top of page
  • Writer's pictureFogha Refem

The Palace We Go to Die In: From Punitive Expeditions to Punitive Exhibitions

By: Wan wo Layir

“Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”. Karl Marx once famously said these words to conclude his 11th Thesis. I will use these same words to start a conversation. But first, permit me to consider why I will not write this paper in the first place.


First, and this is where the irony lies because what the Humboldt Forum keeps and benefits from is African Histories but also what it denies in fundamental ways is that same African history. My first consideration therefore not to write this paper is ironically Hegelian. For dramatic effect, I probably should not explain why this is so spectacularly ironic. I should – in the interest of figurative devices – wait till you – with folds of skin wrinkling on your forehead like farm ridges, cultivate the understanding, with eyes looking up into your own skull and a hand as if tending to a sudden itch caressing your chin – realise the irony here. I should again confess and for good reason, how merely the description of the position I assume you take now already excludes another person who might not have the same bodily functions as you. For the precise reason of not excluding anyone by making assumptions, I will go ahead and render useless the very reason for which I employed the irony: Hegel d[id]oes not think Africa ha[d]s any history at least until their contact with Europe.[1] As we will see throughout the Humboldt Forum’s exhibition, we are confronted with the limits of permanence. Museums are built on the idea of permanence,[2] of freezing (Césaire notes) living cultures into stagnant, classified, and labelled objects, serving no other use than to satisfy the most primitive demands of curiosity that do not go beyond seeing. One witnesses immense beauty here, a beauty that was, or is, imagined, hoped for, spoken of, a beauty captured by, tortured, and held unforgiving hands to the eyes of blind admiration. Here culture suffers the worst injustice that any culture can suffer, to only be beautiful, to be poisoned by the pungence of chemicals, frozen and left immobile in the shackled permanence of time, to only be greeted with “Oh that’s interesting”. Here African cultures are reduced to souvenirs captured by force, frozen in time and hanging precariously in the tortuous walls that border whiteness. Beyond just the ableist nature of these museums and their self-inflicted dementia, this text which I am still not writing will confront here the colonial nature of museums themselves.

The consideration that if I do write it, the rejection of the Humboldt Forum’s position as the “centre” of colonial examination will be the inadvertent admitting of its position as maybe not the centre, but a centre. Here, I consider variously how this represents a colonisation of decolonial and anti-colonial discourse, because the Humboldt Forum, with walls held together by coloniality and standing on a strong foundation of colonial nostalgia, has no other claims to virtue since it has not only benefited greatly from colonialism, it also seeks to not only benefit from discourse against that colonialism but exploit the voices, faces, and bodies of those subjected to this injustice. Yet in my refusal to write the paper, I have found reason to, not least because it will leave its claims unquestioned (at least by me), and because I found another motivator, anger or shall I say despair. My first encounter with determinate negation, therefore, is that by considering not writing this, I started writing. Someone has critiqued my criticism of the Humboldt Forum for being too emotional. I take this as a compliment, and this is the point I celebrate. I hope that if this is to be anything, it should at least be emotional. Because my interest in the Humboldt Forum is not merely scientific, in fact, it is nothing but emotional, emotions I have learned to scientifically describe as “intangible feelings of discomfort”. If this achieves anything, I hope it fails objectivity and embraces subjectivity. A challenge to the Humboldt Forum’s reduction of Cultures and Histories into objects that can be bought and sold, seen and touched, reducing Histories and Cultures into art, freezing time, where the very cultures Hegel claimed had no history are at present and at this very moment in time nothing but history, where my very own culture and the objects from which it drew meaning are reduced to nothing beyond proof of a violent history of an unfortunate encounter.

