Remembering Early Twentieth-Century Colonial Migrants in Berlin through Performance
This is part of our special feature, Decolonizing European Memory Cultures.
“We are all prisoners of our past…why does everybody look back? Why do we look back?”
“A look back is a look forward. Looking at wayward, stubborn, obstinate, disobedient lives. At the struggles, the wayward lives of the people who came before us. They showed us what could be.”
The carp pond in Berlin’s Treptow Park is a fairly quiet place most of the time. People jog, have a picnic, or go for a stroll. In summer, people swim or participate in rave parties despite an official ban on such activities. On the surface, nothing reminds viewers of the stories that our decolonial art projects TalkingBACK and WAYWARD LIVES are about: in the summer of 1896, 106 Black children, women, and men lived and worked at this site. They worked as performers at the first German Colonial Exhibition, a trade exhibition that took place in Treptow Park. “Recruited” by the Reich’s government and the colonial authorities in the territories colonized by Germany, these people came to Berlin and had to act out the colonial fantasies of the exhibition’s organizers. Their lives by the carp pond, however, not only were shaped by the racist views of the public and pseudo-scientific researchers but also comprised many small and large acts of resistance. The traces of this resistance are the starting points for our projects TalkingBACK and WAYWARD LIVES, which premiered in 2020 and 2021, respectively.
As a decolonial intervention, the audio walk TalkingBACK makes the stories of the 106 Black children, women, and men audible and carries the listeners back to that place and time. The audio walk is based on research about the exhibition “ZurückGESCHAUT” (LookingBACK), which was created in 2017 at the District Museum Treptow Köpenick. LookingBACK is part of the museum’s permanent exhibition, opened in December 2017 and reopened in a revised version in October 2021. It documents the 1896 colonial exhibition, embedding this event in the larger context of German colonialism, as well as in anticolonial and antiracist resistance in the city from the nineteenth century to the present. Its centerpiece is a room in which photos and biographies of performers in the Colonial Exhibition—men, women, and children from the German colonies in what is now Togo, Cameroon, Papua New Guinea, Namibia, and Tanzania—are displayed from floor to ceiling. The photos have been retouched to distance the images from their origin in anthropological photography, which subordinated individual bodies and faces to racial typologies. The curators of LookingBACK instead reframe them as portraits of distinct personages with names and stories of their own. Blank spaces on the walls mark those performers who refused to be photographed. Researchers were not able to assemble biographies for all performers. Notably, the museum had collaborated with the organizations Berlin-Postkolonial and the Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland (ISD, Initiative of Black People in Germany). We continued to research the archive of biographies compiled for the exhibition. While TalkingBACK examines the lives of Black performers in Berlin at the turn of the century, the performance WAYWARD LIVES focuses on the Black community that formed in Berlin in the early twentieth century. The twenty-one performers who stayed after the conclusion of the Colonial Exhibition went to school, learned a profession, founded families, and found each other to become part of a larger community of Black Berliners. They became politically active and shaped the city’s history. Both artworks tell stories of the unruly, solidary, loving, wayward lives of Black activists in Berlin. They are stories told simultaneously with and against the archive—stories that raise questions. The performance gave us and the performers the opportunity to address the question of why we look back. The audio walk TalkingBACK asks, “What if?” In this essay, we want to return to these questions and explain how we searched for answers in our artistic interventions. Furthermore, we place our perspective as artists and scholars in a larger context of decolonial struggles over the politics of memory in Berlin.
“What if?”: beyond archival gaps
What if the stories of the children, women, and men from that summer were not blank spaces in collective memory? The audio walk TalkingBACK presents possible stories of people about whom the archive affords only limited knowledge. To contend with these limits, we adopted the method of “critical fabulation,” a term coined by African Americanist Saidiya Hartman, to describe a way of writing that, in the wake of the transatlantic slave trade, “strains against the limits of the archive to write a cultural history of the captive, and, at the same time, enacting the impossibility of representing the lives of the captives precisely through the process of narration.” In her books, Hartman strives to read the archive against the grain and imagine what might have been. The audio walk evokes Saidiya Hartman’s method and quotes her: “I think about what if…?…We tell stories beyond what is known, to contradict the way Black people are depicted in history books…This is a shimmer of what’s possible. A love letter to all those who have been hurt and forgotten.”
