Schädel X: The echoes of German colonial history in a skull
In May 2016, the Sophiensaele in Berlin hosted the lecture performance Schädel X (Skull X), a Flinn Works production. Thanks to an impressive research effort to pursue a historical revision of German colonialism and a report by Gerhard Ziegenfuß, the performance reminded its audience of a German collecting mania: at the center of the performance’s interest are human remains of formerly colonized peoples who have been brought to Europe. Skull X deals with the genocide of the Herero and Nama people in former German South-West Africa as well as with the colonial violence in today’s Tanzania (formerly German East Africa).
Mr Ziegenfuß has got a peculiar anatomical part: a human skull. His father smuggled it from a museum repository in the GDR for his studies. When Ziegenfuß Junior needed a prop for his audition as Hamlet to enter a course in drama studies, he took the skull from his parents’ mantelpiece. “Conscience doth make cowards of us all” says the play, but Ziegenfuß has since gathered the courage to inquire into the “whips and scorns of time” that the skull’s former inhabitant might have undergone. The lecture performance Schädel X (“Skull X”) is indeed the story of an investigation into the provenance of human remains inherited from the colonial era by contemporary German institutions and private individuals.
It is also the story of colonial violence. The story of Mangi Meli, who was hanged by the German imperial Schutztruppen of German East Africa near Moshi (Tanzania) because of his anti-colonial resistance. Of his descendants, the Chagga community, who are compelled to find closure with a grave without body. Of Alois Ziegenfuß, great-grandfather of our staged protagonist, whose postcards sent to his family from German South-West Africa feature grim photos of Herero prisoners, reminiscent of an aesthetic fascination for racial violence also witnessed in US-American racial lynching photographs. Those images are all projected on the bare cartilage of the skull, the central element for visual proofs of the subject matter and video recordings of Tanzanian, Namibian and German activists working for the return of skulls back home.
The audience were asked to put on headphones at the beginning of the performance; maybe for translation purposes I thought, sitting down on one of the last chairs of the unique mobile grandstand that had been rolled to enclose only about a third of space available in the Sophiensæle ground floor room. The performance was sold out. Yet, the setting was intimate. Konradin Kunze plays the role of Konradin Ziegenfuß and speaks directly to the audience, to a point where some start to convince themselves that the actor offering this historical presentation is the real Gerhard Ziegenfuß from which this story is inspired. Ambiguity is ripe; even the skull looks ever so real, albeit being a replica. Carefully manipulating a complex visual and sound installation with a laptop, looping stations and ultra-sensitive microphones, the naive storyteller of Schädel X punctuates his tale with musical interludes. They range from a 1908 a-cappella recording of Kimbo kyetsika Meli (ode to Sultan Meli), to a cacophonous superimposition of the sounds of anatomic science with the unbearable utterance of racist terms that have been used to deprecate non-European people. Now I understand what the headphones were for.
Ziegenfuß wants to know where the skull in his possession comes from so that he can give it back to its community of origin. Digging up the history of his great-grandfather, he starts to believe that the skull was dug up in the backyard of his family’s former mansion located next to a Namibian cemetery. In lack of archival material, the protagonist packs and unpacks the skull, sending it to the Berlin Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte, the Charité Human Remains Project, and to a DNA lab of the University of Münster. But the expertise of German scientists is limited in this matter. Actual recordings of conversations between the performer and anatomist Dr. Winkelmann as well as biologist Dr. Vennemann are looped, and gradually disappear as the hope to find the truth about this skull dwindles away. The only truth is its uncanny presence.
Resting on the central table, and projected on the wall by a beamer, the skull occupies the visual and the sonorous foreground alongside Ziegenfuß’s voice. While his own skull “talks to him”, that one stays still, and relies on Ziegenfuß’s actions to make it speak, or resound. Thanks to an array of effects amplifying, distorting and embellishing the noises done to and by the skull, the object gains a voice of its own. The anatomic measuring of features creates rhythm. The hollow cavity invites reverberation. The sound of wrapping paper and the cardboard box become familiar after a few times packing and unpacking, as if maybe the box could become the peaceful place of rest. Nevertheless, the musical interaction between Konradin and the skull does not eclipse the fact that he wants to get rid of it. When Festus Muundjua, the representative of the Herero Genocide Committee is told about Ziegenfuß’s burden, he asks: “How can you even coexist with a dead person?”
The soothing melodies of Skull X are inseparable from the tumult around it, embodied by both the intricate, irretrievable context its acquisition and the resounding significance of its repatriation. Despite its leading white-male narrator, Schädel X passes on pleas for indemnity and atonement that should be heard at last. It features and re-enacts ongoing debates over colonial human remains in Germany: extracts from the RBB radio feature retracing Gerhard Ziegenfuß’s investigation meet the voices of Isaria Anael Meli (Meli’s direct descendant), Upendo Moshi (local Chagga community leader), and Mnyaka Sururu Mboro (founder of Berlin Postkolonial e.V.) claiming the return of their ancestors’ remains; orchestral music of a German imperial march is contrasted with the individual emotions of the a-capella Kiswahili singing; the formal and official voice of the Namibian ambassador Neville Gertze clashes with the advice given by Muundjua to throw the skull away; the cautious, knowledgeable care of Dr. Winkelmann for the skull puts blame on the racist acquisitions by Felix von Luschan (former director of the African-Oceanian department of the Museum für Völkerkunde, 1904-1910) and other eminent German anthropologists. Readings of the diary of Alois Ziegenfuß in German South-West Africa provides the macabre bit of the issue. The polyphony is complex – violent blasts and emotional cries, major (official) and minor (local) voices, harmony in the intention but discord over the way of returning the skulls, apology for genocide and eulogy for anticolonial victims. And the skull in the middle, cause but also receptacle for the complex dissonances.
After two hours of thrilling investigation, we still don’t know where the skull comes from. At least, its deathlike aesthetic has now become familiar, human.