So in the very considerations and conversations where the crimes of the Humboldt Forum are being discussed, it proposes to position itself at the centre, as the judge of its own crimes and those which it aided and abated. In the very discussion where it should be losing power, it finds relevance. Even George Orwell could not write such a dystopia and yet it is neither 1984 nor is it fiction. I do not believe this will shake the Humboldt Forum in any way, I have started this paper by showing why I should not write it because, in fact, it is not a subversive paper, it is instead more descriptive and it is in its description that I hope it finds its power if anything it is a submissive paper. These systems such as the Humboldt Forum are more than capable of laughing at themselves.[3] So I write this paper not because I hope it will change anything, but because it is hopeless and in that hopelessness I have found courage. I am fighting power with the poverty of theory, the wretchedness of words, and the very hopelessness of ‘hope’ in the face of this perennial system. I fight its words of power with the power(lessness) of words, an exercise in futility but unlike Marx, I am not afraid of idle theorising, indeed that is the only thing I can do against the Humboldt Forum. One of the considerations for those of us who occupy these inorganic drylands of the subaltern experience that happen to lean on Marx from time to time, like me, is whether we can even speak and until we can, however, idle our speech, we cannot change anything. Would speaking not be changing the world? Would it not be answering a question that would have stayed rhetorical at the very least and challenging the systems that silence subaltern thought?

The Humboldt Forum seems to gain life from the dialogue that should be killing it. It may seem at first surprising, a recent invention. But if one examines colonialism, one will see that the Humboldt Forum has always been a vulture – cursed or blessed depending on what size of the fence you are standing on– to find life from the massive pits of death left by colonial punitive expeditions. its life from death. In order to have the lively (in the most ironic way one could ever use this word) exhibitions it has now, to be at the heart of the metropolis that is Berlin, and to feed this finest of ‘European museum’ culture with thousands of visitors, the Humboldt Forum had to first gather a worthy collection. The process of this gathering through punitive wars which the Humbolt Forum euphemises as ‘amateur ethnography’, where soldiers become ethnographers involved in the death and killing of people in order to create these collections. In fact, some of the artifacts are ‘human remains’. I guess burying a knife on an African skull is the same as putting a shovel on the sand, if not, how can a so-called punitive mission including deaths of genocidal proportions be considered amateur ethnography? To best illustrate this point, I will use the most unlikely of metaphors, a card game. There is an aptly named card game: “Magic: The Gathering” that could be illuminating here. It is a card game where players assume the role of wizards to cast spells, summon creatures, and wield magic objects to defeat their opponents. The game here is Colonialism, the wizards are the Colonial officials and military officers (whom the Humboldt Forum calls amateur ethnographers, the spells? Punitive expeditions (and here we translate magic for sacred) and the ‘objects’ they exploit so that Humboldt Forum becomes a site for continuing colonial punishment. This is however the most basic consideration of how it draws life from death, the most shallow one there could be in spite of the fact that access to colonial archives is heavily restricted. A deeper examination is offered by Aimé Césaire (1913-2008), let us put the Humbolt Forum under Césaire’s light: Césaire’s critique of museums goes beyond the troublesome and violent provenance of some of the “artifacts” in its collections. Beyond questions of ownership, he engages with the motivations behind the creation of museums. Are museums really there just for curiosity? To feed our banal vanities? These museums he sees as the embodiment of ‘western’ hegemony over history, ethnography, science, and other aspects of life and knowledge. In his critique of colonialism, museums then become revealed in their role as the sites for a Eurocentric monopoly over representation of the human experience. He argues that it would have been better to never have had museums. The need for museums, he suggests, was created by the destruction of cultures and history initiated and accelerated by the colonial enterprise. Museums, therefore, represent for Césaire, Europe’s failure to tolerate non-European thought and the reduction of dynamic and prosperous life to mutilated and (mis)labelled and catalogued pieces. The ‘gigantic rape’ of the sacred. Europeans are killing these civilizations and preventing them from achieving their true potential and have created nothing, that can in turn speak only of nothing as opposed to feeding the delights of vanity. In light of this critique, museums become useless if they cannot help to revitalise cultures that have been destroyed by colonialism and help in creating dynamic anti-colonial ones. One must thus consider, are there really cultures made only to become museum pieces? If so, which cultures are made to end up in museums and which aren’t? Even if we could agree on some cultures, people’s ways of thinking, feeling, and acting as well as relating with the world around them, are made just for museums, how do we determine which ones those are? Which cultures should or can own museums? And if today we say decolonising the museum is a priority, in the same way, decolonising Africa is, we should as the question, was the museum ever colonised?

