‘Die Kränkungen der Menschheit’, or, How to Intervene into Troubled Times

Azadeh Sharifi
Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich

In his article on ‘A Difficulty in the Path of Psycho-Analysis,’ Sigmund Freud claims that there are three kinds of humiliations to human narcissism.1 The first humiliation goes back to Copernicus, who determined that the sun did not circle around the earth, but rather the other way around. The second humiliation stems from Darwin’s theory of evolution, which drew a direct line between humankind and monkeys, implying man’s ineradicable animal nature. The last humiliation derives from none other than Freud himself, through his assertion that man possesses an unconsciousness which he cannot control. These humiliations were (and for some people still are) unsettling as they question the dominant worldview by challenging the supremacy of humans and their ‘natural’ authority and ability to control the planet Earth (or even the Universe).

The black German director Anta Helena Recke adopts Freud’s idea of Kränkungen (humiliations) in her performance Die Kränkungen der Menschheit (The Humiliations of Humankind), which premiered on the 26th of September 2019 at Münchner Kammerspiele. She expands this idea with the fourth humiliation, which questions the very core of Freud’s conception of (hu)man, pointing out that it does not include the entirety of humankind, but rather a very limited and particular group. Freud’s universal approach to humankind was always based on the experiences of white, male, and European humans. Therefore the performance’s main question is: who is even considered a human? Or rather the other way around: who is not?

The question is at the very core of the current debate in Germany that goes outside the arts and their institutions. As I am writing this text, we are mourning again the death of people of colour in Germany, killed by fascists and Nazis. On the night of the 19th of February 2020 in Hanau, a small city next to Frankfurt, nine non-white Germans were shot at two Shisha-Bars by what seems to be a ‘confused’ man. In fact in his suicide note and a video the shooter shared his racist worldviews, where he stated that some ethnic groups need to be annihilated.2 As I am sure, the media and the politicians will label this terror act as an unfortunate incident by a lone wolf attacker.

Meanwhile, the racist and ethno-nationalist atmosphere in Germany has reached its peak over the past few years. Although European leftists, liberal artists, and academics praise Germany for its open borders and its Willkommenskultur(welcoming culture), especially after the flux of migration around 2015, the view from inside Germany, especially from a non-white German point of view, is desperate. In the recent years, the German society has slowly and steadily moved to the far right. The populist and far-right Pegida-movement (short for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident) and the fascist party AFD have gained political and popular power. The attacks against refugees and migrants, but also against Germans of colour have risen exponentially.3 I would also argue that liberal-art spaces like theatres are no ‘safe spaces’ for Black artists and artists of colour. The latest ‘incident’ was in 2019 when the black actress Maya Alban-Zapata made her racist experience in the children and youth theatre Theater an der Parkaue in Berlin, where the public called her the N-word and confronted her with ‘banana-jokes.’4

In this toxic German climate, resistance and persistence does help to survive. Almost exactly 110 years after the genocide against the Herero and Name people in Namibia carried out by the German colonizers from 1904 to 1908, Germany has finally acknowledged publicly its responsibility, although more as a political gesture than in terms of paying reparations. While the political ramifications of this genocide still have not been clarified, at least the discussion around colonialism, postcolonial theory, and decolonial practices such as restitution is slowly starting in German art institutions like theatres and museums.

I argue that Reckes’s performance piece Die Kränkungen der Menschheit can be read as a commentary and intervention into the current debates of coloniality and decolonial practices. The word Kränkung is a very German idiom that through Freud has become a psychological concept. It is connected with honour, (moral) values, emotions and self-esteem and has a negative connotation. Recke suggests that it should not be seen as a negative or even a positive response, but rather as a principle that is interchangeable with ‘Begriff der unendlichen Desillusion’ (the term of infinite disillusion) that enables a radical change of worldview.5 Recke who has studied Performing Arts at the University of Hildesheim works for independent venues as well as city theatres. She describes her practice as conceptual art in which she deals with representation and normativity to create art for an audience that would otherwise not be entering theatrical spaces. Her first (big) production Mittelreich that premiered in October 2017 at Münchner Kammerspiele was an adaptation or ‘black-copy’ of a prior production at Kammerspiele which was directed by Anna-Sophie Mahler. The so-called black-copy (the term was introduced by Recke and her dramaturg Julian Warner) refers to the conceptual art genre of copying an original art work in order to add another layer or perspective. Here, Recke and Warner recasted the prior all-white-cast with a black ensemble and reenacted the prior production through imitating and impersonating gestures, stage walks, and even the timbre of voices of the white performers. Her intention regarded representation of black bodies on stage, while questioning the hegemonic narrative of Germanness where black bodies and their histories are constantly excluded.6 Mittelreich not only featured an all-black-cast which had not been yet presented on a main German stage, but it also presented the story of a three-generation black German family throughout the twentieth century. It placed black Germans and blackness at the centre of the German identity. In Kränkungen Recke goes a step back and a step further. The questions that she raises are: who is human and who is at the centre? And she offers a solution what human and the centre could mean.

