Rado Ištok: The Trouble with the Good Old Imperial Days


A lot happened this summer, and perhaps the new wave of lockdowns across Europe can be an occasion to process some of these past events, overshadowed for some by the ongoing pandemic and its consequences on our daily lives. One of the defining moments of this summer was certainly the toppling of monuments commemorating figures associated with colonialism, racism, and genocide in connection with the Black Lives Matter protests against anti-Black violence and systemic racism in the US and Europe in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020. How do we relate to these events in Central and East Central Europe (roughly the territory of the former German and Austro-Hungarian Empires), where public space is less commonly a site for colonial monuments?

Mixed news came from Berlin: in May, a golden cross mounted on top of the cupola of the Humboldt Forum, a replica of the imperial Berlin Palace, which replaced the GDR Palace of the Republic, triggered – alongside the biblical inscription at the base of the dome – protests,[i] while in August it was announced that Mohrenstraße in the Mitte district, whose name is derived from the term describing enslaved Black servants in the households of European nobility, would finally be renamed after the country’s first Black philosopher, Anton Wilhelm Amo.[ii] In June, a similar discussion was raised in Vienna about two streets in the district of Leopoldstadt.[iii] While the Viennese petition to rename public space remains without resolution, it seems that at least the owner of the Mohren-Apotheke is open to changing the pharmacy’s name after a meeting with local politician and activist Mireille Ngosso. Instead of Berlin’s golden cross, Hofburg’s dome is crowned by an innocuous decorative jardiniere, yet the former imperial palace’s entrance from Michaelerplatz is flanked by two rather more problematic 1890s fountains that seem to have gone somehow unnoticed.[iv] Die Macht zu Lande [Power on the Land] by Edmund Hellmer and Die Macht zur See [Power on the Sea] by Rudolf Weyr testify to an era when Austria saw itself as a naval power, with the ships of the Imperial and Royal War Navy “discovering” Franz Josef Land (1872–1874) and participating in the suppression of the anti-imperialist Boxer Rebellion in China (1899–1901). In terms of dealing with contentious monuments, many conservative Viennese would probably prefer to follow Berlin’s example of dismantling the Palace of the Republic and remove the Soviet War Memorial from Schwarzenbergplatz (alas, there is no asbestos in the monument).

In the meantime in Prague, an anonymous group of activists sprayed graffiti on the monument of Winston Churchill in June, exposing the former British prime minister as a racist, a few days after the same had been done to his statue in London’s Parliament Square.[v] Members of the Czech political establishment condemned this action as an attack on (… property, and) a great democratic politician who contributed to the defeat of Adolf Hitler. However, Ivan Konev’s contribution to Hitler’s defeat didn’t protect the monument to the Soviet marshal – who later participated in the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution and the Prague Spring – from its removal earlier in April.[vi] The various degrees of eagerness or reluctance in dealing with Cold War legacies on the one hand and imperial and colonial legacies on the other are quite symptomatic in terms of the respective countries’ self-image on the spectrum from “victims” to “perpetrators” and “accomplices.”

Although Prague, unlike Berlin and Vienna, has no street named after enslaved Black people, it does have other markers of an unjust past besides the Churchill monument – the focus on which inadvertently reinforced the impression that colonialism and racism are the exclusive legacy of Western Europe. In fact, Angelo Soliman (born Mmadi Make, c. 1721–1796) – the most prominent Black man in eighteenth-century Vienna and a contemporary of Anton Wilhelm Amo – was originally the valet of the Prague-born imperial governor of Sicily, Georg Christian, Prince of Lobkowitz, a member of the Bohemian nobility. After the death of Lobkowitz, Soliman was taken to Vienna, where he entered the service of the princes of Liechtenstein, who also owned vast properties in the Czech lands, and Moravia in particular, including the UNESCO-protected Lednice-Valtice Complex. While the later life of Soliman as an accomplished member of the Viennese intellectual circles and the indignity he suffered after his death have been the subject of exhibitions, books, and a film, he was not the only nor the first Black man in the service of Bohemian nobles. Joseph Reiske (c. 1698–1777) was captured in North Africa by the Bohemian Freiherr [free lord]  Mittrowsky of Mittrowitz and Nemischl (the Czech villages Mitrovice and Nemyšl) and baptized in Sicilian Syracuse.[vii] Beginning in 1728, he worked for three generations of the Counts Novohradsky of Kolowrat, all of whom held the highest political rank of privy councillor at the Viennese court. Although both Angelo Soliman and Joseph Reiske lived most of their lives in Vienna rather than Prague, their lives were intertwined with Bohemian nobles such as the Lobkowitzs, Kolowrats, and Mittrowskys.