If one follows the blood, it is not difficult to consider that while museums may feed the vanities of European visitors who appreciate objects whose meanings go beyond labels and whose arrival in museums involved looting and killing, only for their beauty and exotic nature, these museums essentially represent a mortuary of cultures. This splendid palace is in fact a palace of horror. A thick package of lifelessness at the heart of an empire that trades in death. The picture becomes grim when we think therefore that this Forum keeps drawing, in more ways than one, life not only from the death of cultures but also selling death to the survivors of that plague. Here, all those who still held onto hope start to lose it indeed they must lose it. But it is precisely in this loss of hope, or the courage to lose it, that we find hope. The question then becomes – and this is where I favour a stretching of logic and not merely following the confines of theory –how long can they do this for? Not: How can we stop them? I have spoken of the Humboldt Forum as perennial and ‘sustainable’. Let us challenge that premise here. In order for one to feed and fatten on life, there must firstly be plenty. In fact, the Humboldt Forum is now engaging in a kind of cannibalism to survive. And here again, we must immediately lose hope as our efforts to address this system with the hope of (as Žižek points out) light at the end of the tunnel, that light belongs to an oncoming train coming to crush us. This is because in our struggles to save ourselves, we are inadvertently saving our molesters. Consider that most of the recent scholarship carried out in European universities has been about decolonisation (one Berlin university penned a letter to invite its students to a conference in which they described decolonisation as ‘topical’). The interest in this is of course not because of the benevolence or humility of Europe; in fact, it is anything but. The interest is that in allowing other cultures to grow, in starving itself for a while, it can feed again on those cultures when they are ripe.

The current discourses do not challenge these structures such as museums and universities in fact they depend on them to survive and while they have grown more and more, even the most radical of those discourses, again in the interest of hopelessness, when ‘tolerated’ by Europeans are only done so within the barn where Europe stores its food. Decolonisation and the recent interest in it, is a telling example if one dares to look from the Humboldt Forum across the Spree to France, the commissioning of research and a report on restitution.[4] The shoe fits when one can look at this for what it is, “a decolonial foie gras”. After the report, a well-researched and well-written report, France started feeding right away. They have whitewashed their reputation with the return of 26 objects to Benin and a 19th-century sabre to Senegal that Benedicte Savoy calls “the fall of the Berlin Wall of restitution”. The return of a grain of sand out of the whole desert of looted objects hidden away in cellars and held in punitive exhibitions has made European institutions the heroes of restitution, not the voices of those who have resisted throughout their lives and even in death the looting of Africa in the first place. ‘Western’ governments have also made proposals to build museums in Africa where (looted African) artworks can be returned to and the government pays for the loan over many years. So we see a generous jailer who offers to build the prison in the prisoner’s piece of land so the prisoner can be close to home. It does not change the fact that they are still prisoners, but at least they are home. The question to ask here is: did you steal the “art” from museums? The word “reparation” has two meanings, one for the coloniser and one for the colonised. For France, Germany, and other European states, this word means the “action of repairing something” – in this case, their political images. In fact, the Humboldt Forum offers a great example, while the palace is newly built – and we will shortly examine its portrayal as “the old-new” as Steinmeier put it – and still holds within it a colonial agenda and soul. So the image repaired, repainted, and remodelled like a chameleon adapting to its environment, the looting can go on. The snake is shedding its skin it does not make it any less of a snake but at least it’s new skin. The second meaning is “the action of making amends for wrongs that have been made in the simplest form”. Mwazulu Diyabanza adds more depth to the definition: reparations mean “the rehabilitation of historical truth to tell what really happened… a legal rehabilitation… the rehabilitation of communities and cultures destroyed… and the condemnation of criminals.”[5] Let us assess, with this definition we have now, France’s proposal to build museums or Germany’s decision to offer development aid to Namibia. Did you steal them from museums? Or was the problem posed to you a question of underdevelopment? The white saviour comes to the rescue again, wearing a cape made of a report distributing euros which will be repaid later.

