Interview with Carola Lentz “What Interests Me Is: How Are Global Debates Shaped – Both Locally and Regionally?”

Latitude – Festival fabric from Ghana featuring the logo and motto of the sixty-year anniversary of independence, Accra 2017.
Festival fabric from Ghana featuring the logo and motto of the sixty-year anniversary of independence, Accra 2017. | Photo (detail): © Carola Lentz

Carola Lentz, an internationally acclaimed anthropologist, has been president of the Goethe‑Institut since mid-November 2020. She talks to “Latitude” about her focus on central themes of the global discourse and the role of educational and cultural work in a globalised world.

Ms Lentz, the online magazine “Latitude” provides a platform for transnational exchange on the consequences of colonialism. What themes within the global postcolonialism discourse do you consider most important at the moment, and for what reason?
Since the mid-1980s, I have been researching and teaching as an anthropologist, and that influences my view of the current debate. After all, anthropology does not just focus on the consequences of colonialism, but on the full range of cultural forms within our own society and in other societies. I would therefore broaden the focus and also look beyond colonialism and its lasting effects from the end of the 19th to the middle of the 20th century.
First of all, European expansion started much earlier than that, but not everywhere and not always with the same intensity. Secondly, the societies that were later colonised had a long history of their own before they encountered Europe, a history which undoubtedly also included war and oppression.

Thirdly, colonial regimes by no means succeeded in penetrating all social and cultural spheres. They generally did not have enough European officers to exercise complete control. And sometimes, things were even the other way round, as I was able to research in Ghana, for instance: influential individuals within the colonised societies made the colonial officers into allies for their power strategies. The societies in the Global South were and are more than just victims, and we should learn more about their history and culture beyond their entanglement with Europe. Nevertheless, as Europeans we must of course deal with the suffering that colonialism has produced and which still has consequences today.
As I was able to observe even in my first few months in office, the Goethe‑Institut does in fact take a rather anthropological approach to its cultural projects. Our colleagues are intensively interested in finding out which themes affect the local people. Projects like Burden of Memory in Africa show how different the perspectives on colonialism and its lasting effects can be. We are certainly seeing ideas and arguments that circulate on a global scale in movements such as Black Lives Matter or Rhodes Must Fall. But the question of how such global debates are structured at the local or regional level is at least equally important. That is why the Goethe-Institut does not put on a ready-made programme developed in a ‘discourse centre,’ but instead allows it to be inspired and shaped by its partners at the local level.
In that respect I would like to rephrase your question regarding the themes I think are important: what interests me far more is which themes people are most passionate about in the different regions of the world. That might be colonialism, but in many places, questions relating to ecological crisis and sustainability, or political illiberalism, or corruption, seem to be at least of equal importance.

“The societies in the Global South were and are more than just victims, and we should learn more about their history and culture beyond their entanglement with Europe. Nevertheless, as Europeans we must of course deal with the suffering that colonialism has produced, and which still has consequences today.”

But I do want to mention one subject that is of special concern to me. How can we link the memory of the Holocaust and the fight against antisemitism with the memory of colonialism and opposing racism?