It was, however, a member of another Bohemian noble family, the Morzins (one of which lends their name to the Morzinplatz in Vienna), who commissioned the Baroque sculptor Ferdinand Maxmilian Brokoff to decorate the Morzin Palace in Prague with two atlantes (1714) in the shape of Black men in chains carrying the burden of the balcony. Czech art history has routinely dismissed this as an “innocent” pun,[viii] as Black men were heraldic figures of the Morzins because the pronunciation of their family name resembled the German word “Mohr.”[ix] The fact that Count Morzin participated in military campaigns against the Ottoman Turks under Prince Eugene of Savoy, during which Black people were captured as prisoners of war, is rarely mentioned in this context. A few hundred meters downhill, on Charles Bridge, there is another sculptural group from Brokoff’s workshop that stands in stark contrast. In this group, Saint John of Matha and Saint Felix of Valois, cofounders of the Trinitarian Order, dedicated to ransoming captive Christians, together with Saint Ivan, are liberating a Christian man from chains (1714). Two other Christians are depicted in a prison cell guarded by a stereotyped Turkish guard in a turban and a watchdog. The two Black men in chains from the palace facade thus appear as a Freudian slip in the Baroque narrative of Christian Europeans suffering imprisonment and enslavement by the Muslim Ottomans.

Contact with the Ottoman Empire became a source of colonial imagery that was revived in both Austria and the former Czechoslovakia as late as the 1920s, and this imagery remains in circulation still today. According to popular legend, after the breaking of the second Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683, sacks of coffee were discovered among the booty, laying the foundation of Viennese coffeehouses.[x] As a nod to this legend, in 1924, the Austrian designer Josef Binder created a new logo for the coffee purveyor Julius Meinl featuring a young Black man wearing a fez,[xi] which has been criticized repeatedly by antiracist activists.[xii] The previous year, in 1923, the Czech avant-garde artist and graphic designer Zdenek Rykr designed packaging for the coffee-flavored chocolate bar Kofila, produced by the Prague chocolate factory Orion.[xiii] Rykr’s packaging used the figure of a Black man with a coffee cup dressed in orientalizing attire including a turban. It is likely he adopted this figure from the logo of Karel Kulík, the first specialized coffee purveyor in early 1900s Prague, whose graphic identity Rykr rebranded in the 1920s.[xiv] While tradition is the most common excuse for keeping racist logos today, there are no records suggesting that Kulík’s customers complained about the breaking of such tradition when its logo of the head of a Black man in a turban was changed for an image of an elderly Czech woman accompanied by the slogan “the coffee of our mothers.” At the same time, in the 1920s, a Black man serving coffee was not just an image of some distant past. When, in 1903, Christian Ebenezer (1890–1924) came to Prague from the Danish colony of Saint Croix (today the US Virgin Islands), he was employed as a page and a waiter in the grand café Louvre – impersonating colonial fantasies associated with coffee.[xv] Ebenezer died of tuberculosis a few months after one of his regulars, Franz Kafka, succumbed to the same disease, and both Jaroslav Hašek and Egon Erwin Kisch mention him in their writings.