Forgive me for sounding so grim, so let us lighten things up for a moment, well, they might not be happy but comfortably familiar. The master’s tools cannot destroy the master’s house. Let us consider for a moment this line of warning Audre Lorde sounded which cannot be overstated. In fact, the master’s tools cannot be underestimated. How, in a language not my own, in a magazine I have no control over, and in a discourse on colonialism that is not genuinely born of my own desire, can I claim to be an artist? Or am I an artisan? The distinction is important because artists – to cite the second definition I found on Google “a person who habitually practices a specified reprehensible activity” – are allowed to be emotional and radical; the only qualification they need is to be human. This consideration is important because the artist can be creative and do things because they want to or – have to. “if it doesn’t come bursting out of you in spite of everything, don’t do it. unless it comes unasked out of your heart and your mind and your mouth and your gut, don’t do it.” (Excerpt from so you want to be a writer? Charles Bukowski) So that is one more reason why I will not write this. If we look at decolonisation, which has a relationship to art in that it is “reprehensible” and comes bursting out of one’s gut, two quotes help make this point, one from a protester on the streets of Berlin and one from scientists in academia’s ivory tower: “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention” “Rage is… both legitimate and necessary for completing the long-overdue task of decolonisation.” Canham (2018) Both, unlike me, the artisan responding to a call for papers, are animated by that most basic of feelings, anger. So do I not lose my humanity in answering this call? In taming my anger? Or is it a balance? While the artist can create from poverty, indeed as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (whom I now put in conversation with Bukowski) notes in Globalectics, necessity is the mother of invention. So poverty becomes not the end, but the means to riches. For whose riches then is this paper, and this is where the reprehensibility in the definition of art we saw above should come in, the Humboldt Forum will be enriched by this but I will also be paid, so if you are reading this paper in a magazine published by the Humboldt Forum, I sold out. The point I seek to make is, going back to the master’s tools, will the master pay an artisan to destroy their own house? But beyond this, it seems that the Humboldt Forum’s representatives not only think that an examination of colonialism can be bought, but that they can instrumentalise and commodify (the tool in the hand of the artisan) a discussion that is supposed to challenge the instrumentalisation of critique. So, the Humboldt Forum becomes a marketplace, a centre for buying and selling discourse and examination of colonialism. In the same way, France commodified (bought and paid for) the research on restitution. Colonial capitalist structures make an investment and await their return on it.

This is not the saddest thing about the model of examination of colonialism that the Humboldt Forum proposes. For the subaltern – and here again, we can have no hope so I will once more ask you to let go of it – becomes implicated in the very systems that marginalise and exploit them. By doing this, I offer the Humboldt Forum the relevance it needs; I offer it an avowal at my own expense, a justification to keep existing. So while the Humboldt Forum continues to be this site of perpetual colonial punishment, continues to set fire, to drop what Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o calls the “cultural bomb” on my home, I should thank them for it. So dear Humboldt Forum, I owe you gratitude for this opportunity to be published here. Because what you do when someone burns your house while you sleep is to thank them for bringing the sunlight early, that is if you survive. The Humboldt Forum will be a legitimate place for decolonisation, if it restituted all the colonial loot in its exhibition and stores and then set itself on fire. After it has completely burnt to the ground, we can put up a gravestone that says: here lie the mortal remains of colonial nostalgia. But that is again standing in a dark tunnel with a train coming towards you simply because you see light.

