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

Well Heeled

Having perfected the art of sock making over four generations, FALKE has built a loyal following from sheiks to stylists alike. Helena Fletcher traces 125 years of inherited heritage in Germany

Open the pages of any well-established glossy or luxury weekend supplement and you’ll be sure to find a FALKE credit tucked into a corner somewhere. In 2018 their socks and tights have appeared in WSJ, Vanity Fair and W Magazine, as well as in numerous international editions of GQ, Elle, Esquire and Vogue – a list any high-fashion house would be envious of. They’ve also appeared on the legs of everyone, from supermodel Cindy Crawford, in the 1980s, to her daughter and muse of the moment, Kaia Gerber. Yet, despite their hosiery’s undeniable presence in the fashion world, it’s the long-established craftsmanship, handed down through generations, that marks FALKE out.

The company can trace its origins to roofer Franz Falke-Rohen, who would knit in the cold winter months and, in 1895, founded a mill. Following the turmoil of World War I, Falke-Rohen – together with his oldest son, a trained umbrella maker, Franz Jnr – purchased a wool- and hair-yarn spinning mill in the small bucolic town of Schmallenberg, north-west Germany. Two years later, they would formally lay the foundations of FALKE with a new factory, and the company has continued to operate from the same location to this day.

Led by two cousins, Paul and Franz-Peter Falke, since 1990, the company remains in the family. “FALKE was always part of my life,” Paul Falke tells me. “I saw my father and his brother in their roles as leading managing directors and wanted to continue what they and my ancestors built up.” He laughs: “There was no specific moment when I decided to join the family business; it was just a matter of time.”

A knitting machine
in production. Despite using sophisticated technologies at the factory, closing the toe of a sock is always done by hand

The family atmosphere has been infectious and, over the years, infiltrated every level of the group, right down to the factory floor. “It’s not unusual for someone to have 45 years of service under their belt at FALKE,” says John Woodfield, a sewing machine mechanic and chirpy British expat, also based in Schmallenberg. Having worked at the factory for 27 years, he is considered a ‘new boy’. “Most factories have a group of long-term employees, what we call ‘lifers’ – but the labour turnover here is non-existent. People retire, and only then are they replaced.”

Aside from the haute couture houses of Paris, you’d be hard pushed to find another fashion company whose employees have as much cumulative experience as those at FALKE. “It makes me proud, not only that my cousin and I are the fourth generation here, but also that some of our employees are in the same position,” Falke continues. “It is interesting to see that in the beginning there were only a couple of dozen pairs of socks a day, and now, with commitment and hard work, we operate internationally.”

Although socks and tights still play an integral part in what FALKE do, their output has evolved to encompass everything from foundation garments to men’s seasonal collections and technical sportswear. As well as their own-label lines, FALKE have worked with brands like Armani, BOSS and Kenzo since the 1980s to develop and produce knitted leg wear and hosiery. More recently they have collaborated with and produced capsule collections for the designers Manolo Blahnik and 3.1 Phillip Lim, and Liberty London. The group also acquired the British brand Burlington in 2008, to attract a younger audience with a fun quality take on classic styles of socks and leg wear; think argyle or fair isle reimagined, socks fabricated from glittery lurex or trimmed with faux fur.

Part of the yarn store in the development area. FALKE uses a number of different materials in its products, including rare vicuña wool that has some of the finest fibres from any animal

“Quality and design are characteristic of FALKE, and craftsmanship and innovation are at the core of our ethos”, says Falke, and it would be difficult to argue with that. Although industrial knitting machinery is responsible for much of the production, human interaction remains an integral part of the process. The panels of tights and the ends of the toes are sewn together by people on sewing machines, as the sensitivity of the human hand cannot be replicated by a machine alone.

Even the most traditional products are continually being tested and redeveloped in the Schmallenberg factory, both technically and in a variety of the finest materials, to anticipate and fulfil the needs of their cosmopolitan customers: cashmere, piuma cottons, camel hair and silk, Merino wool and fil d’Ecosse. Online customisation services allow customers to personalise their socks with embroidered initials or a company logo, but for an elite few they go a step further: Made-to-order socks fab- ricated from the wool of vicuñas, a South American camelid – a once endangered species, which resides in the alpine peaks of the Andes. The wool itself is kept under lock and key in a safe, hidden away in a secret corner of the factory and only brought out once payment has been pro- cessed. Less that 20 pairs of these rather exquisite socks are made each year, at 860 euros each, usually for customers based in Russia, China or the Middle East. Hand sewn, the socks come presented in a wooden box with a signed letter from Franz-Peter and Paul Falke. It’s the definition of quality and luxury for your feet.

Special forms used to produce the final shape of the sock

“I’ve been working in the sock industry since I was 16, and I’ve never seen attention to detail like it,” Woodfield says. “There are quality checks at every stage of the operation, from when the raw yarn comes in, right up until the product is put in its box. There’s even a spot check to make sure that the packing conforms to the FALKE standards.”

