Die Teilung der Erde – Tableaux zu rechtlichen Synopsen der Berliner Afrika Konferenz (The Division of the Earth – Tableaux on the Legal Synopses of the Berlin Africa Conference, 2004-2007) re-examines history and the repercussions of the Berlin Conference of 1884, in which the colonial powers of the time participated and which served to safeguard the plundering of the African continent. Dierk Schmidt began his investigations on the basis of reactivated protests in Germany, in 2004, to demand recognition of the profligacy committed by the German Empire during the period of conquest and the occupation of Namibia, atrocities encompassing the exploitation of land and the population by commercial German companies and the extermination of the Herero and Namaqua peoples between 1904 and 1907 during the division of Africa.
Dierk Schmidt re-examines the past through history painting, an artistic genre that gained relevance in nineteenth-century art owing to its narrative quality, which helped to build a heroic past and reinforce national identity and new imagery of the recently created nation state model. Schmidt adapts historicist painting to the parameters of the 21st century, using it as a tool to unpack a linear conception of history and colonial narratives; thus, the artist represents this structural violence against Africa using symbols which attempt to translate the real consequences and the political and economic effects these legal abstractions had on territories and populations.
Each painting describes a different episode in a lengthy account that starts with the 1884 Conference and continues with the Herero and Namaqua genocide, core chapters in his investigations. All of them have a flat white, grey or orange surface and a network of geometric forms loaded with meaning: the triangular surfaces represent economically or politically important issues; the elliptic areas refer to that which is ownerless. In his revision of history painting through these pieces, Schmidt employs resources such as statistics and maps, symbols of the annihilation of citizens and their replacement with numbers and graphs in bureaucratic processes. On the fabrics, the silicon-filled footprints are in recognition of the legality of the subject, opposite the legal limbo the empty tracks refer to, images that connect with the Latin expression terra nullius, nobody’s land, employed during colonisation to reclaim territories annexed as ownerless land that conquering states could legally occupy.
Schmidt completes the installation with a painted portrait of Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, the former German minister of Economic Cooperation and Development who, in 2004, in a speech made in Namibia during acts to commemorate the centenary of the Herero people’s uprising, asked for forgiveness on behalf of the German government and people. Wieczorek-Zeul was not allowed to officially acknowledge the genocide, so the tears in Schmidt’s rendering of a press image can be seen as the physical expression of the legal restrictions she assumed as a representative of the German government.