This is because that same capitalist model of examining colonisation not only commodifies but also professionalises critique. The cynically brilliant aspect of this plan – I appreciate genius when I see it but that does not cloud my moralising – is that in patterned and professional ways, discourse on colonialism is structured and sustainable. Hegel’s ‘bestimmte Negation’ is useful for understanding this as we cannot talk of something unless it exists. The proposed title for this magazine, “… a world in which coloniality no longer has a place” is an oxymoron in this regard. If we build such an immense physical structure as the Humboldt Forum that is dedicated to examining colonialism, how can we claim the latter no longer exists? The difficulty, therefore, is that the Humboldt Forum, like most structures of oppression, including governments and academia, is the biggest employer of scholars and activists in the field of colonialism. The only way to refute that the Humboldt Forum is not a centre for examining colonialism would be to make it cease to exist. Suppose this was possible – what happens to the jobs of the people it employs? I am a Marxist, so you know the answer. The Humboldt Forum externalises the task of keeping colonialism alive to us, the colonised. It externalises and frees itself from examining its involvement in the colonial project and rather proposes to be the centre for examination. So for subalterns, other considerations beyond speaking – like food, shelter, and security – are tied to the very structures that shut them up. In fact, the subaltern cannot speak because the subaltern is eating. Not only is it a sign of poor table manners to talk with food in one’s mouth, but it is anatomically tricky to eat and talk at the same time: “the mouth that eats does not talk”. So, we find that our financial security and our job security (in this capitalist world where money rules) are tied to the continuation of the systems that oppress us. Having made my point, let me flog this dead horse once more. “A world in which coloniality no longer has a place is a world in which the Humboldt Forum does not exist.”

Or, a world where coloniality has no place because the Humboldt Forum has silenced all meaningful conversation and action on the matter. A world where coloniality has no place is really a world where the Humboldt Forum does not exist because till now, coloniality was mostly manifested as a series of intangible but real implications and relationships. Now the Humboldt Forum, the splendid palace, is a house built for the grey-haired couple of coloniality and capitalism where they still perform for an audience the gigantic rape of Africa.

Here I face this beast that wields a great staff, made up of well-trained colonialists and weathered professional victims of colonialism. A beast whose solution to structural racism is to individualise structural problems, offering a few classes to security guards. Where the answer to criticism about its eurocentric representation of everything human is a text on the wall about white perspective which they are proud to say was written by a “black person”. I am confronting the text of power with a text not so powerful where critique is merely tolerated, not engaged with. Where the solution to the problems that come with diversity is “inclusion”. I am at the mercy of this beast; perhaps I am really a closet masochist.

We are confronted with that familiar first-born of the grey-haired couple, eurocentrism. The problem with eurocentrism is not that it is European, but that being born of an incestuous affair between colonialism and hegemony, it establishes and benefits from (return on investment) a hierarchical distinction between one category of people and the “other”. While it creates this singular understanding of our messy and complicated human existence, how can it be a true examination of colonialism? Research is not independent, it serves the interests of the researchers, and the interests of their sponsors, while satisfying a need for knowledge it also confirms and justifies certain worldviews and actions. A case in point is the fact that ‘scientific’ research was conducted on a supposed hierarchy of races for white supremacists and the rest is history. A contemporary example is the research justifying the sponsor’s actions in the French-commissioned report on restitution cited previously.

So what is wrong with the Humboldt Forum is not that it is simply a revival of and a paean to Prussian glory days. It helps to recall the opening ceremony and imagine that Frantz Fanon, instead of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, had been invited (I mean the mode of engagement with colonialism he presents and not necessarily the person). In order to do this, we must first acknowledge that research or discussions do not just happen because people are able to speak. We have to ask ourselves again, to what end is the Humboldt Forum proposing to be a site for the examination of colonialism? Assuming there were no doubts (given that no one invited Descartes to this conversation) or contestation whatsoever of the site’s legitimacy.

Socrates once said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” So if we look at what the Humboldt Forum is trying to do, we see that they are merely transforming Socrates’ words into “an unexamined colonial master makes no money out of coloniality”. Again it helps to look at the case of France which, after the groundbreaking examination of looted art, has now set out to make money. So let us approach the Humboldt Forum as a hospital room where colonisation and coloniality now lie in a flimsy gown and an array of uncomfortable lights (yours and mine) are pointed up their grotty and nauseating intestines. The patient knows this discomfort is necessary if those examining them are to find the foreign matter that is clogging their intestines so the examiners can go back and feast on the subaltern. This discomfort is our discomfort, the subalterns examining colonialism the Humboldt Forum can never pay for.

