German artist collective steal Beuys work in reverse-colonialism stunt

It feels a little like a homemade pop music video complete with cheesy dance sequences and slow, dramatic panning of its three young stars posing on a mountain top. In fact, the YouTube video, ‘Bad Beuys Go Africa’ is the political work of German artist collective Frankfurter Hauptschule.  

Known for their provocative political gestures, the approximately 20-member group has made this latest video to foreground the historic looting of artworks by European colonial powers. Set to Toto’s “Africa”, three members of the group filmed themselves stealing a Joseph Beuys work on what is believed to have been Sunday 18 October. The work belongs to the collection of the LWL Museum of Art and Culture in Münster. A quote from Beuys (1921-1986) appears on the screen, which reads “A work, once I gave it away, it is gone”.

Dressed in black balaclavas, the trio lift up the glass case and remove the German artist’s ‘Capri Battery’ (1985) where it had been on display as part of an exhibition at the Oberhausen City Theatre. Comprised of a yellow lightbulb and lemon, the work forms one of a series of 200, which are housed in collections around the world including the National Galleries of Scotland and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The pieces were created by Beuys while recovering from an illness on the Italian island and offer a playful commentary on energy and sustainability issues. 

The satirical video, which has had over 18,000 views, transitions to the artist collective boarding a flight to Africa, stopping off along the way for an airport foot massage and a rollick in the swimming pool of their Tanzanian hotel.

Finally, the group deliver the artwork to the Museum Iringa Boma and representatives of the Hehe tribe. ‘Under the colonial regime, art objects, cultural assets and skulls of Hehe leaders were stolen from Iringa and brought to Germany in inextricable numbers’, the group outlines in the description captioning the video. They explain that their gesture represents ‘a symbolic act of restitution’ to the former German colony of Tanzania.

Managing director of the Museum Iringa Boma, Jan Küver, said he welcomed Beuys’ artwork into its collection. He believes the collective’s actions constitute a reversal of the ‘historical relationship of looting culture and art’ and a call for the ‘return of human remains and cultural artifacts of the Hehe people that are still in custody of German museums’.

According to German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, it was days before anyone noticed the Beuys work was missing from the Oberhausen City Theatre exhibition. Director of the LWL Museum, Hermann Arnold, is ‘very dismayed’ by the stunt, and said he expected the theatre to ‘treat the works of art in the exhibition responsibly’. 

The theatre has filed a police report but a spokesperson from Frankfurter Hauptschule denied that any crime had taken place. ‘You call that theft?’, the spokesperson wrote in an email in which the collective claimed responsibility for the work’s disappearance. ‘You teach your children that stealing is evil and then you exhibit stolen goods, appropriated by force, in your museums’, they added.

Küver has acknowledged that the artwork may need to be returned to the LWL Museum in light of the police report.

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