Zenker, by Yana Wernicke and Jonas Feige

A new book published by Edition Patrick Frey looks at the life and legacy of Georg August Zenker, a German botanist and gardener 

der Bipindihof bei Nacht

Botany, by definition, is the study of plant life and biology. And those who take up the title of a botanist therefore seek to understand the science of this field, studying all sorts from flowers and fruits to plants, fungi and algae. Some of the earliest moments in botany hark back to herbalism and humanity’s efforts (and success) to identify medicinal, edible and poisonous plants, while later times ensued a western desire to collect and preserve botanicals for science, technology and knowledge. It also has a rich history in colonialism, too, where in the early modern world, botanical science was vital to the economy, and the environment was harvested and exploited for monetary gain. 

Georg August Zenker is a widely known name in the natural sphere. A German gardener and naturalist, he worked at the botanical gardens in Leipzig and Naples before travelling as a researcher to Africa in 1886 on behalf of the Italian government. He was also a colonial servant, put in charge of the Sibange Farm, and later worked as a preparator – responsible for the installation and de-installation of museum exhibitions – at Yaoundé Station in Cameroon, during which he would collect and cultivate native plants. According to the paper Zenker, Georg August (1855-1922), he was the only European on the Yaoundé Station, and he was cut off from outside contact due to hostilities between tribes of the Botanga coast and those of the hinterland (a German word for a settlement behind a coast or shoreline). In 1895, he quit the colonial service to return to Germany, but it wasn’t long until he returned back to Cameroon as a private citizen, founded a plantation and colonial-style house in Bipindi and grew coffee, cacao and rubber. In 1922, he passed away from problems with his kidneys.

Zenker left behind a legacy in the natural world (some of which is controversial), and his time spent in Cameroon involved collecting botanical, zoological and ethnographic items, which were then transported back to the western world in a number of Museums, mostly in Germany. He gained wide recognition for his work, and various African plant species were named after him, such as Agelaea zenkeri G. Schellenb., the Anthericum zenkeri Engl. and the Diplazium zenkeri Hieron. But it’s not just the fauna and species that bare his name years after his passing; he’s known to have lived a polygamous life at the station with several African women, some of whom had his children.

And now, his name and life has become the subject of a new book Zenker, created by two Berlin-based photographers Yana Wernicke and Jonas Feige, and published by Edition Patrick Frey. Looking at the history and repercussions of the German botanist and gardener, the project came about following an enduring interest in the topic. Yana, for example, had visited Cameroon for several months after school, which is where she became aware of Gorg and thought to focus her graduation project on his story while they were both still studying photography. “In 2013, we went to Cameroon and met the Zenker family for the first time,” says Yana. “We quickly realised that the story was too intricate and complex for a graduation project.” In 2016, the duo had visited the Zenker family once again in Bipindi and decided to take things further. “We were fascinated by Zenker and the contradictions both within his person as well as his actions. We were curious to visit his villa and meet his descendants, who still proudly carry the Zenker family name.”

Proceeding to photograph Gorg’s family in parts of Cameroon, Belgium and Germany, Zenker compiles real-time imagery of the present day along with interviews with his descendants, a biography of Zenker, as well as materials from Berlin museums and letters that Zenker had sent to Paul Matschie between 1896 and 1920 – Paul is the director of the mammals department at the Berlin Zoological Museum and one of the main purchasers of Zenker’s collections. “These letters near perfectly cover Zenker’s time at the Bipindihof, from its construction up until Zenker’s death there in 1922,” explains Jonas. “In the book, they are interspersed with out photographs from present day Bipindihof, paralleling two narratives that share the same place but have happened at very different times.”

Portrait of Jinior Zenkers

In terms of the museum tables specifically, this archival addition illustrates the many items he preserved over the years, some of which bare his title and can be viewed in museums today. In Zenker, these tables only depict a fraction of the work that Zenker had collected: “The lists raise many important questions about colonial booty, provenance, restitution and ownership,” notes Yana. Recent times have addressed these questions in the many, with the likes of Jonathan Jones penning in the Guardian how British museums “cannot any longer coldly keep hold of artistic treasures that were acquired in dubious circumstances a long time ago.” These lists in Zenker are not exhaustive yet still remain astonishingly large, depicting not only the collection (or smuggling) of plants and species taken from their native habitats, but also the killing of animals to then be prepped and sent off to be cased in museums. It’s a reminder of this period in time, detailing the extent to which colonialism and its violent, wealth and knowledge-craving ways were perpetuated throughout Europe.

Other pages of the book are more illusive than factual; there’s a photograph which apparently shows Zenker posing with a group of Cameroonian businessmen. “Most of the photographs we knew of Zenker were of the typical colonialist sort, depicting him, as the superior human being to the Cameroonian workers surrounding him,” adds Jonas. “We were fascinated by this image because it seemed to subvert those depictions of power. We later learned that the man in the photograph might not actually be Georg AUgust Zenker, but that this might be wishful thinking on the part of the Zenker family. In the book, we included the photograph regardless and contrasted with other photographs of Zenker so that the viewers themselves might decide to enjoy the fact that this question might not be answerable or that a definitive answer might not actually be desirable.”

This picture in some ways sets the tone for the entirety of the project. It may or may not be a picture of Zenker, and it leans onto the idea that there’s still so many unanswered questions about him, his legacy and the work he occupied. Not to mention the fact that colonial history is so intrenched in the timeline of botany that it begs to question where we would be without it (for the better?), and that the aftermath of its antics are still being felt today. “Having worked on this project for a number of years and still wanting to look into every detail of the story, we realised at some point that we would never be able to understand everything,” shares Yana. “In fact, some of the enigmas and paradoxes we encountered are now an integral part of the project. In many ways, the book is about highlighting the many open questions rather than giving definitive answers.”

“Germany’s colonial history has not received a lot of attention in the past,” concludes Yana. “Up until a few years ago, most Germans would not have known that Cameroon was once a German colony and we are glad to see that the discourse on these matters has reached a new level in the last few years. With our project, we hope to bring attention to the fact that there are still very real consequences of German colonialism and that these consequences need to be examined in detail and in all their complexity.”

Portrait of Ndzie Marie-Thérèse Zenkers

Vanishing Points

Over nine years, Michael Sherwin has documented significant sites of Indigenous American presence across the United States

Wild Horses and Road, Crow Indian Reservation, MT © Michael Sherwin

In 2011, Michael Sherwin uncovered a piece of history: he came to learn that his local shopping centre had been built atop a sacred burial ground. Located in what’s now western Pennsylvania, western Maryland, eastern Ohio and West Virginia, the area is linked with the Monogahelan culture – what Mary Butler had named in 1939 after the Monongahela River, which runs through the vast majority of the culture’s sites. Known for practicing maize agriculture, building villages, pottery and structures, the culture disappeared, evaporating along with around six hundred years’ worth of history. 

Michael was born and raised in Southwestern Ohio on “unwed and stolen territories”, which includes the Hopewell, Adena, Myaamia (otherwise known as Miami), Shawandasse Tula (known as Shawanwaki or Shawnee) and Wazhazhe Maⁿzhaⁿ (Osage) peoples, “who have continuously lived upon this land since time immemorial,” he tells me. This is where he studied for a BFA in Photography from The Ohio State University during the late-90s, followed by an MFA from the University of Oregon a few years proceeding. After nine years spent working deep in the American West, he returned east for a position at West Virginia University in Morgantown – which is where he currently works as a coordinator, and professor of photography and intermedia.

Mural, Point Pleasant Riverfront Park, Point Pleasant, WV © Michael Sherwin

So upon discovering the roots of the Monogahelan culture, Michael was predisposed to unearth more of its mystery; he shopped at the centre regularly, too, so this slice of information undeniably transformed the ways in which he viewed the landscape. “Reflected in the scene in front of me was an ancient, spiritually important and hallowed landscape clouded by the tangible constructions of modern Western culture,” he shares. “I’m really interested in the stories the land holds, both seen and unseen, and in the contrast, or intersection of spiritual beliefs between indigenous and colonial, native and non-native traditions.”

