Confronting a colonial past

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As two photographers piece together the story of one man and his family, they also reckon with the legacies of German colonisation in the present-day Republic of Cameroon

Photography can be a means of uncloaking history, revealing cultural blind spots and questioning supposed truths. Zenker, a new book published by Edition Patrick Frey, epitomises this. In it, photographers Jonas Feige and Yana Wernicke entangle themselves in a web of colonial encounters to understand a lesser-known aspect of German history. For eight years, the pair have dedicated themselves to retracing the steps of Georg August Zenker, a German gardener and botanist, who, beginning in 1889, led a research station in the German colony of Kamerun (present-day Republic of Cameroon). 

Following a brief six-year tenure, Zenker was unexpectedly dismissed. It was claimed he had allowed the station to deteriorate, and his brutality had destroyed relations with the surrounding tribes. A commander also discovered that Zenker was leading a polygamous life with several African women, some of whom he had children with. Zenker left the country, only to return soon afterwards as a private citizen and settled with his family (Mavimbilla Obonono Berthe Zenker and five children) in Bipindi, deep in the jungle. He made a living collecting botanical and zoological specimens as well as ethnographic objects for German museums.

From Zenker © Jonas Feige and Yana Wernicke.

Feige and Wernicke’s project initially developed from a curiosity about Zenker’s life. However, soon they honed in on the significant social and political implications of his actions. “Part of our intention is to make visible that there are still very real consequences of German colonialism in Cameroon,” they explain. “Up until a few years ago, most Germans would not have known that the country was once a German colony as the legacy has not yet received the attention it should.”

The book — part family album and part historical document — confronts Zenker’s history through the lives and perspectives of his descendants. Feige and Wernicke combine traditional documentary and fine-art approaches, introducing multiple narratives that disrupt timelines, memories, events, and identities. “Instead of leaving out the unresolved, contradictory, or elements we did not or could not understand, we decided to include them as unanswered questions. It was important not to promise any reconciliation with Germany’s colonialism, accepting that there are wounds that will not heal.”

From Zenker © Jonas Feige and Yana Wernicke.
From Zenker © Jonas Feige and Yana Wernicke.

A central entry point into the book is Bipindihof: Zenker’s German colonial-style house surrounded by vast cocoa, rubber and banana plantations. Zenker established the family residence after returning to the country as a private citizen. The building is impressive in form but haunted by the violence and oppression that likely went into its construction. Today, its wild and overgrown surroundings encroach upon its perimeter. Meanwhile, a selection of faded family photographs lines the walls inside. 

For Zenker’s descendants, Bipindihof is more than a home. “It’s the embodiment of their German-Cameroonian identity,” explain Feige and Wernicke. “After Georg August Zenker, all the fourth-generation members [of the family] were born and grew up in Bipindihof. Even though most of them don’t live there anymore, they see Bipindi as a place of love and community.” 

From Zenker © Jonas Feige and Yana Wernicke.
From Zenker © Jonas Feige and Yana Wernicke.
From Zenker © Jonas Feige and Yana Wernicke.

Beyond family life, however, Zenker was an emblem of white male supremacy. A violent racist and arbiter of colonialism, further evidenced in his letters to Paul Matschie (director of the mammal’s department at the Berlin Zoological Museum), interspersed throughout the book. However, in exploring Zenker from all sides, including that of a loving father, Feige and Wernicke avoid simply labelling him as depraved. “When attempting to relate these nuances, we are not in any way trying to undermine or downplay Zenker’s violent, racist side,” they explain. “We are convinced that to learn from the past, it is important to look at things in all their complexity. Simply labelling Zenker as ‘bad’ would mean a conclusion that is both reductive and dangerous, othering of him that would conceal the fact that such judgements can not simply be ‘binary’.” 

Instead, Feige and Wernicke trace Zenker’s bloodline and make visible the stories of his descendants while acknowledging how they could also be repeating colonial practices. The project animates how relationships born from the violence of colonialism may remain battlegrounds of power, territory and trauma, while also using Zenker’s life to tell a much larger story about a period of history with which Germany and, indeed, the Western world must continue to reckon.

Zenker is published by Edition Patrick Frey.

Gem Fletcher

Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.