The Division of the World

Tableaux on the Legal Synopses of the Berlin Africa Conference
April 2006 until the end of 2008

After years of experimenting with today’s possibilities of the strongly tainted artistic genre of historical painting and the traditions of modern painting, Dierk Schmidt has most recently been dealing with the role which the German Reich played in the history of colonialism. German involvement in colonialism and the mass murders of the population in then South–West Africa have often disappeared behind the incomparable crimes later committed through the German politics of extermination. This issue is now highly topical, for many ethnological and historical museums are currently reformatting their sections dedicated to colonialism. In addition, many camps in the political humanities are, often publicly, leading a debate on the way colonial history is to be treated. This debate is situated between the danger of voluntarily or involuntarily relativizing the Holocaust on the one side, as has already been the case in the context of the notorious “Historians’ Dispute” in the 1980s, and the rejection to acknowledge colonial crimes as genocide on the other.

Dierk Schmidt is interested in creating the pictorial and discursive possibilities of a meta–language going beyond dull representationalism and symbolism. However, this should not be perceived as a specific method, but as a constantly expanding set of instruments critical of images and language that deal with a certain theme, while also thematizing itself as a method to be problematized. In the process, the dialectical imponderables that have arisen during the course of European and non-European modernity come to full fruition in aesthetic terms, as well, as an examination of modernist abstraction. What becomes tangible in this way is perhaps a specific modernist entanglement of an aesthetics aimed at enlightening, which both abstraction and historical painting claimed to be, in a logic of image–political force.

Closely linked to a seminar that Schmidt has been holding with students in the Kunstraum of the Leuphana University of Lüneburg since 2006, the new exhibition presents the current state of the ongoing research work. His point of departure is the Africa Conference held in Berlin in 1884/85, where the fourteen participating states agreed upon the so-called “Acte Général”, the paragraphs of which stipulated the neutral status of the Congo Basin and guaranteed freedom of trade and navigation on the Congo River and its branches. Even though continental slave trade was banned on this occasion, a battle for political and economic spheres of influence ensued, in which Bismarck succeeded in securing the German Reich an equal role among the colonial states at the time. The conference gave decisive impulses for a wave of colonization that by 1902 covered 90% of the African continent.

Although the press did publish illustrations of these events, it is until today all but impossible to adequately picture the details of this historical process of colonization. This is where Dierk Schmidt’s critical concept of historical painting begins. His aim is to assess and convey politico–historical potentials and present–day implications pertaining to international law. In the series “Die Teilung der Erde (The Division of the World)”, which after an initial phase in the Salzburger Kunstverein in 2005 was on view at this year’s documenta, Schmidt approaches the historical complex by developing different pictorial semiotics that have their source in the traditions of diagrammatic–statistical and cartographic representation, on the one hand, and modernist (abstract) painting, on the other.

In this manner – alongside the conflictual encounter of artistic and legal forms of language – he also articulates a basic irreconcilability. For his approach is not about resolving but above all about representing an historical problem of non–representability. Only in this respect can the at first “mere” aesthetical approach also prove to be a bridge to the present-day, post-colonial debates on compensation payments. Hence, not only abstraction in painting and the abstractions of international law confront each other; at the same time, the unavoidable question is raised as to which – at least – symbolical forms of a “reversal” of the social and economic effects of colonial times, which must be viewed in an international context, are at all possible.