Commemorating the Holocaust and postcolonial positioning should not be played off against each other. In this context it seems to me that bringing together academics, artists, and civil society activists to sound out interfaces and possible solidarities is an important responsibility. The Goethe‑Institut  can contribute to this.
Your research focuses, among others, on ethnicity and nationalism, colonialism, politics of memory, middle classes in the Global South and labour migration. You began researching in South America, and you have been travelling to West Africa regularly since 1987. What experiences have you gathered abroad that have influenced your view of the postcolonial world?
One elementary experience of anthropological research is to look at one’s own culture as “the other”. In other words: intensive encounters with other ways of life cause people to question aspects of their own society that they previously took for granted. This holds a huge intellectual and creative potential, also beyond the themes of colonialism and postcolonialism.
To give an example – and this is an acute question especially in the pandemic – how do we handle unpredictability and limited ability to plan? I have learned a lot about this from my African contacts. Apart from corona, there are various risks to life in Ghana and other African countries that are not covered by social insurance policies like the ones we have here in Germany. Therefore, people have to develop great flexibility. They build up extended networks to facilitate support. Outsiders are often integrated because that can broaden people’s own resources; an example of that being the fact how I was taken in by an extended family in Northern Ghana. It is not devoid of conflict, but the frankness and open-mindedness towards strangers impressed me. Without romanticising the African ability to improvise, as Northern Europeans we can certainly learn in this respect from societies more used to deal with unpredictability.
A second experience that impressed me both in Ecuador and in West Africa: the intensity of the intellectual, often very critical discussions that I was privileged to engage in with local social and cultural researchers. Interestingly, this exchange was not fully determined by our respective identities or positionalities, to use an expression of today’s postcolonial discourse. I have relatively rarely seen front lines drawn along geographical origin or other identity-related affiliations; agreement or contradiction in an argument has not depended on nationality, gender or skin colour. An open debate culture like this, associated with argumentative acuity and a keen interest in the plurality of stories and alternative perspectives, is also something I would like to encourage as president of the Goethe-Institut.
In your opinion, what are currently the greatest challenges faced in the relationships between the former colonies and colonial powers, and how could they work together in the future?
A respectful, frank, open-minded attitude to each other: That is my vision for the future. As Germans, it is crucial that we take responsibility for the colonial history of our country. To do so, we need to learn about this history in all its complexity. And colonialism and its consequences should not only be a subject for a small circle of academics and specialists – it should be accessible to a broad audience, for instance it should be addressed in history lessons at school.
It is important to listen carefully to what people from the former colonies as well as from other countries in the Global South and our European neighbours have to say to us. However, this act of listening does not take place in a non-hierarchical space ‒ and that is one of the greatest challenges. Economic imbalances and political asymmetries still characterise relations between the former colonies and colonial powers. That is not easily resolved, but must be made transparent and reflected on by both parties. Listening often starts as a bilateral process, through encounters between representatives of the former colonial powers and the residents of their onetime colonies. However, multilateral encounters and transnational comparisons of colonial rule seem to be a particularly productive approach.

“The Goethe-Institut can help to make the great wealth of artistic and academic productions in former colonies (and the Global South in general) visible in Germany and Europe.”

As an anthropologist I would like to advocate a nuanced perspective. Neither the former colonies nor the Global North form a monolithic block. The former colonies do share some experiences. But there are also huge differences, for example, between settler colonies characterised by land grabbing, violence, and apartheid on the one hand, compared with trading colonies managed by just a few colonial officers. The former colonial powers, too, differ vastly from one another, if for instance we consider the colonial regimes of Portugal, Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany. The role of violence and factors such as the influence they allowed the indigenous authorities within the colonial hierarchy differed; there was variation in the way they handled ethnicity and segregation policies; the question of how much and what kind of education the colonised societies should enjoy was not answered in the same way. Looking and listening closely also means, to my mind, being interested in such differences and their consequences.
To what extent can the Goethe‑Institut support cultural facilities – museums, archives, theatre, libraries – in the former colonies so that they can utilise the opportunities of globalisation and confront the new digital challenges?
I believe that artistic co-productions and open discursive formats are incredibly important and productive. They allow people to transcend entrenched identifications and boundaries in a playful way. Music, dance, theatre, literature, exhibitions and more of such can open up opportunities and inspire confidence. They can bring a variety of people into contact with each other in a way that direct political work cannot.
The Goethe‑Institut can offer support in a variety of ways here ‒ always in close consultation with people at the local level to ensure that we respond to actual needs on the ground. That might be the funding of artists and project structures – as now during the pandemic with a newly created relief fund – but also support for cultural facilities in different countries aiming to create a horizontal networks, such as the project MuseumFutures: Africa. Provision of in-service training for employees at cultural facilities or even help with obtaining information about artefacts from former colonies that are kept in Germany – as, for instance, in the exhibition project Invisible Inventories – are further forms of support.
And finally, something of special concern to me: the Goethe‑Institut can help to make the great wealth of artistic and academic productions in former colonies (and the Global South in general) visible in Germany and Europe. In my view, it seems particularly important to ensure that international voices are heard more clearly here!
The interview was conducted by Eliphas Nyamogo, head of the online editorial office at the Goethe‑Institut in Munich.