“Unpleasant”, “distasteful and painful”

Comments from the Black Diaspora University Group on the representation of Blacks in the Sanssouci Park

Farai: My name is Farai von Pentz, I am a Master student at the University of Potsdam. I study English and Spanish for a teaching degree and am about to finish my postgraduate degree. I have been a research assistant at the University of Potsdam for several years. I identify as Black and have worked as an activist during my studies. I was co-founder of a Black diaspora university group and have taken part in many demonstrations, especially with regard to issues in education and questions of identity and racism.

Sonja: I have been studying for a teaching degree at the University of Potsdam and am about to complete my Masters. I am also a co-founder of the Black diaspora university group and actively campaign against racism and discrimination.

Angelo: My name is Angelo Camufingo. I study at the University of Potsdam. I am also a professional consultant for anti-racism. My work deals with post-, de-, anti-colonial, anti-racist and intersectional issues and approaches. I am also diversity and inclusion consultant and activist in the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

PP: Do you remember the first time you came across the so-called M*Rotary? What were your feelings upon the sight of these statues?

Farai: Interestingly, I have vivid memories of this moment. I was not yet a student at the university, but I had already planned to study there. So one day, I cycled from Berlin to Potsdam, just to have a look at the campus. I probably took a detour when I rode through the Sanssouci Park and found myself standing in this so-called M*rotary. So I saw those statues even before I enrolled at the university. I could not not notice them. As a Black person, these things immediately catch your attention. When you ride or walk through such a park, which appears so dreamlike when you don’t know anything about its history, you admire the beautiful buildings and statues. And then suddenly, these statues made out of black marble stood in front of me. I stopped and had to look more closely. I was puzzled. My feeling was: what is this doing here? How do these statues fit in the park? I don’t remember there being a text that could answer those questions I had in the back of my mind. I went on cycling toward the campus, brooding over this rotary. Even though it wasn’t the destination of my trip that day, it got stuck in my memory.

Angelo: The Sanssouci Park, and by extension the M*rotary, were integrate part of my life as a pupil. I went to school in Potsdam and almost every excursion day took place in some part of the park. I don’t know if the moment I think about was actually the first time I saw the rotary, but I definitely know that among other things I always found it unpleasant. I also knew early on that my white classmates didn’t feel that way. At that time I couldn’t explain why I felt and knew this, but I considered the roundabout as racist even back then, and not only because of its name. When we as a class or group stood in front of it or passed it, I felt that it was strangely addressed to myself or my family, even in an offensive manner. I don’t know if I can still relate to that feeling but I just knew that the people who were depicted there were not looked at or depicted with the same freedom or value as other characters in the park. I knew it wasn’t about the beauty, strength and aesthetics of Black people. From my perspective, the rotary and the busts embody enslavement, racism, colonialism, and the complete degradation of people whose exploitation has been responsible for the wealth and power of the West and a white majority society. People were turned into goods; they have been persecuted, manipulated and killed, and still are. This kind of representation, where Black people are seen solely through the conquering lens of white fantasy, gives me such an unpleasant feeling. Then, of course, there is the fact that they were named after a racist term, the M*word.

“I knew it wasn’t about the beauty, strength and aesthetics of Black people.”

Sonja: I first saw pictures of the M*word-rotary before seeing it on site. I had expected this kind of representation, this kind of posture of subjection and servitude, especially because I already knew about Brandenburg’s colonial history. To this is added a supposed superiority of whites, which can be seen in several features. First, the black busts look up to the white busts, whereas the Romans have a straight gaze. The clothes also strengthened my impression of difference and the submissive position of Black people. For instance, two of them wear something on their heads, and if you know the history of the slave trade in the Americas, you know that whites forced enslaved Black people to cover their heads or shave off their hair so that whites are spared the discomfort of looking at the thick hair of Black people. At that time, Afros were considered very unattractive. This was one of the many social constructs that fed into racism.
Then, on closer inspection of the rotary, their white eyes were very frightening to me. This reminded me of the demonisation of black people. This very noticeable contrast has a threatening but also dehumanizing effect. In turn, the Roman busts are completely white, so they don’t trigger this effect. Finally I looked at the female busts. I have nothing against nudity in statues and monuments but because of the history of colonial fetishisation and objectification of Black people, the representation of women is even more degrading and exoticising.
It made me feel unwell when I saw the statues. If you know the history of Black people in Germany, these are representations that you unfortunately expect and are forced to look at, time and again. No matter where I am in Germany, I see typical representations of so-called M*word – in Coburg for instance, or in ads for chocolate.

PP: What are your suggestions for the future of this rotary? What should be done?

