Oduor Obura: "We need to find names for the busts"

Oduor Obura is a Kenyan writer and scholar. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Potsdam. He has written about the construction of African childhood and the colonial history of museums. For Postcolonial Potsdam, he gives us his perspective on the four black figures in the Park Sanssouci and the alleged presence of the “peak of Kilimanjaro” in the New Palace.

PoCo Potsdam: You’ve seen that square with the four busts of Africans in the Sanssouci Park. This rotary with the M*Word in its name. What are your thoughts about this rotary?

Oduor Obura: What I find rather striking and interesting was the tilted gaze. To me, the gaze inspired some feeling of servitude. The busts should have been made to have a straight gaze, like almost all other busts in the park. Metaphorically speaking, there is a need to re-tilt the gaze, so that the tourists who come to the park see a direct gaze instead of having this sort of subservient gaze that the busts evoke.

I also found it interesting that the names of the busts are unknown until now. This is quite unexpected given the Germans and their obsession for record-keeping and bureaucracy. So the absence of the names is a key thing that needs to be redressed if you want to have a complete understanding of the park. Both the tilted gazes and the unknown names of course imply racial politics behind the square. To me, giving them a name would be doing them justice, even in absentia. It would be important to understand the history of these busts: where they came from, who did the artwork, who was the sculptor behind them?

One of the four busts of Africans in the Sanssouci Park (Photo: Miriam Redzwewsky)

Alternatively, we could still find a way of going around this: the key figures within that square are the four busts, right? So to acknowledge their presence and the difficult history that Black people have had in Brandenburg and Prussia, there is a need to rename that rotary. If you cannot have a specific name based on historical records linked to these four busts, then you can find a name from Ghana or somewhere else that empowers their presence instead of keeping these four figures unknown. We need to find names for the busts.

PP: Could anything regarding the representation of Africans in the park be done?

OO: I suggest that we take away the current four busts who are unknown. Then we could commission an artist from, say, Tanzania (because the Germans occupied East Africa) or West Africa, where most of the slaves were obtained from. Let this artist do new busts with fresh history to commemorate the occupation of East Africa or the history of the Slave Trade along the West African coast, and install these busts in the place of the rotary.

Finally, I do think there is also a need for an Africanist expert to curate the history within the park and in the palaces. We have the obelisk that has got this graffiti that is useless apparently. It’s supposed to be some Egyptian hieroglyphics but it’s not. So I think the park can invest in an Egyptologist to come and do some proper hieroglyphics if they still want to maintain these as part of the walk of civilization.

Oduor Obura looking at the "Peak of the Kilimanjaro" in the Grotto Hall of the New Palace in Potsdam (Photo: Yann LeGall)

PP: You have heard that a stone collected on top of the Kilimanjaro was kept in the New Palace, right next to the university campus where your office was located in the last three years.

OO: I find it odd that this rock has to be there and is still under exhibition. It is a very small rock, but its symbolism is huge. In a way, it celebrates colonial history and perpetuates colonialism. I don’t think the rock ought to be there. If it were in my power, I would take it back to Kilimanjaro or throw it away. It reminds me of German travelers, colonialists (the likes of Carl Peters and so forth) and their trips into Africa. And how some of the artefacts that were taken from Eastern Africa were not taken or given willingly. There was a lot of manipulation and a lot of writing off, erasing the perspective of Black Africans on those events. I suppose even this small rock has got some history on its own which is not properly addressed. The bottom line for me: take the stone back to Africa so that we do away with perpetuating colonial exploitation by way of displaying these artefacts for white amusement.

PP: Yet, visitors and tourists cannot see the rock when they visit the New Palace. It is too far for anyone to admire it. And the rock is not mentioned at all when you visit the palace with an audio guide. There is actually no celebration of this artefact.

OO: It is problematic that the public are not aware. But the silence in tourist guides does not mean that we cannot have this discussion about the presence of the rock in the palace. So long as it sits there, with or without public knowledge, I still think that it does not erase its presence. We still need to address it by bringing into mind the difficult history of how it was brought here. Who brought it by the way?

PP: It was brought by the German geographer Hans Meyer who gave it to Kaiser Wilhelm II. But the original one has disappeared since. Today, the caption is still the same, but the rock has been replaced by one from the Hans Meyer collection at the Berlin Institute of Geology.

OO: Haha (laughs), it gets more complicated. All the same, I do think that there is a continuity. Especially because we still have the caption that retraces it to German colonial presence in East Africa, the history behind is still perpetuated. So long as we have got this installation around that myth of discovery and conquest, I do think that we need to debunk and be radical about this history. The rock is a reminder. It memorializes German occupation in East Africa. Their presence in Tanzania was not a palatable event. So, as an African going to Potsdam, if there is one memorial object that reminds me of European colonial presence in Africa, I think we need to find a way of stopping this or re-framing it. We might consider doing away with the entire installation and the caption. Basically, we need to decolonize.

PP: Asante sana!

OO: Karibu!

Credits // Interviewer: Yann LeGall
"Peak of the Kilimanjaro" installation in the Grotto Hall of the New Palace in Potsdam (Photo: Yann LeGall)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *