by Emily Katzenstein
Emily Katzenstein: You describe your own work in terms of ‘decolonising urban spaces’ through artistic interventions. Can you tell us what that decolonisation means in this context? What projects are you currently working on?
Yolanda Gutiérrez: At the moment, I have two different kinds of projects. One is the Urban Bodies Projects. That’s a project that deals with the colonial past of European cities. I am working with local dancers in each city. The next one will be in Mexico City, and then one, next year, in Kigali. My second project is the Decolonycities Project. That’s a project about dealing with the German colonial past in the city of Hamburg, through the eyes of those who were colonised. I am planning to do five projects in five countries—Togo, Cameroon, Tanzania, Namibia, and Rwanda [countries Germany colonised in the late 19th and early 20th century—eds.]
And then I have the Bismarck-Dekolonial Project, which I started when this Bismarck controversy arose. In Hamburg, they are renovating the Bismarck monument for €9 million. It became a big controversy and overlapped with the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S., and here in Germany. Here in Hamburg, activists started to paint or graffiti all kinds of colonial monuments and symbols of white supremacy. Suddenly, overnight, these monuments had been altered. But you can’t really do that with the Bismarck statue because they’re currently renovating it and it’s surrounded by protective walls. So, we’ve been having a two year long discussion about what should happen with the Bismarck monument.
The discussion in Hamburg was driven by a lot of activists, especially people of colour. For me, however, it was important to see what would happen if we brought in the perspectives of artists from former German colonies (Namibia, Cameroon, Togo, Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania—eds.) who are living with the consequences of Bismarck’s role in Germany’s colonial past. So I acted as a producer and curator, and I invited artists from the countries that Germany colonised in Africa to stage their own performances in Hamburg, at historical sites that are linked to Germany’s colonial past. The artists who participated were Isack Peter Abeneko, Dolph Banza, Vitjitua Ndjiharine, Stone, Moussa Issiaka, Fabian Villasana aka Calavera, Sarah Lasaki, Faizel Browny, Samwel Japhet, and Shabani Mugado.
That’s a political statement. When the invited artists put themselves in the spaces that have some significance in Germany’s colonial history, they appropriate those spaces. The artists put on performances that reinterpreted the meaning of the places in which they performed. During the International Summer Festival, when the invited artists from Bismarck-Dekolonial put on their performances, for example, the audience could participate in what I call a decolonising audio-walk: you could see the artists’ performance while simultaneously listening to an audio track that plays the sounds of German troops leaving the Hamburg port, for example—a huge event at the time. So, the audio of German troops leaving from the Hamburg port is juxtaposed with the performance of the artists from Namibia, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Cameroon. You are listening to an audio track about the event of German colonial troops leaving from the Hamburg port, and, simultaneously, you see the performances of artists who are descendants of those who were most directly affected by Germany’s colonial policy.
We often tend to think of history as something stale, dead—something that belongs in the past, that we don’t care about. In discussions of Germany’s colonial past, that is a reaction that you encounter quite often. People say: That’s in the past and there is nothing that we can do about it. The past cannot be undone. And my reaction is: Yes, the past cannot be undone but we can change the perspective of how we look at history.
EK That is something that brings the different contributions of this series together—the sense that the past is, in a sense, contemporaneous, and that the stories that we tell about the past are crucial to our sense of who we are today. Can I come back to the question I asked earlier? What does decolonisation mean when it comes to artistic interventions? How do you conceive of decolonisation in your own work?
YG: Yes, my work reflects on the fact that history has been written by the colonisers. For hundreds of years, the colonial gaze has shaped our understanding of the societies that Europeans colonised. For example, during the Spanish conquest of Latin America, Spanish priests often took on the role of historians. Their impressions of the societies they encountered was heavily influenced by the own cultural presuppositions. For example, they had certain notions about the role of women in society, notions about gender roles, etc. That coloured and distorted their view of the societies they tried to describe. In the case of women in Aztec society, for example, they confused expectation and reality, and described what they expected to find—they portrayed Aztec women as unemancipated and occupying a predominantly domestic role, because that’s the way they saw the role of women in Catholic Spain. But now there are new histories of indigenous societies. There was an amazing exhibition in the Linden Museum Stuttgart on Aztecs culture, for example, that reflected very critically on the ways of seeing that have shaped European impressions of Aztec society over generations. That is what I am trying to do in terms of my artistic interventions—to publicise and communicate ‘unwritten’ histories, untold stories, and marginalised historical perspectives.
To do that, I work closely with historians. For example, my most recent project is situated in Namibia, which was colonised by Germany in the late 19th and early 20th century. From the beginning, I’ve collaborated with Jan Kawlath, a doctoral student in history at the University of Hamburg. His PhD investigates how the departure of German colonial troops was publicly celebrated to performatively construct images of Germany as a colonial power. And when we visit the historical sites at which we will stage performances, we listen to his writings about events that took place there, and his writing about these places and sites informs our choreography.
