Piesche unearths silenced minority voices

Peggy Piesche, an instructor of German studies at Vassar College, gave a presentation in Griffin on Thursday titled “European Identity and the ‘Myotomy’ of Blackness.” She framed her talk in the context of debates that have been ongoing since the early 1990s about cosmopolitanism and what it would mean to be a citizen of the world, then proceeded to explore recent ways in which Northern European countries have been dealing with issues of race and tainted history.

Piesche began by presenting two disturbing developments in Germany that have occurred in the recent years. First, in June 2005 the Augsburg Zoo put together an exhibition called “An African Village,” in which black Germans and Africans presented aspects of African culture in various parts of the zoo. The exhibition incited international controversy, because, as Piesche explained, the organizers neglected to take into account the colonial history of exhibition and exploitation that the event recalled.

Piesche proceeded to detail the 2005-2006 advertisement campaign called “You Are Germany: A New National Feeling.” This campaign, which involved 25 media corporations, sprung from a German desire to bury the past, one darkened by the Holocaust and National Socialism, and create a new Germany. The problem with this new version of Germany, Piesche analyzed, was its “very national, very white” construction, in contrast to the “I Am an American: United We Stand” campaign that followed in the aftermath of Sept. 11 in the United States.

Out of these disconcerting incidents, Piesche reported a contrary development: the emergence of new strategies for black counter-narratives in the face of prevailing attitudes that attempt to decontexualize, like the Augsburg Zoo exhibition, and movements for national identity that attempt to bury history to forge a new future, like the “You Are Germany” campaign. After asking the question, “Is a recontextualization possible and how?” she described specific measures that have been taken in order to answer that question in the affirmative. Several organizations have been working to try to develop new representational politics for Europe. Piesche emphasized the importance of these efforts in museums and monuments because museums represent what she termed “contact zones,” where blacks are traditionally not included.

Piesche told of efforts in 2006, the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, to create an exhibit to represent the minority view of Mozart titled, “Remapping Mozart and Hidden Histories.” This exhibit detailed the interaction of Mozart’s operas with black European history and also told of the tragic life of Mozart’s black contemporary Angelo Soliman, who had his body put on display after he died though he served his country as a military general. The project was intended to give black history in Europe a subject position.

She also spoke of the National Monument to Slavery recently constructed in Amsterdam. The monument was initially unthinkable to its Dutch society, yet now its location has become an important site for the black Netherlands community. She also outlined efforts by the Dutch National Museum to highlight black representations in painting, and also a project called “Homestory Deutschland,” a mobile museum to tell the untold biographies of black Germans from philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo to poet artist May Ayim. Homestory Deutschland involves viewer participation as a central idea.

While even these projects can be controversial – the Dutch National Museum certainly does not represent a black perspective on their presentation of blackness in art – they nevertheless represent opportunities for the process of rewriting, which “is not about personal guilt but rather about social responsibility,” Piesche said. She herself is an activist for advancing representational politics, and has been involved in a number of projects concerning black European identity.