Haunting Austrian Archives of Race through Black Feminist Art and Performance: An Interview with Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński
This is part of our feature, Decolonizing European Memory Cultures.
Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński is a Black artist, writer, and researcher who lives in Vienna. Rooted in Black feminist theory, she has developed a research-based and process-oriented investigative practice that often deals with archives, specifically with the racialized and gendered voids in public archives and collections. Interlacing the documentary with the fictional, her works manifest themselves through a variety of media and dissect the present of an everlasting colonial past: a past without closure. In her scholarship and art practice, Kazeem-Kamiński brings feminist, postcolonial, and antiracist theory into conversation with archival material.
Kazeem-Kamiński has long been an astute critic of museums and archives as institutions that lend key ideological support to the Eurocentric and white supremacist project of viewing and ordering the world. She was a member of the Research Group on Black Austrian History and Presence, which in 2006, when the 250th anniversary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s birth turned into a branding extravaganza in Austria, was part of an exhibition project titled Remapping Mozart: Hidden Histories. The collective sought to challenge hegemonic narratives about the composer and his time by calling attention to Mozart’s fellow freemason, Angelo Soliman, who had been brought to Europe as a child slave and became a prominent Black courtier and tutor in eighteenth century Vienna. After his death, Soliman’s body was taxidermied and exhibited as an exotic specimen in the imperial cabinet of natural history. The research group focused its exhibition on Soliman’s daughter Josephine, who sued to have her father’s corpse returned for burial. A year later, Kazeem-Kamiński joined two Black feminist scholars, Peggy Piesche and Nicola Lauré al-Samarai, in becoming outspoken critics of the Vienna Museum of Ethnology (renamed today as the World Museum) for showing the contested Benin Bronzes in the exhibition Benin: Kings and Rituals. The protests, critiques, and defenses prompted by this controversial exhibition were documented in a volume that Kazeem-Kamiński co-edited, Das Unbehagen im Museum: Postkoloniale Museologien (The Museum and its Discontents: Postcolonial Museologies, 2009), which became a key work of decolonial museology in German-language museum studies. Meanwhile, some museum directors and curators interested in contending with fraught and contested ethnological collections and willing to experiment with new exhibition formats, turned to artists. Among them was Barbara Plankensteiner, the director of the Weltmuseum Wien (Worldmuseum Vienna), and Claire Deliss, the director of the World Cultures Museum in Frankfurt. From October 2021 to February 2022, Kazeem-Kamiński’s works were exhibited in a solo exhibition at the prestigious Kunsthalle Wien.
Kazeem-Kamiński has been an important and insightful critic but also interlocutor of museums and archives. Her work raises crucial questions about how to approach and make public the materials we find in them without duplicating a colonial and racist gaze and without retraumatizing the Europeans of color who have tremendous stakes in accessing the stories that might be glimpsed in and wrested from hostile archives. Some of her early work, such as Unearthing. In Conversation (2017), revolved around the ethnographic photographs taken by Austrian missionary, author, and ethnologist Paul Schebesta (1887-1967), who traveled through what was then the Belgian Congo in the 1930s. Filming herself looking at and altering these visual documents, she asked whether and how contemporary Black Austrians should face such images. Schebesta’s photos both underscore Austrians’ implication in colonialism, and exemplify an entirely common genre of ethnographic representation that one is still likely to encounter in European museums today. By experimenting with cutouts and colored overlays and by focusing on the traces of the photographer’s presence (his shadow) in the photographs, Kazeem-Kamiński’s Unearthing. In Conversation posed such questions as: How to contend with Austria’s implication in European colonialism if the country never had non-European colonies of its own, but participated—through missionary, business, or scientific enterprises—in the colonial project writ large? How to reconnect colony and metropole, if colonial history has been drastically severed from national narratives? In her more recent work, she turned toward representations of Africans produced in Vienna, for instance in bohemian writer Peter