Dresden, circa 1910–11. Lying naked on a divan in the studio of painter ernst Ludwig Kirchner is “Milli.” The artist delights in capturing her outlines. The result is the painting Schlafende Milli (Sleeping Milli, 1911). Kirchner’s eroticizing and exoticizing view of his model is all that remains of “Milli” (if that really was her name). “Milli” is silent, but the painting speaks volumes about how Black women have been reduced to anonymous objects of desire. It is one instance in a centuries-long history of Black people in Germany, a history that goes back centuries.
In 1986, Katharina Oguntoye, May Opitz (later May Ayim), and Dagmar Schultz publish the book Farbe bekennen. Afrodeutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte (Showing Our colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out). This point in time marks a strengthening of Black feminism and activism in Germany. Since then, two more generations of Afro-German women have grown up in Germany, and now Natasha A. Kelly picks up the thread of the story. Inspired by the tradition of quilting, Kelly’s film Millis Erwachen/Milli’s awakening (2018) brings together the voices of eight Black German women of different generations. Through their artistic practices they have defined self-determined positions within white German mainstream society. Like a quilt, the film unfolds in a way reflecting the diversity and interwoven nature of these (hi)stories.