1905: Photograph of the Laikom Palace after the German victory over the Kom Kingdom

Commented: Mathias Fubah Alubafi, Margareta von Oswald, and Verena Rodatus

Material Description
This photograph was taken by a person described as “Langhof” in January 1905 in Laikom, Kom, Western Grassfields, Cameroon. The photograph is subtitled with the description ‘Carved Fetish images’ (‘Geschnitzte Fetischbilder’). Today, the objects on the photograph are part of the collections of Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum. The photograph is conserved by the Koloniales Bildarchiv (Universitätsbibliothek Frankfurt am Main).

Short Summary
The objects on the photograph originate from the Kom Kingdom in Cameroon’s Western  Grassfields. The pair of figures was probably made by King Yu (approx. 1865–1912) himself and was one of the most significant royal possessions.

Fon Yuh behind one of his hand-carved thrones (Laikom, Kom, Cameroon Grasslands, around 1905–1910) © Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Despite fierce resistance from the Kingdom, the German colonial officer Hans Caspar zu Putlitz led his troops into the capital city of Kom in 1905 and looted the palace. The pair of figures was left behind when King Yu fled; it is possible it was no longer in use.

This photograph was one of our points of departures for the exhibition “Object Biographies” (2015, Humboldt Lab Dahlem, Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, curated by Verena Rodatus and Margareta von Oswald). With this exhibition, we wanted to turn the visitors’ gaze towards the museum itself, directing it to institutional histo­ries, networks, and practices by addressing the little-known and sometimes problematic stories of the objects.

Exhibition view ‘Object Biographies’, © Jens Ziehe

In the exhibition’s first part, the pair of figures was exhibited next to a slideshow, depicting the trophy image of the loot, followed by exhibition views of the pair’s exhibition history. Although the majestic sculptures were reduced to “fetish figures” in the description in the historical photo that marked the conquest, upon its arrival at the Royal Museum of Ethnology Berlin in 1906, the formal qualities of the carvings were highly appreciated. From the 1920s they were shown in many exhibitions, some of which were international, as a prominent example of African “art” or “culture.” In this part of our exhibition, we wanted to address the question: “What stories are told in museums, and which stories remain untold?” In almost one hundred years of prominently exhibiting the pair, it was only in 2005 that the violent loot was mentioned within the exhibition ‘Art from Africa’ (2005−2016). To get a contemporary view on the pair’s absence in today’s Western Grassfields, we asked the art historian Mathias Fubah Alubafi to contribute to the exhibition. The text was available in the exhibition and can be read below.

Absence of Objects from the Western Grassfields of Cameroon: An Opinion by Mathias Alubafi

As repatriation debates, especially with regard to African and Cameroon art currently being held in Western museums, take centre stage in discussions between the social actors involved, opinions are needed to understand whether or not the absence of these objects has an impact on the source community. While the absence of some objects (such as Afoakom – from 1966−1973) often creates a gap causing some local communities to hunt and have them returned, the gap for some pieces has rarely become permanent. Soon or over time, the object is replaced and tradition continues as if nothing had happened.

For instance, the disappearance of the Kom pair of figures attached to stools, from the Kom Kingdom in 1905 caused distress but the figures were replaced by King Yuh and members of his workshop. The replacements, which are referred to derogatorily as “copies” are now used for traditional religious rituals in the Kom Kingdom – ensuring continuity of the Kom tradition. Ironically, these so-called “copies” are not recognized by Western museums since they believe the “original” and, by extension, authentic Kom figures (such as those at the Ethnologische Museum Berlin), are with them.

Similarly, so-called original Kom pieces scattered in Western museums are also not recognized as authentic by local communities because they are not in their original setting and were not meant to be displayed in foreign museums. Accordingly, the scramble for the return of Kom figures from the West seems to rest on the legality, or the means through which German colonial officer Caspar Hans zu Putlitz acquired them, rather than in their authenticity or usefulness in the local context. Authentic Kom figures, as understood in Kom, are in Kom rather than in the West.

Dr Mathias Alubafi, Fubah is a Senior Research Specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), in Pretoria, South Africa. His research interest and expertise is in historical and contemporary African art, museums, heritage and cultural tourism. His recent work focused on anti-hegemonic iconographies in Africa and was based on fieldwork conducted in Cameroon and South Africa. He recently completed a major project at the HSRC focusing on “historical and contemporary statues and monuments in South Africa.” The findings of the project are currently being reviewed by Wits Press as an edited volume under the title: “Exchanging Symbols: Monuments and Memorials in Post-apartheid and Post-colonial Africa.” His most recent book is Bambui Arts and Culture (Cambridge Scholars, 2018).

Margareta von Oswald is a doctoral fellow in anthropology at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and at the École des Hautes Études, Paris. Analyzing restructuration processes of ethnographic museums in Europe, her doctoral research deals with the negotiations of contested colonial legacies in the present. In 2015, she curated the exhibition “Object Biographies” with Verena Rodatus (Humboldt Lab Dahlem, Ethnologisches Museum Berlin).

Dr. Verena Rodatus is lecturer and research associate in the department of the Arts of Africa at the Freie Universität Berlin. Her doctoral thesis is published under the title „Postkoloniale Positionen? Die Biennale DAK’ART im Kontext des internationalen Kunstbetriebs.” Verena Rodatus has worked for the Weserburg | Museum für moderne Kunst, as well as museum assistant in the Africa department at the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin, and for the Humboldt Lab Dahlem. Together with Margareta von Oswald, she curated the exhibition “Object Biographies” (2015).

Cite this article as:
1905: Photograph of the Laikom Palace after the German victory over the Kom Kingdom, commented by Mathias Fubah Alubafi, Margareta von Oswald, and Verena Rodatus
, in: Translocations. Ikonographie: A collection of commented image sources on cultural heritage relocations since antiquity, https://transliconog.hypotheses.org/?page_id=495&preview=true, published 20/06/2018.
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