The European archives, such as police or court records, document primarily stories of conflict. However, this perspective on people’s lives chiefly conveys a prevailing racism and contains many blank spots. In the audio walk, historian Katharina Oguntoye talks about the challenges that the partiality of the archive poses for her work:
So I went to the files of the Reichskolonialamt (the Imperial Colonial Office)…and was able to find the names and histories of over a hundred people. But these files conjure up a history full of conflict with the authorities. For instance, someone applies for proof of citizenship, or wants to get married and get papers for that. Or someone was sued under labor law, or people became unemployed at a time of high unemployment…Yes, these were real conflicts. But I knew, I also have an ordinary life. I don’t just have a life full of problems. And where do you find that ordinary life?
Stories of everyday life, stories of women and queers, stories that speak about crossing class lines and about the constant struggle for the good life—these are just a few of the voids about which the files are silent. These voids are our starting point. We have inherited a legacy of stubborn, uncomfortable, rebellious, and idiosyncratic life stories found in and eluding the archive. However, in order to tell stories of everyday resistance, of solidarity and political organizing, the archive must be brushed against the grain and turned upside down. Details must be collected, contexts grasped, and threads spun on.
Both TalkingBACK and WAYWARD LIVES are digital artworks, although the latter premiered as a live performance in Treptow Park in summer 2021. We produced three versions of TalkingBACK—in German, English, and French—which continue to be available for download on the project’s homepage. WAYWARD LIVES comprises a ten-minute video, eleven short biographies, and descriptions of two of the civic associations founded by and serving Black people in Germany, along with credits and a list of sources. Vincent Bababoutilabo and Joel Vogel collaborated on the idea and the script, and Laura Frey, a historian, assembled the raw material from published sources in English and German. We include three of the biographies here, to illustrate our method of “critical fabulation.”
Maria Diop: a translocal life dedicated to anti-colonial activism
Maria Diop was born in Cameroon in 1895, the eldest of seven siblings, and traveled to Germany. Her father, David Mandessi Bell, was closely connected with the Basel Mission in Douala, so she traveled under the missionaries’ protection. She was the niece of Kwelle Ndumbe, also known as Bismarck Bell, who was at the carp pond in 1896. Did Bismarck Bell tell Maria Diop stories about his experiences? Wrote letters to her? Shared his perspectives? In April 1914, she left Eberswalde, where she had been staying, for Berlin to meet her fiancé, Adolf Ngoso Din. Din, along with Rudolf Duala Manga Bell, was in Germany to protest the German government’s expropriations in Douala and to find support for their cause. During Rudolf and Din’s trip, an uprising occurred in Douala, and Din and Bell were arrested in Berlin and taken back to Cameroon. On August 8, 1914, both were executed for treason in Cameroon. Maria Diop, who had just returned to Cameroon, recalled that traumatic event during an interview in the 1980s: “There I was coming back from Germany, almost a German myself, and the Germans were killing members of my family in this way.” Did this experience finally convince her to become involved in the pan-Africanist fight against colonialism? What did she and her fiancé talk about during their last meeting?
Maria Diop married the Senegalese Mamadou Diop Yandé in the 1920s. Both maintained close contact with anti-colonial activists such as Lamine Senghor and Léopold Sédar Senghor. After the death of her husband in 1935, Maria moved to Paris with her children. Her apartment became a meeting place for African intellectuals and artists. Her daughter, Christiane Diop, together with her husband, founded the publishing house Présence Africaine, which has published texts by Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, among others. Did she meet the communist Joseph Bilé in Paris? He did travel to the French capital from Moscow after his cadre training and studies. Did Maria Bell influence his beliefs?
