A cosmetic change: Failures and hopes
in the renaming of the rotary with four Black busts

On 2nd September 2020, the Foundation Prussian Palaces and Gardens announced that it would rename the so-called “M-word-rotary” into “First rotary”. In a press conference on 14th May 2021, the foundation confirmed this decision and unveiled an information board contextualising this renaming action on site. On 20th August 2020, the district council in Berlin Mitte announced that it agreed to the future renaming of the M-word-street into Anton-Wilhelm-Amo-street. On 15th August 2020, the Hotel “Three M-word” in Augsburg also announced that it would change its name. 


With those three examples, it seems that German institutions and their (mostly white) decision-makers have finally started listening to more than thirty years of demands expressed by African and Afro-diasporic voices. Activists have indeed been calling for the disappearance of the M-word in the urban landscape since the 1980s. Obviously, the debate on racist language in Germany has benefited from the international scale of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and its revendications regarding memorials, statues and street names.


Yet, this welcomed evolution is tainted by a white and right-wing backlash in the Euro-American political sphere. Members of the heterogeneous group that protested against the Covid-19 measures in Germany unabashedly brandished the black-white-red flag of imperial Germany while trespassing to occupy the front of the Bundestag. On the other side of the Black Atlantic, Donald Trump’s rhetoric – including his campaign for a second mandate – was fraught with insulting disregard for the racist and genocidal history of the US. And we remember how thousands of Trump followers stormed the Capitol and desecrated offices and symbols without being teargassed by police, without being shot down, without even being stopped and searched for weapons. So much evidence of which lives matter more than others.


Besides, when statues of slave traders are toppled in the sea, the backwash wave that they trigger only reveals what has always been there, namely the reluctance of many white people to confront the colonial past, address its contemporary legacies, and question their own privilege. Some interventions by politicians in Germany (Wolfgang Thierse) and France (Jean-Louis Bianco) have besides demonised intersectional, feminist, postcolonial and decolonial critique, labelling it with terms that are reminiscent of the rhetorics of the alt-right.

But we believe that symbolic acts like renaming can actually participate in a long-term effort to raise awareness on the lingering presence of institutional racism, neocolonial power relations, and issues of representation in a debate where some stakeholders have not yet reflected on their legitimacy to speak out. However, in order to be productive, these renamings or toppling of statues should not be cosmetic measures – a bit of powder here, a bit of make up there – but opportunities for structural change. An information board that informs on the former namegiver of a street, the new namegiver, and on the process of renaming, is a minimum one should ask for, so that passers-by can “stumble” upon and learn about the history colonialism and decolonial processes. This is what occurred in Berlin with the former Gröbenufer (now May-Ayim-Ufer) in 2010 and more recently with Wissmannstraße (now Lucy-Lamek-Straße) in April 2021.


The case of statues has taken another turn which exactly exhibits a failure to engage deeply with questions of representation in the public sphere. The renaming of the former so-called “M-word-Rotary” in “First rotary” in Potsdam is one of those gummy-like, cowardly reactions by white mainstream society to a debate that, because it is challenging, is addressed with cosmetic actions. Yes, the racist M-Word is no longer part of official maps of the Sanssouci Park and this should be celebrated. Nonetheless, the question of racist representations of non-white people in Potsdam and Brandenburg has not been tackled, neither in the media nor at the level of political and cultural institutions. The four busts still look up to two Roman Emperors and the perspective of Black people towards this installation is still marginalised. 


At the same time, this renaming has re-awakened reactionary voices in the media and online, which call upon arguments against what they call “political correctness” or “cancel culture”, mostly without considering the deeper meaning of decolonial processes. If German institutions do not engage on a long-term basis with the legacy of colonialism, such renamings run the risk of being only what Jens Nordalm has called “a good start”. Renaming an installation without reframing or removing it perpetuates the discourse that this installation has fuelled for centuries, as Kenyan scholar Oduor Obura has argued. Activist Daniela Ortiz has even argued that the preservation colonial cultural heritage in the urban landscape shows a wiling preservation of colonialism in the present.


Information board near the Oranierrondell, which still mentions the M-Word-Rotary (Photo: Yann LeGall, 09.09.2021)

What to do?

Several options to deal with racist representations in the public have already been suggested, and we believe that they offer interesting grounds for a debate on the future of this rotary.


