Racism debate: Munch paintings are given new titles because they contain an N * word


Oslo – He was a handsome, dark-skinned man who was carted around as a circus attraction. Even the painter genius Edvard Munch (1863-1944, “The Scream”) could not ignore the prejudices of his time and recognize the tragedy and the crime against the man from Africa. He just called his model “N *”. Although the two men must have known each other well. Now the Munch Museum in Oslo wants to provide an appropriate name retrospectively!

Edvard Munch created seven paintings by the African with the fantasy name Abdul Karim. Five of them will now be shown together for the first time under the title “Call me by my name”. The focus of the exhibition is the current debate on racism. Because Munch had these works with “N* with a green scarf ”or simply titled with“ N * ”.

“Learning to understand prejudices better”

Now the Munch Museum invites everyone to find a suitable name until October. If you want to take part, you should take a photo of the picture and publish it with the hashtag #callmebymyname (“Call me by my name”) on the Munch Museum’s social platforms (Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook).

Curator Lars Toft-Eriksen: “We could keep the current titles, go back to the original or find completely new names. The aim is for the audience to learn to better understand their own prejudices. At the time, Africans were thought to be primitive and sexual. You saw them as people who can be performed in the circus. “

How did the paintings with racist titles come about?

In autumn 1916 Edvard Munch visited the Hamburg circus Hagenbeck, which was on tour despite the war and stopped in Oslo. One of the attractions was a dark-skinned man with the imaginative name “Sultan Abdul Karim”.



Munch painting “African with a green scarf” (title updated in 2008)Photo: Edvard Munch / CC BY 4.0 / Munchmuseet

It is not known where he really came from and what his real name was. It was probably brought to Hamburg from one of the German colonies in Africa. Edvard Munch was enthusiastic and asked the “Sultan” to come to his studio in his Oslo villa Ekely. There he stayed for some time, according to several records as a “servant, chauffeur and model”.

So in the next few years seven works were created in which the African from Germany played the main role. In some pictures he is wearing European clothes, in others he is naked.


Munch paintings with the title, updated in 2008,

Munch painting with the title, updated in 2008, “Africans with a green coat” Photo: Edvard Munch / CC BY 4.0 / Munchmuseet

While Munch liked to mention the name of his model at other works, everything turned out differently here. Munch did not give six pictures a title. He baptized only one “Arab with a green scarf”. When he realized that his model wasn’t an Arab at all, he called it “N * with a green scarf”.

After Munch’s death in 1944, the city of Oslo officially gave the pictures the title with the racist N * word. In 2008, after three years of work, the Munch Museum created a new Munch catalog of works. Here the pictures were now called “Africans with a green scarf” or “Africans with a green coat”. The picture “Cleopatra and a slave” kept his name.

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