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The Division of the Earth

Veronica Tello reviews Dierk Schmidt’s five-year project The Division of the Earth, now published in book form, which surveys Germany’s colonial history in Namibia.
Dierk Schmidt, PLAINTE DE LA HPRC* *Herero People’s Reparation Corporation, 2005, silicon and acrylic on canvas, 135 x 270cm

For the past five years the Berlin-based artist Dierk Schmidt has led a project titled The Division of the Earth: Tableaux on the Legal Synopses of the Berlin Africa Conference (2005-10), bringing to the fore the history and ongoing repercussions of Germany’s colonisation of Namibia.01 A new publication, also titled Division of the Earth, signals the completion of this lengthy project, which has comprised two painting series and an extensive programme of lectures, workshops and seminars involving students, artists, art historians, historians, lawyers and activists. Indeed, Division of the Earth engages a range of interlocutors, summoning varied perspectives. The book records and expands on these dialogues, as well as the two series of paintings, making these activities the heart of its content and focussing on distilling one concern, the interconnection between the language of international law and the institution of colonisation in Namibia. 02

Division of the Earth emerged out of a historical period in which the discourse of international law became vital to the re-thinking and remembering of Germany’s colonial past in Namibia. As outlined in the book, in 2004 several protests, workshops and conferences were organised in Berlin by activists under the banner ‘Anticolonial Africa Conference’ to highlight that 120 years had passed since the Berlin Africa Conference. The conference was a pivotal event in Germany’s colonial history, having produced the General Act in 1885, a piece of legislation that authorised the partitioning and colonisation of African land between the Conference’s participating European empires.03Following the establishment of the General Act, the German colonial army, the Schutztruppe, committed genocide against the Nama and Herero people from 1904 to 1907. Moreover prior to the implementation of the General Act, commercial enterprises such as Deutsche Bank and Woermann/Deutsche-Afrika-Linien, a German-operated cargo line based themselves in Namibia, leading to the appropriation and exploitation of Namibian land and citizens who were placed in forced labour camps from at least 1904, and probably from as early as 1900.04

The ‘Anticolonial Africa Conference’ also marked the passing of 100 years since this genocide, and Schmidt’s project emerges out of this spirit of remembrance as well as recent developments within international law. In 2001, the Herero People’s Reparations Corporation (HPRC) filed a case in the US against three corporations – Terex Corporation, Deutsche Bank and Woermann/ Deutsche Afrika-Linien – based in the Federal German Republic. HPRC claim these companies forged a ‘brutal alliance’ with imperialist Germany and should therefore be held accountable for colonial crimes. One of the prevailing arguments of Division of the Earth is that Germany’s recent remembrance of its colonisation of Namibia, and Namibia’s remembrance of its colonisation by Germany, was, without doubt, shaped by this discourse of international law, reparations and restitutions.

Dierck Schmidt, Tableau 4: Proklamation Trothas, 2005, silicon and acrylic on canvas, 270 x 140 cm

As such, it’s no surprise that much of the publication focuses on the Berlin Africa Conference and the General Act. However Division of the Earth is simultaneously concerned with understanding the sustained effects of this Conference and Act and ways of seeking what is referred to therein as ‘colonial justice’, or the rectification of colonial wrongs through the justice system. Texts within the publication such as ‘Approaches to the Action of the Herero Peoples Reparations Corporation: Strategies and Status’ (by Schmidt) and ‘Companies Responsible for Crimes Committed in the Past’ (by Heiko Möhle and Malte Jaguttis in a conversation with Katrin Glinka, Sedef Iskin, Schmidt and Sanja Stankovic), explore the possibility of reparations and restitutions from a range of vantage points informed by activists, artists and international law specialists. As these essays clarify one absolutely vital strategy for attaining ‘colonial justice’ has been the HPRC’s attempts to present its case in front of U.S courts. However, despite the inevitable media attention and spotlighting of marginal narratives that accompanies such legal struggles, to date, the efforts of the HRPC have been fruitless. Under the Act of State between Germany and the US, the former claimed its right to not submit to the latter’s jurisdiction. Meanwhile, Deutsche Bank and Woermann/Deutsche-Afrika-Linien have been successful in having their cases dismissed. This has been possible since neither company operated in the U.S; its courts’ jurisdiction is therefore inapplicable to their actions in Namibia.05Thus, while reparations are being sought to reverse the inequalities instituted by colonial-capitalist endeavours, as Division of the Earth makes plain, these reparations consistently meet structural impasses in the current legal system.06

Indeed, many aspects of the project revolve around analysing the language of international law in both past and present contexts: firstly, as a means to delineate how the General Act led to the expropriation and exploitation of Namibians, and secondly, in terms of how public international law fails to deliver ‘colonial justice’. Yet Division of the Earth’s analyses of the discourse of international law have another, correlative purpose – to aestheticise this language. The publication documents the two painting series that Schmidt created as part of the project, which incorporate nineteen tableaux in total.07 Each painting represents a distinct scenario. Two examples of their content include Tableau 1 (2005) deals with the ‘object of negotiations’ – that is, African subjects and land – at the Berlin Africa Conference, while Tableau 4 (2005) represents the war and genocide against the Herero.08 In both the 2005 and 2007 series, each tableau appears as a flat coloured surface of either orange, white or grey, interrupted by a network of symbols, triangles and ellipses and so forth that refer to specific claims: contoured triangular forms, for example, denote ‘economic or political sphere of interest’; contoured elliptical forms denote ‘res nullius, ownerless thing’.09 The reduction of Namibian citizens and colonialist interests into geometric forms, as well as the arrangement of these forms into complex sets of networks, is incisively analysed in the essay, ‘The World Was Becoming Numerical: Informational Graphics and Art in Dierk Schmidt’s Die Teilung Der Erde. Here the art historian Susanne Leeb notes how Schmidt’s use of geometrical forms corresponds to the use of bureaucratic systems and governing technologies – statistics, diagrams and maps – in the nineteenth century. In this light, the tableaux present an intriguing alternative to the genre of history painting, abstracting the human figure, negating subjectivity and substituting it with informational graphics, a process which mirrors the art of government – that is, the tracking and controlling of populations through bureaucratic processes.10