As Emma Dabiri says in What White People Can Do Next, do not name whiteness unless to kill it. (The Humboldt Forum in this new project, which is not looting African cultures has translated this book title to What Can Black People Do for Whiteness Next) this attempt by the Humboldt Forum is not just eurocentric but also based on the white supremacist attempt to position white people as “spiritual” (the Humboldt Forum claims to respect sacred traditions while benefiting from a system that makes them profane) and intellectual beings. The goal of this is to justify their ability and qualification to rule over the world’s cultures and colonial discourse. We know that the Humboldt Forum does not “name whiteness in order to kill it” but rather to resuscitate it, to have the subaltern resuscitate a system that should be destroyed with the aim of “creating a new human” to paraphrase Fanon. So while Frank-Walter Steinmeier can proclaim that the Humboldt Forum is the “new-old”, this is not a proclamation based on an examination of colonialism. Does the decolonisation of museums mean we help this snake that has overfed on cultures peel its skin?

At the opening of the Humboldt Forum, Steinmeier’s speech is telling if we want to understand the position of the Humboldt Forum in the context of an examination of colonialism. The vision of the Humboldt Forum, based on a hegemonic, eurocentric vision of a cosmopolitanism built on the back of colonialism, is to complete the colonial mission of being the centre of world cultures. This is not based on an ignoring of other “centres” but rather an acknowledging and denigrating of these centres. Robbing them of all that is beautiful and awe-inspiring, of all that is sacred and intellectual, dropping a cultural bomb.

As Felwine Sarr argues in Afrotopia, Europe’s colonialism comes with repression of its barbarism that finds an outlet on the African continent. As part of what Aimé Césaire called “thingification”, for Europe to be central, it must therefore reduce others to peripheries. It must in a Hegelian fashion, reject its barbarism and at the same time accept it when it unleashes its violence on others. Europeans depend on this bipolar dialectic to survive, finding their own humanity by rejecting the humanity of others. Creating a culture by rejecting that of others. So, of course, Europeans and the Humboldt Forum can examine colonialism, they can examine themselves because they have multiple personalities that, while they may reject each other, depend on one another to survive. Just as the sensation of hot is meaningless without a sensation of cold. So what enables the Humboldt Forum to examine colonialism is that the institution is itself a colonial one. Even though sound can only be perceived as the absence of silence, the Humboldt Forum can only examine colonialism through the silence it has created in other parts of the world.

With this proposal to examine colonialism, the Humboldt Forum postpones all acts, plans, and dreams of decolonisation. It has subscribed to the narrative of Africa as the future which in the present does not yet exist, as Sarr notes. Here we see the triumph of having over being. That the Humboldt Forum claims that it can examine colonialism simply because it has claimed ownership of a few baubles of colonial-era loot and thus presumes to claim ownership of the discussion. Reducing the collective knowledge and lives of millions to scratches on wood and bronze.

The Humboldt Forum’s staff, when questioned about why they keep these “objects” which I prefer to call “subjects”, reduce the examination of colonialism to correcting names, striking out the “maybes” in the labels, and proposing provenance research. The problem however with provenance, my response to Steinmeier’s proclamation of the arrival of the world’s cultures is that this type of research focuses on a limited view of colonialism. It recreates colonial categories of victims and perpetrators while ignoring the history of anti-colonial resistance. Restitution generated by this kind of research is restitution that recreates the colonial narrative of a benevolent Europe and a damaged Africa, in need of help. This time Europeans do not come with Bibles and guns, they come with looted bronzes and development aid. This time Europeans do not propose to introduce a Christian God that saves Africa’s soul from the Africans themselves.[6] But to return Africa’s soul to Africa and save Africa from Europe while in fact, they are only planting seeds for new colonialism. Saving themselves and their self-image. A true examination of colonialism is not about tolerating resistance and criticism, it is about being critical and engaging with critique. So when Africans cry out for restitution of self, Europeans propose that when they did find that self, they should put it on the market so they can buy it again with pieces of paper tied to nothing, valuable for nothing other than the recreating of eurocentric worldviews. However, what Africa lacks is not merely this self-marketing, as Sarr has observed, but the fact that its inhabitants have been deprived of the capacity to create their own metaphors for the future. The locating of the Humboldt Forum in the middle of Berlin, with museum rules, restrictions, entrance fees, and the like is of course only a physical fact. The examination of colonialism is, to quote Sarr, is “a creative gestation”. This is the stage where we create metaphors for our future where we develop our own utopias in this unforgiving dystopia. Will the Humboldt Forum, this unapologetic white space, not mean we have been robbed again? That decolonisation from its very birth has been colonised? If examining colonialism is the birth of decolonisation, what child is to be born of the incest between colonialism and eurocentrism that is represented by the Humboldt Forum?

