Through the Walls of Silence: Building Sensory Narratives and Countering History in Cameron Rowland’s “Amt 45i” in Frankfurt am Main
Sonia Tesfaye, Klaudia İnanç, Adiam Tadele Abadi, Prateeti Mukhopadhyay, Ishita Sarkar
10 min read
“Through the quietness of these walls, the echoes of shared histories beckon us to remember, reflect, and rewrite a future free from the shadows of the past.” (Adiam Tadele Abadi)
Cameron Rowland is an outstanding contemporary artist who actively works on the representation of the enslaved, along with a focus on the current economic, social, and cultural context. As part of an excursion with the BCDSS M.A. programs in Dependency and Slavery Studies, we had an opportunity to visit one of his path-breaking projects in the heart of Frankfurt, Germany. The exhibition is called “Amt 45i. ”
The BCDSS Crew at the exhibit with Prof. Dr. Pia Wiegmink
The exhibition not only highlighted the economic aspects of slavery but also those of productions and transactions along with the underlying means of exploitation and extraction of resources associated with them. Our excursion to the exhibition left diverse impressions, which empowered us to delve deeper into the multifaceted aspects of visual and material representations through varying lenses.
''As I made my way through each section, the uniform blankness of the surroundings resembled a puzzle. I continued to instinctively venture through each corner, feeling a sense of déjà vu– a contrast between the familiar and the unknown. The atmosphere was simultaneously loud and quiet.” (Adiam Tadele Abadi)
Situated in the bustling city center of Frankfurt am Main, surrounded by corporate buildings, the museum’s exterior bore no resemblance to a typical exhibition space. As we entered, we were greeted by a modern and Instagram-worthy cafe on the ground floor, complete with a bookshop featuring works from various scholars on subjects like slavery and colonialism. The main exhibition was located on the second floor.
The exhibition space was entirely white and deliberately empty, with walls adorned by intricate patterns and a minimalist aesthetic, each element carrying profound meaning for the exhibition.
Traversing the exhibit hall was like navigating a puzzle; due to the uniform blankness, a step in any direction could give one the experience of déjà vu. The atmosphere was simultaneously loud and quiet, which evoked sensory experiences of historical narratives and prompted visitors to reflect on the historical silences that occurred during the era of slavery and colonialism, as well as broader labor relations.
“Now I can say that this emptiness was never there. The space was filled with stories. The stories of those who could not be recorded in the written sources, those who were forgotten by history; enslaved people.” (Klaudia İnanç)
At first, the sense of blankness evoked by the space is accompanied by a feeling of emptiness. However, as Morrison argues, “Invisible things are not necessarily not there; a void may be empty but not a vacuum.” (Morrison 1989, p.11). Moreover, as Meyer-Kahmer proposes, “the concept of curation is intimately connected to relationships, relational knowledge, and an aesthetic, spatial approach to the production of knowledge” (Meyer-Krahmer 2015, 4-5). The usage of space and the blank whiteness of the exhibit thus recalled the need to reflect on how the conception of the installation might be an initiation, a starting point, to converse with the colonial past. This is especially true when one considers that the white paints used were, in many locations, different.
“The spaciousness, the interplay between bright and dim lighting, the varying textures of the walls, the multiple entryways leading to various exits, and the increasing anticipation of discovering the installations situated in different corners all compelled me to confront the historical narratives embodied in each object while actively constructing my own sensory meaning in real-time.” (Sonia Tesfaye Abebe)
Two of the installations lend voice to the theory of counter-memory in a pioneering way. The Foucauldian theory of counter-memory is formed in contrast to “popular memory,” where the politics of the memory regarding how a historical event is decided and remembered is almost always guided and disseminated by the dominant majority in their favor and interest and is accompanied by vehement silencing or marginalization and forgetting (Group n.d).
The two installations that can be considered in connection with Foucault’s assertions are “Osnaburgs, 2023: 18th-century loom from Osnabrück” (Rowland, Osnaburgs 2023) and “Bug Trap, 2023” (Rowland, The Bug Trap 2023).
Osnaburg was the 18th-century loom that produced the cheapest, coarse German linen, which became a precious export of the slave trade. It was used in making the imposed uniform of the enslaved, which might be the sole material that conferred identity on them. References to the material are extant as identifying markers in advertisements about runaway slaves. The fabric became a public expression of the enslaved who were otherwise socially isolated and denied rights.
Osnaburg was gradually incorporated into stylistic traditions and became a traveling lexicon that stood as an emblem of solidarity among the enslaved against the enslavers (Olmos 2020). The material conversed with the viewers and informed their perspective on a variety of experiences of which popular narratives of enslavement do not take adequate account. Such accounts usually hover over an overtly homogenous discussion of the slave trade.
Rowland thus weaves an alternative narrative that vocally contests the popular memory concerning the “powerless” plight of the enslaved masses.
The “Bug Trap, 2023,” is also an example of a counter-surveillance system that was employed by the enslaved to resist the power asserted by their oppressors. This depiction made some of us question the visibility of such resistances in the larger academic milieu, which, time and again, confines the experiences of the enslaved within its narratives of powerlessness.
The exhibition bore witness to new dimensions to the ebb and flow of a dialogue, a re-memorialization aimed to arouse subjectivity while attempting to deconstruct the intentionally curated space with the question in mind- how do we receive art?
The question of how one receives art comes into view in multiple sections of the exhibit, including an installation where visitors encounter salt and pepper on the floor. In his essay on the exhibit, Rowland explained the use of ‘Seasoning’ as a method of breaking the will of newly enslaved individuals, implemented by white enslavers to establish dominance, compel labor, and enforce obedience. This process encompassed practices such as solitary confinement, flogging, and the application of salt and pepper to the wounds of the enslaved.
