the Earth to trigger debates beyond the fields of art and politics, setting both in relation to each other.

If, with the legal framework of the Berlin Africa Conference, colonial rule was enforced through the normative abstraction, should not abstraction in painting be the logical genre of such an examination? And could its use mark an attempt to represent the structural violence involved?

From this perspective, it would be insufficient to treat the Berlin Africa Conference and its aftermath as a completed, historically and geopolitically remote set of problems. To me, it was always related to a political situation in my own context. For a long time Germans have ignored or marginalised their colonial history.

Ending the silence
Discussions on the more recent crimes of the mid-20th century prevailed. Only in recent years and in particular under the auspices of the claims for reparation voiced by former Herero and Nama populations in Namibia has this specific history recently become tangible again.

After decades of silence over the crimes committed under German colonial rule over “South-West Africa”, Germany officially responded to the affected communities in 2004. Under pressure of a claim for reparations that had been filed in a United States court by the Herero People’s Reparations Corporation in 2001, the German minister for economic co-operation and development apologised for what would today be regarded as a genocide. But in her speech Heidimarie Wieczorek-Zeul carefully avoided laying the foundation for reparation payments.

Germany’s political response was clearly a decision with a European dimension since a legally relevant statement about colonialism could also set a precedent for other former European colonial powers.

With a focus on the discussion about possible parallels between abstraction in painting and international law, the project pursued several questions: by the application of which sociopolitical abstractions did the appropriation of land and genocide in German South West Africa occur? How do they continue to have impact?

Through which forms of abstraction can an artistic examination serve more than just a retracing or an affirmative function? What relevance can the criticism of past decades, inspired by postcolonial studies, have for contemporary artistic practices?

Can all this be depicted by means of any aesthetic method? If so, who does it benefit? Which processes, which situations evade depiction altogether?

Making the abstract real
When approaching these questions, one of my first choices was to try to give such abstract problems a palpable, physical materialisation. Not interested in easy analogies and formalisms, I still wanted to use the existing accessibility of the artistic genre of history painting as a vehicle for my questions.

I was, however, more interested in the legacy of painterly abstraction and the expressive possibilities it may still offer in a contemporary discussion about representation.

Its ability to convey complex meaning seemed to me a valuable aesthetic bridge to address the other type of abstraction at work—the laws that were developed at the Berlin Africa Conference and then acted out over decades of colonial rule in Africa. I decided to create a set of abstract rules tentatively based on these legal rules of abstraction and on the language of political cartography and then, by deliberately combining and layering them, to clarify their inherent tendency to create, legitimise and enact violence.

In addition to specific colour codes, perspectives, dimensions and symbolisms that were derived from a close reading of the Acts of the Conference, I also translated juridical definitions into an abstract symbolism. For example, the key colonial legal concept of terra nullius—the claim that the appropriated lands were to be regarded as “no man’s land” and therefore “available to occupation” for colonial use—was applied as a specific template covering the surface of each painting, in which certain picture areas were layered “from above” with a relief-like mass of silicone.

“Regulations materialised” in the true sense of the word resulting in a mass of silicone on the picture surface. This led to brittleness and damage in the resulting silicone figures that increased with the number of layers—and thus also the layers of different juridical definitions.

The Division of the Earth is argued on both a pictorial and textual level—in addition to a picture series, the project includes the communication of university seminars, contributions by several researchers and a collection of source material to address aesthetic, political, art-historical and current legal aspects of postcolonial debates. Within these perspectives, the politics of remembrance, reparation and correction are of historical importance in the postcolonial present. They raise objections against the continuing effects of historical violence.

Interpretations of international law reveal that the legal framework for a discussion about colonialism is closely connected to a postcolonial international order of states, which is itself derived from colonial thought and practice.

Enabling violation
Proceedings for reparation have to deal with the inherent contradiction that they fall back on precisely that law that was meant to legitimise the colonial strategy of a deprivation of rights.

By highlighting aspects of legal discourse and reconciliation in the centre, it asks whether international law—owing to an “enabling violation” by colonial atrocities (drawing on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak)—is able to reflect and discuss its own colonial impetus or whether it is rather still legitimising a colonial strategy of deprivation as a “perfect crime” (drawing on François Lyotard).

The series of tableaux refers to the legal categories of the Berlin Africa Conference, for example, the assertions of terra nullius and “occupation” and the definition of “statehood” by the participating states. On the level of international law, this is where we encounter the translation of racist thought into linguistic structures by selecting who speaks as a legal subject (and conference participant) and who is spoken about as a mere object of law.

In this context, the search for ways to question a self-descriptive colonial order appears to be a touchstone for the possibility (or impossibility) to reflect colonial history together with the (colonial) history of international law.

This is an edited version of an essay written by Dierk Schmidt in collaboration with Malte Jaguttis. The two visited Johannesburg for last week’s Art in Troubled Times conference. The Division of the Earth has shown at the Kunstverein Salzburg, documenta 12, Kunstraum of the University of Luneburg and is the subject of the book Dierk Schmidt, The Division of the Earth. The exhibition is showing at Freedom Park in Pretoria until September 25

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