Blackness On and Beyond the Transparent Windowpanes: Notes on the Ghosts of Colonialism in Lithuanian Streets
Photography: Rado Ištok
Last October, while hosting a residency at Nida Art Colony, I went to the city of Klaipėda with two of the visiting artists to see the local museums and enjoy the perks of urban life after weeks spent in Nida’s spectacular landscape of sand dunes, forest and ever-changing sea. When we arrived, we sat down for a cup of coffee to refresh ourselves after the journey. As I looked out of the window, I noticed that the windowpanes had large vinyl stickers affixed to them with the logo of the café: two coffee cups placed next to each other to form a pair of eyes, cup handles standing in for ears, and a coffee bean forming lips, resulting in a racist image of a Black person. In this essay, I propose to examine the stereotypical racial imagery of the café and shop windows as transparent interfaces between public and private space in Lithuania and Eastern Europe in relation to the region’s complicit yet often ignored relationship with the histories of colonial and racist violence. As I am in no position of authority to address colonial legacies in Lithuania, I will limit myself to a few observations from my visits to Lithuania over the past three years and the ways in which these moments overlap with my current inquiry into my native country, the former Czechoslovakia.
It is generally assumed that Eastern Europe had little to do with colonialism. In fact, postcolonial theory has often been applied in the countries of Eastern Europe in relation to the Habsburg and the Russian empires, the Soviet Union, and even the EU. Still, following conversations in the Nordic and Central European countries like Sweden, Austria, and Switzerland – which either did not have colonies or had relatively limited direct involvement, yet were complicit with Western European colonialism and imperialism and benefited from it in direct and indirect ways – Eastern Europe too is slowly embarking on a journey of self-reflection in this regard.1 In a way, we find ourselves in a position similar to the 1990s and early 2000s in the aforementioned regions where, unlike the UK and the USA, academic discussion was largely, although not exclusively, raised by white feminist scholars who – like few Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) at that time – secured academic and other institutional positions.2 While decolonial discourse in North-Western and Central Europe today is largely driven by the voices of BIPOC, such voices are still rare in Eastern Europe. The Vietnamese community and other minority communities which can be traced to the global alliances of the Eastern bloc prior to 1989 have to be acknowledged here, yet immigration to Eastern Europe is largely impeded by strict laws and a refusal to accept refugees and asylum seekers. Given this backdrop, this paper is written from a position of a white Eastern European writer addressing the history of the region.
From my first visit, Vilnius felt familiar: its splendour of Baroque churches and the miseries of its potholes reminded me of my hometown and the Slovak capital Bratislava, where I was also working at the time, after years of living in minimalist and polished Scandinavia. Both Slovakia and Lithuania also felt overwhelmingly homogenous compared to diverse, although often segregated, Scandinavia. Yet from time to time images of Blackness would appear, seemingly out of nowhere. Walking across the Town Hall Square in Vilnius towards the Orthodox Church of Saint Paraskeva – where Abram Petrovich Hannibal, the Black great-grandfather of Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, was allegedly baptised in 1705 3 – a shop window caught my attention. Two decorative glass figures on display, one white and one black, reminded me of the controversial Prada figurines that appeared to contain blackface imagery and were displayed in the luxury brand’s New York store.4 During my most recent visit to Vilnius in February, I walked past the display window of an antique shop in Trakų street and spotted a ‘blackamoor’ chandelier. Similar figures of African men in exoticising attire and in positions of servitude can be traced to seventeenth century Italy and specifically the wood sculptor Andrea Brustolon. These figures, pointing to the role of Black people in early modern Europe as footmen, valets and waiters, continue to resurface in historic Italian palaces and villas,5 contemporary collections of Italian luxury fashion houses,6 as well as elsewhere in Europe and even the USA.
