Professor Felwine Sarr,
Vice President André Mücke,
Professor Jürgen Zimmerer,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
it is not all that often that a Senator of Culture has a chance to speak in the Chamber of Commerce. Admittedly, it may happen more frequently if, as I am, he is also responsible for the creative industries and the media . . . This event has given me a welcome opportunity to do so, even though at first sight my presence here may seem rather unusual.
But then it does not happen all that often that an economist has decided to speak about culture without referring to location factors and indirect profitability. Yet that is precisely what Professor Sarr decided to do.
In his rightly acclaimed essay "Afrotopia" he makes a point of mentioning the "fruitful link between the economy and culture". And he concludes by saying that:
"Africa needs (…) to rethink the role of its culture. That is, culture construed as a quest for purpose, for goals and for reasons for being alive, or as a way of giving meaning to the human adventure."
Africa, and that is one of his principal arguments, can only flourish if it overcomes the feeling of alienation and of being cut off from its own culture. As part of the process of recovering Africa's intellectual and cultural sovereignty he also makes out a case – and that of course is what he is going to be talking about this evening – for the evolution of a new ethical relationship between Africa and Europe which, in so many words, is based on the notion of decolonialism.
I find it very interesting that in "Restitution of African Cultural Heritage", the report which Professor Sarr compiled last year with his colleague Bénédicte Savoy at the behest of French President Emanuel Macron, he described restitution as "a pathway toward establishing new cultural relations based on a newly reflected upon ethical relation."
This perspective is of considerable importance within the current discourse on how to deal with collections from colonial contexts, for it focuses on the real goal of provenance research and restitution. This is the development of a decolonializing culture of remembrance which in toto will lead to a new understanding and a new way of dealing with our shared global past and present. And in the final analysis, all this it is not only about new cultural relations, but also about new economic and political ones.
In Germany, and Professor Sarr is no doubt aware of this, the report has rekindled the debate on our whole approach to colonial history.
Back in May 2018 the German Museums Association published its Guidelines on Dealing with Collections from Colonial Contexts.
In March of this year the federal government, the federal states and the local authorities agreed on Framework Principles on Dealing with Collections from Colonial Contexts.
These spell out the main areas in which there is a need for action.
Since outsiders do not find the federal system of the Federal Republic easy to understand, agreement was reached about a month ago on the establishment and the duties of a central contact office.
Responsible conduct with regard to collections from colonial contexts presupposes dialogue, interaction and cooperation with the countries and societies of origin. For this reason the contact office is primarily intended for individuals and institutions from the countries and societies of origin.
The contact office is designed to facilitate access to information about German collections from colonial contexts. It will provide information and advice, create networks of individuals and institutions at home and abroad, and lend support to these networks as they work to define and develop the goals and areas in which action is needed as stipulated in the "Framework Principles."
But above all, as a contact point for requests for repatriation, it will make a contribution to simplifying the complicated process of restitution. I am convinced that the contact point will help to make restitution that much easier.
Thus it is an important element in the quest for understanding and reconciliation with societies which suffered under the yoke of colonialism.
Ladies and gentlemen,
political processes can sometimes be rather protracted.
And more to the point, complicated issues such as dealing with collections from colonial contexts can easily get bogged down in technicalities. We are faced with the task of reconciling historical, cultural, moral, ethical and legal differences.
However, I must admit that I have seldom come across a similarly dynamic process. Conflicts have been resolved in a very short space of time, and subject-specific and political views are no longer at variance.
A great deal of criticism continues to be levelled at the supposedly protracted nature of the whole process.
Yet, as far as I can see, on the one hand there is the unbelievable speed with which strategic solutions are being developed – the publication by the German Museums Association of the Guidelines on Dealing with Collections from Colonial Contexts, or the Colonial Contexts project funding at the German Lost Art Foundation are only two milestones which deserve to be mentioned here.
On the other hand, I sense that there is a pragmatic openness on the part of the museums. It is a sign that this important issue is being taken seriously. Even if in many cases the provenance of the objects still needs to be researched, if documentation still has to be compiled, objects digitalized, data banks updated, and storage depots enhanced and improved, I nevertheless sense a basic willingness to deal with this mammoth challenge. This tells me that we have learnt from the mistakes of the 1970s, when this debate was conducted on a very high theoretical level. However, by and large there were no tangible consequences to speak of.
At any rate, I find it difficult to subscribe to the frequently voiced criticism that the museums are impeding progress and are unwilling to create transparency.
On the contrary, it seems to me that many projects of a cooperative nature are already imbued with a new decolonial ethical stance.
But what in so many words does decolonization mean for the museums?
"Decolonization" signifies two different things:
On the one hand, it means rejecting the use of colonial taxonomies.
On the other hand, it means admitting radical diversity.
These two forces have a tendency to move in different directions:
We must in a critical and open kind of way understand the situation in which the museums find themselves. This includes the areas of provenance research and restitution.
Yet the restitution of tainted works of art from the colonial past should not simply be the end of a protracted and necessary process of coming to terms with our own wrongdoing.
It should in fact mark the beginning of a much longer path to a transcultural network which on a global basis will facilitate universal access to artistic and cultural treasures in all their rich diversity.
From a global perspective it would in fact be a retrograde step if every culture went back to having at its disposal only its own cultural heritage – however we might wish to define it.
What we actually need is comprehensive sovereignty over the own cultural heritage. On the basis of this we can proceed to a more profound universalist exchange and knit even closer transcultural networks. These in turn could easily form the basis of a culture-based global partnership that accepts our common colonial heritage for what it is in order to make it possible to overcome its serious social, economic, political and cultural consequences.
Professor Sarr has stated that "any ongoing reflection about the African continent (…) must be in compliance with the dictates of absolute intellectual sovereignty".
Similarly, in Europe we need to identify those strategies, which can overcome or resist colonial conditioning.
In Hamburg, with the help of the Advisory Committee on the Decolonization of Hamburg, we are just in the process of developing a plan for decolonizing remembrance that is designed to unfold its message throughout the city.
On the basis of these new and self-evident assumptions it will become possible to rethink the relations between Africa and Europe in a post-colonial world.
The fact that you are speaking to us here in the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce this evening, Professor Sarr, is without doubt very symbolic, since this institution, as we have already heard from the preceding speaker, Vice President Mücke, bears a great historical responsibility for German colonialism.
With all this in mind I look forward with great interest to
Professor Sarr's inspiring lecture.
Finally, I would like to thank Professor Zimmerer and the research centre "Hamburg's (Post)colonial Heritage / Hamburg and Early Globalization" for the fact, that they have invited the world's leading postcolonial theorists to Hamburg to participate in the "Hamburg's Postcolonial Lecture" series in order to give an added impetus to the debate taking place in our city about decolonization and the colonial heritage.
This is quite obviously the kind of input, that we need.
Thank you so much for your attention.