Salt, historically a valuable and essential commodity, can be seen as a metaphor for how the labor of enslaved individuals enriched the lives of those who benefited from their work. Just as salt enhances the flavor of food, the labor of enslaved people made the lives of their enslavers more comfortable and prosperous. This aspect of the exhibition likely aimed to underscore the economic exploitation and human cost of slavery, drawing attention to how the suffering of enslaved people was commodified for the benefit of others.
Accordingly, the subtle yet potent arrangement of spices and pepper on the floor, serving as tools for violence, recalled the brutal history of slavery in a palpable and physically assertive manner.
This innovative installation thus hints at historical suppression, the absence of accountability, and the need for accurate representation, in contrast to the symbolic power the object echoed as a bold reminder of the exploitation the enslaved endured.
In another section of the exhibit, visitors encounter a rope that seems to connect walls on the opposite sides of the room together.
“The rope depicted experiences from the perspective of the ones who experienced it, and hence was far from being something beautiful or extravagant, but instead was embedded with fractures and disturbances to be deciphered and understood, consciously ripped off of its grandeur and affluence.” (Prateeti Mukhopadhyay)
At first glance, the rope is just a rope, but upon reading the exhibition pamphlet, one finds that this rope was used among enslaved people.
Gatherings of enslaved people were forbidden, but prohibition was not enough to stop people from gathering. Enslaved people used the code “Bugs in the Wheat” to inform companions about upcoming dangers, namely patrols. Ropes would be placed on the path to their secret meeting, and if patrols would come close to this place, they would fall from the horse, thus the name of the exhibit “Bug trap” (Rowland 2023, 12).
Objects like the rope allow visitors to experience an intense encounter with the past. The objects on display do not convey pain and suffering in an obvious way; Instead, each object is an object from everyday life with a hidden, second story.
“At the core of his symbolic representation, Rowland artfully combines historical imbalances with the consequences of power disparities by placing a strong focus on future making, through accountability and transparency.” (Sonia Tesfaye Abebe)
Frankfurt am Main, Germany’s financial center for over four centuries, has considerably benefited from its participation in stock exchange operations. However, the city’s financial success has deep historical roots that can be traced back to troubling chapters of colonization and labor exploitation. To remind us of this history, Rowland’s exhibit points toward corporations like Commerzbank. The bank’s founders were merchants who profited from the trans-Atlantic economic system (Rowland, 2023, 9).
One particularly striking object, titled “Bankrott, 2023: Indefinite Debt,” is featured in the exhibition. It is a historically rich document that portrays the complexities of debt formation, the entanglement of reparations with the colonial system of exploitation, and the persisting imbalances that bind the museum space to the wealth generated from the institution of slavery.
The installation showcases a visual presentation of different contracts across the wall, enclosed in a glass cabinet which enhances their tangibility, transparency, and accountability, inviting visitors to delve into the intricacies of debt formation, economic injustices, and financial stakeholders who influenced the power dynamics between the exploitation of slave labor and unfair capital accumulation.
"...the most admirable aspect of the whole set-up was the fact that it displayed not only the objects that encased the stories of victimization of the slaves, the systematic torture and their eternal pain and trauma but also objects that remarkably narrated stories of will, resistance, power, intellect and agency of the enslaved – both of which gets frequently overlooked in the telling of the history of slavery.” (Ishita Sarkar)
In her review of the exhibition, Pia Wiegmink asserts, “Rowland’s exhibition not only draws attention to the ongoing connections between German finances, people, economies, and institutions with the legacies of Atlantic slavery, but it also offers a sharp and poignant artistic intervention in current discussions about reparations, restitution, reconciliation, and justice” (Wiegmink 2023, 64). Thus, the exhibition artistically weaves together the themes of historical imbalances and the consequences of power disparities, with a strong focus on shaping the future through accountability and transparency.
By employing techniques of re-memorialization, Rowland has attempted to address issues on the decolonization of museum spaces by depicting experiences from the perspective of those who experienced them. Hence, the exhibition was far from being something beautiful or extravagant. Instead, it was embedded within fractures and disturbances to be deciphered and understood, consciously stripped of its grandeur and affluence.
Rowland’s attempt to tell the history of slavery in the most unconventional yet immersive way possible through his installations evoked not only a sense of visual discomfort as we set foot into the space but also pushed us to ask questions of profound significance in the context of slavery. The enormous empty space with overarching white walls almost engulfed the visibility of the objects of installation and their significance. Objects that discernibly housed the unfeigned dark histories of slavery and the lives of the enslaved – quite a metaphor for the silencing or “whitewashing” of the voices of the oppressed in state-created histories and power-dominated archives. These inconspicuous objects, however, held glaring artistic potential, not in terms of visual aesthetics and pleasure, but in terms of their power to meticulously elucidate the everyday horrors of the enslaved people’s lives just by existing in the museum space.
Objects of everyday use became works of art and repositories of unparalleled history. It was indeed enthralling to witness how objects change meanings through time and space and even hold significant agency in the production of history.
The installation took our group on a voyage through history and self-discovery, facilitated by our sensory engagement, offering a thought-provoking exploration of the themes of power, torture, and exploitation in the context of slavery. All in all, Rowland did a remarkable job of painting a picture of the counter-history of slavery and introducing a unique methodology to study history, especially that of the oppressed. From the selection of Frankfurt as the host city and the selection of the venue, everything was intentionally implemented and relevant to the message he was trying to convey.
As students of the humanities, it was indeed a thought-provoking and immersive experience. However, some of us are also left with a nagging question– was this exhibition really that accessible to a general public whose consciousness still remains under the profound influence of state-produced popular histories and their dominant narratives? Perhaps that is a question that also lingers over a great deal of contemporary scholarship on slavery and asymmetrical dependencies.