Photography: Rado Ištok
Encountering the colonial figure of a Black lamp holder in an antique shop in Vilnius seemed both out of place and uncannily familiar. It reminded me of the sculptural decoration of the Morzin Palace in Prague whose balcony is supported by two Atlantes in the shape of African men sculpted by the Baroque sculptor Ferdinand Maxmilian Brokoff. In that particular case the image of enslavement had its root in the name of the palace’s owner, the Count of Morzin. The pronunciation of his name resembled ‘Mohr’, the German word for a ‘Moor’, as preserved until today in the Berlin street and its eponymous metro station Mohrenstrasse. In Czech art history and during my studies in Prague, it has always been dismissed as an ‘innocent’ pun,7 since the Habsburg empire did not have colonies nor formally engage in trade with enslaved people.8 Yet Black people did arrive in the Habsburg Bohemia as war booty from military campaigns against the Ottoman Turks – in which Count Morzin actively participated – and from the slave markets of Southern Europe, Italy in particular. During my subsequent research I thus came across the portrait of Joseph ‘the Moroccan’, an elderly Black man wearing a livery, a white turban, and a pearl earring.9
According to the inscription below the portrait, Joseph was captured as a child – probably on the coast of North Africa – by the Bohemian nobleman Freiherr Mitrovsky and baptised in Syracuse, Sicily, in 1698. From 1728 until his death in 1777, i.e. for almost fifty years, he served three generations of the Counts Novohradsky of Kolovrat, Bohemian noblemen who held the highest political ranks at the Habsburg court in Vienna and owned land and castles in Western Bohemia. The discovery of Joseph, despite its singularity, has proven to me that when it came to Black servants dressed in orientalising liveries and serving in noble European households, Bohemian nobility was no exception.10 Symptomatically, I didn’t come across Joseph’s portrait in Czech literature, but instead in the online magazine The Root which featured a short text on the portrait in collaboration with The Image of the Black Archive & Library at the W. E. B. Du Bois Research Institute at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Harvard University. Founded in the 1960s by the art patrons Jean and Dominique de Ménil as a response to segregation in the USA, the project and photo archive has published five multi-part volumes titled The Image of the Black in Western Art (ten books in total between 2010 and 2014) tracing the depiction of Black people in Western art from Antiquity to the twentieth century.11 When searching for more information on Joseph in these books, I realised not only that Joseph was missing, but the whole of Eastern Europe from Vienna to Saint Petersburg was almost completely absent. While Black people were no doubt less numerous in Eastern Europe, Joseph’s case had proven that this absence was not a reflection of a complete absence of Black people in Eastern Europe, but rather a lack of research on Eastern Europe and the limitations of the given US archive founded during the Cold War. Just as Black studies remain a blind spot in Eastern Europe, Eastern Europe continues to be the blind spot of Black studies scholars, with the notable exception of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.12
The only other exception was a series of four large paintings with strong sexual undertones by Johann Samuel Mock, a court painter to the electors of Saxony. Originally located in the Saxon Palace, the Warsaw residence of Augustus II the Strong, Elector of Saxony and the elected King of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (1697–1706 and again 1709–1733), the paintings are today in the collection of the Royal Castle in Warsaw. Two of these paintings, A Black Page Caressing a Shepherdess and Sgr. Jonimo and the Moor Friederica, depict Black people at the court of the Elector of Saxony, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, and the two other paintings are Orientals Throwing Dice and Orientals Drinking Coffee. While the Black page in the first painting belonged to the King’s Turkish Guards, the richly dressed Black woman named Friederica in the other painting, also accompanied by a Black page bringing forth a parrot, is described as the favourite of the King. Among the royal mistresses of Augustus, who seems to have emulated the power, display and sexuality associated with the Ottoman court,13 also belonged Fatima Kariman, one of the many Turkish captives during the Battle of Buda. Later known as Maria Aurora von Spiegel, she bore the King two children which he acknowledged as his.
Moreover, the 2017 exhibition Global Player at Dresden Royal Palace, dedicated to Saxony’s interconnections with the world, included a sketch for the festive costume for ‘August the Strong as Chief of the Africans’ in which we see the monarch in blackface and a crown-headdress with ostrich feathers. As the curators pointed out, “The fact that this interplay was never a one-sided process is made clear from the example of the export of linen from Saxony: it was used as a trade commodity in the transatlantic slave trade as far as West Africa and the Caribbean.”14 Although Augustus had, besides his title of the Grand Duke of Lithuania, little connection to Vilnius and is mostly remembered for his Baroque palaces in Dresden and Warsaw, Lithuania was at this time a semi-peripheral part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, perhaps similar to Bohemia’s position within Austria. Is it then possible that Black people might have been found in the households of the Lithuanian nobility, such as the Radvilas (Radziwiłłs) for example, just like the Bohemian Kolovrats? And how would this possibility change our understanding of the ‘blackamoor’ chandelier in an antique store in Vilnius or the omnipresent linen goods stores in Lithuania?
