I finally made it to the Angelo Soliman exhibition today at the Vienna City Museum. I was right to be excited. The exhibition is the closest I’ve ever seen in Austria to my ideal of what museums are and what they should do.
By way of background, Angelo Soliman (c.1721 - 1796) was an African (exact details of his early life are unknown beyond that) who came to Europe as an enslaved child. After reaching pubescence the “Coffee Moors” - as young African boys who served in aristocratic houses were called - were often left to a life of destitution. Angelo Soliman became a soldier and eventually reached Vienna, where he served in the house of Liechtenstein, receiving a wage. After secretly marrying and contravening the rules for servants in the home, he went on to live with his life and daughter, becoming a prominent member of Viennese Society and a Freemason, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Mozart (the exhibition has proof of their meeting in the form of a guestbook for a Lodge that shows they attended at least one meeting together). However, after his death his body was desecrated by the director of the Emperor’s private museum, who removed his skin and displayed him wearing feathers, disregarding his life and achievements and making him an exotic specimen. Despite his daughter Josephine’s protests, his remains were displayed until destroyed by fire in the October Revolution of 1848.
However, the exhibition is not a simple retelling of his life. Instead, the curators have used Soliman as the focal point in describing the depiction of Africans in Austria and how they have been perceived over time. Beginning with how Europeans thought of Africa in the Middle Ages and leading right through to the present day treatment of immigrants and people of African descent. Paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries are thoughtfully displayed alongside information about the life of the African children depicted, whose names have been lost to history, rather than the illustrious people the portraits are meant to glorify. The slave shackles could have been better used as a way to bring in how many enslaved Africans were mistreated, even after their initial capture and to balance the paintings, were the children are shown well-dressed and healthy looking.
Disappointingly, the articles on loan from the Ethnographic Museum to show the likely place of Soliman’s birth and West African material culture at the time, were in their own enclave, separate from all the otherwise European objects, and serving to reinforce a sense of ‘otherness’.
The most exciting thing about this exhibition was the was that the themes of racism, prejudice and the treatment of people of African descent are continued post 1800. In Austria still, chocolate cake with whipped cream is called “Mohr im Hemd” (Moor in a shirt) and it’s not uncommon to find paprika based dishes described as “Zigeuner” (Gypsy). The exhibition draws attention to some of these everyday references, as well as cases of great injustice against the African community, including police brutality in the 1990s. Also interesting were the details of various projects that have sought to reexamine history and expland the established narrative of ‘Vienna’s history’.
The exhibition finishes with a multimedia installation. Visitors can listen to the reactions of people of African descent in Vienna - both immigrants and born-and-bred Viennese - to Soliman’s story and to questions such as “is Vienna today an open society?”. Their answers are honest and insightful. They also echoed some of my own experiences of being non-Austrian in Vienna, particularly the change that takes place during elections. As soon as the posters for the further Right parties (looking at you, FPÖ and BZÖ) go up, people are suddenly much more willing to call you out on public transport for speaking a language other than German, or embarrass themselves by conspiratively passing a comment about others nearby, not realising they have picked altogether the wrong audience.
The Soliman exhibition is so exciting, not only because of the subject and specific themes it has chosen to address, but because it shows an exciting direction I hope other Austrian museum will follow about the role of the museum in society.