Performers as monkeys/performer in white garment in the cube; photographer Gabriela Neeb

The performance is divided into three parts that are interconnected through images and motifs. The first part starts with an empty stage and offstage sounds that seem to be animal screams. Gradually the noises become louder and clearer when seven performers enter the stage enacting monkey behaviour of sniffing, scratching, screaming, and jumping around on all their four limbs. In the centre of the stage is a white open and illuminated cube that has four corner bars as well as cushions to sit on. While the monkeys explore the stage and each other, an offstage voice narrates the story behind the painting ‘Monkeys as Judges of Art‘ by Gabriel von Max from 1989. The painting portrays 13 different kinds of monkeys that are sitting in front of a golden picture frame. Von Max, a Prague born Austrian painter of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was interested in Darwinism and especially monkeys whom he used frequently as motifs for his paintings, sometimes portraying them as humans. The offstage narrator quotes von Max’s memoirs where he describes the beginning of his particular interest in monkeys:

Once on a summer day, as a little eight-year-old boy, I went with my father trough the streets of Prague. There we saw a shop with a big poster ‘Peruvian mummies’ and a ‘Living Orang-Utan.’ I begged my father until we entered the shop. And I will never forget the impression the young Orang made on me. The Christmas books with their stories from the jungle resurfaced in me. At the same time, I saw the Mysticism of being, the becoming of human in his gentle eyes, so that I got the impression that gods’ miracle had dragged me from far to this place, kissed me on the forehead and entrusted me with a seed, as if I were a fertile soil.7

Max’s remarks imply how his perception of monkeys is informed by the depiction and representation of the ‘jungle,’ the ‘wildness,’ and ultimately the other, while he positions himself as having the divine power. There is an implication of racial hierarchy here where the monkey is close to becoming human, while the white man is an expression of divinity, as he claims the authority and possession over the monkey through the divine power. Meanwhile, another performer enters the stage. He is wearing a white laboratory garment and seems to be familiar with the monkeys. He starts alternately playing, observing, and disciplining the monkey group, as the white cube becomes a zoo enclosure. After what seems a good amount of time, the stage goes black and the performers as monkeys leave the stage and the second part starts.

Performers in the cube; photographer Gabriela Neeb

In the second part a group of six performers enters the stage. The white cube that was before used as a zoo enclosure has now become the space where the performers sit down. They immediately start talking about an art piece which is not named on stage, but identified in the performance booklet as the video installation ‘Van Gogh’s The Midday Sleep and the Thai farmers’ from The Two Planet Series (2011) by Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook. The actual video piece shows a group of Thai farmers who are sitting in front of Van Gogh’s The Midday Sleep and talking about the painting. The farmers are sitting on the ground and the painting is in front of a group of trees or a forest. The audience of the performance does not see the video but listens to the group of performers on stage who are talking about the video and the people in it. The group, that consists of white, mixed-race and black performers, makes clear distinction between themselves and ‘the people’ in the video. They are not necessarily calling themselves Europeans but asserting that the painting, the painter, and its ‘high art’ (Hochkultur) value belongs to them while they associate wildness, primitivism, and animality with the farmers. One of the (white) performers even uses the German idiomatic expression ‘Schweine ins Uhrwerk schauen‘ (pigs that look into the clockwork) for which he is criticized by a mixed-race performer on the basis of his lack of political correctness but apart from this short verbal intermezzo the remark does not have any consequences. One of the (female black) performers who is wearing a badge takes the role of a museum guide. She can also be identified by the audience with an offstage narrator through her voice. She interrogates the group on how they see, perceive, understand, and interpret the art piece. But even she cannot intervene in what is an obvious reassurance of colonial power through the discourse about people through art. Eventually their conversation about art fades out, and they seem more to be more interacting with themselves. Only the young black male performer who did not interact and just stared silently during the conversation, maintains his gaze. While during the talk between the group it just seemed that he was watching the video, it is now clear that he is watching the audience. His gaze into the audience changes the scenery; it becomes the reverse of the ‘colonial gaze’ and initiates what comes next, the irrefutable.