The experience and commitment of the employees, and the group’s unwavering attention to detail and passion for innovation, are what set FALKE apart. “It’s a self-perpetuating mission, repeatedly challenging and satisfying,” says Falke. “It’s the curiosity and lust to dive into cultures, to understand customers and to anticipate their wishes and needs, and translate them into pieces – that is our permanent challenge.”


Photography Lewis Khan

This article is taken from issue 23. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here.

Werner Büttner: Humour in Darkness

Port speaks to artist Werner Büttner about growing up in East Germany, the experience of moving to West Berlin just before the wall fell, and his new show at the Marlborough Gallery

Viel Raum für allerlei Glück , 2017 © Werner Büttner, Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Provocative art tends to take a post-modern form, whether that be film, installation or performance art. In transgressing the boundaries of traditional media, it signals its subversive tendencies. But for Werner Büttner, once a member of Germany’s Junge Wilde or ‘wild youth’, figurative painting holds far greater expressive potential in all its narrative lucidity and metaphorical inference.

Büttner relishes each brushstroke, applying the paint in layers until he has built a thick crust. Every inch feels powerful and deliberate, yet Büttner insists he has no emotional relationship to paint, “I try to enslave it [only] to end up in splendid arbitrariness.” The images themselves are astutely observational with a dark, comic edge. “Humour is the only appropriate reaction I have found facing what’s now 64 years of the ‘condition humaine’.”

At his latest London show, Plenty of Room for all Sorts of Happiness at the Marlborough Gallery, works from Büttner’s early years fill the downstairs gallery, with more recent painting hung on the upper level. “I liked the possibility of walking around one floor and seeing works by an author in his thirties and then seeing the same author in his sixties on a different floor,” Büttner says of the strict division. Creepy and caustic, surreal but incisive, the early works are tonally dark in every sense. In the Vineyard, a painting from 1981, readily evokes a desolate graveyard with a monstrous, ghostly, almost illegible figure emerging from a wild gale that ravages the landscape.

Ein geschundener Gaul [A Flogged Horse], 2016 © Werner Büttner, Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

His contemporary paintings are lively and less perverse – a bright pastel pink brings ambiguous meaning to A Flogged Horse (2016), while the streaks of orange in Holding Loop in the Void (2015) are positively kaleidoscopic. In Büttner’s recent work, his social commentary of the 1980s is as present as ever but he more freely dabbles in the ridiculous and the mundane. He admits that “the guy who did the paintings on the ground floor seems a bit more mournful and upset than the guy upstairs… I like my most recent work best.”

Born in 1954 in Jena, East Germany, Büttner spent the first seven years of his life living under the Soviet-controlled German Democratic Republic until his mother took him to Munich, just before the construction of the Berlin Wall. Büttner’s childhood is addressed in On Thrones and Entanglement, an unusually solemn self-portrait in which Jena is foregrounded by a young boy on a pony. The painting’s title refers to Martin Heidegger’s theory of ‘throwness’, the idea that we are thrown into existence without our consent and must attempt to exercise autonomy over our lives.

Danke Frankreich (für Monsieur Monet und Hhle Lascaux) , 2017, © Werner Büttner, Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

Once thrown into the world, as Büttner says, “you are immediately entangled in many calamities… in a landscape and a language, in a climate and social order, in a political and economical system… all this limits somewhat your freedom to design your own fate”. Appearing to ride away from the town that is neatly bordered off into the background, the painting depicts an alternate existence that was left behind, at the last moment, but whose legacy endures. For Büttner, living under the regime was formative but his escape was liberating in more senses than one – “the delight of having two opposing systems made me flee all systems, made me distrustful, sceptical and melancholic.”

By the late 1970s, Büttner was employed as a social worker at the Berlin-Tegel Prison, despite having studied Law at university. He broke onto the art scene in 1979 when he took part in Elend, a group exhibition in the Büro, a loft space set up by Martin Kippenberger and inspired by Warhol’s Factory. He went on to appear in a string of fringe shows with other members of the Junge Wilde. Belonging to the avant-garde community was extremely seductive – Büttner joined after a chance meeting with Albert Oehlen, the flatmate of a one night stand.

Diet – Geißel der Postmoderne , 2017 © Werner Büttner, Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art

In romanticised recollections he describes the shared “hunger to be heard, the same heavenly pubs, the urge for attractive and digestible company”. Ultimately however, he saw the group’s activity as “foolish dalliance” rather than a guiding force in his art: “I was more influenced by dead colleagues like Magritte, de Chico, Ensor or Goya.” As Büttner became increasingly recognised, the inevitable forces of establishment took over and within a decade he was appointed Professor of Painting at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg. It marked the start of a new phase for Büttner, with the groups he belonged to disbanding.

When pressed on his motivations he offers only a cryptic hint: “My laughter is self-sufficient; in other words, extremely clever. By this you avoid the silly longing for applause.” Plenty of Room for All Sorts of Happiness reveals that, three decades later, the irony of his youth endures.

Plenty of Room for all Sorts of Happiness runs at Marlborough Gallery, 6 Albemarle Street, London until 23 June 2018.