In Bristol, a week after the toppling of Edward Colston, the artist Marc Quinn opportunistically occupied the plinth with his artwork A Surge of Power, a statue of #BLM activist Jen Reid who had stood on this plinth with a raised fist a week before. Quinn declared that this statue was “not a permanent artwork,” organised a press conference with Jen Reid herself, and thereby displayed to some extent a self-reflexive behaviour that earned him the status of an “ally” to the #BLM movement in the words of Booker prize winner Bernardine Evaristo. Yet, this intervention by a wealthy London-based white male artist in a Black-led-movement has also been criticized as capitalizing on the political moment for one’s prestige. Even if it proposed a change in perspective in representations and sparked a debate on the possible futures for the square and the adjacent Colston Avenue, Quinn’s intervention revealed the danger of seeming solidarity. It showed how the issue of representation goes beyond the question of who is represented; it is also about who has the decision-making power, who has the sovereignty of interpretation (Deutungshoheit) and who benefits from such political movements.


The statue of former governor of German East-Africa Hermann von Wissmann, whose history includes her traveling from Dar es Salaam to Britain, then Hamburg and Berlin, also shows a possible trajectory for those “signs of the potentate” (Mbembe): when reframed in the context of critical exhibitions on the colonial era, these installations are not cancelled but actively participate in an effort to work through difficult pasts and address traces of institutional in the urban landscape, as was done when Wissmann was displayed lying and full of paint in the temporary exhibition on German colonialism in the German Historical Museum in 2015-2016. The four busts of Africans could follow the toppled Wissmann and travel away from Sanssouci to serve as witnesses of the history of racism, exoticism, and the transatlantic trade of enslaved Africans in future exhibitions.


On the other side of the Atlantic, the Theodore Roosevelt monument in New York still stands with its unambiguous colonial-racist hierarchy. This has been a daily sight for New Yorkers and landmarks for tourists for 80 years. Last year, artist Daniela Ortiz was asked by the city council to make a proposal for a new monument replacing this shameless display of white supremacy. In her sketch for a new monument, she removed the white male character from the installation and displays the Indigenous American character, the Black character and the horse “resting”. In her words, they are having some well-deserved “leisure time after the struggle”, sitting on a plinth whose four sides remember different anti-colonial movements. In a similar vein, the Foundation Prussian Palaces and Gardens could publish a call for proposals for a new artistic installation in lieu of (or even with) the four busts of Africans of the rotary. Many African contemporary artists or artistic collectives have already engaged with the history of enslavement (see Kardux, “Monuments of the Black Atlantic”). An installation that addresses this history would be more than welcome in this imperial park.


Daniela Ortiz presents her sketch for an anti-colonial monument in lieu of the Theodore Roosevelt equestrian statue in New York (Screenshot from the conference “Everything passes except the past, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudego, October 2020: https://fsrr.org/en/mostre/everything-passes-except-the-past-2/)

PP: Seit 2016 haben sich in Potsdam die lokale Organisation zur „Pflege der niederländischen Kultur“ und ihre niederländischen Partner für diese Ruß-Petes ausgesprochen. Die Sinterklaas Festivitäten finden immer noch statt und Darstellungen von Blackfacing können immer noch betrachtet werden, zum Beispiel auf dekorativen Girlanden. Wenn der Vorschlag der Ruß-Petes immer noch eine Ausrede ist, wie du sagtest, was würdest du empfehlen?

Jessica de Abreu: Ich kenne nicht den genauen Kontext von Potsdam, aber erlaubt mir zu sagen, dass ich nicht an die Neuerfindung der Traditionen um Sinterklaas und Zwarte Piet glaube. Ich denke es sollte vollkommen abgeschafft werden. Es ist etwas, an dass ich nicht erinnert werden möchte, solange die Folgen von Sklaverei und Kolonialismus immer noch zu spüren sind. Darüber sollten wir in erster Linie sprechen. Ich habe kein Interesse daran über diese Figur an die gewaltvolle Kolonialgeschichte erinnert zu werden. Lass uns ein für alle Mal gemeinsam hinsetzen und über die Gewalt gegenüber Schwarzen sprechen, über Menschenrechte, und über die Re-Humanisierung unserer Gesellschaft.

