Sir Achmed of Glienicke
As we read about the painting of Achmed hanging in Glienicke Palace in SchwarzRund’s novel Biskaya, we decided to go and see it. In July 2018, we then went on a Postcolonial Potsdam team excursion to the Palace.
The Glienicke Palace is located in the southwest of Berlin, right by the city’s boundary to Potsdam. When we arrived, we learned that we could only enter the Palace with a tour guide and not on our own. All the better, we thought, because it is always interesting to learn about the institution’s own narrative of the historical events it presents. The Glienicke Palace belonged to Prince Carl of Prussia (1801-1883), a huge fan of Italy who wanted to recreate an impression of the Italian landscape and architecture right there. At the age of just 23, he bought the mansion and employed the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel to transform it into a magnificent neoclassical castle. The landscape around Prince Carl’s estate was designed and arranged by Peter Joseph Lenné. Especially the gardens around the Castle suggest the idea of Italy. Our tour guide explained that it is hardly possible to reconstruct exactly how the rooms of the Castle were used or what they looked like during the lifetime of Prince Carl. Today, the museum mainly aims to present Neoclassicism or the so-called Schinkel era to its visitors.
At the beginning of our tour through the Castle, we told our guide that we work on Brandenburg-Prussian colonialism and that it was the painting of Achmed especially which brought us to Glienicke on that day. Our guide reacted in a puzzling way. Although she had first kindly asked about our interest in the Palace, our answer led her to conclude that she could only offer us a regular tour. When we arrived in the room with the painting of Achmed, she thoughtfully announced it to us. Thereon, however, without any critical comments from our part, she started to defend Achmed’s contemporaries as if our mentioning of colonialism would mean that we would be accusing all influential white men from the epoch of being evil; in other words, that we would be assuming that everybody, including passive bystanders of colonialism, would be nasty racists. Effectively, we are mainly interested in making invisible aspects of Brandenburg-Prussian pomp and circumstances visible. Part of the work consists of tracing and contextualizing the presence of Black people who lived and served at the Prussian courts. During the remainder of the tour, our guide appeared suspicious of any question we asked, even when those were entirely unrelated to colonialism. It felt as if she thought we were secretly hiding points of critique in our questions. Who knows, maybe we really were a confusing audience. Not the kind of visitors exclaiming: “Splendid, it really feels like little Italy here!”
The full name of the painting of Achmed reads Der Mohr Achmed mit englischen Neufundländern am Tor des Kronprinzenpalais (The Moor Achmed with English Newfoundland Dogs at the Gate of the Crown Prince’s Palace). It was painted in 1823 by Constantin Schroeter. “Mohr” (in English sometimes translated as “moor” or “blackamoor”) was the then common German name for people of African descent. Because of the word’s derogatory character, we will not use it anymore in the following. Instead we will write M. The painting of Achmed hangs right under a painting of Prince Carl’s favorite horse Agathon – representations of several beings (animals and humans) who had been close to Carl’s heart staged together in the Palace’s blue room. Most likely an accidentally unfortunate composition by the museum curators. The inclusion of Achmed’s name in the title of Schroeter’s painting marks a moment in the 19th century, in which a handful of servants of African descent at the Prussian courts came out of their anonymity. They can at least be matched with a name (in contrast to the statues and busts in Park Sanssouci). The same Achmed was immortalized on several paintings. He can also be found in the New Palace as part of the painting Parade Unter den Linden in Berlin (1939) by court painter Franz Krüger.
During the guided tour, we were assured that Achmed earned money for his services and that he most likely enjoyed his life at court, because otherwise he would have been free to leave. However, ample sources convey a different picture. Joachim Zeller writes in the book Black Berlin that the social life situation of the Black population in and around Berlin during the 19th century was mostly precarious. They experienced exoticizing exclusion and racially motivated discrimination. Joachim Zeller even cites the Deutsche Kolonialzeitung (German Colonial Press) of 1884, which particularly mentions Achmed: “the M* Achmed of Prince Carl was stared at like a mythical creature”.
Achmed has not entirely lost his anonymity through the paintings. Not much more than his name or these two paintings can be found, the story of his life remains undocumented and obscure. SchwarzRund uses this gap for her novel Biskaya. In her phantasy-Berlin, a direct descendant of Achmed frees the painting from the Glienicke Palace, so that Achmed the ancestor no longer has to endure the stares of the mostly white visitors.