Edward Kissi, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of African History USF, Dept. of Africana Studies

Another Volkerschauen (Exhibitions of Exotic Peoples) in Germany?

Here is the voice of one African raised loudly in protest of the "African Village" exhibition planned for July 9-12, 2005---according to USA/Africa Dialogue No. 732. This protesting African is aware of how and why the Holocaust happened in Nazi Germany and is also aware of the history of racist exhibitions about Africa and Africans in Germany in the 1870s, 1880s and 1920s and the negative impact they had on German attitudes toward Africans and black people.

The location of this planned exhibition, closer to a Zoo, in Augsburg, Germany, invokes unpleasant memories of similar bigoted "Exhibitions of Exotic People" held in Germany, as a form of entertainment,  in the 19th Century by the German hunter Carl Hagenbeck. In 1874 and 1885, to be precise, such exhibitions, in Germany, about Africa and Africans took place in zoos. Hence, Dr. Barbara Frau Jantschkle, Director of the Zoo, at Augsburg, should be aware of this history of German exotic exhibitions of Africa and realize what the imagery of the location of another exotic exhibition, closer to a Zoo, implies for the continent and its peoples. Africans of conscience and other human beings aware of the racist tropes, anti-semitic fervor and genocidal mentalities that produced the Holocaust in Germany should be offended by what is about to take place about Africans near a Zoo.

I protest the planned exhibition because it follows an accursed tradition of German contempt for Africans. That contempt was exhibited again and again in the 1920s in the form of degrading and exploitative depictions of Africans in "primal" settings. German and international history tell us that these racist, bigoted and negative portrayals of Africans in the 1870s, 1880s and 1920s, in Germany, institutionalized a peculiar and negative German concept of "the African Other." No wonder that the planned exhibition would not celebrate the heroic contributions that Africans have made to the making of modern Germany. And it would not take place near the finest monuments of German heritage. Would the July "exhibition" near the Augsburg "zoo" document the heroic sacrifices of Africans like Kwassi Bruce (from Togo, West Africa) who fought in World War I on the side of Germany as a war volunteer suffering, for the sake of Germany, two years as a POW?

I protest the planned exhibition because in a post-Holocaust age suffused with painful memories of the objectification and dehumanization of Jews, Homosexuals and Blacks in Nazi Germany, another exotic exhibition of Africans,  for whatever purpose,  is intolerable. That is the worst tribute in honor of Africans that Germany can give to its African compatriots in the human family. That planned exhibition would open wounds and widen chasms rather than heal and bridge them. The exhibition would revive stereotypes about Africans and objectify them in the manner and mold comparable to its 19th century antecedents. The Augsburg exhibit would keep alive a tradition of racist ethnographic depictions of Africans for entertainment. The Good Dr Barbara Jantkische should be mindful of the politics and implications of memory and imagery. There are many ways of exhibiting Africa. And Africans do many things beyond silversmithery, artisanal work, basket-weaving and hair-braiding. And Africans pursue their economic and social affairs in other settings beyond a "steppe landscape." That image of Africa is exotic and colonial and stigmatizes a continent and its people in a manner inconsistent with what is acceptable by groups in a post-Holocaust world.

I, threfore, join Norbert Finzsch in protesting the upcoming zoo-side exotic exhibition of Africa. I condemn the tradition it follows and revives in German history about Africans. And I know enough about the history of the Holocaust, and the German objectification and subsequent annihilation of the Hereros of South-West Africa (present day Namibia), in 1904, and the processes of dehumanization in the history of genocide to conclude that the July 9-12 Augsburg zoo exhibit on Africa is part of a pattern of German racist mentality and social attitude towards Africa and Africans deserving of condemnation.

Why should I care, and why do I protest the forthcoming exhibition? Because, I am an African, a human being of conscience and a student of history who has learned from the words, below, of pastor Martin Niemoeller, a Nazi victim:

First they came for the Communists and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me---and by that time no one was left to speak up.