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Blind Spots in the Sun at ruruhaus/documenta fifteen & art in public space

As part of an event held by Blind Spots in the Sun at ruruhaus/documenta fifteen during KW35 (Kassel Museum Week) Henrik Langsdorf’s video installation “Rudolf Duala Manga Bell — a German Story” was shown for the first time. It is again on view at ruruhaus as part of the International Weeks against Racism in March 2022.

Burning Village in Cameroon
“Burning Village”, a scene from “Rudolf Duala Manga Bell – a German Story”, 2021-22

The video presentation was preceded by a panel discussion on the correlation between the German colonial history and anti-Black racism in Germany today — the core issues at the heart of Blind Spots in the Sun, an initiative that deals with these questions through a series of art interventions.

Princess Marilyn Douala Manga Bell with Henrik Langsdorf and Reza Afisina of ruangrupa (curators of documenta fifteen)

“Rudolf Duala Manga Bell — a German Story” tells the story of  a Cameroonian king who was executed by the German colonial government for his resistance against German plans to establish an apartheid system in his hometown Douala. 

What makes his case unique is that he fought the German Empire on its own turf, using the principles of rule of law against his oppressor: he repeatedly submitted petitions to the German parliament, sent telegrams to the Reich’s chancellor and even got the press involved to sway public opinion to make his case.  

The interwoven narratives between German and Cameroonian interests go back at least two generations, when Duala Manga Bell’s grandfather King Bell, who was one of several leaders from Duala (Cameroon), signed a ‘protection treaty’ with German merchants in 1884. This led to Cameroon becoming a German colony. On the outset the Duala leaders, who had been engaging in international trade for generations, were seeking to formalize relations with German merchants in the hope of a mutually beneficial relationship with Germany.

As part of the effort the Bell family sent their scion Rudolf to Germany, where he received a warm welcome. Studying classics of German literature, he became an admirer of German culture and developed a keen interest in the legal system as an aspiring law student.

“Being German” A scene from “Rudolf Duala Manga Bell – a German Story”, 2021-22

While looking at Duala Manga Bell’s quest to become a model citizen of the German Empire — he was said to have perfected his command of the language as well as his manners and was highly respected among colonial officials — and the ensuing battle that frustrated all his aspirations, the video installation ties this piece of shared history to the present by inserting images of contemporary Germans of all skin colors, uttering the word “deutschsein” (being German) or reading poetry by the Afro-German writer May Ayim, thus raising questions of cultural identity in Germany today. 

Though Langsdorf approaches these issues in the form of artistic examination, the piece does not shy away from delivering historic information, which has led to inquiries from schools and academics to use this work as  teaching material.

For the research on this project, Langsdorf collaborated with Princess Marilyn Douala Manga Bell, great-granddaughter of Duala Manga Bell as well as his great-nephew Jean-Pierre Félix Eyoum.

From left to right: Emilene Wopana Mudimu, Henrik Langsdorf, Aisha Camara, Princess Marilyn Douala Manga Bell, Jean-Pierre Félix Eyoum

Prior to the presentation of the video installation, Princess Douala Manga Bell gave a personal introduction of her ancestor during the opening remarks of the panel discussion that took place that evening at ruruhaus in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation Hessen. 

The panel included filmmaker Mo Asumang, who received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for her anti-racism work, Princess Marilyn Douala Manga Bell, who is a social economist, curator and co-founder of doual’art in Duala, Cameroon, and who received the 2021 Medal of Honor of the Federal Republic of Germany from the Goethe-Institut, Emilene Wopana Mudimu, who is a social worker, poetry artist and activist in the fields of empowerment work with black people and anti-racism training, Jean-Pierre Félix-Eyoum, who worked as a special education teacher and is a co-founder of Deutschland Postkolonial, and Henrik Langsdorf.

Blind Spots in the Street

Blind Spots in the Sun began in spring 2021 with an open call for a public art project in which artists, illustrators, designers and photographers from the former German colonies in Africa as well as Afro-German artists were invited to express their views on how the German colonial history and/or anti-Black racism in Germany has affected their lives. 

In August, the winning entries as well as the results of the project “What we don’t see in Kassel” were put up on billboards in various places around the city center.

The initiative was launched in Kassel, the town of 200,000 in Germany that spawned documenta and that sees itself as a haven of culture and open-mindedness. Yet it was also in Kassel, were racist murders took place and where a monument created by Olu Oguibe for documenta 14 had to be moved from one of the central squares in the heart of Kassel to another location, bowing to pressure from the extreme-right party AFD.

The name Blind Spots in the Sun is derived from the phrase “We, too, claim our place in the sun,” which German Foreign Minister Bernhard von Bülow used in 1897 to describe the colonial policy of the German Empire. It also alludes to the many blind spots that exist in the German collective consciousness vis a vis this chapter of its history, and how it helped to embed a more subtle form of racism in the German psyche that remains virulent today. 

Racism is often equated with right-wing extremism. This assumption presents a convenient way of eschewing responsibility while it stands in the way of a deeper and more nuanced analysis of the issue. 

The vast majority of Germans, though avowed non-racists by self-definition, are not aware that the seemingly harmless act of stereotyping is already a form of racism that can be hurtful and lead to real disadvantages. The effects are othering and micro-aggressions. The fact that in most cases these smaller acts of racism are unintended does not diminish their impact on the psyche of many Afro-Germans.

By exposing these blind spots, this Kassel initiative seeks to disrupt and spark the discourse, and to contribute to a broader definition of racism. The ultimate goal is that the white majority in Germany recognizes its own stake in the issue. A first step is educating ourselves, followed by taking more responsibility and by critically reflecting our own behavior.

Published in Gallery