Art about Germany and the slave trade: No way out of the White Room

With the exhibition “Amt 45 i” in Frankfurt’s banking district, the artist Cameron Rowland cleans up white German racism.

An almost empty exhibition room, on the right a hippie is leaning against the wall

ECameron Rowland’s “Amt 45 i” in the Tower MMK, Frankfurt, view Photo: Cameron Rowland

An almost empty large room with whitewashed walls, a brochure full of footnotes – the museum of the future? “Amt 45 i” is the name of the exhibition that Cameron Rowland set up in the tower at Taunusanlage.

This is the official numbering of the branch of the Frankfurt MMK in the banking district, where Rowland shows the German involvement in transatlantic slavery with nine exhibits and a 20-page synthesis of the state of research and without which the exhibition cannot be understood. The fact that Germany appeared as an important player at all is probably new to most visitors.

The German Reich seemed to be off the hook with the “loss” of its colonies after the First World War, after being guilty of a colossal (and unfortunately style-defining) genocide in “German Southwest Africa”, of which later generations only became aware at a late stage.

But a “German Exceptionalism” did not exist before; in the triangle of deportations of African forced laborers on plantations on the other side of the Atlantic, merchants, bankers and securities dealers were already involved in no small number and by no means only in supporting roles in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

Cameron Rowland: “Amt 45 i”, Tower MMK, Frankfurt am Main, until October 15

This can be known from recent research documented in the anthology Beyond Exceptionalism (2021). So what does Rowland contribute, who makes good use of it? At first he omits the presentation of relics of this crime against humanity, which is often reminiscent of horror folklore or upside-down grocery stores.

Simple diagram of the history of Commerzbank

Exhibit No. 2 is a simple diagram from the Historical Museum of the Main metropolis, which presents the history of Commerzbank without even mentioning the colonial deals with Hamburg merchants and Frankfurt financiers.

The facsimile is called “Omissions” and is meant programmatically: It’s them omissions, which count, i.e. the unsaid of the absolutely sayable about the unspeakable of enslavement. Scattered all over the floor are a loom, a rope stretched across the room, a pile of salt and pepper, a rusty hip, a large sugar kettle, two buckets of oxalic acid.

This sparseness is convincing: In the 18th century, the loom was used to manufacture “Osnaburgs”, coarse linen clothing from the low-wage region around Osnabrück, which was exported to the West Indies at dumping prices. The slaves had to carry them and were thus recognizable as such if they managed to escape; those who wore or handed out more expensive shirts were punished. Salt and pepper were rubbed into wounds inflicted by the slaves or by overseers with whips.

There was resistance to this. The rope stretched across the path in the dark, reenacted here under bright neon lights, caused the horses of the cavalry patrols to fall; the hippe used to beat sugar cane was used for acts of revenge and sabotage, and the cleaning agent oxal was used to poison slave owners.

Rowland’s coup is said to be the contract shown as No. 6 between the company he founded, “Bankrupt Inc.”, and the MMK. Sealed by its director, Susanne Pfeffer, and obviously considered a joke by the city of Frankfurt’s legal counsel, Rowland is deadly serious.

A loan from Bankruptcy Inc.

“Bankrott Inc. granted the MMK Museum of Modern Art a loan of 20,000 euros. The firm was formed to hold a perpetual debt as a creditor. Because this is an on-demand loan, no payments can be made until the lender requests repayment. Bankruptcy Inc. will never demand repayment.

Interest accrues on the debt indefinitely. They will increase by 18 percent each year, the highest rate allowed by law. The MMK Museum for Modern Art is a municipal authority – under the abbreviation ‘Amt 45 i’. In this case, the debtor is the city of Frankfurt am Main.”

Believer Rowland highlights two long-term consequences of slavery in this paper: First, when slavery was abolished, slave owners were compensated with scandalously large sums that seeped into the Global North’s financial system and continue to permeate corporations, universities, museums (like this one), and governments to this day feed.

Second, this infinitely exponential regress lacks a counterpart. Descendants of the slaves have hardly received any compensation, and if one were to take them into account, a similarly absurd sum would arise, which Frankfurt is fictitiously saddled with by Bankrupt Inc.: 311 billion euros in the year 2123.

For those who cannot bear this historical burden, Rowland shows various escape routes from the exhibition as exhibit no. 1. They lead through an exquisite office and apartment island into a center of global finance that, according to Rowland, was created through the exploitation of slaves, and of which this museum is of course one of its accomplices. The exhibition is meant to be a slap in the face – “There is no escape from these debts”, was the headline in the art magazine monopoly.

However, the over-identified excitement that this apparently triggers is very dubious. Sober historiography avoids this unless it also falls into the trap of a “critical theory of race” which, as in Rowland’s text, excludes any mention of whiteness italics and equates it blanketly with “anti-Blackness.” The contribution of the forced labor system on the plantations to the “primitive accumulation of capital” was considerable, but not so dominant and exclusive.

Does skin color diminish the value of education?

Does skin color diminish the value of historical enlightenment when it is predominantly done by “white Germans” like Rebekka von Mallinckrodt, Klaus Weber, who edited the volume Beyond Exceptionalism, and others? What is the predominantly white visitor supposed to do with a sentence like this: “All Europeans who capitalized on the existence of black and indigenous people were involved in the establishment of slavery”? All until today?

This is as wrong as the labeling of Immanuel Kant and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach as racists, which has become common knowledge, and the insinuation that they promote continuous racialization. Rather, they themselves had already distanced themselves from their racist views and provided standards for their universalistic criticism, which of course also applies to historical and current forms of slavery of non-white provenance.

Of course, there are defensive struggles by white supremacists, and they are becoming more aggressive, but what is needed in a museum-like sideshow of global struggles against discrimination is not clan-like light-skinned descendants, but rather their insightful and effective solidarity with the oppressed and exploited all over the world. Today’s oppressors and exploiters include post-colonial autocrats and oligarchs, which cannot be dismissed as a cheap distraction. Viewed consistently, as in this White Room, they too are late beneficiaries of slavery. Under these conditions, the exhibition is worth seeing.

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