In September of this year, an anonymous group of students and professors from Charles University in Prague published the “Manifesto of Decolonization” in order to open up a conversation about the possible decolonization of Czech institutions.[xvi] The conversation in part had begun already in January, when the online art platform Artalk.cz published a thematic issue on decolonization, edited by the art historian and curator Vjera Borozan,[xvii] as well as in the projects of the platform tranzit.cz, which also organized the new Prague biennale Matter of Art (July–November 2020). Yet, similar to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in the 1990s and early 2000s, the current discussions on the colonial legacies of East Central Europe (including this essay) have been largely, although not exclusively, raised by white feminist and postcolonial scholars and curators. This is not just because Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) communities are smaller in the region,[xviii] but mainly because few BIPOC hold positions within the art and academic institutions where these conversations largely take place.[xix]

Compared to the recently toppled monuments in the US and Western Europe, the legacy of global colonialism and racism in Central and East Central Europe might not necessarily be considered monumental. Perhaps more telling is the racist and colonial imagery that, despite repeated petitions, continues to circulate through product packaging and other logos (something also recently addressed by various brands and sports teams in the US) under the veil of tradition and a fallacy that these images are somehow “innocent” because countries like Austria and the former Czechoslovakia did not have colonies. Yet, until these logos are replaced (for they will be), they can hopefully serve as prompts for conversations that need to be had and the remembering of historical figures such as Angelo Soliman, Joseph Reiske, and Christian Ebenezer that needs to be done. At the moment, unfortunately, it seems that a large part of Central and East Central European societies continue to seek refuge from the traumatic events of World War II and its Cold War aftermath in the warm glow of nostalgia for the “good old days,” before imperial palaces were bombed, before collapsed empires were replaced by republics, and before racial justice and sensitivity were demanded by the eternally vilified “political correctness.”

[i] Kate Brown, “Protesters Are Taking Down Monuments Across Europe. So Why Is Germany Redoubling Its Commitment to Conservative Symbolism?,” Artnet News, June 16, 2020, https://news.artnet.com/opinion/humboldt-forum-cross-issue-1884378.

[ii] Kate Connolly, “Berlin to Rename ‘Moor Street’ after Black Philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo,” TheGuardian, August 21, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/21/berlin-rename-mohrenstrasse-moor-street-black-philosopher-anton-wilhelm-amo. In the past decade, colonial monuments in Berlin received critical attention, such as through SAVVY Contemporary’s participatory archive and research project Colonial Neighbours. See https://savvy-contemporary.com/en/pillars/colonial-neighbours/.

[iii] See, for example, Josef Gebhard, “Rassismus: Was tun mit der Mohrengasse?,” Kurier, June 30, 2020, https://kurier.at/chronik/wien/rassismus-was-tun-mit-der-mohrengasse/400956194.

[iv] As Christian Kravagna has suggested, Vienna’s museum landscape must be first subjected to the defeudalization of the almost unbroken Habsburg identification, ignoring the turn to the republic, marketed for tourism.  See Christian Kravagna, “Hopes and Impediments,” Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften, January 2015, 115.

[v] Jason Pirodsky, “‘He Was a Racist’: Winston Churchill Statue in Prague Vandalized,” Expats, June 11, 2020, https://news.expats.cz/weekly-czech-news/he-was-racist-winston-churchill-statue-in-prague-vandalized/.

[vi] “Moscow Opens Criminal Case over Removal of Soviet Marshal’s Statue in Prague,” Radio Free Europe, April 10, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/konev-statue-prague-moscow-criminal-case/30546527.html.

[vii] A portrait of Reiske can be found in the collection of the Vienna Museum; see https://www.geschichtewiki.wien.gv.at/index.php?title=Datei:Reiske.jpg.

[viii] I use the term “innocent” in Gloria Wekker’s understanding. See Gloria Wekker, White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race, Duke University Press: 2016.

