b.O.s. 10.3 / They Tried to Bury Us / Henriette Gunkel

Black One Shot stages brevity and precision in response to the art of blackness, contemporary and/or prescient. At 1000 words a pop, these pieces divest from academic respectability to inhabit the speculative, ambivalent, irreconcilable ways of black forms, and move through the fires this time. Seditiously, we are object forward, conjuring up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object and keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness. We hold fast to the given/taken works, the cultural productions without reduction, the condition of knowing all-too-well, and the imagining of something otherwise. Object love in the time of pandemics and insurrections. 

b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2020, come what may. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, Aurelie Matheron, and Irenae Aigbedion of ASAP/J.

– Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)

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Installation view, Academy of Arts in Berlin, November 2019. Image taken by Isabel Tueumuna Katjavivi

All your buried corpses now begin to speak”.

James Baldwin1

When you enter the room, the exhibition floor of They Tried to Bury Us is covered in sand and stones interspersed with grass.2 Numerous fragile face casts lie half-buried in the sand. Made out of air-dried clay, the face casts are partly broken or marked. The casts are the artist’s face, multiplied.3 As the exhibition continues, footprints increase on the sand’s surface. It is difficult to enter the exhibition space and not contribute to this transformation, thus sharing in the feeling of walking on remains that speaks to Namibia’s past as well as present. 

The half-buried faces commemorate those who died during the genocide of the OvaHerero and Nama people under German colonial rule in 1904-08; a genocide for which Germany has not officially apologized up until today and which a large number of the German Namibian community fail to acknowledge.4 Mass graves are still being found today and so one literally walks on bones when moving around the country – sometimes unknowingly, as for example, during a visit to the Independence Memorial Museum in Windhoek that is built on the site of the Orumborombondi concentration camp. Other times, one walks knowingly, as in the case of the unmarked gravesite on the brink of the coastal town of Swakopmund where thousands of OvaHerero war prisoners, who died in one of the town’s two concentration camps, are buried. Until fairly recently the site was not walled in, and white people would walk or drive their bikes straight across the gravesites to reach the dry riverbed and dunes. This constant movement brings splinters of human remains to the surface, unburying what had been buried. As such the Namibian landscape is understood as a space of death, as what Jill H. Casid calls a necroscape, which for her is a move from death “as the opposite of life, to death as felt, material presence and active process by giving us death as a scene in which we are vulnerably situated” (239).5 What Katjavivi lays out in her work is affective vulnerability. More than that, as a complicit interlocutor who participates in transforming this landscape, the viewer is forced to emotionally connect with the history and join in what Christina Sharpe calls wake work when she tries to understand how something may be memorialized when it is still unfolding.6  Katjavivi reminds us of the challenges of writing this OvaHerero and Nama history.

Installation view, Academy of Arts in Berlin, November 2019. Image taken by Isabel Tueumuna Katjavivi

The historical context of this necroscape is further evident in a 2-screen video on one wall, which combines film and photography. Images include von Trotha’s 1904 extermination order for the OvaHerero, issued in response the Namibian communities uprising next to calm waters with grass in the foreground. Other images include close ups of sand and stones, a photograph of the Waterberg, where the key battle was fought,7 as well as von Trotha’s extermination order for the Nama people, issued in 1905. Images of the face casts buried at the beach and washed over by water8 are put in proximity to a succession of images: of the sky, a tree against the sky that was used for hanging people and a close up of the tree bark that bears the marks of that history. This is followed by a quote by Adelaide Puriza explaining the impossibility of divorcing the land issue from reparation.9 We further see a photograph of large boulders; high grass, bushes; another close up of sand and stones; sequenced by a quote from Anna Martin telling her grandfather’s story about the mass killings of the San people at a place called Kierikos.10 The looped video ends with a glimpse of a German gravesite next to an image of the casts buried unmarked in the sand; and Governor Seitz’s declaration legalizing the shooting of the San issued in 1911. It thus draws continuities beyond the period that defines the genocide.

Amidst the workings of these visuals, the installation puts the archive and history into ongoing motion. Still images become moving images, which in the context of being in the wake, opens up the question of what the boundaries are between life and non-life11 What are the traces of life? And how can we find these traces not only in the landscapes but also in the people that follow, such as the artist herself whose face we encounter in the casts? Are these traces amongst those that live in the aftermath of colonialism and genocide?

