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Issue 214

Looking for Anton Wilhelm Amo, the African Father of German Enlightenment

An exhibition at Kunstverein Braunschweig explores the life of the first African philosopher in Germany and an overlooked chapter in the country’s history

BY Stanton Taylor in EU Reviews , Reviews | 31 AUG 20

Anton Wilhelm Rudolph Amo Guinea-Afer was probably born around 1703 near Axim in what is now Ghana. In 1707, the Dutch West India Company brought him to Amsterdam where he was acquired for Anton Ulrich, Duke of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, and then ‘gifted’ to his eldest son, August Wilhelm. During the 1720s and '30s, Amo went on to study philosophy, law and medicine at the universities of Helmstedt, Halle and Wittenberg, before teaching at the universities of Halle and Jena. He is believed to have been one of the first Africans to study or teach at a European university.

But ‘why did the Dukes of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel name Amo after themselves? Did he ever sit with either duke at the dinner table? How did Anton Wilhelm Amo ‘earn’ his ‘freedom’ from the dukes’ possession? Was this ‘freedom’ a reward for his university graduation? Did the University of Jena hire Amo because they pitied his poverty? Why did nobody refer to Amo Guinea-Afer’s writing while he was still living in Europe? Why did Amo spend his final years at the colonial fort in Shama, Ghana?’ Lining the windows of Kunstverein Braunschweig, these questions and many others are part of Anna Dasović’s (Re)Producing “Antonius Guilielmus Amo Guinea-Afer” as Biography as Body: an Exercise in Unlearning (2020), which introduces the work of speculative biography at the heart of ‘The Faculty of Sensing: Thinking with, through and by Anton Wilhelm Amo’, a research project-cum-exhibition.


Ana Dasovic
Anna Dasović, (Re)Producing “Antonius Guilielmus Amo Guinea-Afer” as biography as body. An exercise in unlearning, 2020, exhibition view, Kunstverein Braunschweig. Courtesy: the artist and Kunstverein Braunschweig; photograph: Stefan Stark 

Dasović’s contention that nobody referenced Amo’s writing is certainly an exaggeration, though it points to the difficulties historians face when charting the reception of his highly technical philosophical work. Little remains, for example, of his legal thesis Dissertatio Inauguralis De Jure Maurorum in Europa (On the Rights of Africans in Europe, 1729). Meanwhile, his major extant philosophical work, De Humanae Mentis Apatheia (On the Impassivity of the Human Mind, 1734), is devoted to a rather specialist debate about the finer points of mind-body dualism. Until recently, much of the writing about Amo was more concerned with retracing the unique yet enigmatic contours of his life rather than with his philosophy.

For ‘The Faculty of Sensing’, curators Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Jule Hillgärtner and Nele Kaczmarek invited 16 artists to respond to Amo’s life and work. The show spans a speculative arc that dates from a somewhat overlooked episode in Germany’s history of hybridization to the present day. Despite the mystery surrounding Amo’s life, many of the new commissions leave surprisingly little doubt as to what they’re supposed to be about. In Patricia Kaersenhout’s painfully didactic While We Were Kings and Queens (2020), for example, visitors are invited to hammer nails into excerpts of a 1712 speech by William Lynch whenever they feel upset by his descriptions of the most efficient methods for controlling slaves.

Meanwhile, some of the more compelling works on view seem to have been made without the curatorial mandate in mind. Adjani Okpu-Egbe’s large-scale painting Fabricated Anthropology (Quadriptych) (2019) presents a towering Black figure crowned by a crab-fish chimaera and flanked by bloodthirsty white trolls – one of whom bears the name of the panphobic imageboard 8chan – while money bearing the face of slaver turned abolitionist Benjamin Franklin rains down from heaven. Elsewhere, Jean-Ulrick Désert’s series of cyanotypes, ‘Guten Morgen Preussen’ (Good Morning Prussia, 2009), superimposes images from the life of Gustav Sabac el Cher, an African military musician who lived in Germany some 100 years after Amo. Morgensglück (Morning Happiness) shows Sabac el Cher embracing his white wife, Gertrud, which left me questioning first its historical veracity, then my own internalized racism.