Altenberg’s account of seeing West Africans exhibited in a human zoo at Vienna’s famous Praterpark in 1897. He published his impressions in an illustrated essay titled Ashantee, which was republished with a new introduction in 2007 and edited, annotated, and published as Ashantee (2021) by Kazeem-Kamiński in the form of an artist’s book. But the artist also rediscovered a letter published in a Viennese newspaper, in which one participant in that human zoo, Yaarborley Domeï, set out to tell Viennese readers what she thought about them. Working with this material inspired Kazeem-Kamiński to ask questions about how to reconstruct the lives of not only the explorers, missionaries, and ethnologists in the colonies but also of colonial subjects who came to the metropole. While her art and scholarship are concerned generally with the voids and obfuscations of the archive that result from its alignment with colonial power relations, recent projects have turned increasingly toward what she terms, following Saidiya Hartman, “critical fabulation.” She characterizes her method as “layering, circling, inviting others” into her work,” using techniques of collage that assemble possible stories and highlight elisions without fabricating convenient narratives. Among those she invites in are, in particular, Black feminist thinkers: Hortense Spiller’s foundational essay on gender and the Black family in the context and aftermath of slavery, Saidiya Hartman’s thoughts on slavery and subjection, Tina Campt’s methodology of “listening to images,” Christina Sharpe’s ideas about artistic griefwork in the wake of slavery, and Avery Gordon’s seminal writing on postcolonial haunting are Kazeem-Kamiński’s most frequent theoretical companions. In addition, she works with Black performers and artists in such works as The Letter (2019) and Fleshbacks (2021).
The Letter (video projection, color and sound, 16:9, 18 mins) begins with a voice-over address to Domeï, the letter writer:
We have read your letter. Many years has passed and finally it has reached us. There were times that we doubted that your letter, letters like this, even existed. Still we kept on hoping, waiting, anticipating, imagining what if. Sharing words not intended for us to read. Their sound caresses the air, it reverberates in our chests. The proximity of our experiences, the closeness of what we recognize as part of our existence, still not considered as agents in the archiving of memory. The ravening, the documenting, the categorization. We embrace your hauntings, the voids, the frictions, the unknown.”
The video shows three black-clad figures of various genders enter an archive, pull open shelves and inspect what is there. They gather around an improvised altar on which they place small objects they brought with them, among them peanuts, crystals, candle stubs, rum, delicate golden scissors, a pink lighter, printed wax cloth, a small perfume bottle, a cold-covered diary, a golden Afro-comb, a coin, and a magnifying glass. They touch and smell the objects in silence, performing a ritual in which they appear to enter into communication with the pieces, then leave. After their departure, the archive seems to be haunted by a ghostly presence: projections appear, drawers open by themselves, lights flash, sounds are heard.
Fleshbacks (three video projections, color and sound, 4:3, 6 mins) links Vienna and Accra via architectural and fleshly connections that are painful and at times comforting. Footage of Black Austrians—a runner, a queer couple braiding each other’s hair, and a woman with her son in an antique library and her mother in an outside space—begins to flicker as the present is intercut with Altenberg’s photographs of West African performers in Vienna from over a century ago. Moreover, waves are superimposed on scenes in Accra and Vienna, blurring the distance between then and now, there and here. Each figure, or set of figures, attempts to countenance the disruption and disintegration signaled by the fleshbacks with calm, audible breathing, and with physical gestures of tenderness and care. The woman in the library (performed by Kazeem-Kamiński) slowly and deliberately rips pages from Altenberg’s book Ashantee, which drop to the floor. Whereas the historic photos position Africans as objects of Austrians’ stares, the video focuses on the alert gaze of the protagonists, marking them as active subjects and participants in a collective project of intergenerational care.
—Katrin Sieg for EuropeNow
EuropeNow It seems that your work has shifted from the material produced by Europeans in the colonies to documents by and about colonized people in Europe. It would be really helpful if you could situate the two video installations, The Letter (2019) and Fleshbacks (2021), in the larger arc of your work.
Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński It is not so much a shift but a continuation or a change of focus that was sparked by my encounter with the photographs of Paul Schebesta in the World Cultures Museum in Frankfurt. That encounter prompted my PhD research. Since I had time to devote to this research, I decided to also go back to other episodes in which I had encountered historical constellations that made an impact on me and that I had not addressed at the time. I had first read Peter Altenberg’s book Ashantee in 2006, when I was part of the Research Group for Black Austrian History and Presence, and learned then for the first time that human zoos had existed in Austria. After I read the book, I felt many emotions. I wanted to react, but it was not possible at that time. So, when I was accepted to the PhD Program, I decided to look at this historic constellation as part of a larger project of thinking about colonialism and the way Black people are treated in the here and now.
EuropeNow This work also follows up on your interest in Angelo Soliman and Josephine Soliman. I can see that your work is all connected through your interest in Black Austrian history and the question of how to wrestle with Black Austrian history from the perspective of hostile sources.
Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński Exactly. This white man—whether it is Paul Shebesta or Peter Altenberg—gives me a kind of access, but at a certain point, I have to leave him behind in order to build my own relationship with the people in which I am truly interested. What gave me this possibility to connect in The Letter and Fleshbacks was the letter by Yaarborley Domeï, one of the people exhibited in Vienna in 1896. She wrote an open letter that was published in the newspaper Wiener Karikaturen on October 18, 1896. Yaarborley Domeï wrote her letter in Ga; her partner translated it into English, and then the editors translated it into German. So, it is a translation of a translation. Nevertheless, I think the letter underlines a way of thinking that connects us to anticolonial thinkers like Frantz Fanon or Kwassi Bruce, a Togolese musician and business man, who moved to Germany with his parents at the age of three. He and his parents were exhibited in the First German Colonial Exhibition, which took place in Berlin in 1896, the same year that Domeï was exhibited in Vienna. Domeï’s letter represents a sharp analysis of the white gaze, of what it does to her as a person and how it operates. She also strongly underlines that she refuses this white gaze and its objectification. She states clearly that she wants to go back to Accra, because she really does not like the situation. If she is not allowed to go back, Domeï says in the letter, she is going to scratch even more visitors; apparently, she had been sued for scratching visitors who got too close to her.
EuropeNow The Letter includes her words in Ga, but they are not translated. They are intelligible to visitors who speak Ga; those constitute a very different kind of visitors than those who would usually come to the Kunsthalle. I assume that members of the Black Austrian community were drawn to your exhibition, but among them, only a few speak Ga. Her words would not reach most visitors. I thought it was a very interesting choice of yours not to translate her words. Were the translations available anywhere else in the exhibition?
Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński Not in the exhibition directly, but on October 18, 2021, I republished her letter in the Austrian newspaper Der Standard. It looked basically like an advertisement, and only three pages later was the connection made between the letter and my exhibition. I deliberately did not want to comment on this ad or frame it in any way. I simply wanted readers to have the experience of reading a newspaper and all of a sudden stumbling across a letter that was written in 1896. As in many of my works, you have to piece things together and invest time and energy to see the whole picture. These works were done in honor of a group of performers, so that is why it was important to me that this language was heard. The voice-over was done by Amoako Boafo, a fellow artist and painter from Ghana, who also performed in the film. I had turned to Amoako since I had stumbled across words in a language I did not know in Peter Altenberg’s Ashantee. There, the author transcribed sounds that seemed to imitate a West African language, but as recently as 2012 a catalogue published by the Vienna City Museum stated that this language might have been made-u. I always wondered why he should make up a language. My guess was that this was a language that Altenberg obviously did not speak and so he was only able to transcribe the way it sounded to him, just like children who parrot words from another language phonetically, without understanding their meaning. My guess was that if I could find someone who spoke that language and could maybe repeat these words very slowly and several times, then I might be able to find out what people said. I turned to Amoako, and he quickly told me that the language spoken was Ga.
I like situations in which one is confronted with something that he or she cannot immediately understand. Situations like these asks you to listen and to engage with something that you do not know, and what you might be confronted with does not have anything to do with the film, but has a lot to do with yourself. It is a kind of invitation directed to the viewers to think about what might be there: what do I think about when I hear these words?
