Open Images or Open Wounds? Colonial past and present in the city of Copenhagen


—Temi Odumosu, art historian, postdoctoral researcher in the Living Archives research project, School of Arts and Communication, Malmö University, Sweden

“Seeing black is always a problem in a visual field that structures the troubling presence of blackness”Nicole R. Fleetwood

“Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution. Poignant longings for beauty, for an end to probing below the surface, for a redemption and celebration of the body of the world.”—Susan Sontag

“Cultural mummification leads to a mummification of individual thinking “—Frantz Fanon

I had moved to Copenhagen, from London, for not more than a week before a strange conversation between myself and the city began to occur.

It started with the drawn head of an anonymous brown-skinned girl with a cornrow hairstyle, who piqued my curiosity as she began to appear randomly on a poster here and there, emblazoned on shopper bags under the arms of Danish students, and then in a visual cacophony at the co-operative supermarket where she took her place on the packs of the coffee brand she represented, and was used liberally to decorate serviettes, paper cups and even the faces of clocks. Drawn in profile with a small rounded nose, sullen eyes, and elegant high cheekbones, I remember thinking that she looked like me as a child: quiet, serious, and highly aware.

The “Cirkel Kaffe Girl” was the first of many visual assaults that wrought havoc with my emotions and senses, whilst the months and years ensued. Her ubiquity as a design motif within a largely homogenous European culture agitated my embodied sensibilities; as a scholar who works on race and representation but more directly as a Black woman commencing the slow and gradual project of dwelling in a new city—attempting to make the unknown and unfamiliar into something approximating home.

The following photographic chronicle seeks to express what was difficult to say openly in moments and encounters I experienced whilst roaming in Danish public space over the last three years (2012–2015). What you will see are my hurriedly captured snapshots of discomforting objects, signs or images that restaged colonial visual strategies, recalled the plantation or the slave ship, and reproduced anachronistic racial motifs that seemed to me entirely out of place in a modern and progressive city.

I found these urban artefacts, like the Cirkel Kaffe Girl, in places of regular and commercial daily activity: at the supermarket, bus stop, along the high street, or in cafés waiting for my order. They were just above my head, behind the window, or on the shelf lodged amidst other items. They were also in spaces that I had to share with other citizens. During these encounters I would always experience a moment of alarm, which was sometimes expressed by gasps, head shaking, or quiet vocal outbursts like “Really?” and “I can’t believe this!” Yes, the difficulty adjusting to this new environment influenced some of my reactions. But they were also a response to the primacy of these images; their inherent readability as racial icons and thus as psychic residue of unfinished imperial sagas.

As these moments became more regular I intuitively used whatever camera I had to try and capture the uncanniness of my experience, the sudden intrusion of colonial nostalgia into my visual field. This has evinced a sort of makeshift mobile archive of images, both in and out of focus, which I have also used to teach and ask questions about ethnic representation. My eventual conversations in workshop settings with teachers, university and high school students, and with the general public, have had interesting but also mixed outcomes. Overall discussions were engaging and positive. I learned from a fantastic group of students in their mid teens about the notion of “ironic distance” that made the presence of such imagery both possible and also fashionable. Some critical teachers reflected that overall “nothing is sacred in Denmark”. Occasionally I was challenged for being unaware of Danish cultural mores. It was sometimes difficult to convince people (tied to their cultural habits) that how they represent ethnicity and difference could be considered offensive, or that they re-inscribe negative historical values.

I continue to be made aware that I am, after all, an outsider looking in. There also seemed to be an unwillingness to pander to anything suggestive of political correctness because it impinges on a very deeply held notion of personal freedom in Denmark—which (on the downside) means that I, and others who look like me, are still comfortably referred to by the diminutive label ‘neger’.

Whilst living in Denmark I have learned that the country traded in enslaved Africans, built Christiansborg trading fort in Ghana, and governed three sugar islands in the West Indies (St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John) until selling them to America in 1917. The country does have a deep and layered colonial history also including India and Greenland, even further complicated by separations, invasions and losses of territory within Scandinavia and Europe. I don’t yet know enough detail to hold my historical ground, but what is clear is that colonialism is a sensitive topic shrouded in silence. Perhaps this is due to shame, or because education and storytelling in museums has been limited to administrative facts, the showcasing of luxury handmade artefacts, and positive success stories—such as the fact that Denmark was technically the first to abolish the slave trade.

To suggest that the “long gone” past is unresolved is thus entirely at odds with the more active collective identity of a people who do good for others in need.

Paradoxically the silence around this past is foiled by the omnipresence of all these widely used and circulated images, which preserve in their historicism a palpable sense of colonial values (the black/brown body as commodity) and prejudices (the black/brown body as site of abuse). In this way they are products and also wounds, continuous reminders of unequal human relations.

