13. November 2020
Speech on the occasion of the transition of office on 13 november 2020

Inaugural speech by Prof. Dr. Carola Lentz

Anyone strolling through Kaneshie Market in the Ghanaian capital of Accra will be impressed by the metres-high stacks of colourful fabrics offered there. “Come in,” the sellers call after the bypasser, “I have real wax for you,” in other words the genuine batik-dyed fabrics. “You’ll look like a real Ghanaian in it,” they add when a European woman stops by. Some of the samples of the so-called wax prints that they advertise are new creations. Others have been around for many years, and they bear names like “Back of the turtle” or “If you want to get married, ask me.” Every woman in Ghana, and other African countries, is proud to possess many different cloths and outfits made from them for all sorts of occasions. If they can afford it, they wear “Real Dutch wax.” The non-batik “fancy prints” are a cheaper alternative.

In Ghana, wax prints are considered “traditionally Ghanaian.” In Central and South Africa, they are labelled as “West African,” in Europe or the United States as “typically African.” But they are actually of Asian origin and part of a long, eventful history of global entanglements. Economic profit interests and political power relations are woven into them as well as wilful consumer decisions and creative appropriations.

Since the sixteenth century, first the Portuguese then the Dutch East India Company traded in ornate, handcrafted fabrics from North India and Java. Asian batik fabrics and calico became increasingly popular in Europe. But they also played an important role as a currency in the slave trade. Not only European women, but also wealthy West Africans wanted to wear these colourful fabrics. Various British and Dutch companies therefore tried their hand at industrially manufactured imitations. They initially failed. Only after thorough research into African preferences and improved production techniques were textile manufacturers in Manchester able to produce a product that was acceptable in West Africa.

During the nineteenth century, African demand was booming, and Javanese-style batik cloth became increasingly popular. Around 1900 the Dutch company Vlisco finally managed to convincingly imitate the Indian and Javanese batik art using industrial processes. “Real Dutch wax” became a great commercial success – a success based on close cooperation between European producers and African consumers.
After Ghana’s independence, local textile factories were set up producing “real wax” and “fancy prints.” Since the 2000s, however, fabrics produced in China have been increasingly entering the African markets. But the customers remain stubborn and distinguish very precisely between different fabric qualities. Chinese producers, too, can only be successful if they work closely with African designers, importers and customers, as did Vlisco and the Manchester companies before them.
Wax prints are part of an entangled history with different actors all around the world, a history of asymmetry and violence, economic exploitation and competition, but also self-confident cultural appropriation and aesthetic value judgments. People use clothing to stage cultural preferences and mark social belongings in the public space. The Javanese-Dutch-Ghanaian-Chinese wax prints can, however, evoke different meanings. Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare, for example, works in his installations with clothing in the European-Victorian style, but made from African cloth to denounce colonialism; in “Scramble for Africa”, sixteen headless figures dressed in wax prints recreate the Berlin Congo Conference of 1884/85. A completely different example: two Cameroonian women in Munich make Bavarian dirndls à l’africaine made from wax prints – “a creative, exciting exchange of world cultures,” as the designers write on their website.

Why am I telling you these fabric stories? Because they show that cultural traditions are fed from many sources and are repeatedly appropriated and reinterpreted. Culture is a fabric made of elements of different origins, with a variety of patterns and colours. Many producers contribute to it. Under certain historical conditions, however, some communities ignore this complex production process. They claim its result as their very own tradition, which is clearly different from that of their near and distant neighbours. Then there is talk of Ghanaian identity, German way of life, British mentality or French habitus, or “European civilization” is contrasted with the “Islamic world.” Today in particular we seem to be living in a time of simplification and exaggeration. The boundaries between nations and religions are drawn tighter and marked as non-negotiable. Many social movements also claim the difference around which they organise themselves – be it gender, skin colour, regional origin, religion or political ideology – as their core identity. Diversity within the group is then downplayed or even denied.

