The Bamum Kingdom, Colonialism, and German Expressionist Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

By Clemens Ottenhausen
March 9, 2024
Index Magazine

The Bamum Kingdom, Colonialism, and German Expressionist Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

A small terracotta figurine with an oval headpiece.
Unknown artist, Bamum Kingdom (modern-day Republic of Cameroon), Ki-kuet pue (clay pipe bowl), undated. Terracotta. Harvard University, Museum Purchase, Huntington Frothingham Wolcott Fund, 1930, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, 30-2-50/B4923.

German expressionist Karl Schmidt-Rottluff included a clay pipe bowl (Ki-kuet pue) from the Bamum Kingdom (modern-day Republic of Cameroon) in his painting. How did this object become part of his private collection?

On loan from Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, three clay pipe bowls (Ki-kuet pue) from the Bamum Kingdom in the grasslands of today’s Cameroon are on view in the Busch-Reisinger Museum galleries (Gallery 1440) until March 11. The objects strongly resemble a pipe bowl in Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s painting Still Life.

Schmidt-Rottluff’s 1913 painting is a well-known and joyful celebration of colors and forms in everyday objects. Generously applied strokes of blue, green, red, and yellow oil paint fill out the bold, black contours of six different vessels. Their strong colors and harmonious forms are in conversation, each one picking up on details in the shapes and hues of its neighbors.   

Prominently standing in the center of this hexagonal composition is a crouching brown figure holding its arms between its head and knees. Although to some degree simplified, the object can be identified as a ceramic pipe bowl from the Bamum Kingdom of western Cameroon that Schmidt-Rottluff held in his private collection of colonial objects.

Artists from the Bamum Kingdom were celebrated in their time for the exceptional quality of their ceramic art. It is important to acknowledge those artists and their work and to interpret the objects in light of the changing colonial politics and the manifold motivations for dispersing them in collections far from their origins. From 1884 to 1919, the Bamum Kingdom, as well as other large areas of Africa and Asia, were colonized by the German Empire. Colonial collections were often acquired through military campaigns, raiding, and looting; the Benin Bronzes are a notorious example. While taking place in a colonial framework, the exchange between the German Empire and the Bamum Kingdom was less violent. It seems fair to assume that the pipe bowl in Schmidt-Rottluff’s possession did not leave the kingdom against the will of its Mfon (King) Ibrahim Njoya. The rapid surge of Bamum artwork in Germany, particularly between 1902 and 1915, was facilitated by the importance of gift exchange in Bamum culture. Njoya’s strategy of accommodation and alliance with the new power also helped fulfill his own political ambitions. A wealth of photographs attests to many diplomatic missions and gatherings between the Germans and the Bamum nobility.

Although pipes with anthropomorphic features were permitted to be used only by noblemen, such as members of the royal family—because the imagery represents leadership and reminds viewers of the kingdom’s social hierarchy—they were also presented as gifts and sold to the delegates and institutions of the empire. To meet rising demands, Njoya increased workshop production. Consequently, the Bamum Kingdom held a prominent place in the German colonial imagination from the first official encounter between the two groups in 1902 until the expulsion of German nationals from the colonies in 1915.

In the regions of the German Empire across Asia and Africa, human remains, natural resources, and countless objects and artworks were removed, often through coercion or violence. The objects were brought to political and cultural centers such as Berlin and Dresden, where colonial displays and museums were established to shape the German people’s relationship to “its” overseas territories. To maintain and stabilize existing power structures, this relationship replicated the racism that is colonialism’s foundation.

As a result of the increasing presence of colonial visions of African cultures, artists of the German expressionist group Die Brücke (The Bridge), such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Pechstein, and Schmidt-Rottluff, became interested in such colonial objects and even started their own collections. Schmidt-Rottluff owned not only Bamum pipe bowls but many other artworks, of which 100 remain in Berlin’s Brücke Museum. The painter was fascinated by Bamum artists’ ability to capture the human form with just a few skillfully carved lines. He surrounded himself with these objects and kept returning to them as source material for his still lifes and as stylistic models for portraits. For example, the solidity of form and the character of the linework in the woodcut Mother (1916) resembles the carving in the pipe bowl.

The three Peabody Museum Ki-kuet pue with anthropomorphic designs originating from the Bamum Kingdom were made by skilled ceramic artists who used a variety of tools to carve directly into the wet clay. Once the objects had dried, they were fired. The pipes turned brown or reddish, depending on the clay and the firing temperature. Surfaces were often varnished with a coat of soot and plant sap.

Harvard’s Ki-kuet pue were collected by George W. Schwab, a Presbyterian missionary in Cameroon from 1905 to 1941. Observing and writing about Indigenous groups such as the Basa and Bamum, he gathered objects and specimens of local flora and fauna for research in the 1920s. Schwab had become officially affiliated with the Peabody Museum in 1918, and he transferred his collection to the museum around 1930.

In Schwab’s day, Germany’s defeat in World War I prompted the confiscation of the colonies through the League of Nations, which eventually entrusted France and Great Britain with the new colonial administration. At this point, the Mfon Njoya’s previous cooperation with the German Empire was now held against the ruler. The French reduced Njoya’s powers, among other ways, by controlling artistic production and supporting Njoya’s political rival, Mosé Yéyab. With help from the French administration, Yéyab pushed for further commodification of Bamum artists’ production, which no longer had to adhere to ceremonial, religious, or social rules. Textiles, carved panels, tables, chairs, thrones, bronze casts, and a multitude of ceramic objects became major exports. Pipes ranked among the most popular objects, in part thanks to their affordability. A 1927 ready-to-order list of products from the artisanal workshops in Foumban, the kingdom’s capital, demonstrates the advanced degree of commercialization of these objects.

It is part of colonialism’s complexity that the German Empire, in 1902, entered diplomatic relations with the Bamum Kingdom in the colony of Kamerun (now known as Cameroon) and, only two years later, waged a genocide against the Herero and Namaqua in German South West Africa. Racism and exploitation were at the base of all German-African encounters, with mass murder and political recognition being part of the same history. The Ki-kuet pue that are subjects or inspiration in Schmidt-Rottluff’s work exemplify the expressionists’ appropriation of the visual culture of Indigenous peoples in German colonies at the time. Despite occasional criticism of the lack of knowledge about the artworks in colonial collections, most collectors were not interested in the history of these objects; even those who were often tried ceaselessly to acquire historical pieces that were still in use by their communities.

The juxtaposition of Schmidt-Rottluff’s Still Life and Mother with representative examples of Ki-kuet pue in the Harvard Art Museums galleries presents their once-known makers as equals and allows us to begin telling their histories. The ceramic artists held privileged positions close to the court, but because the Bamum Kingdom never had any clay depositories, trade and migrating artists are key in the history of their ceramic production. Bamum culture has been characterized by great diversity and inclusion, which made it much more dynamic and modern than the colonizers and collectors were able to recognize. Consequently, the Ki-kuet pue challenge common Eurocentric stereotypes about other cultures as well as the understanding of agency in colonial power structures.


Clemens Ottenhausen is the former Renke B. and Pamela M. Thye Curatorial Fellow in the Busch-Reisinger Museum at the Harvard Art Museums (2022–23). He is currently Project Coordinator at the Archiv der Avantgarden in Dresden.