“This can only be Africa”

In his opening speech on the exhibition “Cameroon and Congo” Africa expert and author David Van Reybrouck invites us on a journey trough the pictures of Andréas Lang. The exhibition runs till 26 February 2017.

It is Tuesday morning and I fear I am in the wrong exhibition hall. The first picture I see in this hall seems to belong to “Das erstaunte Schweigen”, the other exhibit by Andreas Lang. I see a German castle romantically falling apart, the way only German castles can romantically fall apart, with a derelict “Festungsmauer” and a crippling medieval turret, that is overtaken by the slowest enemy ever: vegetation. But before I can ask some of the staff whether I am indeed at the Deutsches Historisches Museum, I notice that the castle is made of bright red bricks, that the soil is deep red and rusty and that the “Festungsmauer” is flanked by a long corrugated iron roof in front of which there is an oil drum and a goat.

This can only be Africa.

This is Cameroon today, the country where more than a century ago, Andreas Lang’s great-grandfather served as a sergeant in the colonial “Schutztruppen” where he was involved with what was then called “pacifying” the region and delineating the borders. Cutting 9 metre wide strips through forests and swamps was the German’s Empire way of marking its remotest, overseas frontiers. Establishing authority through bloodshed and intimidation was the imperial way to grant Germany its “Platz an der Sonne”, to rephrase Bernhard von Bülow.

Much of this has been forgotten. Even in the remarkably balanced “Dauerausstellung” of this museum – probably the best national history exhibit of any European country – this has been somewhat obliterated. On the historical “Schul-Wandkarte der Deutschen Kolonien” from 1905, a map produced by Georg Lang the map with Cameroon is largely hidden behind the sleeve of a magnificent Chinese silk coat.

The next pictures I at Andreas’ upcoming exhibition show an entrance gate, a building entirely overgrown by trees, an archive entirely overgrown by documents, and then, a machine gun entirely surrounded by blood or rust or ochre. Andreas Lang showed Yaoundé-based artist Dieudonné Fokou an image of the machine gun his great-grandfather had been using to “pacify the region”. In a gesture of creative bricolage, Dieudonné appropriated and africanized the firearm and Andreas pictured it, after having spraypainted the surrounding landscape in red. The dialogue with his greatgrandfather could not be more explicit. Shooting people, shooting pictures. The Maxim machine gun versus the Mamiya camera. Andreas readily admits that he appreciates this Japan-built camera for its “silence and its discretion”. What would his greatgrandfather have thought of these qualities? Silene and discretion – really? He might have been surprised to learn that in the territory he helped to conquer with so much difficulty, his greatgrandson today equally enjoys working with the Yashika mat 124, another Japanese camera, this time a copy of the legendary Rolleiflex, where you have to bow down to look into the lens, a gesture full of modesty that his remote descendant values. Bowing down to the natives – really?

Is this exhibit a form of atonement perhaps, I wonder? Of belatedly paying respect to a community that was uprooted by the actions of a forebear? Or will it zoom out to develop a form of “koloniale Vergangenheitsbewältigung”? This may be needed, for sure, we need to get behind this Chinese “Mantel”, so to speak, but is it the task of a visual artist? If your language is one of multitudes, why would you circle around a single story of guilt and victimhood?

But as I walk further down this “Sonderausstellung”, I see how layer upon layer of meaning is being added very subtly. I see African dust looking like European mist. I see Caspar David Friedrich down in the tropics. I see Africans erecting European-style statues and monuments and I see Africans neglecting European monumental remnants. The ruins of the German “Residentur” stand next to the ruins of the French “préfecture”. The graves of German and British soldiers linger on in the forgetful landscape. I even see people growing vegetables between the graves of British and German soldiers. Why would you bother about European “colonizers” if they make for such great “fertilizers”?

This is more than a moral story about colonial violence, and it is certainly more than a story about exotic beauty. As I am walking around, Andreas Lang has joined me, like his camera: silently and discreetly. He says, almost apologetically: “Romanticism was never only about beauty, it was always about looking into the abyss. Constantly.” It has been a long time since someone took the tenets of the romantic movement so serious again. Having been a drummer in punk band probably helps. I quite like this radical rereading of romanticism, this existentialist redefinition of it.

Looking into the abyss, indeed, of the past, of the colonial past for that matter, perhaps even in the unheimliche of all human endeavors, of which colonialism was only a particularly intense manifestation.

It is therefore no wonder that the centre piece of this exhibit is a video installation where the colonial presence seems rather secondary. In an octogonal, chapel-like room, we see the footage of a suspended rope bridge. The frame is fixed. On the other side of the ravine stands the pylon like a dark gothic arch – the bridge dates back to the German time. Andreas tells me that although locals were using the bridge quite happily, he did not dare to cross it – a fear that was confirmed by an elderly lade from the village. “No, you shouldn’t do this,” she murmured. He just had to watch and wait. And this is what the video shows us. The weather is fine, the landscape splendid, but then an epic tropical thunderstorm breaks loose. The wind starts sweeping the trees, a torrential rains gushes down, it seems as if the entire earth is roaring. When it is all over, birds start singing again, first only timidly, then loudly, so loudly, as if nothing had happened. But the leaves are still dripping and the wet planks of the shaky rope bridge lie gleaming in the hard sunlight. Staring into the abyss.

For all its noise and rattle and rain, these are rather silent and eerie landscapes, testimonies to “das erstaunte Schweigen” of the other exhibit. It is the same sense of uncanniness that emerges from his videos with triple projections where car lights scratch the dark, a torch light punctures the night and a dugout canoe cuts across the river with its cargo of white, plastic bags. This is a world where individual human beings are silent figurines in a world that is both magnificent and incomprehensible. The reference to Caspar David Friedrich was more than ironical. This is a world without words. At best people hum, at best they chant. “Ne sois pas dans le doute”, sings a religious procession, don’t have any doubts, for the Lord loves his children who march in honour of him by the side of the road while the trucks rattle by. For the rest, there are only paddles in the water, and birds after the thunder and crickets after sunset.

And it is therefore entirely logical that this exhibit ends with a catharsis of nature photography. After all that has been said and done, and after all that has been built and destroyed, Andreas Lang returns to nature – where the lightning sculptures a tree and termites build their mounds, as they have done for hundreds of millions of years. These final images are for me the apex of the exhibit, but they only work because you have seen the exhibit. The spectator looks for colonial ruins, for signs of history, or a trace of humans. But there is nothing out there, nothing but the unsettling nonchalance of nature, empty and threatening. As if we arrived there for the first time, on the dawn of creation. A puddle with rusty water. We return to the red earth with which it all started — and we can only hear the sounds of crickets who are not even there.

© Lenny Oosterwijk

David Van Reybrouck

David Van Reybrouck (born in Bruges in 1971) studied archaeology and philosophy at the University of Leuven and the University of Cambridge and obtained a doctorate from Leiden University. He is working as an author, historian and archaeologist. His so far most famous book „Congo“ was published in English in 2014: The book portrays slavery and colonialism, resistance and survival in Congo. His latest publication “Against Elections: The Case for Democracy” was published in 2016.