“Why do we look back?”: looking at the cracks in the system of oppression
In WAYWARD LIVES, a performance created a year after the audio walk TalkingBACK, seven performers take the audience on a walk through Treptow Park, guiding them on a journey into the stories of Black activists in early twentieth-century Berlin. They bring familiar and unfamiliar images to life, telling spectators about the daily, sometimes organized, struggles to live a free life. The performance is set on the opposite bank of the carp pond, deliberately moving away from the historical site of the colonial exhibition. The memory of the painful history is still held there; the water is called up as a witness to the past.
When I look at the water, I feel their courage, their hope. It’s the same water they gazed at 125 years ago, as they dreamed about the good life. They poured their anger and pain into it. It helped them mourn those who died…Their wayward lives sometimes seem to me like tiny little windows through which I can glimpse something. Something shimmering. That which is yet to come. They were really here. Their stories, our inheritance.
Jeanne-Ange Wagne, one of the performers of WAYWARD LIVES and the archivist of memory, draws the stories from the lake, fills them into bottles that travel with the performers. They are passed on and play different roles in each scene that follows. In the performance, Rebecca Korang recalls a moment that occurred at the beginning of the project, when performers felt that telling the life stories of early Black activists helped them discover traces of their own history.
I didn’t know the stories of the people who worked at the carp pond in 1896. I hardly knew stories of Black people in Berlin during the imperial era and then the 20s. Why not, actually? This is Berlin’s history. This is Black history. My head exploded when I realized that we inherited this history. Thank you.
Rebecca Korang thanks her fellow performer Jeanne-Ange Wagne for her narrative from the archive and embraces her. This element recurs throughout the performance. The performers meet as one scene transitions to the next, lovingly encounter each other, and take a “private” moment—the audience is there, but the story belongs to the Black cast. Again and again, the seven performers grapple with the question of why it is we look back. This question becomes especially prominent in a scene performed by Mmakgosi Kgabi. Her character confronts the audience with an intense stare and states
We are all prisoners of the past. Why is everyone looking back? It is time to look forward! What do you want our world to look like in the goddamn future? I am my own foundation. The body of history does not determine a single one of my actions. I am my own foundation.
Kgabi’s character refuses to have her stories hemmed in by a framework defined by academic, artistic, or journalistic emphases on diversity. Drawing on Frantz Fanon’s critique of a culturalizing, romanticized representation of Black history, she expresses her resistance to being defined by others:
It’s nice to hear about ancient, forgotten cultures of color, inspiring people with extraordinary lives. But I absolutely cannot see how that fact would change anything about the lives of eight-year-old children toiling in the coltan mines of Congo today! Or about people who are dying at European borders? What is a thousand-year-old forgotten culture to an illegalized migrant worker toiling on German farms?! Why does everybody look back? My question is, why doesn’t someone go out and set fire to a Frontex office NOW?!?!
A moment later, the living archive, played by actor, writer, and director Serge Fouha, appears and asks, “What are we looking at? At those who were there? At better times, when everything was good and beautiful? We look at life where there should be no life, laughter where there were only tears, courage, fear, hope, disappointment.” He concludes that looking back also means looking forward.
Looking at the traces of the struggles and resistant lives of the past has consequences for our lives today. They show us what could be. They are like cracks in the system of oppression through which we can see something shimmering…Peering through the cracks. A glimpse into a future that could be. We see fragments. Small fragments of another, more just world.