Still life in this installation then can be understood as there is still life.

They Tried to Bury Us introduces a stillness that in some form always still lives on. It is held in the spectral, in bodies that come after, in their families. The history of colonialism and the genocide become part of a living memory, passed down from generation to generation. It is this understanding of blackness as a material and visual process bound to the still existing past that is shared and produced with the audience.

In the current discussion around reparation, remains are primarily discussed in relation to human remains brought to Germany for so-called scientific research that ended up in museum archives and private collections. Katjavivi expands on this notion of remains by shifting to the materiality of the environment and hence on elements that move within deep geological time. Unburying this history becomes a relation between the different elements of the installation. The grass, soil, trees, clouds, air, water, rocks alongside the archival material and personal memories hold information about the genocide and its afterlives.12 

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This is one of four essays from the tenth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:

b.O.s. 10.1/Black 14/Samantha N. Sheppard 
b.O.s. 10.2/Operation Catsuit/Courtney R. Baker 
b.O.s. 10.4/Rebirth Is Necessary/Christina Knight

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Lisa Uddin is author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), and has recent writing in the volume Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020), ASAP/J, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Postmodern Culture. She’s here for the freedom.

Michael Boyce Gillespie is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). His recent work has appeared in Black Light: A Retrospective of International Black CinemaFlash ArtUnwatchable, and Film Quarterly. He hopes that people are still outraged in November.


  1. This quote by Baldwin was written on the wall as part of the exhibition when shown for the first time, at the National Art Gallery of Namibia in Windhoek in 2018.
  2. They tried to bury us, an ongoing project, is a continuation of Katjavivi’s 2017 art piece, The past is not buried. The exhibition was shown, amongst others, at the Academy of Arts in Berlin at the end of November 2019 as part of the Colonial Repercussions program.
  3. At Colonial Repercussions in Berlin in 2019, Katjavivi states how she abandoned the decision to cast other people’s bodies/faces as this was too close to colonial practices for so-called scientific research during colonial times. By bringing in her own face she also marks this even more so as her perspective. See artist conversation:
  4. Today’s Namibia was under Germany colonial rule from 1884 till the end of WWI. During the genocide of 1904-08, an estimated 80% of the OvaHerero and 50% of the Nama people were killed.
  5. Casid is interesting here as the text refers to a Transgender Memorial Garden in St. Louis, Missouri planted by members of the Metro Trans Umbrella Group dedicated to those lives lost in anti-trans violence worldwide. At the entrance it states “The tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” Katjavivi’s looped moving image installation “ends” with this idea of seeds and plant growth.
  6. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 20.
  7. In 1904 the OvaHerero forces (which were mainly civilians) were surrounded at the Waterberg/Ohamakari by the German Schutztruppe. As they had no ammunition left to resist the artillery, the OvaHereros broke through one of the flanks to attempt to flee to Botswana via the Omaheke desert. The Omaheke desert had little water sources to survive; and the Schutztruppe followed them to kill them directly or to poison the few water holes.

    For more information see, Casper W. Erichsen and David Olusoga, The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism (London: Faber and Faber, 2010).

  8. This link between sand and the ocean brings the concentration camp on the peninsula Shark Island near Lüderitz into focus where those killed were either buried in mass graves or thrown into the sea. Some of those bodies that entered the ocean were washed back to the shore.
  9. “The graves of our loved ones and fathers….We want those places to come back to us….we lived there, we can go back there and show them where our houses were and where the kraal was. We want to be buried with our loved one, but the land was taken away…. From here to Gobabis ‘Epako,‘ this place is full of graves of the Hereros….it’s all a graveyard….the Kavangos, when they die, they are buried next to their fathers from who they took over, but for us we have to be buried in land which was strange to us.” (Quote from the installation).
  10. “My grandfather told me all these stories. The Germans were patrolling the water pans on horseback or with camels. The Germans killed many Sans people at Kierikos, including old, young and pregnant women….Our people’s bones are lying like that at Kierikos. My grandfather told me, that vultures fed on the carcasses of the San people almost three months.” (quote from the installation)
  11. As Sharpe writes, “Wakes are processes; through them we think about the dead and about our relations to them; they are rituals through which to enact grief and memory” (17).
  12. The landscapes also hold evidence of black ordinary life which works against the settler colonialist idea of terra nullius and addresses the important issue of land restitution as part of the conversation about reparations.