In that sense, my work is influenced by Gloria Wekker’s work on the cultural archive. Wekker writes so powerfully about the importance of the cultural archive. There’s also a James Baldwin quote that captures it well: “History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals.”
EK: In your work, you’ve experimented with different modes of presentation and media to stage decolonising artistic interventions. You already mentioned the ‘decolonising audio-walk’. Can you explain the concept of a decolonising audio walk?
YG: Yes, I use the concept of decolonising audio walks in all my projects. The audience has head-phones, and walks to historical sites that have some significance in the colonial past of the city. When you arrive at a site, you see the performance while listening to the audio soundtrack. It is a combination of different types of information, historical facts, interviews with experts, statements by artists, music, etc. etc. Afterwards, you walk to the next site, and so on. It is a way to incorporate a lot of different elements: Dance, audio—it’s an embodied experience for the audience because they walk through the city. Walking through the city allows you to see familiar places with new eyes. I mean, normally, once you’ve lived in a city for a while, you assume you know the place and you’re not going to go on a tour of the city. But then, during the decolonising audio walk, you experience yourself not knowing the city that you assumed you knew, and that allows you to uncover the histories that are normally not talked about.
EK On the website of the Bismarck-Dekolonial Project, you raise a question that I found fascinating, and that I wanted to put to you: namely, what kinds of artistic interventions are effective in contributing to decolonising urban spaces? How do you think about the different artistic strategies and interventions one can stage, and about the differences in the impact they have? With regards to the ‘decolonising audio-walk’, is there a tension between this momentary performative intervention and the monuments that embody permanence? Can performances effectively contest the built environment?
YG: Performances in urban spaces are a way to reach people easily. By contrast, universities have, for a couple of years, been doing a lot of “Ringvorlesungen” (series of lectures by different speakers), where you have artists and academics talk to each other about decolonisation. I have been following all these discussions, and I think that’s also an interesting approach, but they don’t reach a broad audience. Similarly, in the arts, there are many exhibitions that deal with decolonisation, but they are framed in a very particular way, and it’s for a particular audience; they don’t reach as many people. And what I really love about dance is that it allows me to juxtapose different temporalities and sensory impressions—historical accounts or sounds from the past are juxtaposed with a performance that’s very much in the moment. You can connect the history to which you are listening to what you see. In that sense, it’s a way to demonstrate the contemporaneity of the past. It’s like puzzle pieces coming together.
But audio walks, and performances more generally, are ephemeral, and that is my big challenge. You can put on as many performances as you like—for example, during the International Summer Festival 2021 in Hamburg, we put on five performances every day, which was already a lot. But even if you do a hundred performances per day, it doesn’t change the fact that it is ephemeral. So right now, my big question is how we can turn this into something more permanent. Because it’s all about memory, right? It’s about memorials and historical sites that need to be decolonised. And the challenge for me is: How can I, as an artist in the performing arts, leave a print that’s permanent? I am trying to get ‘into memory’ and I am still trying to figure out how far we can go with these performances and audio-walks in historical sites, what their impact is.
So that’s my big next challenge. I always say that the fact that the artists who participated in the Bismarck-Dekolonial Project—Isack Peter Abeneko, Dolph Banza, Vitjitua Ndjiharine, Stone, Moussa Issiaka, Fabian Villasana aka Calave, Sarah Lasaki, Faizel Browny, Samwel Japhet, and Shabani Mugado—put on these performances around the Bismarck monument means that the space has been altered. It is no longer the same space, no longer holds the same meaning. The traces they left are ephemeral but they are there, nonetheless. There is a trace. That’s why I want to work on putting up a QR code or something similar. At the moment, my idea is to combine it with a visually appealing sculpture or something else that attracts passers-by, so that they say: “What’s that? I want to know more.” And then they can use the QR code to watch the performance that happened in the space.
EK: One of the questions that always structures debates about contested monuments, it seems to me, is how we should think about the relationship between meaning and monuments. As an artist, how do you think about this relationship between monuments and meaning? Can we speak of a ‘hegemonic’ meaning of particular monuments or should we think about a multiplicity of meanings? Should we oppose hegemonic meanings with counter-hegemonic meanings, or prioritise showcasing the diversity and multiplicity of possible interpretations and meanings? What’s your approach to this?