Jakob Njo N’dumbe: hardships of black lives in Germany
Jakob Njo N’dumbe was born in Cameroon in 1878. He was recruited for the Colonial Exhibition by Bismarck Bell, and traveled to Berlin. N’dumbe remained in Germany after the exhibition ended and began training as a master locksmith in Berlin. In 1903, Jakob and his partner Dorothea married, two years after the birth of their daughter Martha. N’dumbe’s attempts to get naturalized remained unsuccessful. In 1913, he and his wife divorced. Six years later, N’dumbe died in the Dalldorf psychiatric institution in Wittenau. Little is known about the life of his daughter Martha. She probably worked as a performer, was married for a short time and, like other Black Germans in the 1920s, suffered from the deteriorating economic situation. She got into trouble with the Berlin police, was arrested several times, and was listed as a repeat offender for theft, slander, and prostitution. In 1944, she was sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women, where she died in February 1945. In the 1950s, her mother Dorothea fought unsuccessfully for reparations for the loss of her daughter. In August 2021, a Stolperstein (stumbling stone) was laid in front of Max-Beer-Str.24 in Berlin-Mitte in memory of Martha.
Memory politics in Berlin
Our interventions are part of the ongoing engagement of artists, activists, and critical historians with the colonial history of Berlin, which dates back to the 1980s. Since the founding of the ISD and Schwarze Frauen in Deutschland (ADEFRA, Black Women in Germany), as well as the publication of the book Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, the presence of Black people in Germany, which goes back at least to the eighteenth century, has been researched and reappraised. The editors of Showing Our Colors, who included Katharina Oguntoye, interviewed (among others) the daughters of the Cameroonian merchant Mandenga Diek. The latter was among the first colonial migrants to come to the German Empire, as he had already lived in Hamburg in 1895. Moreover, two of Diek’s great-grandchildren were involved in the founding of the ISD and ADEFRA, thus continuing the history of Black activism in Germany from the empire to the present day.
However, the discussion of German colonial rule in both academia and the broader public that we see in Germany today is a relatively new phenomenon. For a long time, German colonial history played only a marginal role in the country’s collective memory. Many years of activist struggle have yielded some successes. For example, on the occasion of the centennial of the end of German colonial rule in 2019, the Berlin Senate decided to develop an encompassing initiative for remembering the colonial period in Berlin. The multi-year initiative kicked off with the model project Dekoloniale Memory Culture in the City, and was coordinated by a central office tasked with integrating the colonial era in public memory culture. Activists have cooperated with these efforts.
Political successes have also been achieved in the fight for the renaming of streets that bore the name of racist individuals or the names of colonial criminals. Gröbenufer, in the district of Kreuzberg, had been named to honor Otto Friedrich von der Gröben, a Prussian official who in the seventeenth century founded a colony in Ghana from where African people were deported to the Americas; in 2010, the name was changed to that of the Afro-German poet May Ayim. Moreover, in 2020, the District Assembly passed a resolution to rename M_Straße in Berlin Mitte. In the future, the street is to be named after the first known philosopher of African origin, Anton Wilhelm Amo. The actual renaming is still pending. However, as long as the traditional political decision-making structures stay in place, activists will have little say in decolonizing the city. This difficulty has been shown by developments that run contrary to the progressive changes described above. The rebuilding of the Hohenzollern City Palace in the center of Berlin, which houses the Humboldt Forum and officially opened in 2020, has very much exemplified this problem. According to Tahir Della, a spokesperson for the ISD, the City Palace represents one of the largest colonial monuments in Germany, having revived the claim to rule of the Prussian monarchy, under whose leadership the German Empire held the “Congo Conference” in 1884 and officially emerged as a colonial power in the world. The centerpiece of the Humboldt Forum is the co-called ethnological collection, which consists to a large degree of colonial loot. In July 2022, the German government signed a restitution agreement with the Nigerian government concerning the return of a large number of precious “Benin Bronzes.” However, aside from giving back this set of stolen artworks, the leadership of the Humboldt Forum has refused to respond to requests for restitution.
Della recently commented that
The construction of the Humboldt Forum shows that the relations between former colonizers and former colonized are still very much shaped by power differences. The Global North still determines the conditions of how colonial history is viewed and how looted art is dealt with. The relationship is still shaped by colonial thinking.
