Philip Kojo Metz: Facing the void of German colonial history

Conceptual artist Philip Kojo Metz on Germany's remembrance of its violent colonial history and how to criticise the Humboldt Forum from within.

SORRYFORNOTHING by Philip Kojo Metz (right) was installed during a ceremony in October 2019. 
SORRYFORNOTHING by Philip Kojo Metz (right) was installed during a ceremony in October 2019. Louisa Marie Summer

Berlin-Following long delays due to the corona pandemic, the much-awaited Berlin Global exhibition opens today in the Humboldt Forum, the rebuilt Hohenzollern city palace on Museum Island in central Berlin. The show investigates aspects of Berlin's links to the wider world throughout history. One of the exhibitors is Philip Kojo Metz, a conceptual artist with Ghanaian roots whose work addresses issues of identity, history, power, and cultural interactions. Since 2009, he has been recording (post-)colonial memory culture through his installations, photographic and video works in the cycle ADLER AFRIKA. His most recent work in the series -SORRYFORNOTHING  - can be seen from today at the Humboldt Forum.

The piece is his contribution to the ongoing debate on remembrance of Germany's violent but often overlooked colonial history in Africa and issues such as looted artwork from the colonial era and how these issues relate to the exhibition of Berlin's ethnological collections in the Humboldt Forum. I sat down with Kojo for a chat about his work over coffee in early July.

You piece was already installed in the Humboldt Forum in October 2019, before the pandemic.

The Berlin Global exhibition was supposed to open in 2019. Then there was a fire and the opening was moved. Then corona came. Then it was supposed to open in September 2020, and so on. It's been postponed again and again.

Anzeige | Zum Weiterlesen scrollen

But there was already a kind of ceremony around your artwork.

I wanted to get in there and do an event there as the artwork was brought into the exhibition. That's how that came about. I wanted to stick to the agenda of a museum like that. How do you install a large object in the exhibition? The press is invited. You make an event out of it.

You brought in some large wooden crates. These were opened and there was nothing inside.

Inside is the invisible sculpture. The boxes have a certain form. And this form indicates that there is not nothing inside, but that there is already something inside with a certain form. It was already clear, actually, in a figurative sense. We had the boxes made. The transport company wondered why the boxes were so light. They asked me what was in them and I told them: what was written on them.


So I said, if it says nothing on it, there’s nothing in it. They didn't believe me.

Does sorry for nothing mean that the Germans don't have to apologise for anything?

They do apologise, but for nothing. There is this saying: thanks for nothing. I just re-interpreted it. There is room for interpretation, but in principle it means that there was nothing. What should we apologise for? It also means that we're incredibly sorry that something happened, but that's the end of it.

Or we're sorry, but we don't want to look too closely.

And we don't really want to know.

And in which section is the piece in this exhibition?

It's in the "War" section. There is a Jewish piece about the Second World War. They also wanted something to do with colonial history, which I thought was good. But they originally wanted another work of mine, called "The Invisible Hero".

Which is a pedestal without a figure on it.

An invisible figure. In fact, I think the metaphor of invisibility works quite well for several reasons. First, it is a metaphor of invisibility in German historiography, of a void in German history. The invisible hero is also really about creating a memorial for the Cameroonian soldiers who died for the German fatherland in the First World War, who died in a proxy war. I was supposed to produce something - in 2014 - to commemorate the outbreak of the First World War, and I wanted to do something about colonial history, so that's how it came about. And then I thought, there are so many memorials to soldiers who died, but there is not a single memorial to African soldiers who fell for Germany.

"The Invisible Hero" by Philip Kojo Metz, in front of the German Historical Museum in 2016.
"The Invisible Hero" by Philip Kojo Metz, in front of the German Historical Museum in 2016.Philip Kojo Metz

You never hear anything about it.

You don't hear that the German Reich fought in Cameroon, and you don't hear that there were mercenary armies.

What is your opinion on the Humboldt Forum building itself?

First of all, I was very critical of it. It's problematic. But I'm very liberal. I think if someone is committed to something, it's great if they finance it themselves. For me it was problematic that the biggest part was financed by the taxpayer. I would have preferred something else, or something that reminds us of another time in Germany, the GDR. The Palast der Republik was a monument steeped in history. But now it's there. It was clear to me that it would be an important building, also in the future. If it's already there, I think it's important to deal with it creatively and for many groups to participate in the discussion about it, which is also happening now, fortunately.

How advanced is the reappraisal of German colonial history? Is there still a long way to go?

I think so. What is happening now is a kind of recognition, to see what actually happened. Then to understand that and then to draw the consequences from it is of course a process. That takes a while, I think. I very much welcome what has happened in the last 10 years, because the museums have opened up to it, because society has opened up to it. It was not like that before. Another problem is provenance research. This has been swept under the table since the 1980s. There used to be provenance research in museums, according to Bénédicte Savoy, which looked at where things came from, until it was discovered that it would cause political problems. In Germany, we haven't bothered about it for the last 30 years and there's a lot of work to be done. For me, the question before looking to the future is: how can we continue this discussion, how can something meaningful come out of it?

Most Germans seem to understand through the history of the Second World War that there is also a dark side to German culture. But perhaps they don’t know much about the crimes Germans committed during the colonial period.

Why was the Holocaust such a terrifying shock for the western world? The narrative I remember is that you would never have thought that something like that could happen in the "civilised world". And that is an insult to the African continent, because it means that we agreed until the end of the last millennium that what happened then [in the colonial period] did not happen to civilised peoples. The first question is: How civilised are we when we deal with people who have a different culture that we don't call civilised? But what's more, what's really hard to understand, what many people can't believe, is that the people there were actually what we call civilised.

That is still hard to imagine for many Europeans.

Exactly. But I am proud to be a German, how the Germans have managed to deal with this shame connected to the Holocaust and still develop a national self-confidence, to critically deal with their own history. To my knowledge, there is no other country that has done it so successfully. And I am sure this can also be done when it comes to the colonial past. Germany can grow from this in a good way. And we can decide the way this growth is going be. Different for sure. How do we want to become as a people, be seen and remembered?

Berlin news in English.