BY Eric Otieno Sumba in Opinion | 17 JUL 20

A Racist Painting Reveals the Blind Spots of German Art Institutions

A work by Georg Herold at Frankfurt's Städel Museum causes a debate on art museum's authority to judge on issues of racism

BY Eric Otieno Sumba in Opinion | 17 JUL 20

Three figures are in hot pursuit of a Black man. A thrown brick, still suspended mid-air, will land on his head at any moment. One member of the group grabs the man’s hand; another’s arm is raised angrily. Nearby, a traffic light switches to green, as if to sanction the imminent lynching. Titled with a variation of the German n-word, George Herold’s painting Ziegeln**** (Brickn****, 1981) revived a debate on the authority of art museums to judge on issues of racism when it was recently exhibited at Frankfurt’s Städel Museum. 

Herold’s work has been in the collection since 2015, but only went on display for the first time this May as part of the exhibition ‘Back to the Present’.  In June, an Instagram post by an art history student concerning its problematic title and depiction of Black people was widely shared, prompting a backlash, and a petition has been launched calling for the work’s removal. The Städel’s reaction to this was typical of other German art institutions that have been called out for Eurocentrism and race-related blunders. Initially dismissive, it then released a public statement of obscure platitudes tried and tested by others that have found themselves in the eye of a storm, ostensibly through no fault of their own. Dismissive of the criticism, Martin Engler, head of the contemporary art collection of the Städel, implied that the trolls simply had no understanding of art history. In fact, as part of a segment on Hessenschau Radio, to which I also contributed, he claimed: ‘The work actually has – if one must define it – more of an anti-racist attitude.’

Courtesy: @rantyluisa

It is always alarming when institutions only claim retrospectively to be platforming necessary conversations about racism after a social-media backlash has alerted them to the problematic implications of their artworks or exhibitions. This is particularly the case when – as an academic, artjacent writer and a Black migrant in Germany – I face harassment when I dare to reclaim some interpretational ground in such discourses. Like me, many writers, curators and artists endure intimidation and abuse for their interventions within the longstanding power structures in the German art landscape that are laid bare by such incidents. The contempt I receive is always disproportionate to the issues at hand: a radio interview or an opinion piece in which I simply refuse to be dehumanized to comply with somebody else’s version of art history. My interlocutors are always retaliating against an attack I have never launched, with more bile than is necessary for the ‘conversation’ we are supposedly having.

Portrait Sakhile Matlhare.Courtesy: Sakhile&Me, Frankfurt; photograph: Katharina Dubno

The aftermath of this incident, some would argue, has opened up spaces for race-critical and post-migrant debates that, to date, only a few institutions and galleries – such as Frankfurt’s MMK exhibition ‘Because I Live Here’ or the program of Sakhile & Me, focussing on artists from Africa and its diasporas – have dared to address. However, the debacle has also revealed that museums are still playing with race: recklessly stoking fires at the moment when an anti-racist movement is stirring simply because they are keen to be seen participating in discourses for which they remain underprepared. The decades of actual anti-racist work in Germany – including scattered efforts to decolonize institutions – are casually undermined by the Städel’s claim to be pushing debate on racism because they exhibited a sole, allegedly anti-racist work. To this misguided notion, I can only respond with the titular line from a Fela Kuti track: ‘Teacher, don’t teach me nonsense.’

'Milchstraßenverkehrsordnung. Space is the Place', 2019, exhibition view, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin. Courtesy: Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin

Time and again, German art institutions have revealed major ontological blind spots and outdated or very questionable curatorial methodologies – be that in the guise of an Afrofuturism exhibition featuring no Black artists (‘Space is the Place’, 2019, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin) or the lack of provenance research at the soon-to-open Humboldt Forum in Berlin. Meanwhile, those who expend their expertise and labour to challenge these critical flaws are hung out to dry. I’m unlikely to see Herold’s painting installed at the Städel: in fact, the last time I was at the museum, eight years ago, I was working there as a security guard for eight euros per hour. Nonetheless, I am troubled not only by the work’s presence but by the absence of paintings that could be displayed where it now hangs, but aren’t because some uninformed curator is entirely unaware of them – and of a political discourse of the utmost urgency.

Main Image: Städel Museum, Frankfurt, exterior view, 2019. Courtesy: Städel Museum, Frankfurt; photograph: Norbert Miguletz

Eric Otieno Sumba is a writer and editor at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany. His work has been featured in publications including Camera Austria, Contemporary And, Griotmag, Lolwe and Texte zur Kunst.