Our project shows that people from the former German colonial territories were already fighting to fundamentally change colonial power structures one hundred years ago.
Joseph Ekwe Bilé: a black German communist activist
Joseph Ekwe Bilé came to Germany to train as a civil engineer. After the outbreak of World War I, he was unable to return to Cameroon. Even after the war ended, he was denied a return trip. He lived in East Prussia, Vienna, and in Berlin in the 1920s. While he lived in Berlin, economic difficulties and persistent racism lead him to politicize. With other Africans, he founded the organization League for the Defense of the N_ Race (LzVN). He became a member of the German Communist Party and was in contact with well-known Black anti-colonial activists such as James Ford and George Padmore. Bilé gave speeches about the exploitation of workers in Cameroon and was active in the Scottsboro campaign of the Communist International (ComIntern). The campaign turned the execution of nine Black youths in the USA, who had been sentenced to death on trumped-up charges, into an international scandal. In Berlin, Bilé lived with Helene Lück in Schöneberg. In 1929, the couple had a daughter, Gertrud, who lived with her father for only three years. Indeed, in 1934, after he had traveled to Moscow, the Nazis did not let him re-enter Germany; so, he moved to Paris. Before that, in the summer of 1932, Bilé had attended the Communist University of the Toilers of the East in Moscow, where he had met many other prominent African and African American activists. Bilé was finally able to return to Cameroon in 1935 and eventually distanced himself from communism. He eventually died in Cameroon in 1959.
What next? “A look back is a look forward”
The stories of the people who came to Berlin during the imperial era or the Weimar Republic are often stories of struggles against racism, against exploitation, and against lack of access to work, places, or rights. At the same time, these are stories of self-organized resistance and activism. The ComIntern, in particular, provided a political framework for anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles in the 1920s. Many spectators told us that the performance, in which the stories of resistant lives, struggles, successes, and defeats were related to the past and the future, gave them seemingly contradictory impressions. On the one hand, the parallels with contemporary struggles are sobering, since many structures, such as the methods used to prevent people from Cameroon from entering Germany, are similar to or worse than what they were in the past. At the same time, these parallels are inspirational: struggles today can build on the stories of people who took similar action against racism, colonialism, and imperialism, albeit under different circumstances. Both the audio walk and the performance appropriate these stories and pass them on. Like the role of the living archive played by Serge Fouha, we, too, can delve into the stories of past activists and draw courage from them:
A look back is a look forward. A look through the cracks. A look into the future that could be. We see fragments. Fragments of a different, more just world. A better world is reflected in our various movements and struggles to make a good life for all. Longing for a world that is not ruled by masters, men or police…the everyday fight to live free!
Vincent Bababoutilabo is a Berlin-based musician, author, and activist who works at the intersection of art and politics. In recent years, his artistic and political projects have focused in particular on migration, flight, decolonization, exploitation, and resistance, as well as the search for positive visions for a society in which we can all be different without fear.
Laura Frey is a historian and curator. She works on the intersection of gender, race, and citizenship in the German Empire in the late nineteenth-early twentieth century. Most recently, she co-curated the exhibition Despite all. Migration to the Colonial Metropolis of Berlin, which opened in the museum Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg (Berlin) in October 2022.
Joel Vogel is a sound artist who lives and works in Berlin. She is co-founder of studio lärm, which creates political audio productions. Together with Vincent Bababoutilabo, she has completed several collaborative art projects with a focus on decolonization, urban space, and memory practices. Her work is devoted to narratives of resistant perspectives and the search for wayward narratives in in-between spaces.
Idea, concept, and script: Vincent Bababoutilabo and Joel Vogel
Performed by: Maïmouna Coulibaly, Serge Fouha, Mmakgosi Kgabi, Elsa M’bala, Jeanne-Ange Megouem Wagne, Osman Osman, and Rebecca Korang.