PP: In letzter Zeit erlangen weiße Nationalisten immer mehr Macht und Einfluss in Europa und den USA. Siehst du diese Entwicklung als Antwort auf eure Proteste?

Im Jahr 2018 haben wir beschlossen, in 18 Städten gleichzeitig sichtbar zu sein, also brauchten wir viel mehr Menschen. Deshalb schlossen sich viele weiße Niederländer*innen unserer Demonstration an. Im Internet lassen sich Aufnahmen über Proteste in Eindhoven finden, auf denen weißen Frauen von Nationalisten als Verräterinnen beschimpft und angegriffen werden. Man findet online auch Bilder von Jerry Afriyie, einem Pionier unserer Bewegung, wie er von Eiern beworfen wird. Es gibt mittlerweile so viele wütende weiße Männer, die kleine Gruppen von Aktivisten angreifen. Die Situation entwickelte sich sehr rabiat. Es scheint, im Rückblick auf vergangene Jahre, dass je mehr von der Wahrheit über die Geschichte von Zwarte Piet gesagt wird, dass je mehr wir über die Auswirkungen von Sklaverei und Kolonialismus sprechen, umso mehr Nationalist*innen und rechts gesinnte Personen frustriert werden und sich die Proteste immer gewalttätiger entwickeln. Menschen werden mittlerweile nicht nur physisch verletzt, sondern auch stark emotional und psychologisch.

PP: Museen und kulturelle Institutionen haben begonnen die koloniale Geschichte und ihr Vermächtnis anzusprechen. Glaubst du, dies wird dazu beitragen eine breitere Anerkennung dieser Vergangenheit zu erreichen und Rassismus in Europa zu bekämpfen?

Jessica de Abreu: Das ist eine schwierige Frage. Da bin ich nicht so optimistisch. Die Proteste zwischen 2011 und 2014 lösten ein Echo in der Berichterstattung aus und schafften es sogar in die 20 Uhr Nachrichten. Sie wurden in Museen diskutiert und sogar bei der Polizei, wo es Debatten über Racial Profiling gab. Seitdem haben vor allem Kunst und Kultur die Auseinandersetzung über das Vermächtnis des niederländischen Kolonialismus übernommen. In den vergangenen zwei Jahren haben drei oder vier nationale Museen verkündet Ausstellungen zur Geschichte des niederländischen Kolonialismus und der Sklaverei zu organisieren. Ein Beispiel hierfür ist die Ausstellung „Afterlives of Slavery“ im Tropenmuseum. Das ist generell sehr gut. Ich denke Künstler*innen und der Kunst und Kultur Sektor allgemein spielen immer im Vordergrund mit, wenn es um diese Debatten geht. Sie bieten dem Thema eine breitere Diskussionsfläche. Dennoch gab es bereits in den 1990er Jahren in den Niederlanden frühe Ausprägungen im kulturellen Bereich, welche sich mit dem Thema Rassismus in seiner kulturellen Tradition auseinandersetzten. Im Rückblick lässt sich allerdings betrachten, dass dies die Diskussion in gewisser Weise betäubt hat. Ich befürchte, dass wir diesen Typus von Kunst und kultureller Reproduktion genießen, der zugrundeliegende Gedanke um Menschenrechte aber nicht tiefgehend behandelt wird. Das braucht Zeit und ernsthafte Bemühungen. Ich bin ebenfalls Kuratorin, ich organisiere Ausstellungen, aber ich nehme eine sehr tiefe Unterscheidung zwischen Kunst und der institutionellen Ebene vor.  Ich wünschte es gäbe mehr Bestrebungen im Bildungsbereich hinsichtlich des Umgangs mit institutionellem Rassismus. Rassismus findet nicht nur in kulturellen Traditionen statt, es ist Thema für alle Ministerien einer Regierung. Es ist ein weitgehendes politisches Problem. Die Rechte Schwarzer Menschen und BPoCs sollten nicht mehr missachtet werden. Unsere niedere soziale und wirtschaftliche Repräsentation zeigt, dass es noch immer Unterschiede im Einkommen und anderen Bereichen gibt. Dies hat folgeschwere Konsequenzen für die mentale Gesundheit und der sozial-gesellschaftlichen Marginalisierung.

Übersetzung ins Deutsche von Harriet Schulz, Yann LeGall und Paul Urbanski.

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