The resurgence of nationalist ideologies and a heightened awareness of our distorted views of the past have revived interest in the history and legacy of modern empires. "Empire" is a cultural, institutional and political entity that wove together colonialism, propaganda, militarism, missionary nationalism, biological racism, martial masculinity and a ideologised body of knowledge (transmission) and learning.
Imperial nostalgia has drawn the attention of historians and cultural critics to how the memories and myths of empire have shaped our actual perceptions of the world, art and history. Recent historical work has fruitfully explored the legacies and memories of empire in Europe and the unaddressed legacies of colonial rule. This is closely linked to the various restitution debates that have taken place in Germany, France and the UK.

Decolonising art and academia

"Afterlives of Empire" is a new project developed by the English scholar Gesa Stedman and sponsored by the Humboldt University Society. In its first phase, eight art students from Oxford and Berlin transformed the University's Lichthof Ost into a shared studio before transforming it back into an exhibition space to showcase the artists' engagement with several of Humboldt University's academic collections as well as Berlin museums, most notably the Humboldt Forum. The artists' aim was to show the imperial entanglements of the collections and how both presence and absence/silence can be translated into art, and to raise the question of how we can decolonise academia and art.

Ora et Labora

As the daughter of a missionary in Cameroon, Karin’s art is about the ambivalence of mission. Missionary work is a religious practice that aims to convert people by spreading extraneous beliefs in regions of “non-believers”. Mission is an integral part of colonialism, and its effects are still felt today. The Benedictines have summarised its aims as "Pray and Work - Ora et Labora".
As part of the project, Stumpf has created a two-part artwork (both in the form of a cross) in accordance with the motto "Ora et Labora":
  • Ora... - An artist's book that gives an insight into the life of a missionary family in the seventies. This is the private part of the missionary work, on a smaller scale, which highlights the discrepancy I feel when I think about the past of my family.
  • Labora - a mixed media work that deals with the politics of missionaries during German colonisation. This represents the public aspect of missionary work and is therefore much larger in scale and shall represents the power of the cross on Cameroon.
The shape of the cross was chosen as a reference to Christianity to represent the work of the mission.
In this project Cameroon was the focus of her work because of her personal history, but the story told is representative of any other formerly colonised country.


The artist preferred medium is the artist's book. The medium was chosen for the intimate experience that books offer, and they are particularly suited to telling interwoven stories. They are tactile and interactive - the shape of the cross offers a world of endless destinations and possibilities when the book is opened. The book created during the month consists of private collages, sketches, and paintings.
While her father's work as a missionary, as a school chaplain in Kumba (Cameroon), and her time in Africa are at the centre of the book. There are many layers to her family history. Be it friendships, climate, illnesses, historical events, different details are put on paper to create a bigger picture, the happiness of earlier days.
Yes, the stories told are Eurocentric. As a white artist, Karin cannot claim to know how the Africans around us saw and perceived her family. She only knows that our life as foreigners in Cameroon was full of acceptance of who they were. Which is certainly different from how Cameroonians have been treated when they came to Germany.
The colours in the book are muted, diluted, layered, mimicking how memories fade and blend with time. Labora - WIP Labora

The missionaries helped to support colonial rule, and, on the other hand, the mission was seen as a key aspect of colonisation.
This is how W. Solf, the then Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs, explained it to the Reichstag in 1913: "Colonisation means missionary work, and missionary work in the high sense of cultural education. But not to European culture, but to a culture that can take root in the soil and in the home of the natives and is adapted to their mental and spiritual make-up". This text can be found in the background on the cross.
Germany wanted Africans to learn to pray and to work. And in the end, the colonists didn't care much about praying and concentrated on teaching and building a local workforce, for them to take over minor clerk activities.
The aim of this work is to make people rethink their perception of Africa and its history. That is why the map in the background has been turned upside down: Cameroon (and the outline of Africa) is at the top of the cross, while Germany and Europe are at the bottom.
40,000 cultural, sacred, and power objects are kept in German public museums. Compare this with the 6,000 objects housed in the Museum of Blackness in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. The different numbers of the stored objects are shown in the form of different sizzed bubbles.
Finally, a reliquary figure (Byeri), housed and exhibited in the Humboldt Forum, has been linol printed on the cross. This Byeri is an element of African culture that was used to perform rites and incantations and is representative of the other objects in the Humboldt Forum. The Byeri's feet are grounded in Germany, but its head (soul) and heart are in Africa, where it belongs.
As a cult object, its absence signifies a cultural vacuum that inevitably affects the life of contemporary Cameroonians. Missionary work and the conversion to Christianity played an important role in robbing and destroying these objects and replacing local faith by the faith of the cross. The loss of traditional faith and the physical absence of the cultural objects are represented by white spots on the statue.
Thanks to the work of European missionaries, Christianity has become the majority religion in Cameroon. So much so, that the Catholic Church, for example, now draws some of its priests from former mission areas. Mission in reverse.