Having always fostered an interest in the physical world, Michael was more than intrigued after exhuming the origins of his hometown. To such lengths that it inspired him to pick up his camera, harvesting the books and historical research on the mid-Atlantic and Ohio River Valley region. The more he read, the more he was pushed to find out more. And that’s exactly how Vanishing Points came into fruition – a long-term photography project of nine years shot on a large format Wista field camera throughout significant sites of indigenous American presence. Composed over several trips to southern and central Ohio, the project took him to the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site and various nearby spots in Illinois and Missouri, during which he’d traverse across the American West and visit sites in South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah.

Antelope House Ruins, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, AZ © Michael Sherwin

Michael never set out with a clear intention in mind, and rather, the project arose from a mix of personal and cultural catalysts. Paired with an undulated interest in the project’s history, Vanishing Points also references his quest for a deeper connection to the ancestry of the land, “acknowledging and challenging erasure and exploring complicated histories,” he notes. “It’s an effort to form a new understanding and perspective of the place I call home.” The photographs, in this sense, represent a kind of duality. One that documents the earth as we see it, as well as the stories hidden beneath the rocky terrains, grasslands and buildings.

Past and present are equally exposed throughout these pictures, where man-made structures, picnic benches and entertainment venues are built above the lands that were once occupied by prehistoric cultures. But rather than addressing or respecting these histories, mankind has constructed a new narrative; the type of story arc that monopolises such sacred locations. This gives the work – and even the title – an incredibly powerful meaning. It’s a double entendre, he says, “referencing the literal visual aid used to depict depth on a two-dimensional plane, while also suggesting sites in the landscape where the traces of events, or remnants of a previous cultures’ existence has all but faded from view. I’m certainly not trying to suggest that the indigenous American people have vanished, but I am interesting in highlighting how many have been removed from view, especially here in the East.”

Eagle Feather, Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark, Bighorn Natio- nal Forest, WY © Michael Sherwin

Vanishing Points certainly provokes a sense of questioning from the viewer; a motive that forces us all to question our roots and links with colonialism and the imposition of western civilisation. And throughout Michael’s own journey – one that’s lasted for a lengthy nine years – he’s set foot into many wonderful encounters as he progressively learned about the land. For example, one of the sites he was most excited about visiting was the Bighorn Medicine Wheel, located over 10,000 feet high in the mountain range of northeastern Wyoming. “I drove for two pitch black, predawn hours without seeing another vehicle and dodging all sorts of wildlife to reach the trailhead,” he recalls, hiking for two miles with nearly 50 pounds of camera gear strapped to his back, before eventually reaching “the wheel” at sunrise with the entire landscape to himself. “Before setting up my camera, I walked the full circle of the wheel as the sun crested the horizon. Being present and experiencing the sensations of a place that warrants so much reverence and wonderment is more important to me than the actual photograph.” The resulting image from this memory presents a feather stuck onto a post – a seemingly simple event that signals to heaps more than just a beautiful composition.

“With these photographs,” he continues, “I am not attempting to tell you how to live, or what we’ve done wrong, but rather to reckon with my own belonging in the physical and spiritual world. Having said that, I think this work can also promote awareness of indigenous land rights and the importance of protecting cultural and historical sacred sites. Spending time with these images may encourage one to reconsider their own presence in this country and the land they live and work on. There are still countless stories to be told and lessons to be learned as long as we are willing to sit quietly and listen.”

Michael Sherwin’s Vanishing Points is available here.

John Wayne Point, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, NM © Michael Sherwin
Prairie Juniper, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND © Michael Sherwin
Shrum Mound, Columbus, OH © Michael Sherwin
Big Bottom Massacre State Memorial, Morgan County, OH © Michael Sherwin
Stockade Wall, Fort Phil Kearney State Historic Site, Banner, WY © Michael Sherwin
George Washington, Black Hills National Forest, Keystone, SD © Michael Sherwin
Laundry, Indian Mound Campground, New Marshfield, OH © Michael Sherwin
Suncrest Towne Centre, Morgantown, WV © Michael Sherwin