[ix] Two other sculptures of Black men from the Morzin castle in Kounice (1718–1719), also by Ferdinand Maxmilian Brokoff, are today in the collection of the National Gallery in Prague, while the sculptural decoration of the Morzin Palace in Prague also includes an allegorical figure of a Black woman with a parrot symbolizing Africa. Another figural allegory of Africa, an “African king” seated on a lion, as well as two figures of Black men, were also part of Brokoff’s sculptural group of Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1710–1711), originally on Charles Bridge and today in the Lapidary of the National Museum.

[x] The Ottoman tradition of coffee drinking was itself at that time just over a century old.

[xi] In 2004, the logo was transformed by the Italian designer Matteo Thun, who rendered it in a red monochrome, removing the figure’s Blackness yet retaining the orientalizing fez. “A Brand of Long-Lived Tradition,” Meinl Coffee’s website, 2020, https://www.meinlcoffee.com/about-us/brand-values/.

[xii] Similarly, the campaign NoMohr! targeted the logo of the Austrian brewery Mohrenbrauerei, which has its Czech counterpart in the Kounický Mouřenín.

[xiii] See Vojtěch Lahoda, “Zdeněk Rykr and the Chocolate Factory,” in A Reader in East-Central-European Modernism, 1918–1956, ed. Beáta Hock, Klara Kemp-Welch, and Jonathan Owen, London: Courtauld Institute of Art, 2019, p. 89–108.

[xiv] More detailed research on Rykr’s involvement with Karel Kulík, compared to Orion, is lacking.

[xv] Christian Ebenezer worked in cafés and restaurants not only in Prague but across Czechoslovakia.

[xvi] The “Manifest Dekolonizace” can be accessed at https://dekolonizace.cz.

[xvii] Vjera Borozan, “Heritage of Colonialism and Dangerous Consequences of the
Accumulation of Capital,” Artalk Revue, Winter 2020, y https://artalk.cz/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/AR-4-EN-162063.pdf.

[xviii] Filip Noubel, “Afro-Czechs on Visibility, Racism and Life in the Czech Republic,” Global Voices, June 13, 2020, https://globalvoices.org/2020/06/24/afro-czechs-on-visibility-racism-and-life-in-the-czech-republic-part-one/.

[xix] An adequate representation in academia and arts remains unresolved even in places like London. See, for example, Alex Greenberger, “Alleging Racism, Sole Permanently Employed Black Staff Member of Goldsmiths Art Department ‘Withdraws Labor’,” Artnews, June 15, 2020, https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/goldsmiths-evan-ifekoya-withdraws-labor-1202691068/.

Rado Ištok (Slovakia/Sweden) is a curator, writer and editor based in Stockholm. He is the curator of the European Cooperation Project 4Cs: From Conflict to Conviviality through Creativity and Culture at Nida Art Colony of Vilnius Academy of Arts, within which he curated artist residencies leading to the exhibition The Spectral Forest (2020) and the workshop Dwelling on the Threshold (2019). He is also the project leader of Spaces of Care, Disobedience and Desire, a discursive research platform in collaboration with Marie-Louise Richards and Natália Rebelo, supported by the artistic research funding of the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm.

Recent exhibitions include Ala Younis. High Dam. Modern Pyramid (2020) at VI PER Gallery in Prague; Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn. Black Atlas (2019) at the Július Koller Society in Bratislava; Liquid Horizons (2019) at tranzit.sk in Bratislava; Other Visions (2018) within the PAF – Festival of Film Animation in Olomouc (Czech Republic); and I’m fine, on my way home now (2017) at Allkonstrummet, Stockholm, and Galleri Gerlesborg (2018), Sweden.
His editorial work includes the artist book Crating the World by Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn (Athénée Press, 2019) and the e-publications Dwelling on the Threshold (Nida Art Colony, 2020) and Decolonising Archives (L’Internationale Online, 2016). He contributes to Flash Art Czech & Slovak Edition, Art+Antiques and artalk, as well as other magazines and exhibition catalogues.