Since the eighteenth century, Black and Brown figures can be seen in European art and visual culture not only in a generic position of servitude, but also in a particular position of serving coffee, which entered Europe during the wars with the Ottoman Turks. Orientals Drinking Coffee from the Warsaw series has many counterparts including Charles André van Loo’s Portrait of Madame de Pompadour en sultane (1754, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg) with a female Black servant offering the favourite of the French King Louis XV a cup of coffee. The link between coffee and Black figures survived into the nineteenth and twentieth century. In the Czech context, the logo of Karel Kulík, the main coffee purveyor in early 1900s Prague, thus depicted a head of a Black man in a white turban and earrings. In 1922, a figure of a Black man in a turban and with a coffee cup was adopted by the Czech avant-garde artist and graphic designer Zdenek Rykr for Kofila, a coffee-flavoured chocolate bar produced by the Orion chocolate factory. Two years later the Austrian designer Josef Binder designed the logo of the Viennese coffee purveyor Julius Meinl with a Black man wearing a fez and earrings, referencing the legend in which sacks of coffee were left behind by the retreating Ottoman army after the siege of Vienna. 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 orientalising fez.15 The logo of the café in Klaipėda as mentioned in the opening of this essay thus cannot be divorced from this genealogy of images linking coffee to Black figures.16
Photography: Rado Ištok
In 1924, when Binder designed the Meinl coffee logo in Vienna, Klaipėda – known until 1919 as East Prussian Memel – became part of Lithuania and management of its port was passed to the directorate consisting of the representatives of the Lithuanian state, the Klaipėda region and the League of Nations. The port of Klaipėda entered a new flourishing era with the Lithuanian state’s investment of 42 million litas into the construction of new infrastructure and the founding of various companies, including the Lithuanian Shipping Company.17 When researching the visual representation of coffee and chocolate in Czechoslovakia, I realised the crucial role of the connection to Hamburg’s port through the river Elbe for the import of the ‘colonial goods’ (Kolonialwaren). In the case of Lithuania, Klaipėda was, as other Baltic ports, a site of export of raw materials such as timber, fur, wax, honey, potash, flax, hemp and grain, and import of manufactured articles, salt and – since the eighteenth century – ‘colonial goods’ including coffee. Although these goods didn’t arrive in Klaipėda directly from the colonies and were most likely shipped via the large sea ports of Hamburg and Bremen, Klaipėda was nevertheless Lithuania’s gateway to the (colonial) world. As John P. LeDonne explains in the example of Danzig (Gdańsk) and Riga, also historically German cities, “the power that controls the estuary of a river controls the trade of its hinterland,”18 which in Klaipėda’s case translated into control over the basin of the Neman river with an estuary in the Curonian Lagoon, which in turn linked to the Baltic sea via the Klaipėda Strait. In 1924, Lithuania thus gained both better control over the economy of the hinterland and, in part, its maritime trade, which e Germany had a monopoly on until 1919, including the import of coffee and other ‘colonial goods’. It is in the light of this history that I propose to view the stereotypical and racially insensitive café logo in Klaipėda.
In the past weeks we have witnessed Black Lives Matter protests against the anti-Black violence and systemic racism in the USA and Europe, in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In many places, the protests were accompanied by a new wave of people toppling monuments that commemorate figures associated with colonialism and racism.19 How do we relate to these events in Eastern Europe? Although Vilnius has been divided over the new face of the Lukiškės Square, where the Lenin monument used to stand between 1953 and 1991, public space in Eastern Europe is rarely a site for colonial monuments. A curious exception is the Vilnius Compass (2017), a mosaic in the pavement of the Town Hall Square, which, in a Columbus or Crusader way, commemorates the Lithuanian statesman Nicholas Christopher Radziwill’s pilgrimage to the ‘Holy Land’ between 1582 and 1584, “thus opening the road to the East to the society of the Great Duchy of Lithuania.”20 In the case of Eastern Europe, as I attempted to demonstrate in this essay based on a few observations, colonial reminders and racial imagery seem more often to be un-monumental and found on the transparent interface of public and private commercial space, in shop windows and on café windows. These encounters are perhaps less related to concrete historical figures and events but rather potential triggers for our re-examination of the ways in which global colonial histories intersected with Lithuanian history from the times of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and Russian Empire to independent interwar Lithuania, the Soviet Union, and contemporary Lithuania as an EU member state.
The author would like to thank to Santiago Mostyn and Mariam Elnozahy for reading the draft of this essay and for their valuable comments.
This text was originaly published on echo gone wrong's website.