I recently attended the current exhibition at Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie called Dekadenz und dunkle Träumeor Decadence and Dark Dreams. A friend who studies art history invited me, as some of her friends had told her how much they had enjoyed it. I thought it might be a good idea to have a brief look at the event page. When I did, I was immediately reminded of George Orwell’s famed words: “the English language is in a bad way.”
“The voluptuous gaze upon the abysmal, the exacerbated aestheticism of a jaded society, which considered itself as being in crisis, the morbid allurement of the tension between Thanatos and Eros – all these are artistic topics that took shape in the late nineteenth century and found expression especially in Belgian Symbolism.”
My eyes glazed over within seconds of attempting to read this paragraph. I tried again, and then once more. I must be some kind of idiot. This is my language isn’t it? I had already tried reading it in German, but that was hopeless. Was I naive to imagine that the English translation would help me understand what I was getting myself into? Ah! There it is. I was struck by a feeling all too familiar to me as a black Cameroonian living in Berlin: this isn’t for me.
They didn’t organize this exhibition for me. Perhaps they didn’t write this text with the hope that anyone would understand it, but they certainly didn’t write it with the expectation that some guy from Bamenda without any art education would ever show any interest in an exhibition about the birth of an artistic movement at the heart of the Belgian colonial empire. This so-called Symbolist movement, which was born at the same time that Belgium was embarking on a blood-soaked treasure quest in the Congo (in 1885) leaving behind a trail of hands and feet by the millions. It’s a fair assumption, I must admit.
I still went to the exhibition and paid 12 euros for it. Why did I drag myself to this thing that I was almost guaranteed to get nothing from? “Well… I guess I know what the word symbolism means,” I thought to myself. Art has the power to speak truth to power, doesn’t it? I heard that somewhere. Maybe the artists were tortured by stories of brutality in the place their country had colonized. Maybe their work spoke in their own way to the atrocities their own empire was committing far away from home. Maybe I should give it a chance.
It came as no real surprise to me that I appeared to be the only Black person in the entire building. I was even less surprised once I had laid eyes on the paintings on the walls. What “formerly colonized” person in their right mind would take any interest in this “spectrum of lesser-known Belgian positions” anyway? I guess I could have pretended to be white. I could have pretended to be rich and privileged. I could think of my interest in critical positions as a luxurious coat that I could choose to either wear with pride or leave behind in the museum lockers when convenient. I could have slipped it off in favor of a lighter, more comfortable indulgence in Symbolist painter Fernand Khnopff’s attempt at “unifying a new mysticism with an extravagant and precious style.” I might then get a bit closer to understanding what “a differentiated contemplation of symbolism is still a desideratum” could possibly mean, and why it has to be written that way. Khnopff’s many depictions of his “femme fatale as an expression of abundance and voluptuousness” might then annoy me at all, since no one would have to explain to me why we’re even discussing it. I’d probably just understand.
Alas, I am not a wooden negro. I cannot enjoy things which were created not just without me in mind, but within a society propped up on an active disdain for people like me. A hatred for people like me. Does western European culture acknowledge the urgency of remedying the colonial situation, the logical progression of the capitalism practiced in white supremacist nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe? If it does, what use is there for such an exhibition today? Do we really have the time for it? Do such exhibitions do anything more than attempt to launder the reputations of the empires from which they come? Do they speak to anyone other than the same privileged societies to which they were always meant to speak to? I can accept that the artists presented in this exhibition and many others like it weren’t likely to oppose their country’s foreign misadventures. I can also accept that artistic inspiration is a complex thing which I may never understand. But who did they wheel out these paintings for in 2020?
The prevailing logic behind the organization of this kind of exhibition must be that some questions are best left unanswered. But I have already begun to encounter the logical progression of my question. If this wasn’t created for me, who then was it created for? I mull it over with a couple of friends, one of whom takes a particular interest in the matter and knows where to look to find some answers. It comes to light that I have in fact been too kind to the exhibition’s principal artist. I did a disservice to Mr. Fernand Khnopff by implying that he was passively complicit in Belgium’s colonial mission. Our protagonist had endorsed Leopold II’s colonial exploits and celebrated Belgian nationalism and the spoils of colonialism along with the rest of the bourgeois Belgian avant-garde. Many of them made government-sponsored art that sought to make colonialism beautiful. And now one of Germany’s premier cultural spaces decides to show us these artworks without so much as mentioning the colonial context within which they were created.
“Never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity.” This idea often leaves me frustrated. Is it intergenerational European malice, or intergenerational European stupidity? Can we say Fernand Khnopff and his peers were stupid because they created colonial propaganda without knowing how many hands and feet of my Black sisters and brothers were being chopped off in the Congo, or did they know and not care? Did the organizers of this exhibition today accidentally omit this art’s brutal context when they elevated it to the most prestigious annals of European culture? Or did they find the context irrelevant? To whom do we attribute malice, and to whom stupidity? I paid 12 euros to look at a celebration of white male supremacy. That might be the only thing here that I can adequately attribute to stupidity.
Mokia Laisin is a 26 year old Pan-African who immigrated to the US at the age of 10 and then again to Germany at the age of 22. He looks at the world through an anti-capitalist, anti-colonial lens to try to imagine radical change and how we can achieve it for the many.