YG: In Germany, we haven’t spent enough time reflecting Germany’s colonial past. The Second World War is obviously a horrific part of Germany’s history, and it tends to overshadow everything else, including Germany’s colonial past. But that means that you miss crucial connections, and that people don’t know Germany’s colonial past. For example, that the idea of the concentration camps was first developed during the genocide of the Herero and Nama in Namibia, camps that were built in the beginning of the 20th century. For me, the representation of Bismarck is a symbol of the power that Germany had in the world at that time. In the case of Bismarck, this is dangerous, because it works as a magnet for the right-wing, and we experienced that in a very, very bad way. During the performance of Vitjitua Ndjiharine, a visual artist from Namibia, one person in the audience suddenly went up to her and gave the Hitlergruß. He was facing the Bismarck monument, and stood in front of her, and gave the Hitlergruß.
So, trying to deal with this statue and with what it represents is exactly where the power is, for me. I mean, just look at it. The sheer measure of the monument is so imposing. And I think that’s the way that Germans were feeling when they colonised Namibia. If you read the writings of German colonial officials at the time, there is this feeling of supremacy. And that’s difficult to deal with, especially now, when they are polishing the Bismarck monument and literally making it whiter.
EK: There have been many proposals as to what should happen with the Bismarck monument. Some have argued that the monument should be removed altogether, others have argued that it should be turned on its head, and yet others propose letting it crumble. I assume letting it crumble is not really an option for safety reasons, but I’ve always liked the symbolism of it. What do you think should happen with the monument?
YG: I think if you vanish the Bismarck monument that doesn’t mean that you’ve vanished the meaning of Bismarck in the minds of people; what his figure means for people. And you can’t simply let the monument crumble—the size of the monument means that that is unfeasible. There were issues with the static of the monument, that’s why they’re renovating it. I mean with some monuments, you can let them crumble, no problem, but given the size of the Bismarck monument that’s not feasible.
But you know what? I could see it happening in a video, a video that’s then projected unto the Bismarck monument. That’s something that we have experimented with, too. We didn’t pull the statue down but we did what we call ‘video mapping.’ We did it at night, and that’s when I really felt like an activist. I had a generator, and it was midnight, and we had to set everything up. That’s the first time where I had to inform the municipality and said: Hey, I'm going to do this at the Bismarck monument. And they said, OK, that’s fine. You're going to destroy it. Nothing is going to happen. But I mean, you could see the change—suddenly the Bismarck monument became the canvas instead of the symbol it usually represents.
Of course, that’s a temporary intervention. But I am also convinced that we need a permanent artistic intervention. I think we need an open space for discussions. For example, I could imagine a garden around the monument, a place where we can keep this dialogue and this discussion going once the renovation is done.
I am not a visual artist, obviously, but I was on a podium discussion about decolonising and recontextualising the Bismarck statue with several other artists. There were two very interesting women, Dior Thiam, a visual artist from Berlin, and Joiri Minaya, a Dominican- American artist based in New York. Joiri Minaya has already covered two colonial statues at the port of Hamburg, a statue of Vasco da Gama and a statue of Christopher Columbus, with printed fabrics of her own design—it’s very interesting work. As I said, I am not a visual artist, but I think that a permanent art intervention is necessary. Because what I do is so ephemeral, and I have the sense that we need to reach as broad an audience as possible.
EK: The discussions about what to do with the Bismarck monument have been ongoing for the last two years. What impact has the debate had? Do you get the sense that the debate has contributed to a broader political awareness of Bismarck’s role in Germany’s colonial past in Hamburg? Or is this largely a debate amongst a relatively narrow set of actors?
YG: Yes, the question about impact. What I got tired of were all these discussions on advisory boards, and advisory committees: People discuss a lot. I am a maker, and I sat at a lot of these discussions and said, yes, we can keep discussing but we also need to do something now. And people had a lot of reasons for why we couldn’t do anything until later. But to me it seemed wrong to wait until the renovations are finished. It seemed like a strange idea to stage an intervention once Bismarck’s shining in all his glory, you know. The discussions are good and all, but they are not enough. They don’t reach enough people; they don’t reach communities. I think it would be fantastic to have something like the project Monument Lab in the United States here in Germany. Monument Lab is combination of different layers of communities—they bring together artists, activists, municipal agencies, cultural institutions, and young people. That’s precisely what we need to do around the Bismarck statue. We need a multilayered participatory process that includes different groups in society.
 Due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, Isack Peter Abeneko could only participate remotely from Dar es Salaam.
 Gloria Wekker, White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race. Durham, 2016.
 As cited in I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck (2016; New York: Magnolia Pictures, 2017), Netflix. (1:26:32).
 Behörde für Kultur und Medien Hamburg, “(Post) colonial Deconstruction: Artistic interventions towards a multilayered monument”, 16.09.2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=6215&v=hRFzASv_ea4&feature=emb_logo
 For images of the covered statues and an explanation about the symbolism of the printed fabrics, see the link above at 1:25-1:30.
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