Yet we all have multiple identities. We always belong to different groups or communities at the same time. We never share all conceivable social characteristics with other people. We are never radically different from other people in any way. Which affiliation, which similarity and which difference are foregrounded depends on the sphere of action. At school, for example, we are sorted according to age, in professional life according to performance, in love according to attractiveness, in hometown associations according to regional origin, on social media according to political orientation. In addition, the importance of different affiliations varies in different phases of our biography. Finally, we emphasise different belongings in different situations and with different audiences. Someone who just played the team-capable entrepreneur on a TV talk show may become an authoritarian patriarch at home and a sentimental karaoke singer at the pub. In short, multiplicity and ambivalence are typical. Establishing clearly delimited memberships and one-dimensional identities, including the corresponding enemies, requires enormous effort. This can be seen in the energy with which religious sects or dogmatic social movements try to keep their members away from “contaminating” contacts.

This is where I envision one of the great tasks to which the Goethe-Institut can contribute through its worldwide work. The contingency of affiliations needs to be revealed and the plurality of identifications defended. In view of the fundamental openness and uncertainty of the human life experience, we need enriching cross-border encounters and cultural exchange. Multilingualism, as promoted by the Goethe-Institut, broadens our perspective on the world. Artistic productions playfully open up spaces for possibilities. They allow us to imagine the world differently and, in the best case, to discover our common humanity.

This vision of culture does not mean denying the oppressive reality of violence and power imbalances in our world. Time and again, authoritarian governments, intolerant religious leaders or unscrupulous warlords draw rigid borders, exclude foreigners and demand unconditional loyalty. Unambiguous ascription of identities can have fatal consequences. Think, for example, of racial profiling, as it is branded by the Black Lives Matter movement, of anti-Semitic attacks by right-wing extremists, or of the Islamist-motivated murders of Christians. In order to politically act in such contexts effectively, many social movements and discriminated groups temporarily rely on “strategic essentialism,” to take up a concept coined by the literary scholar Gayatri Spivak. In the interest of the political ability to act, internal heterogeneity is then downplayed and the common identity emphasised. But Spivak sees this as a strategic and tactical option for some time, not a long-term goal.

In order to build a peaceful world that is worth living in, we need – I am convinced of this – an open-minded vision of culture. We should imagine culture as a colourful, multi-threaded fabric like the wax prints from Ghana, as a polyphonic structure, changeable, open to the future and, above all, connecting, not dividing people. As president, I look forward to supporting the Goethe-Institut in future in promoting such polyphony, enabling encounters and thus helping to shape a democratic, non-violent, tolerant world. That means, to use Goethe’s words, “treating the impossible as if it were possible.”

First of all, I want to jointly rethink Germany’s role in a post-colonial era. We have to learn to listen carefully. What do people in the former colonies and in the Global South in general have to say to us? What can we learn from our European neighbours? How can we approach language and cultural work together with our partners around the world? Transparent communication and an open discussion of the asymmetries, the power imbalance in which such transcultural and transnational encounters take place are important.

Secondly, it is important to me that we explore the experience, expertise and cultural productions from the numerous locations of the Goethe-Institut and make these treasures from all over the world known and fruitful here in Germany. In my preparations for my new office, I was able to get to know some of the institute’s many extraordinarily interesting projects. They give me the certainty that we can make some progress together on this path over the next few years.

Mr Lehmann and members of the Board of Trustees, I am grateful that you would entrust me with such a well-positioned institute as its new president. To be your successor, Mr Lehmann, is easy and difficult at the same time. It is easy because you have carefully set the course, also during the coronavirus pandemic, and because you are smoothing my pathway with good advice and plenty of guidelines. It is difficult because you have set the bar very high.

Mr Ebert, Mr Pollack, I am confident that you will actively support me in fulfilling the expectations placed in me. Together we will master the many challenges that the pandemic, but also the changed global political environment, mean for the work of the Goethe-Institut.

But not just a team of three is needed for this! I am therefore also looking forward to working with the many colleagues at the institute, to a lively exchange of ideas and mutual learning. 

And last but not least, I look forward to meeting and cooperating with my colleagues at the Federal Foreign Office, with the members of the Bundestag who have so often supported the work of the Goethe-Institut, and with the cultural and educational partner organisations at home and abroad with which the institute works. Together we can produce a colourful, multi-threaded “fabric” that protects and adorns, like a wax print from Ghana.

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