Colonial Heritage in the Performing Arts Reversing the Colonial Gaze

Ensemble from “Die Kränkungen der Menschheit”.
Ensemble from “Die Kränkungen der Menschheit”. | Photo (detail): © Gabriela Neeb

There has been an ongoing conversation in the media and society on post-colonialism and the racism associated with it. Anta Helena Recke’s production “Die Kränkungen der Menschheit” (The Mortifications of Humanity) at the Munich Kammerspiele is an example of how theatres can address this hot-button topic.

By Azadeh Sharifi

With her production Die Kränkungen der Menschheit (The Mortifications of Humanity), director Anta Helena Recke provides her audience with an option for escaping the hegemonic and colonial gaze and embarking on their own path. The director views theatre as a medium that can be used to make sexist and racist structures visible.

In her piece, she asks the ultimate question: who is actually considered a human being? The title of the play performed at the Munich Kammerspiele refers to the three types of narcissist mortification identified by Sigmund Freud. Recke has added a fourth: the fact that Freund’s concept of “humanity” is always solely based on the experiences of white, male Europeans, which excludes a large portion of humanity by definition. So Die Kränkungen der Menschheit can also be read as a commentary on and intervention into the current debate on the colonial nature of German theatrical structures.

Visualising the colonial world view

In the first act, seven performers come on stage and imitate primate behaviour. An illuminated cube sits centre stage, an enclosure from which another performer in a white lab coat observes the goings on. A voice from offstage describes the 1889 painting Monkeys as Judges of Art by Gabriel von Max, which features thirteen different types of monkeys sitting in front of a golden picture frame. The artist, who kept monkeys as pets all his life, remembered his very first encounter with an orangutan as a small boy: “Suddenly the Christmas books with their jungle stories came to life, while the incarnation of humanity in those gentle eyes looked at me in such a way that I felt that a miracle of God had dragged me from far away, kissed me on the forehead and entrusted a seed to me as if I were the fertile ground for it to sprout.”  

Gabriel von Max’s description implies both a Darwinian and a colonial view of the world. He sees the monkey, a creature known to him from children’s books, as the embodiment of humanity, while he himself feels “kissed” by a divine power that elevates him from conventional humanity.
Ensemble from “Die Kränkungen der Menschheit” Ensemble from “Die Kränkungen der Menschheit” | Photo (detail): © Gabriela Neeb

Reversing the colonial gaze

A group of six performers build on this idea of incarnation and being human as a self-aggrandizing crowning glory in the second act. Sitting in the cube, which has now become a kind of museum, they talk about a work of art that is not shown on stage but is identified in the programme as the video installation Two Planets Series: Van Gogh’s The Midday Sleep and the Thai farmers (2011) by Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook. The video shows a group of Thai farmers sitting and talking about Van Gogh’s painting The Midday Sleep. The farmers are seated on the ground looking at the painting hanging on a small stand of trees. As the performers talk about the peasants, it becomes clear that they do not regard them as intellectual equals. One performer interjects that they look like “dogs contemplating quantum mechanics”, which visibly annoys the other performers. But apart from a verbal exchange, their conversation about the artwork and the “other” has no real consequences. Then the conversation falls silent. Only one young performer who did not participate in the conversation but silently watched the video holds his gaze steady. It is now impossible to tell if he is watching the video or the audience. His gaze symbolizes the reversal of the “colonial gaze”.

Decolonial vision as post-colonial critique

The stage turns dark again and the audience can hear the sound of monkeys from offstage. A group of female performers, all women of colour, enter the stage one by one, walking around and across it and exiting again. They wear dresses with African patterns. Sometimes they move faster, talking to one another and clothed in similar colours. The group ultimately comes to a halt on stage and all the women join in. They move in a circle, circling each other and the cube that they begin to shift. Another voice can be heard from offstage, describing a picture with regular colour patterns depicting various circles of the same size. The circles are next to and overlap one another with a subtle frame that serves as a reading point but not as a boundary.

The voice finishes the description: “When the frame shifts, the circles that were only half circles moments ago become whole, and the whole circles become halves again. Regardless of the viewer, the image extends into infinity. There is no centre for the viewer.” This metaphor is not just about shifting points of view, but also about the dissolution of the centres in which colonial and patriarchal structures no longer function.
Anta Helena Recke Anta Helena Recke | Photo (detail): © picture alliance / Stephan Rumpf / SZ Photo

Taking up space with a new sense of confidence

While Die Kränkungen der Menschheit can be understood as a reckoning with the colonial past and the colonial nature of the future, it is more of a decolonial vision. In the wake of the recent debates on how to deal with racist language that can be classified as colonial, and the relatively scarce representations of post-migrant society in the theatre, post-colonial criticism of its own system has finally found its way onto the stage. This process could not, however, take place before the activists and artists of colour who have staged this critique were defamed and degraded. Apparently the hegemony of white spaces can only be interrupted by interventionist activities.

A new awareness has emerged since Germany’s responsibility for the genocide of the Herero and Nama in the former colony of German Southwest Africa was recognised and demands for reparations and restitution have grown. Yet the means of white dominance and racist reproductions are still being employed on the major stages. Anta Helena Recke refuses to go down this path in Die Kränkungen der Menschheit, and instead finds a theatrical language that proposes a new aesthetic practice. A group of women of colour takes the stage, but they do not explain themselves to the audience nor do they provide an opportunity for understanding their artistic actions. They are simply there, occupying the space with a new self-confidence.