Director: Yatri N. Niehaus
Costumes and furnishing: Elisa Bernhard
Research: Laura Frey
Production: Farah Bouamar
Aitken, Robbie, and Eve Rosenhaft. Black Germany: The Making and Unmaking of a Diaspora Community, 1884-1960. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Ayim, May, Katharina Oguntoye, and Dagmar Schultz, eds. Farbe bekennen. Afro-deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte. Berlin: Orlanda, 1986.
Bababoutilabo, Vincent, and Laura Frey. “Tear This Down! Report from a decolonial rally in Berlin”, in: Unmaking Colonial History, Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Brussels. https://www.rosalux.eu/en/article/1803.tear-this-down.html.
Hartman, Saidiya. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019.
—. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe 26, vol. 12:2 (June 2008): 1-14.
—. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.
Just Listen. Tahir Della: zu Erinnerungspolitik und Deutscher Kolonialgeschichte. http://justlisten.berlin-postkolonial.de/tahir-della.
Oguntoye, Katharina. Schwarze Wurzeln. Afro-deutsche Familiengeschichten von 1884 bis 1950. Berlin: Orlanda, 1997.
Sadji, Uta. “Höhere Töchter in der Kaiserstadt Berlin. Gespräche mit Maria Diop/ Fille de Bonne à Berlin, Ville Impériale. Entretiens avec Maria Diop.” Etudes germano-africaines, no. 5 (1987): 145–152.
Sieg, Katrin. Decolonizing German and European History at the Museum. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2021.
Photo credit: Kathleen Kunath
 All quotations are taken from the script of the Performance WAYWARD LIVES or the audiowalk TalkingBACK, if not otherwise indicated. English translations of excerpts from WAYWARD LIVES are by Katrin Sieg.
 Berlin Postkolonial e.V. is part of a larger network with chapters in a number of German cities, in which students, independent scholars, and activists work together to research the local colonial past and present and critique racist patterns enduring into the present. The ISD, whose first chapters were founded in 1985, is the oldest and largest organization of Black people in Germany. According to its website, its mission is to improve the situation of Black people in Germany and promote their political participation.
 Saidiya Hartmann, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 26, vol. 12:2 (June 2008): 11.
 Translator’s Note: Hartman developed this method in both Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farar, Straus and Giroux, 2008) and Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals (New York: W.W. Norton: 2019).
 Saidiya Hartmann, “A Note on Method,” Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: xiii-xv.
 Uta Sadji, “Höhere Töchter in der Kaiserstadt Berlin. Gespräche mit Maria Diop/ Fille de Bonne à Berlin, Ville Impériale. Entretiens avec Maria Diop,” Etudes germano-africaines, no. 5 (1987): 145–152, 147. Trans. Laura Frey.
 Stumbling stones are small brass pavers that mark the places where Jews lived, as well as the place and date of their death in concentration camps. Occasionally, stumbling stones mark the places where non-Jewish victims of the Nazi state lived.
 Showing Our Colors, edited by Dagmar Schultz, Katharina Oguntoye, and May Ayim, was originally published in German as Farbe Bekennen. Afro-Deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte (Berlin: Orlanda, 1986).
 Vincent Bababoutilabo and Laura Frey, “Tear This Down! Report from a decolonial rally in Berlin”, in: Unmaking Colonial History, Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Brussels, https://www.rosalux.eu/en/article/1803.tear-this-down.html.
 For a compact discussion of the decision to reconstruct the City Palace, and of the debates surrounding the Humboldt Forum and the ethnological collection exhibited in it, see for example Katrin Sieg, Decolonizing German and European History at the Museum (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2021).
 Just Listen. Tahir Della: zu Erinnerungspolitik und Deutscher Kolonialgeschichte. http://justlisten.berlin-postkolonial.de/tahir-della.
Published on February 21, 2023.