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Issue 225

James Gregory Atkinson's Alternative Archive of Anti-Black Propaganda

At Dortmunder Kunstverein the artist critically reflects on the institutionalisation of racism in Germany

BY Stanton Taylor in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 14 JAN 22

Somewhere between counter-archive and exhibition-cum-artwork, James Gregory Atkinson’s ‘6 Friedberg-Chicago’ at Dortmunder Kunstverein renders a polyphonic love song to the German outposts of the Black Atlantic. Created in collaboration with art historian Mearg Negusse and sociologist Eric Otieno Sumba, the show opens with Preußisches Liebesglück (The Joy of Prussian Love, 2021), an installation touching on the ‘Black Horror on the Rhine’ – a German propaganda campaign mobilized in response to the deployment of African soldiers during France’s occupation of the Rhineland from 1918 to 1930. Then, as now, Black men were regularly stereotyped as lascivious savages prone to perpetrating unspeakable acts against white women. Spanning an arc from those interwar fears to the realities of postwar Germany, the work juxtaposes a floor-to-ceiling copy of a propaganda postcard with audio recordings of 1952 Bundestag debates about the ‘problem’ of so-called Brown babies: the biracial offspring of African-American GIs and local women, who were regularly deported to foster homes abroad.

James Gregory Atkinson, Preußisches Liebesglück (Prussian Joy of Love), 2021, installation view, Dortmunder Kunstverein. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Jens Franke

But despite underscoring the institutionalisation of anti-Blackness in Germany, the exhibition doesn’t read as yet another social-death spectacle. Instead, much of what follows is a tender testament to the messier details of desire and diasporic life, often at odds with the official narrative. Preferring individuals to precedents, the show’s many vitrines chart out the consonances and dissonances of different Afro-German biographies. Alongside public figures like author Ika Hügel-Marshall or actor Günther Kaufmann, one of the most sympathetic characters to emerge is an anonymous donor – let’s call him Mr X. – who had a predilection for other dark-skinned men. In Preußisches Liebesglück, a rattan peacock chair of the kind immortalised by Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton is juxtaposed with Mr X.’s hazy snapshots of peacocks taken on a date with a man whose name is long forgotten. In a vitrine provocatively titled Time Capsule BBC, he reappears in the form of an official notice from the US army barring him access from any military sites on account of ‘Insult on a Sexual Basis and Assault’. In stark contrast to the official language, there’s also an email from one of Mr X.’s army boys, rambling on about his wife and kids, staying sober, and having a family that accepts him for who he is ‘just as long as I am happy and the nigga I am with makes me happy as well’.

James Gregory Atkinson, 6 Friedberg-Chicago, 2021, installation view, Dortmunder Kunstverein. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Jens Franke

Like many of the co-conspirators conscripted throughout the exhibition, Mr X. serves as a lens to refract and generalize aspects of the artist’s own Brown-baby biography – to the extent that most viewers of colour are likely to recognize a little bit of their own lives along the way. The result is an intergenerational image that feels something like community, however real or imaginary. This tactic comes to a head in the titular video 6 Friedberg-Chicago (2021). Shot in a military base the artist’s father once worked at, the six-minute music video features a jaw-dropping cast of young men performing a series of bonding rituals choreographed by Josh Johnson. Although the glossy production runs counter to the exhibition’s archival vibe, the music by Ahya Simone takes you back to the main thread. Devoted to the Afro-German songstress Marie Nejar, who was famously excused from school by Joseph Goebbels himself so she could act in propaganda films, the video reinterprets her theme song for Toxi (1952), one of the few mainstream movies to depict the situation of Brown babies in Germany. In the song, she longs to return to a home she never knew. But if there’s one takeaway from 6 Friedberg-Chicago’, it would be that home is wherever you decide to make it.

James Gregory Atkinson, 6 Friedberg-Chicago’ is on view at Dortmunder Kunstverein until 13 March 2022

Main image: James Gregory Atkinson, '6 Friedberg-Chicago', 2021, exhibition view, Dortmunder Kunstverein. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Jens Franke

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