What does this mean in a growing culture of openness that advocates for the sharing and exposure of everything?—or, more specifically, for a media landscape that prioritises representational abundance at the expense of its affective consequences?

What I present here skirts this complex picture to access something more direct and personal. This chronicle marks the beginning of an opening for me as a researcher, an alternative process of critical annotation doubly enacting a form of independent cultural surveillance, whilst mapping a city becoming more and less familiar to me at the same time. It speaks about the delicate relationships between people of colour and Western public space; how difficult memories can be activated on a simple morning errand, about the intimacy of the colonial project, racialised aesthetics in postcolonial cities, and furthermore the challenges of living across cultural borders.

1. Ethnic cross-dressing

24 August 2012, Nørrebro

A Danish actor on reality TV show pretends to be an African woman by sashaying his hips, dancing like a duck and carrying a basket on his head—all whilst waving the South African flag. Everyone is doing this, as part of some exotic challenge. I have no idea what they are saying but they seem to be enjoying themselves. It’s not even funny or ironic, just … annoying and surprisingly upsetting. Why? Is it the public performance, the audacity in the mockery, the disregard for another potential viewpoint, or simply my discomfort in this place?

2. Pretty Black girl, will you speak to me?

4 September 2012, Central Copenhagen Supermarket

Cirkel Kaffe Girl, I finally found out where you came from. You’ve been haunting me for a few weeks now and each time you take me by surprise. A message without words, everywhere and always for sale and even sometimes at half price. Somehow it pains me to imagine your face wiping the lips of uncaring mouths, and then soiled, crumpled, and abandoned in the garbage after use. What is your name? Are you happy here? Because I am not … yet. You are in their homes, you are in their lives and yet I do not believe that they really know you—the you behind your pretty painted face.

3. Cast iron smile, or, what kind of welcoming is this?

11 Sept 2012, Gammel Kongevej

Some days I just can’t believe my eyes, and today was one of them. How is it possible that even you exist?

And just round the corner from where I now live! You are the mocking moneybox of old Jim Crow; the deferent plaything that made American and European children save their coins. I know that you are not a “real” antique; “just a reproduction made in China”, says the mildly apologetic man in the store. Somehow this seems worse to me, for it speaks of a demand. Here you are, come to haunt this modern space with your archaic racist values—your wrought iron smile and blood red lips. Who is even going to buy you? Apart from me (although I am torn about that idea) … Dinah, I’m sorry they made you this way. I’m tempted to smash you to pieces like the man in Ralph Ellison’s novel. But then how would I prove that you were really here?

4. Vanilla Bean Knights

19 November 2012, local supermarket

Somehow I feel compelled to quote from Tahir Shah’s travelogue In Arabian Nights (2007):

“Settling into a new country is like getting used to a pair of shoes. At first they pinch a little, but you like the way they look, so you carry on. The longer you have them, the more comfortable they become. Until one day without realizing it you reach a glorious plateau. Wearing those shoes is like wearing no shoes at all. The more scuffed they get, the more you love them and the more you can’t imagine life without them” (pp.29–30).

These new shoes still pinch a lot, and the supermarket is always transporting me somewhere far away from here. Maybe that is the point?

5. Kakao Goddess

17 December 2012, local supermarket

At this moment, I have been in Copenhagen since the beginning of August (2012) and I haven’t met a single Black woman in person, but I keep meeting them in relation to food: coffee, chocolate, cake. The face of easy pleasure and strangely always decapitated; cut at the tract that connects body to mind, breath to voice. Are these women the spice heating the Danish kitchen table in the depths of winter?

6. Consuming contested cartographies

12 March 2013

Lynchburg Lemonade?! Do they even know where that is? Why is the American South suddenly so appealing? Had it occurred to them that Lynchburg was a historical site of unspeakable suffering, as Virginia’s enslaved peoples cultivated pungent tobacco for others to smoke, spit and chew. Rivers and canals strengthening the trade of products made for almost nothing. The word “lynch” rings like the crack of a whip, a disgusting method of torture and then the name of that mythical man who claimed to have the formula for making and breaking slaves. Lynchburg—Willie Lynch—The Lynching Tree: Naming is so important.

7. Wild Tastes

15 May 2013, Copenhagen Airport

Apparently there is nothing refined about Australian dining, except perhaps the wine that might come with your meal.

