“A Fish Who Goes Around in Togo, Comes Around in Kamerun”

Yann LeGall, TU Berlin

In 1897, the German colonialist Gaston Thierry murdered the fémè (i.e. ‘ruler’) of Sansanné-Mango, Biema Asabiè, and plundered his possessions. Today, these precious belongings can be found in museums in Stuttgart, Berlin and Leipzig. Moreover, Thierry’s spoils from Togo pervade German museum collections today. Some have even crossed the Atlantic and are now in the storerooms of the Field Museum in Chicago.

Nonetheless, because of his violent behaviour towards Africans, as well as his inclination to dispatch rash “punitive” expeditions and plunder to his heart’s content, Thierry was castigated by the governor and later transferred to German Kamerun. He was later mortally wounded after attacking Kirdi people in Mubi (today’s Nigeria).

It is difficult to decenter knowledge production that is mostly based on colonial archives, and even harder to make material evidence of colonial brutality sing more empowering songs than a sad melody. Yet, beyond the potential for a future restitution of these royal Anufô belongings from northern Togo, the work of retracing Gaston Thierry’s deeds and Biema Asabiè’s resistance to German colonial rule has offered fertile ground for experiments in critical historiography.

Our project “The Restitution of Knowledge” has opted for different outputs on this history, formats that enable disruptive tactics such as “deranging the archive” (Saidiya Hartmann), writing with a pinch of “fabulography” (Priya Basil), as well as multidirectional memory practice (Rothberg). This paper and research, despite being “too late for the accounts of death to prevent other deaths” (Hartmann), reflects on the need for alternative platforms and narratives for working through colonial pasts.

Diverse forms of knowledge production such as Wikipedia/Wikidata, museum blogs, a guerrilla poster campaign, or a remembrance ceremony for Biema Asabiè, can indeed become critical archives of a postcolonial ethnography that participate in shaping a “new relational ethics” in museum research and politics (Sarr & Savoy).

Yann LeGall is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Art History at TU Berlin as part of the DFG-AHRC project “The Restitution of Knowledge”. In partnership with the University of Oxford and the Pitt-Rivers-Museum, he investigates plunder and events of colonial spoliation during so-called “punitive expeditions” in German colonial contexts. His PhD thesis entitled “Remembering the Dismembered: African Human Remains and Memory Cultures in and after Repatriation” examined multidirectional and transnational memory of colonial violence around the return of ancestors and their remains to African countries and communities. He is also a member of the organisation Berlin Postkolonial and the initiative Postcolonial Potsdam, with whom he leads critical tours on colonial traces in the Sanssouci park.

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