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A groundbreaking and powerful new exhibition examining the history of German colonialism, racism and the Black community opens this week in Berlin.

The exhibition "zur├╝ckGESCHAUT" (LOOKING back) is a co-operation between the District Museum Berlin Treptow, the Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland (Initiative of Black People in Germany) and the NGO Berlin Postcolonial, with significant input from Dr Robbie Aitken, a reader in history at Sheffield Hallam University.

The exhibition, which will be a permanent fixture at the Museum Berlin Treptow, focuses on the 1896 Berlin Colonial Exhibition, at which 106 men, women and children from Germany’s colonial empire in Africa and the South Seas were put on display at Treptow Park in Berlin, as a form of 'human zoo'.

Building on over a decade worth of research into the history of Black people in Germany, Dr Aitken has contributed 15 extended biographies on men from Cameroon and Togo who were part of the 1896 Exhibition. These include:

  • The Cameroonian Kwelle Ndumbe (son of the influential King Bell from Douala) who infuriated exhibition organisers by refusing to play the role of the ‘native’ and insisted on being photographed in European dress, replete with bow tie
  • The Cameroonian Martin Dibobe who remained in Berlin at the Exhibition’s end, became a Berlin personality as a train conductor, and later led anti-colonial calls for Cameroonian independence and equality for all Africans living in Germany
  • Joseph Boholle who likewise remained in Germany, established a family and trained as a carpenter. He and his German-born children were among the very few Black Germans to ever gain citizenship pre-1945. Daughter Josefa – a successful dancer in the 1920s and early 1930s was eventually incarcerated in KZ Stutthof, while son Paul spent the end of the Nazi period in the notorious Plotzensee prison.
  • Jacob Ndumbe remained in Germany as a blacksmith. His Berlin born daughter Martha would die in the concentration camp Ravensbrueck.
Kwelle Ndumbe
J.C. Bruce.

Click to view the images

Dr Aitken said: "As this exhibition shows, while those on display were objectified, they were also looking back, returning the colonial gaze, and resisting the racialised roles expected of them.

"Restoring the dignity and historical agency of those involved, this exhibition looks at their lives before and after their time in Berlin."

The exhibition opens on Friday 13 October with the launch being attended by the Tanzanian Ambassador to Germany.   

For press information: Martin Webb in the Sheffield Hallam University press office on 0114 225 2621 or email