Societies establish themselves through their imaginaries and if imaginings of Africa are looted and exhibited in the Humboldt Forum, we (Africa) are going to die because the Forum was built on African deaths not just imaginary but actual and can only function by exploiting its past to make up their exhibitions and collections. It depends on the presence both of that past to survive and for assured future relevance, the Africa of the Humboldt Forum is one that is undead, unliving and trap in the past. To examine colonialism in the hope of creating a new Africa, a new human à la Fanon if you may, is to “to think oneself, to represent oneself, to project oneself” (Felwine Sarr, Afrotopia). Not to be thought of, represented, or exhibited for the vanity of others. It is in Berlin that the borders were more artificial than real were drawn and spheres of influence and exploitation determined. So again, to speak of the Humboldt Forum as the “new-old” is to move the location of the so-called Berlin Conference from Wilhelmstrasse to Schlossplatz. While the location has changed, the negotiations within this palace are still about influence and exploiting Africa. Architecturally, what Steinmeier calls a place of national significance, the beautiful palace, a splendid palace, is also a prison, a place of colonial punishment. He remarked in his speech that though the building might be complete the project still remains unfinished; this is telling because if we view this place as the continuation of colonial punishment then there is more to come. I fear Fanon may have to wait for all the parts to come together before we tear down this ghost palace and build our own leviathan à la Hobbes or our own monster like the one created by Doctor Frankenstein.

This new-old Berlin palace, is a crystallisation of years of colonial nostalgia and planning, built against anti-colonial resistance, its walls insulating, trapping, and appropriating the voices of those who spoke against it, and then calling this appropriation an examination of colonialism. It represents, as Steinmeier said, a certain performance of German identity but also a colonial nostalgia. When he declared that in this navel of Berlin and indeed the world, “the world’s cultures have arrived” the question I would like to ask him is “How did they arrive?”, and “What are they doing in Berlin?” Of course, there is the shout-out, a tip of the hat to the pioneers of this colonial project, Alexander von Humboldt for his contributions to the then “unknown” world. In this unreflective praise of colonisation, he confirms Hegel’s notion that the Americas, like Africa, had no history until their contact with Europe. So when he says the world cultures have arrived, this should be viewed both in terms of displacement but also in terms of Eurocentric renderings of history. (But unknown to whom? There is a “colonial logic of knowing” at work here. Knowing, to the coloniser, is not the act of gaining awareness through observing, but an act that involves dispossession and control. The coloniser cannot know what they do not own and control, for the coloniser, to know is to seize, to know is to have everything fixed, trapped in time and the same overtime. To know is to make permanent, to rob of the ability to live, change, and grow.) We note the praise of dispossession of physical and spiritual subjects of value. But beyond that, there is another form of dispossession happening. Even when the Humboldt Forum is presented as a space for examining colonialism, still “il demeure colonisant”. Even when it is presented as a setting for examining colonialism or decolonisation – the word ‘decolonisation’ features, unsurprisingly so, only once in the call for papers and we should watch out for how many times it features in subsequent calls, to see how (and even whether) critique is absorbed – the Forum’s representatives are still colonisers. The colonisers of decolonisation. To examine colonisation is to develop a vision for decolonisation, not to talk about or revisit colonial memory. What this paper has not done is to develop that vision and I hope you see this as an invitation to further discussion, a beginning, not an end of the conversation.