Farai: The main problem is that this rotary in not contextualised in that fairytale-like Sanssouci park. There is no explanation on its history: how did the idea come about? Why are the busts still placed like this?

Sonja: If you’re aware of what happened after the brutal murder of George Floyd in May 2020, those demonstrations in the USA and in Europe, you know that in several cities many statues and monuments of slave traders and racists have been destroyed. I think that this question should also be asked here in Germany: how do we deal with our colonial heritage?

Angelo: The current public debate only make it clear that Black people, their oppression and its legacy have been left out and do not play a role in the writing of history. On the contrary, many white people somehow start feeling deprived of their history and language in their nostalgia; this is very debasing and insulting for Blacks.

Farai: Thanks to the protests, the question of dealing with statues that celebrate colonial history and the slave trade has been under the spotlight. On 7th June 2020, activists from the #BlackLivesMatter movement, along with other demonstrators, toppled the statue of Edward Colston and threw it into the Bristol harbor. Colston was a slave trader who had earned a lot of money from buying, selling and exploiting Africans as a member of the Royal Africa Company. This forces us to ask: “what should we do with those statues that are part of the landscape we live in, but which actually carry a violent history with them?” They should not stand somewhere without being contextualised, because they carry so much meaning in public memory. As far as the M*rotary is concerned, it is a bit different from Colston. Here, we have black people who were portrayed from the point of view of a white European artist. It corresponds to his vision of Black people. So we have this “gaze ” of a white man cast upon a “noble savage,” and as long as the rotary stands, this gaze is being reproduced time and again.

A first option would be to contextualize this rotary to make visitors aware. Some kind of information board could be erected, a text that would link this rotary to the history of the park in a critical manner. It should also question this representation so that visitors don’t just walk by and think “how beautiful!” but in fact learn that the history of Potsdam is also entangled in colonial history. Very few people know that.

What I often ask myself is: is an information plaque sufficient, if the presence of the statues is so strong that few people would take the time to read the explanation? To remedy this, a second option for me would be to remove this rotary from the park and move it to a place where it can be properly contextualized, for instance a museum. In this way, the busts would also be removed from the public arena and this representation of Black people would no longer be part of an allegedly harmless urban landscape. They would no longer be part of the innocence of everyday life.

“This should not be considered as decoration for the pleasure of visitors and tourists”

Angelo: Apart from the fact that I would like to witness a broader public and political acknowledgment, I wish that people would actively engage with what the rotary actually embodies, what it does to people, and what kind of narrative it perpetuates. I think many people underestimate its impact. Debates on those statues argue: “of course, we have to become more aware of sensitive language, but we can’t erase that from history” etc. but I actually think that we underestimate the discursive power we have and the positive influence that we can generate. I always ask myself: can someone tell me what is actually being erased if the name is changed, or even if the busts are removed from there plinths? Are these busts part of a history that must be remembered, a history that should still be visually portrayed today? If that is the case then it should be mindfully discussed and addressed, but this is exactly what is found lacking. My suggestion: the rotary is renamed and at the same time some information is made available on site, with something like a trigger-warning where its history is explained in detail, something like “originally it was called M*rotary, this name meant that…” Then people are given the opportunity to decide for themselves: “do I want to know more about it? Am I ready to listen to this and read this text right now? Can I avoid seeing of reading this?” That’s the kind of thing I would want. At the same time, in the current state of affairs, its meaning should be explained and positions need to be taken. History cannot just be “factual” because it is not simply facts. It’s not an objective science. I think it’s important that even if you decide to let things like that stay the way they are, you do not remain at the level of pure description but start commenting on them.

Sonja: If you’re aware of what happened after the brutal murder of George Floyd in May 2020, those demonstrations in the USA and in Europe, you know that in several cities many statues and monuments of slave traders and racists have been destroyed. I think that this question should also be asked here in Germany, the question of how to deal with our colonial heritage?I am convinced that we should get rid of the M*word-rotary as it is now. This representation in the Sanssouci Park should not act as decoration or ornamentation for visitors and tourists. It should not remain part of a landscape because here, the history of the Brandenburg slave trade and the crimes that were committed in this context are downplayed or even legitimized. It is painful for me as a Black person and I can imagine that it is the same for many other Black people.

I would be happy to see it simply disappear. I could imagine that an information board could be erected to keep a trace of the existence of this rotary. But as long as these Black busts continue to be represented as servants, narratives of Black people’s submissiveness are perpetuated. In my opinion these busts belong in a museum. There they should be critically contextualized. This representation is no longer appropriate to the times. It’s very distasteful and painful to me.

Translation from German by Yann LeGall

Leave a Reply

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