Women on stage circling the cube; photographer Gabriela Neeb

The stage turns black again and the audience can hear offstage noises of the monkeys. When the light is turned on, a group of female performers, Women of Colour in African dresses, enters the stage. The first impression is that the stage is still a museum scenery. They group of WoC talk and walk together, passing the stage and leaving it. Another group of Women of Colour in African dresses enters the stage, this time a little bit faster then the last group. Then another group of Women of Colour and another group enters and leaves the stage; they become faster and faster, undistinguishable amongst other things through the colours of their garments. After a while one of the groups halts on stage and the rest of the groups of Women of Colour join them on stage. Now around 35-40 Women of Colour, black and mixed race women, start walking in circles on stage and around the white cube, moving the cube by themselves. The offstage narrator once again starts to explain the image. She describes a picture with palette of similar colours and circles in different sizes; some can be fully seen and some are blurred. The circles are structured side by side, and inside each other. And then there are triangles that are organized in the same way, only that they seem to look like flames, while the circles are confined by a thin frame, which does not limit but rather is part of the pattern. She finishes the description as follows:

When the frame moves up, the circle that seemed to be cut off becomes bigger and the whole circle becomes cut off. The image, not depending on the observer, extends to infinity. For the observer, there is no centre.8

In the middle of their movement, the group of women stop to look at the audience, holding the gaze, looking back. Then they continue their circling around the cube which has to a certain extent similarities with the circling of the Kaaba, the Islam’s holy site which is circled by the Muslims during their pilgrimage. But the main reference here is another one. In an interview Toni Morrison gave to an Australian journalist Jana Wendt after she received the Nobel prize in 1993, she was asked over and over again why she is minoritizing White people in her writings and if her writings are exclusively for ‘her’ people. Toni Morrison elegantly responded to the questions by pointing to their racism and ignorance, and by noting that she had never denied her intentions to address a black readership. When the interviewer mentioned that she has now become part of the mainstream, Morrison replied: ‘I stood at the border, I stood at the edge and claimed it as central. And let the rest of the world move over where I was.’9

Performers sit in the auditorium while Anta Helena Recke is directing; photographer Gabriela Neeb

In the booklet to the performance, Recke and the dramaturg of the performance Valerie Göhring discuss the meaning of the idea of the infinite delusion or Kränkung and the de-centering of white bodies, Eurocentric views, and art in general as models to negotiate the world. Recke views theatre and performance as one possible medium to make excluding and racist structures visible, which can then be translated to all levels of society and world order. Die Kränkungen der Menschheit stages in its three parts a history of the colonial past, the coloniality of the current and a decolonial vision. It finds a theatrical language that somehow leaves the “Master’s tool” as Audre Lorde has suggested it, behind.10 The large group of Women of Colour on stage do not talk to the audience nor do they explain themselves. They are there and they take the space. She concludes:

This is the world we live in. Even if the people are not willing to learn their lessons, it will not keep the ‘Other’ from taking the space in a new matter of course.11

The humiliation of de-centering white, male, and Eurocentric views on the world and art might be still delayed, but it can no longer be stopped.

Azadeh Sharifi is a theatre scholar, researcher, and lecturer. She is currently teaching at the Department of Theatre Studies, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, where she is working on the project (Post)migrant Theater in GermanTheatre History – (Dis)Continuity of aesthetics and narratives. Her work engages with (post)colonial and (post)migrant theater history, performances by artists of colour and the intersections of race and gender in contemporary European performances. She was a Fellow at the International Research Center Interweaving Performance Cultures at Free University Berlin.

