In the first decade of the 20th century, colonial Germany committed a genocide of 75% of the Ovaherero population and over half of the Nama in territories that are part of today Namibia. In this text, Zoé Samudzi tells us how reparations here necessarily involves the articulation of a “grammar of futurity.”
Article published in The Funambulist 30 (July-August 2020) Reparations. Click here to access the rest of the issue.
Reparations discourses articulate a grammar of futurity: not simply a world that does not exist, but one that could be fabricated through attempts to repair historical harm and trauma. The imagining of hypotheticals, the meaningful address of genocidal harm, always demands an ontological shift. Because the world that accommodates a reparation — a wound remedy demanded by an aggrieved party — is not a world that presently exists, it is one that has to be created.
In April of 2019, I was en route to Yerevan, Armenia. In studying German colonialism and genocide, I came to learn about the role Germany had played in the Ottoman genocide against ethnic Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek Orthodox communities. I traveled to Yerevan, due to arrive a few days before Armenian Genocide Remembrance day on the 24th. I was keen to learn about how genocide memorialization functioned both as a government-led nation-state effort as well as some of the constituent non-state parts of the collective memory project. I would later see the country’s account of Germany’s participation when I visited Tsitsernakaberd, the genocide memorial complex. Fittingly, near the section about Ottoman Turkish concentration camps and the familiar insectified ways that doctors talked about incarcerated Armenians, there were a few panels about German involvement. The Ottoman military was armed by the German companies Mauser and Krupp. And Prussian military officer Colmar von der Goltz, who later served as a military aide to Sultan Mehmed V before the start of the 1915 genocide, penned a text in 1883, Das Volk in Waffen (“The People Armed”), which advocated for the intention of military campaigns to be complete annihilation of the enemy — a clear ideological and material inspiration for the carnage that would follow their colonial exercises in subsequent years. In 2016, the German parliament passed a near unanimous resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide.
I planned a 24-hour layover in New York City; I emailed the American Museum of Natural History in hopes that I might be able to access the archival records related to the Ovaherero and Nama cultural artifacts and physical remains held by the museum. The museum-held remains of these peoples were originally a part of Austrian anthropologist’s Felix von Lauschann’s personal collection, which included thousands of skulls of different peoples from around the world. He sold his collection to the museum at the beginning of the 20th century, which doubled the size of the museum’s physical anthropology collection and positioned them as leaders in the field. Contrary to art historiography, “collecting is not separate from other foundational practices, procedures, institutions, concepts, and categories operative in the field of art shaped through imperialism,” writes Ariella Aïsha Azoulay in her book Potential History (2019). These human remains are caught in the convergence of eugenic science and hegemonic curatorial practice; some remains are buried deep in collections and others are displayed, while the collection of Ovaherero and Nama skulls from genocide-era concentration camps lays bare relationships between extractive imperial processes and the formation of the museum.