Division of the Earth also advances that the aestheticisation of the language of international law, as manifested in the tableaux, needs to be read through another prism: the language of the General Act and the related notion of terra nullius, as interpreted by Schmidt. He writes that within the framework of nineteenth-century international law, the ‘meaning of “terra nullius” shifted from “a land empty of populations” to populated areas whose inhabitants were not organised’.11 At the Berlin Africa conference, and specifically through the General Act, what was formerly recognised as ‘the legal subject [was thereafter…] constituted as a legal object – a subtlety in the legal language of the conference that had direct consequences on the practice of colonialism, for it legitimised the disenfranchisement of the African population’. 12 Schmidt translates the objectification of Namibian subjects by the language of the General Act, aestheticising how the legal subject became a pawn in colonial-capitalist endeavours.

It’s worth noting that in their rigorous engagement with the language of the international law the tableaux played a fundamental and crucial role in developing the discursive parts of Division of the Earth, a point which is not obvious without some explanation. The publication tells us thatDivision of the Earth originated as a painting series (of the same title) exhibited at the Salzburger Kunstverein in 2005. Following this exhibition, in 2006, the Kunstraum of the Leuphana University of Lüneburg (KLUL) invited Schmidt to work with a group of its students on a long-term basis of nearly two years to chart an experimental historiography of Germany’s colonial past in Namibia. The Salzburg paintings were used as starting points for discussions within the KLUL framework, which, in addition to student workshops, also encompassed the above-mentioned program of seminars and lectures involving lawyers, historians, art historians and others. In the midst of this programme, Schmidt developed his second painting series, exhibited at documenta 12 in 2007 and at the KLUL in 2007/08 (in many ways the second series was a revision and expansion of the first series). As an attempt to both document and expand on the various parts of the Division of the Earth from 2005 to 2010, the publication reveals the oscillations between the aesthetic and discursive parts of the project as being crucial within the open-ended project.

Through its sundry and fragmented exploration of the effects and abuse of the language of international law during Germany’s colonisation of Namibia, Division of the Earth presents a collaborative and interdisciplinary inquiry. It enters the terrain of difference (i.e. different and unfamiliar knowledge fields and collaborators) and produces hybrid ideas and counter-historiographies of an ever thickening and indelible past.13

– Veronica Tello


  • he German title of the project is D ie Teilung der Erde – Tableaux zu Synopsen der Berliner Afrika-Konferenz
  • Many of the texts and images included in the publication are not examined in this review. Rather this review takes as its focus a range of texts and images relative to concerns central to the project, namely the discourse of international law and its disenfranchisement of Namibian subjects. Considering the enormity of Division of the Earth and the space restrictions of this review, an extensive account of the project cannot be given here.
  • The participating empires were France, Portugal, Spain, Great Britain, Belgium and Germany.
  • Heiko Möhle and Malte Jaguttis in a conversation with Katrin Glinka, Sedef Iskin, Dierk Schmidt and Sanja Stankovic, ‘Companies Responsible for Crimes Committed in the Past’ in Lotte Arndt, Clemens Krümmel, Dierk Schmidt, Hemma Schmutz, Diethem Stoller, Ulf Wuggenig (ed.), The Division of the Earth: Tableaux on the Legal Synopses of the Berlin Africa Conference,Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2010, p.57.
  • See: D. Schmidt, ‘Approaches to the Action of the Herero Peoples Reparations Corporation: Strategies and Status’ in The Division of the Earth, op. cit., p. 51.
  • In this light it’s worth highlighting one of the essays in the publication, ‘The Persecution of the Herero from the Perspective of International Law.’ Here, expert of international law Jörn Axel Kämmerer, dwells on why the legalistic field is unable to provide ‘colonial justice’, arguing, it can instead be catalysed through ‘political and civil-societal operations informed by ethical insights into the circumstance at hand.’ See: Jörn Axel Kämmerer, ‘The Persecution of the Herero from the Perspective of International Law’ in The Division of the Earth, op. cit., pp.89-94.
  • In the first series there is also a figurative painting and two engravings, not considered tableaux by Schmidt. In the second series there is one figurative painting, also not considered a tableau. For the sake of cohesion, I only examine the tableaux here
  • The first series was shown at the Salzburger Kunstverein (2005) and the second at Documenta12 (2007) and the Kunstraum of the University of Lüneburg (2007/08).
  • Some of the tableaux also contain texts, such as fragments and quotations from the General Act. Due to space restrictions, I have chosen to focus on the geometric forms only, as they are common to all the tableaux and thus, enable a broad analysis of their shared visual characteristics.
  • Susanne Leeb, ‘The World Was Becoming Numerical: Informational Graphics and Art in Dierk Schmidt, The Division of the Earth, op. cit., p.112.
  • D. Schmidt, ‘1: The Berlin Africa Conference’, The Division of the Earth, op. cit., p.14.
  • Ibid. Italics in original.
  • This review has been written based a pre-publication copy of Division of the Earth; page numbers stated here differ.