Uncovering the Traces of the Colonial Past: An Interview with giessen postkolonial

Giessen postkolonial is an initiative that aims to raise awareness of the traces of the colonial past and postcolonial present inscribed in the city-spaces of Giessen. Among other things, the group offers postcolonial city tours: guided walking tours to places that are in some way connected to (post)colonial history, memory, and imagery. We spoke to members of giessen poskolonial about hidden histories and spatial practices in the urban environment of Giessen. 

Participants of a postcolonial city tour assemble in front of Giessen University's Main Building in order to discover traces of the colonial past embedded in the spaces and places of the city.
Participants of a postcolonial city tour assemble in front of Giessen University’s Main Building. ©giessen postkolonial

Random Walks: How did the idea for Giessen.postkolonial come about? What is your mission?

giessen postkolonial: In a way, our current group is a revitalisation of an existing project that originated in a university seminar about post- and decolonial theory held by Dr. Sebastian Garbe at JLU Giessen. The project then remained dormant for a while until we reinitiated giessen postkolonial in 2018 and formed ourselves as a civic-society organisation. In a broader context, we are part of a movement of postcolonial initiatives all over Germany.

Our goal is to raise awareness about the (post)colonial structures that are still omnipresent in our society, but do not really register consciously in the mind of the general public. One main reason for that lies with education. There is very little that we learn in school about the colonial past and postcolonial present. That’s why we take it to the streets! We want to show the necessity of bridging past and present to understand our society in its current formation. For instance, we can only understand the roots of racist ideology if we take on a postcolonial perspective – and thereby deconstruct it.

Random Walks: In our collective imagination and memory, Giessen is not necessarily a city that is strongly associated with colonialism. Neither does the colonial past immediately come to mind when walking the streets of present-day Giessen. After all, most of the city was reconstructed after WWII. Where do you nevertheless see colonial traces in the urban environment?

giessen postkolonial: It is absolutely true that Giessen is not associated with colonialism at first sight. Nevertheless, the visibility of colonial traces even here shows the pervasive influence of colonial rule. For instance, there were colonial grocery shops in Giessen that sold goods such as coffee, chocolate or tobacco from German colonies. There is even one building in Gießen-Wieseck with a sign that says “Kolonialwaren” (colonial goods). Nowadays, it is normal to buy coffee or chocolate in a grocery store, but these examples show us the violent history of the appropriation of these goods and historically explain the huge trade imbalances that persist to this day. Another example is Giessens “Oberhessisches Museum” (Upper Hessian Museum), which holds a collection of artefacts from former German colonies, such as Cameroon, Tansania or Papua New Guinea. Currently, debates about the restitution of colonial objects are receiving a lot of public attention, fuelled among other things by the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. But we see that the question of who has the right to own and display art and objects related to African heritage also affects Giessen. Until recently, the museum’s exhibition included human remains that were stolen from former colonised regions.

On a more abstract level, the traces of colonialism can arguably be found in every single German city. In addition to the more obvious examples, such as the university’s main building or the Oberhessisches Museum in Giessen, these also include very basic structures such as a city’s infrastructure. Early colonialism and globalisation brought significant wealth to Germany, and the money was then of course also used to build cities and develop their infrastructure.

Random Walks: Can you give us some background on Giessen’s role in the colonial past?

giessen postkolonial: Colonialism can be seen as the birth of our globalized world. It was the first historical period in which so many world regions were deeply linked to one another. This of course also affected life in Giessen. Giessen was involved in colonial trade; the coffee company “Louis Sundheim” is one of many examples of such enterprises. Collection pictures advertising the meat extract developed by Justus Liebig were popular as well. These pictures often depicted colonized people using blatantly racist stereotypes. What they left out was the violence and oppression inherent in the colonial situation. At JLU, there were even colonial officials, such as Philaletes Kuhn, who developed ideas of “race hygiene” and participated in military oppressions against colonized people.

Giessen also had a role in the acquisition of colonial objects, as we see in the museum. At the time, Germany was the third largest colonial power globally so that every German city was involved in colonial structures. Giessen is no exception.