How could a photograph of an Indigenous Australian be so flagrantly appropriated as a visual prop for even more consumption? What strikes me is that your body is marker of authenticity. Clearly, none of the more generic tropes (like a Kangaroo or a boomerang) have quite the same ability to recall the imagined drama of “original man” hunting for his prey than the clay covered face and torso of an Aboriginal. But close cut framing cages the wild man, for we do not see you in motion with a hunting spear but as a head and shoulders just capable of raising a glass.

8. Organic Cape Town Roast

9 August 2014, Juice Bar

Bell Hooks articulated this moment, better than I ever could:

“It is precisely that longing for the pleasure that has led the white west to sustain a romantic fantasy of the ‘primitive’ and the concrete search for a real primitive paradise, whether that location be a country or a body, a dark continent or dark flesh, perceived as the perfect embodiment of the possibility. Within this fantasy of otherness, the longing for pleasure is projected as a force that can disrupt and subvert the will to dominate.” (Black Looks, p.27)

9. A cake to ease a troubled conscience

11 January 2015, the high street

1 Flødebolle (a chocolate covered cream bun, once called negerbolle and negerkys) = 1 day’s wages in Africa.

Is that all of Africa? A sugary solution to the problems of an imaginary continent/country that is supposed to make you feel good for doing better.

How many chocolaty kisses will it take?

10. Original Sin, or, Black Eve and her apple

14 April 2015, local supermarket

If you look at the spectrum of historical representations of African women in literature and visual culture, overwhelmingly she is characterised as an exotic mantrap; highly sexualised, easy to capture, and possessing a sort of magical charm that eclipses all reason. I wonder what prompted this reworking of the creation story, as Adam is lured by Black Eve and her apples? The Belgian brand, Kanzi, asks us to “seduce life” with this cross breed apple of Gala meets Braeburn. So, the mix is transformed into a vision of cross-racial seduction. Is Black Eve an “original sin” or the mother of the modern world?

11. Incessant noise, or, Little Black Sambo

17 May 2015, raw food café

An English housewife in colonial India, at the very end of the 19th century, decided to turn the stories she told her children into a book. Little Black Sambo (1899) adopted the racial lingua of the time, transforming the locals into a bizarre mix of minstrel actors and African savages.

In America and the UK, it is considered a highly offensive text, exemplary of overt racism in children’s literature that is enacted both in the illustrations and the text. The story has been discussed by some scholars as a work of resistance, since it makes Sambo a hero by defeating the evil tigers who could arguably be read as colonists.

In Denmark this book is both popular and widely read in primary schools. But every time I see this book in public space, I want to scream.

For in my mind it represents a damaging form of first contact for Danish children and the “other”. I would argue that Sambo, and his parents Black Mumbo and Black Jumbo, literally line the foundations of early-years racial thinking; and in this place where nothing else works to counteract the simplified tropes of another age (the panorama of zulu sweets and chocolate women), what should we expect to be the outcomes of this conditioning?

About the Author

Temi Odumosu is an art historian and a postdoctoral researcher for the Living Archives research project. Her research and curatorial practice is concerned with the visual politics of slavery and colonialism, Africa in the archives, Afro-Diaspora aesthetics, media images of Blackness and Africa, and the psychosocial consequences of distorted representations. Under the ‘Performing Memory’ strand of Living Archives, she is currently working with Augmented Reality (AR) experimentally, as tool for interfering with colonial amnesia.

Suggested Readings

Faulkner, Janette et al. Ethnic Notions: Black Images in the White Mind: An Exhibition of Afro-American Stereotype and Caricature from the Collection of Janette Faulkner September 12—November 4, 1982. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Art Center, 1982.

Fleetwood, Nicole R. Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Hooks, Bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1992.

Keskinen, Suvi et al, eds. Complying with Colonialism: Gender, Race and Ethnicity in the Nordic Region. Farnham; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009.

McEachrane, Michael, ed. Afro-Nordic Landscapes: Equality and Race in Northern Europe. New York: Routledge, 2014.

McGillis, Roderick. Voices of the Other: Children’s Literature and the Postcolonial Context. New York, NY: Garland Pub, 2000.

O’Barr, William M. Culture and the Ad: Exploring Otherness in the World of Advertising. Boulder, Colo: Westview Press, 1994.

Naum, Magdalena and Jonas M. Nordin, eds. Scandinavian Colonialism and the Rise of Modernity Small Time Agents in a Global Arena. New York: Springer, 2013.

Reynolds, Nedra. Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007 (esp. chapter 5 “Learning to Dwell: Inhabiting spaces and discourses”, pp.139–177).

Shah, Tahir. In Arabian Nights: In Search of Morocco Through Its Stories and Storytellers. London: Bantam, 2009.

Verdecchia, Guillermo. Fronteras Americanas: (American Borders). Burnaby, BC: Talon Books, 1997.