This attempt to position the Humboldt Forum as a site of anything other than colonial nostalgia is to reduce decolonisation to a mere examination of colonialism, a metaphor, a colonising of the idea of and action of decolonisation. This is only an attempt to turn this examination that is supposed to be revolutionary into a figure of speech to spice up the already stale colonial literature we are all too familiar with now. It also underlies the discourse on decolonisation, governs access, and produces a vacuum where decolonisation and revolutionary ideas die. It seeks to pacify resistance while on a daily basis viciously and mercilessly for profit releasing a ‘cultural bomb’ and benefiting from both epistemic and physical violence. …And I participate… After all, I bought The Communist Manifesto on Amazon.

I hope I have left some loose threads to be pulled upon and that we can engage in further dialogue, not because there is a promise of consensus but because these types of conversation, however uncomfortable, are necessary. Hopefully – for I too can be hopeful – the Humboldt Forum gets torn down so that we can finally heed Patricia Hill Collin’s call to “Pivot the centre”.

NOTES [1] I say here did or does not also because I want to point to the weakness of publishing, the cruelty of this philosophy of permanence. He might as well change his mind but the Hegel I have encountered is the one in the books. [2] See Alexander Crampton and Lotte Arndt. Crampton makes her argument by demonstrating through the telling case of the Zuni war gods how museum practices poison these objects with chemicals and make it hard for them to properly reassume their cultural contexts when restituted. Freezing them in permanence. So the issue of preservation or sustainability is questioned: does it mean the ability to stay the same over time or the ability to adapt to context through time? This is a question that Lotte Arndt expands on as she considers the post-restitution representations and ‘lives’ of these objects. [3] A great philosopher I am very inspired by, Slavoj Žižek, offers quite a pessimistic view of subversiveness. If one reads Žižek, however, one learns to find courage in hopelessness. He suggests it is no longer subversive to make fun of power. These systems themselves make fun of themselves, they make themselves laughable and do not lose any efficacy but rather benefit from that. So in many ways, while the Humboldt Forum invites critiques, as we saw at the opening with the invitation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who gave a fascinating speech, these critiques like satirists (while Adichie was giving this speech, protesters outside the Forum were dressed in bags singing and making fun of the Forum, and in fact drew laughs from Monika Grütters and President Steinmeier) lose their relevance. [4] See Sarr, F., & Savoy, B. (2018). The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Toward a New Relational Ethics, trans. Drew S. Burk. Paris: Ministère de la culture. [5] [6] I find this point interesting to follow, a religious cosmopolitanism that is currently being manifested through restitution. We are starting to see that African gods are indeed Gods too. So as a recent book title from Žižek suggests, there is trouble in heaven. This trouble is why the Humboldt Forum (where all African gods have died and ascended to) now examines itself. Should heaven send down a few gods, question the integrity of God as a bearded white man living in the sky, or risk the wrath of losing its worshippers? The European colonial cult is in trouble now and desperate times require desperate measures even if this means accepting divinities that were hitherto, rejected. Restitution is the true battleground of the gods, where mortals are saving gods from other gods and gods are saving mortals from other mortals.

Selection of works cited Appiah, K. A. (2015). Cosmopolitanism. Penguin UK. Arndt, L. (n.d.). La riposte du toxique Modernité chimique, colonialité et conservation muséale. Césaire, A. (1972). Discourse on colonialism. New York. Collins, P. H. (1999). Black Feminist Thought. Psychology Press. Crampton, A. (2015). Decolonizing social work ‘best practices’ through a philosophy of impermanence. Journal of Indigenous Social Development. Dabiri, E. (2021). What White People Can Do Next. Penguin UK. von Oswald, M., & Rodatus, V. (2017). Decolonizing Research, Cosmo-optimistic Collaboration?, 5(1). Retrieved February 18, 2022, from 10.3167/armw.2017.050117 Sarr, F. (2020). Afrotopia. University of Minnesota Press. Sarr, F., & Savoy, B. (2018). The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Toward a New Relational Ethics, trans. Drew S. Burk. Paris: Ministère de la culture. wa Thiong’o, N. (1992). Decolonizing the mind. East African Publishers. wa Thiong’o, N. (2014). Globalectics: Theory and the politics of knowing. Columbia University Press.

bottom of page