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  1. Sigmund Freud, ‘Eine Schwierigkeit der Psychoanalyse,’ Vienna 1917.
  2. Jack Ewing and Melissa Eddy, Melissa, ‘Far-Right Shooting Shatters an Already Fragile Sense of Security in Germany.’ The New York Times. 20.2.2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/world/europe/germany-hanau-shisha-bar-shooting.html? referringSource=articleShare&fbclid=IwAR0q5KHdqDgvs3W1XeeTtvTMusLWUmZQBM59rnXszkQCCAT2xcEuj_aiUGY[accessed 3.3.2020]; Philip Oltermann and Kate Connolly, ‘Germany shooting: far-right gunman kills 10 in Hanau.’ The Guardian. 20.2.2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/19/shooting-germany-hanau-dead-several-people-shisha-near-frankfurt?CMP=share_btn_fb&fbclid=IwAR0Lq5dCxIrBvlD2-rCZQyqSvypwQbSxvWVNRZw0FDLOHn1pUi5HA-3-vnI [accessed 3.3.2020]
  3. Peter Hille, ‘Chronologie – Rechte Gewalt in Deutschland.’ Deutsche Welle. 20.2.2020
    https://www.dw.com/de/chronologie-rechte-gewalt-in-deutschland/a-49251032 [accessed 3.3.2020]
  4. Anna Klöpper, ‘Zu zögerlich, zu unentschlossen,’ TAZ. 7.7.2019 https://taz.de/Rassismus-am-Parkaue-Theater/!5610344/ [accessed 3.3.2020]
  5. Münchner Kammerspiele, ‘Die Kränkungen der Menschheit.’ Program booklet, 19.September 2019. München.
  6. Anta Helena Recke, ‘Uh baby, it’s a white world,’ Allianzen – Kritische Praxis an weißen Institutionen, edited by Elisa Liepsch, Julian Warner and Matthias Pees, Bielefeld: transcript 2018, 50-59.
  7. Münchner Kammerspiele, ‘Die Kränkungen der Menschheit.’ Program booklet, 19.September 2019. München.
    ’Als ich als kleiner Junge von 8 Jahren mit meinem Vater an einem Sommertag durch die Straßen Prags ging, sahen wir an einem Laden ein großes Plakat “Peruanische Mumien“ stand da und “Lebender Orang-Utan.“ Ich bettelte so lang, bis wir eintraten. Den Eindruck des jungen Orang auf mich weiß ich noch heut. Die Weihnachtsbücher mit ihren Urwaldgeschichten lebten auf, gleichzeitig sah mich die Mystik des Daseins, der Menschwerdung aus diesen sanften Augen so an, daß ich den Eindruck behielt, als hätte mich ein Wunder Gottes weit herbeigeschleppt, auf die Stirne geküßt und einen Keim mir anvertraut, als wäre ich der Nährboden dafür.’ All translations, unless otherwise stated, are mine.
  8. Münchner Kammerspiele, ‘Die Kränkungen der Menschheit. Programmheft,’ 19.September 2019. München. ‘Wird der Rahmen verrückt, werden die Kreise, die soeben noch halbe waren zu ganzen und die die ganze waren wiederum zu halben. Unabhängig von den Betrachtenden erstreckt sich das Bild unendlich weiter. Für die Betrachtenden ergibt sich kein Zentrum.’
  9. Frank Dasent,’Toni Morrison Interview,’ 6:13 min. February 2017. Youtube video.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQ0mMjII22I&t=6s [accessed 3.3.2020]
  10. Audre Lorde, ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.’ Sister Outsider. Essays and Speeches. New York: Ten Speed Press 1984.
  11. Münchner Kammerspiele, ‘Die Kränkungen der Menschheit.’ Program booklet, 19.September 2019. München.
    ‘Das ist die Welt, in der wir leben und, selbst wenn die Leute ihre Hausaufgaben nicht machen, wird das die“Anderen“ nicht davon abhalten in einer neuen Selbstverständlichkeit Raum einzunehmen.’

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