Random Walks: In your city tours, history and memory are not abstract phenomena but quite literally built into the city’s architecture; into its streets and plazas, buildings and edifices. What (different) kinds of knowledge does the urban contain, in your opinion?

giessen postkolonial: The urban is shaped by the people who form it day by day. So first and foremost, it is a communal space where we grasp knowledge about social life. The urban landscape shows us the movement of people; it shows us material objects and everyday interactions, for instance in the form of architecture. Most importantly, it makes visible the stories behind what we encounter there.

In every city, we can find historical knowledge that is encoded in it. However, this knowledge is not static. It changes with time, with those who live in and by it, and with the different perspectives and (hi)stories that are transmitted through time. It all depends on what is told, who gets to do the telling – and what is left out. Depending on the historical perspective we adopt, the Giessen of today can look very different indeed.

Random Walks: How do we experience such forms of knowledge; what effect do they have on us when we pass through the places and spaces inscribed with colonial traces?

giessen postkolonial: The spaces where colonial traces become visible, or can be made visible, show us the connection between our past and our present. They explain to us how it is possible that we are what we are now. For instance, a former colonial grocery store explains that it took colonial forms of domination to perceive coffee, tobacco, bananas and so forth as a given in our supermarkets today. Furthermore, colonial traces remind us of the inequalities of our daily social lives. These, too, become visible in the urban space. Marginalized communities for instance are often affected by hierarchies between ethnic groups that were established in times of colonialism and still persist today. Therefore, when thinking about colonial traces and postcolonial structures, it is important to think about our own positionality and the possibilities of social justice in urban space.

To consider colonialism as (temporally and spatially) remote is to disregard that colonial practices were often „tested“ in areas under colonial rule and, once proven „successful,“ imported to the colonizing nation. Many forms of spatial segregation and state presence, of surveillance and control, have their origin in colonial rule. And many of them are still at work in the urban environments of today, though they may differ between different parts of the city.

Map of Colonial Traces Across Giessen ©giessen.postkolonial!

Random Walks: How can we make use of such knowledge and/or how can we resist hegemonic narratives such as colonialism that are inscribed in the very places we pass through every day?

giessen postkolonial: Becoming conscious of perpetual inequalities is an important step towards a counter-hegemonic approach to our public space. The preoccupation with colonial traces is another. Many of such small steps taken together can then help pave the way for decolonization and all the processes that go with it. For example, asking ourselves why objects from former colonies are in Giessen and if we want to inherit and perpetuate practices of violent appropriation would be a first step to an act of democracy and social justice. To take on responsibility for the injustices from the past that are persistent in the present is important to deconstruct these injustices.

Random Walks: The final set of questions pertains to your walking tours, which unfortunately must be suspended due to Covid-19. In how far has the pandemic affected your project; where do you see potential solutions for urban practices and activism?

giessen postkolonial: It’s such a pity that we cannot offer physical city tours at present. The actual act walking in a space shows us the presence of colonial traces in a very immediate and personal way. In that moment, the city becomes restructured as we point out spaces that are usually (un)seen as “just a building”. But like many others, we also switched to digital modes of education and created a digital city tour where you can see the different stations on video.

Random Walks: In how far do you perceive (virtual and actual) postcolonial city tours as an act of intervention?

giessen postkolonial: It is an intervention insofar as we make the effects of history visible in the street and talk about colonial traces publicly. In that context, we form the urban space in that moment for an act of memory and social justice.

Random Walks: Can the practice of walking the streets attentively and reflexively change people’s sense of place and help decolonise the city?

giessen postkolonial: Whether it helps to decolonise the city has yet to be seen, but it definitely helps us realise that our society is a postcolonial society. This is something that we understand when we encounter traces of the history of our present. Engaging with the urban can also open up a space for the reflection of one’s own position in society and makes us think about what perspectives are needed to tackle social inequalities. In that sense, projects such as ours can help to sensitise people.

For more information about the initiative giessen postkolonial and the individual stops of their city tour, go to https://giessenpostkolonial.wordpress.com/

Photo credits: giessen postkolonial

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