Lungiswa Gqunta
Lungiswa Gqunta, Benisya Ndawoni: Return to the Unfamiliar, 2020, exhibition view, Kunstverein Braunschweig. Courtesy: the artist and Kunstverein Braunschweig; photograph: Stefan Stark

One particularly haunting commission is Lungiswa Gqunta’s installation Benisya Ndawoni: Return to the Unfamiliar (2020), from which the soothing scent of sage wafts through the gallery. Once inside the mint green cell, however, you find yourself caught in a web of barbed wire – the same kind used at the EU’s Mediterranean borders. Though the wires are tenderly wrapped in dried spices, your movements become hesitant, faltering. Not only does Gqunta invoke Amo’s argument in De Humanae Mentis Apatheia that the faculty of sensing resides not in the mind but in the living, feeling body. She also conflates the threat of physical harm with migration and Amo’s return to Ghana, voluntarily or otherwise, after 1747 – an episode in his life that continues to confound his biographers. Here, the uncertainties of a migratory life are inscribed in thought through bodily fear.

Olivier Guessellé-Garai and Antje Majewski, Wir schaffen das (We Can Do It, 2019, installation view, Kunstverein Braunschweig, 2020. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Stefan Stark © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / ADAGP, Paris

By contrast, the collaborative sculptures by Olivier Guesselé-Garai and Antje Majewski strike an irreverently critical note. Their assemblage Wir schaffen das (We Can Do It, 2019), for example, combines a painting of a vegetable visage with a neon orange Helly Hansen jacket raising a Black power fist. Beneath it lies a crumpled, seemingly discarded t-shirt with the slogan ‘refugees welcome’ – a clear reference to Angela Merkel’s 2015 speech during the so-called European migrant crisis, in which she pledged Germany’s commitment to accommodating as many refugees as possible. Later on, Merkel’s slogan was coopted by right-wing politician Alexander Gauland, one of the most vocal critics of her refugee policy: ‘Wir wollen das gar nicht schaffen’ (We don’t want to do it at all). Cartoonish in its contradictions, the sculpture satirizes contemporary Germany’s complicated marriage of liberal sentiment with conservative politics.

Jean-Ulrick Désert
Jean-Ulrick Désert’s, ‘Guten Morgen Preussen’ (Good Morning Prussia), 2009, installation view, Kunstverein Braunschweig. Courtesy: the artist and Kunstverein Braunschweig; photograph: Stefan Stark

Given the ambiguities of Amo’s biography, it’s unsurprising that his story has often been appropriated for partisan purposes. During the 1960s, for example, the GDR explicitly encouraged research on Amo and even had a statue erected in Halle in his honour as a symbol of the international socialist ideal of Völkerfreundschaft – friendship between nations. More recently, a petition started in 2018 succeeded in renaming Berlin’s Mohrenstraße (Moors Street, an outdated term with racist connotations) to Anton-Wilhelm-Amo-Straße. In light of this history, not to mention the recent Black Lives Matter protests, it’s tempting to read ‘The Faculty of Sensing’ as somewhat opportunistic: simply another instance of a German institution showcasing Black artists to signal its inclusivity while ignoring the mounting tide of explicitly anti-Arab and anti-Turkish violence happening on its doorstep. To cite but one example, in February this year, a right-wing attack on two shisha bars in Hanau led to the death of ten people with ‘migrant backgrounds’. As Dominikus Müller quipped about the German affinity for Afro-Diasporic culture in his essay ‘Rhythm, Sound & (Mis)Representation’ (2018): ‘Solidarity is all well and good, as long as you do it with people oppressed elsewhere.’

The exhibition, however, is too specific in its content, too careful in its claims to field such criticism. By inviting visitors to explore an overlooked chapter in German history, the curators suggest that the European enlightenment was neither as homogenous, nor as European, as it may at times have seemed. Though, this modest approach is not without its own challenges. In African Philosophy: Myth and Reality (1983), philosopher Paulin Hountondji argued, for example, that there may not be anything particularly African about Amo’s work at all. In the attempt to commemorate his life and work simply because he was African, one might even discern, Hountondji proposes, ‘a secret contempt for non-Western thinkers, who are thus subtly excluded from any claim to universality […] simply being expected to display the peculiarities of their culture in philosophical form’. ‘The Faculty of Sensing’ does not shy away from broaching these topics, and at times even celebrates their contentiousness. Though it may be beyond the scope of an art institution to resolve all the gaps and contradictions in the historical record, at least exhibitions like this can help us face up to them.

‘The Faculty of Sensing: Thinking with, through and by Anton Wilhelm Amo’ runs at Kunstverein Braunschweig until 15 September 2020.

Main Image: Anna Dasović, (Re)Producing “Antonius Guilielmus Amo Guinea-Afer” as biography as body. An exercise in unlearning (detail), 2020, exhibition view, Kunstverein Braunschweig. Courtesy: the artist and Kunstverein Braunschweig; photograph: Stefan Stark 

Stanton Taylor is an artist, writer and translator based in Berlin.