EuropeNow In The Letter, we see three silent figures enter an archive to search on its shelves and in its drawers (Figure 1) and then perform a healing ritual there (Figure 2). Are you depicting a generic archive or do you have a specific one in mind?
Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński It is the archive of the Worldmuseum in Vienna, which is a place to which I have been connected since the publication of a book I co-edited in 2009 with Nora Sternfeld and Charlotte Martinz-Turek, The Museum and its Discontents: Postcolonial Museology. In 2008, Barbara Plankensteiner [the museum’s director at the time, and a contributor to the anthology, KS], was actually the first person from within the institution of the museum who invited me to visit an archive. It was something that very much influenced my way of thinking about archives. It also unsettled my thoughts about what an archive looks like and how it operates. When I started to make preparations for this film, I reached out to Nadja Haumberger, the curator of the African collection in the Worldmuseum, because that collection contains some objects that are connected to the group of West African performers in which I was interested. So, I thought it was only fitting to set the film there and, luckily, I was permitted to film there over four days.
EuropeNow I found Fleshbacks very moving. It foregrounds queer kinship systems as the context for Black care. Whether through the solitary figure at the beginning, or the couple (Figure 3), or intergenerational care in the last part, it was clear that there was something very queer going on that was essential to this piece.
Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński I think about Blackness and queerness as connected. When I was invited to do the exhibition at the Kunsthalle in November of 2019, I immediately planned to go to Ghana to follow up with an address I had read about in Altenberg’s book. However, when I returned from Ghana, I realized that because of the coronavirus pandemic, the exhibition was not going to happen. So, I returned to writing my dissertation, which is how I often work anyway. I do the visual work; I write; then, I might return to the visual work. I learn from both mediums. While I was writing, I went back to Hortense Spillers’ essay “‘Mama’s Baby Papa’s Maybe’: An American Grammar Book,” and realized that her distinction between body and flesh and her way of thinking about time were very important for what I was trying to attain, as I too thought about the ongoingness of the past. Through my repeated re-readings of Hortense Spillers, I came up with the term “fleshback.” In the film, there are flashbacks, but I spelled them with an “e”, because I started to understand the moments in which individuals are violently dragged into the past or tossed between different times as “fleshbacks,” because those moments make them feel the fleshliness of being. That is how the story for Fleshbacks, as a visual annotation of The Letter, evolved: shifting between past, present, and future and merging time and geographical space. These ideas resulted from an interest in thinking outside of linear timelines and in getting closer to understanding Black life in the afterlives of slavery and colonialism. The queerness of it is not something I planned; it is simply the way I think about time, space, and bodies moving within these dimensions. Ultimately, it is also what I want to see. Speaking about the performers, I do not really look for actors, but for people who not only understand the story but also its intention and who can stand 100 percent behind what I try to say. In the best cases, the script is influenced by the performers and their relation to the storyline. Luckily, I am surrounded by people who are artists, performers, and activists in different fields; we are not solely connected by work relations but through friendships and shared intentions and perspectives.
Colonialism tore apart existing relations, so that one part of reorienting ourselves is to build spaces of care. Projects like mine, which aim at re-connecting ourselves with the people who came before us, are also about caring for these stories and about these people, even though we do not know them. Sometimes we do not even have a name and these people are not related to you; but still we invest time and try to connect. I also wanted to show this aspect in the film.
EuropeNow Tina Campt is a historian of the Black Atlantic—the circumatlantic, diasporic world created by the trade in enslaved people—and of Black diasporic communities in the UK and Germany. To counter the dearth of archival documents about the worlds built by Black Europeans, she realized a seminal work on what she calls “vernacular photography”—largely, photo albums of Black families and communities—(in Image Matters) and on artworks about them (in Listening to Images). Belinda, why are Tina Campt’s books Image Matters and Listening to Images so important for the German language context?
Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński Reading Tina Campt’s book Listening to Images after I had finished Unearthing. In Conversation was crucial. It gave me a vocabulary that I did not have before to do what I was trying to do in the film on a visual level. I had indeed listened to the images, not only looked at them; and by listening, I was inspired to write a conversation with the people featured on Paul Schebesta’s photographs. Still, I had not been consciously aware of the connection between sound and the visual before that. Reading Listening to Images reminded me again that carefully looking might be a beginning, but that looking is not the only way to connect with, as Tina Campt writes, the event of the photograph. I have turned to Tina Campt’s work in the past repeatedly because via publications like Other Germans: Black Germans and the Politics of Race, Gender, and Memory in the Third Reich, 2004, she has enabled me to think about differences and similarities of discourses around Blackness in the US and the German speaking contexts, thereby bringing into conversation Black feminist theory and practice and going from the German-speaking context to the broader picture. When I started graduate studies in 2006-2005, it was encountering the work of May Ayim, Katharina Oguntoye, Peggy Piesche, Maisha Auma, and Fatima El-Tayeb, who was also on my dissertation committee, that empowered me to use my own voice. Reading books like Showing Our Colors: Afro German Women Speak Out (1986) gave me words to speak about racism and about discrimination on a structural level. I had not really thought about racism as a system before. Even if they did not use the term “ongoing pasts,” these thinkers highlighted the impact of the past by going back to German colonialism and showing examples from the Second World War, the postwar period, and the here and now.
Another thing I took away from that time was giving up the rigid separation between theory and practice; to me now, both are of equal importance. For this exhibition, someone like Avery Gordon and her concept of haunting were also important. In the end, I worked with haunting via Nicola Lauré al-Samarai’s German translation of haunting as Heimsuchung. al-Samarai writes it as Heim-Suchung (looking for a home). When I read her text, I understood that what I was trying to do was to find a home for these memories. The home I am talking about is not a specific archive; I understand this Heim-suchen as looking for ways to talk about our need to relate and go back to these stories without having them constantly swept under the rug. Here, Black queer and feminist writings, specifically those by thinkers going into existential philosophy, are important reference points.
EuropeNow Based on your mention of how important German feminist writers have been for you, what do you think are some differences between Austrian history and German history? Your work on Altenberg has been one way of calling attention to the human zoos as something that happened all over Europe and of showing how Austria was part of an imperial tradition. Austria, like Germany, was an empire, but it was also different because it was spatially contiguous. The ways in which groups were racialized in Germany was surely informed by Germany’s non-European colonies; how did that play out in Austria?
Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński It is important to look at discourses of Blackness in relation to differently identified people—Roma people, Jewish people, Eastern European people—because Austria was indeed an empire. There still needs to be far more work done about the ways in which concepts of race came into being and gained popularity in empires that did not have colonies as such (this does not mean that they did not attempt to make colonies) but had a diverse population with various backgrounds. In the German-speaking context, it means that we must examine how concepts of race have been used before and after National Socialism. This context includes intersectional spaces in which different positionalities came together, as I write in the part of my dissertation that I thought through with Nicola Lauré al Samarai. Here, Michael Rothberg’s notion of “multidirectional memory” is helpful, because otherwise we get absorbed in a competition over victimization. Rothberg speaks about this logic of scarcity and competition that we should try to overcome and that asks us to become attentive to moments in which white Christian ideologies continue to block our understanding. This logic calls for much unlearning, which should also take place on a personal level. I would lie if I said that it is an easy process or that creating these spaces of alliance is simple. It is easier to think than to do.
EuropeNow These last two years have been horrendous years. On the one hand, the global pandemic has exacerbated social inequalities, and all the populist authoritarians reared their ugly heads, from Donald Trump to Viktor Orbán and Marine Le Pen, on both sides of the Atlantic. On the other hand, we have seen the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and a global consciousness about racism. In the art world, there has been more of an effort to be attentive to people of color and inclusive at exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale and documenta 15. It seems that at least a small window has opened. Therefore, this moment can be seen as one of incredible contradiction and tension. We have witnessed both an intensification of white supremacy and people getting inspired by Black Lives Matter, reforming curricula and making all kinds of changes. These people have tried to carry this moment of efflorescence forward and to make it last. How do you experience your work in the midst of these currents?
Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński In the wake of my exhibition, I was interviewed a lot, but the interviewers were far more interested in asking me why there has been such an upsurge in Black art than asking me about my art, which has been annoying. I often respond that I do not understand why questions focus on Black artists instead of on the institutions that have not featured Black artists before. We have been here; we have being doing our work. When the small window closes, we will still be doing our work, as we did it when these institutions were not looking. In some interviews, I was asked about figures such as Otobong Nkanga, Sonia Boyce, and Simone Leigh and why it is that all these Black artists have recently received these prestigious art prizes. This question is foolish and uninformed. All these artists have practiced their art for decades, and they worked regardless of whether people were looking. For some people, it might seem like this is a new trend, but I think it is a late acknowledgement of practices that have been here for a long time. On the flipside, I am happy that the thoughts, intentions, and practices of many Black artists have been made more accessible to a wider audience, especially to a young generation of Black people. On a personal level, I think about every invitation I accept. Am I being used to make something look more diverse, or is the invitation really about the topic and the content? Bringing a Black person into the institution is also the dream of some Black people. But is this enough? What does this change on the ground? When I say “on the ground,” I mean in areas where people are outside the privileged worlds of art or academia. We still have a lot of work to do.
The time of extremes we have lived in the last two years has shown that the situation is getting grimmer. We need to sharpen our tools, which means that we also have to go back and think about class, classism, and the distribution of wealth and knowledge through an intersectional lens. Personally, I am inspired by the work of the Black empowerment movement around abolition. Abolition invites us to question the ways in which so much of our lives has been structured around making others feel less than. How can we overcome this structure? How can we think of ways to interact with each other that go beyond punishment when something goes wrong? Can we find a new vocabulary? Patriarchal ways of thinking and the self-righteousness and confidence that leads us to take, own, and destroy everything and everyone, are what is killing us. So, we still need to ask ourselves, what are we fighting for? Are we fighting for a piece of the cake or for radical change?
EuropeNow What recent exhibitions have you participated in, and what is next for you?
Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński There were group exhibitions over the summer where I showed my work, for example at the Ludwig Museum in Budapest, and at the photography festival at Les Rencontres d’Arles 2022. I won the Camera Austria Award and was invited to a solo exhibition at Camera Austria in Graz from September until late November 2022. In this exhibition, titled Seven Scenes, I think deeply about Black freedom, the breath, and breathing. The exhibition is a sonic and visual rehearsal space for us to breathe as individuals and with one another, across time and space.
Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński is a Vienna based writer and visual artist whose works manifest themselves through a variety of media. Rooted in Black feminist theory, she has developed a research-based and process-oriented investigative practice that deals with the condition of Black life in the African diaspora. Doing so, she interlaces varying spaces and temporalities, thereby resisting a clean-cut separation between documentary and speculation. An updated list of her exhibitions can be found on her website at belindakazeem.com.
Katrin Sieg is Graf Goltz Professor and Director of the BMW Center for German and European Studies at Georgetown University. Her areas of research are German theater and European cultural studies. She is the author of four books, most recently Decolonizing German and European History at the Museum (2021).
Many thanks to Carla Adams for transcribing this interview.
Campt, Tina. 2017. Listening to Images. Durham: Duke University Press.
—. Image Matters: Archive, Photography, and the African Diaspora in Europe. 2012. Durham: Duke University Press.
Gordon, Avery. 2008. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Hartman, Saidiya. 1997. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sharpe, Christina. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham: Duke University Press.
Spiller, Hortense. 1987. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17:2 64-81.
 For images and an essay written by Cindy Sissokho about the Graz exhibition, see https://camera-austria.at/en/ausstellungen/belinda-kazeem-kaminski-seven-scenes/ and https://camera-austria.at/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/ca_ausstellung_kazeemkaminski_sevenscenes_folder_A4.pdf
Photo credit for portrait: ©Abiona Esther Ojo
Credits for stills: Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński
Published on February 21, 2023.